Darren Zack enters the 2010 ISC Hall of Fame

Written by Bob on May 24th, 2010

Darren Zack during the 1995 ISC World Tournament in Sioux City, Iowa, where he set several individual pitching records.

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“I’ll play until I can’t anymore. What would a summer be without playing ball, eh?” – Darren Zack

GARDEN RIVER FIRST NATION, CANADA – The big man – all 6-feet-4 and some 270 pounds – stands poised on the pitching rubber 46-feet away from his catcher. Charlie Hendricks squats, flashes his fingers, and spots his glove up and on the outside corner.

Darren Zack winds up, leaps, and unleashes a rise ball, a white, violently spinning blur. A split-second later – about the time it takes for a human to blink – the ball explodes into Hendricks glove right where he spotted it.

“Strike three!” bellows the umpire, thrusting his right arm in the air. This scene played out over and over in the mid to late 1990s when Hendricks caught Zack.

Memories? Hendricks has a few.

There was the time they teamed up as battery mates with the Toronto Gators against the New Zealand national team in Innerkip, Ontario. Rabid fastball fans packed the stands. And Zack was like a thoroughbred eager to burst from the starting gate.

“In our pregame huddle, Darren spoke out and said to us, ‘guys, take a look around. If the atmosphere and this crowd doesn’t get you up for this game, then something is wrong,’” Hendricks said. “I had the pleasure of catching him and everything worked. He was overpowering and definitely in the zone.”

For four decades Zack has been in the zone. Especially when it comes to the International Softball Congress World Tournament. What he has accomplished can be described in a word: “Incredible.”

Wins? Third best all-time with 54. Only Michael White’s 70, and Peter Meredith’s 61, out pace him.

World Championships? Zack has four to his credit. Two with the Gators in1993 and 1995. And one each with the Tampa Smokers (1998) and the Decatur Pride (2000).

And four times he’s been crowned the ISC’s Most Outstanding Pitcher in his 18-years of World Tournament play. And you can add nine ISC All-World honors to this impressive list of accomplishments.

So it comes as little surprise to many that Zack will receive the highest honor the ISC can bestow on its many gifted athletes. In August, Zack will be inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame during ceremonies at the 2010 ISC World Tournament in Midland, Michigan.

Zack, in his humble way says, “It’s such a great honor. Just being involved with those top caliber players and teams was great.”

Like all great pitchers, Zack had the physical tools – speed, great movement on his pitches, and precise control. But it was his confidence that put him at the top of the game, said Brian Paton, who was a teammate with Zack on several top Canadian and U.S. ball clubs.

“Darren always believed in himself,” said Paton. “His confidence level was very high. His mental approach to the game was a key factor in his success.”

Paton recalls some great ISC World Tournaments over their 10-year stretch together.

But there’s one that stands out in particular. Go back in time to 1993 and the ISC World Tournament in Kimberly, Wisconsin. The Gators drop to the loser’s bracket and face a rough road ahead if they’re to win the title.

“We had to win three games on Sunday,” Paton said, “and Darren dominated that day like no other against the best hitters in the world. When we beat National Health Care Discount (Sioux City, Iowa) twice to win it, he was a true dominating force.”

And Zack has dominated like no other pitcher during that brief window of time when pitchers are at the top of their game. A look in the ISC World Championship Guide on pages 99-101 confirms Zack’s greatness.

His name appears in every category of individual pitching records: Perfect games (1), most no hit games (2), most consecutive wins (15), no-hit games, (2). And this is just on page 99.

But three of his records really stand out.

The scene: The 1995 ISC World Tournament in Sioux City. The Gators drop to the losers bracket in the 48-team double knock out after losing, 3-2, to the South Surrey (B.C) Ravens in their opening game. And that’s when Zack rose to the challenge. He led the Gators on an improbable 11-game win streak – culminating with 8-0, and 3-0 shutouts over Larry Miller Toyota and Peter Meredith.

Of those 11 games, Zack won 10 and finished with an 0.10 ERA and 10-0 record. Great feats, certainly. But there’s more. Zack didn’t allow any runs in 69 2/3 innings, while striking out 150 batters in 73 2/3 innings. The wins, the scoreless innings, and the strikeouts set incredible ISC World Tournament records.

For this some dared to tread on arguable ground, declaring Zack, “the greatest pitcher of all time.” “A pitching legacy never to be duplicated.”

But Zack brushes aside such plaudits, instead lavishing praise on his teammates.

“We had great defense and it was hard for a ball to drop in,” he said. “They were diving in the holes and making the plays. The Gators was an amazing team to play for and it would have been hard to set those records if it weren’t for my teammates.”

But stardom didn’t come overnight for Zack. His was more a steady climb. And he had some mentoring help along the way.

He says pitcher Reno Lato taught him how to grip the ball, how to snap and twist his wrist to get the spin on the riser and the downward bite on the drop. And Loren Algar, who pitched with Zack for Ashland, Ohio ESS in 1987, took over where Lato left off.

“Loren taught me the change curve, the rise, drop, change drop,” Zack said. “Pretty much everything came from him.”

But long before Lato and Algar came on the scene to fine-tune his pitches, Zack got his start in the game as a 14-year-old with the Garden River Braves in 1974. A native of the Ojibway tribe, Zack grew up and lives on the Garden River First Nation Reservation near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario province. He began his fastball career at first and third base.

But all the while he yearned to pitch. And he kept practicing on the sidelines, biding his time, waiting his turn.

And at 19 he finally got his chance to toe the rubber. He continued to improve and in 1983 the Boston Belmont Merchants came calling. He played three seasons for teams in Boston and Connecticut, including Wellesley Trucking.

Then in 1987 he joined Ashland ESS. And at the ISC World Tournament in Saskatoon, Canada, Denny Bruckert got his first glimpse of Zack. Bruckert was managing United Van Lines of St. Louis.

“We just happened to meet ESS in the very first game,” said Bruckert (2008 Hall of Fame manager). “We were lucky with a late home run to beat him 2-1, but I could see that Darren was going to be a great one.”

Zack also had a stint with the Vancouver Magicians (1990-1992) of the Norwest League, while also spending two seasons pitching in New Zealand. He says both experiences helped elevate his career.

“The Norwest League was a great league, the best,” he said. “All the teams had great hitters. And pitching in New Zealand was awesome and the next step for me.”

In his long career, Zack’s made a few stops along the way – including one summer with the Decatur Pride. A summer in which he teamed up with Michael White. A summer that finished with Decatur winning the 2000 ISC World Tournament in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Both Zack and White had turned 40, and some thought that Zack had seen his better days. But Bruckert said he knew better. That Zack had plenty of zip left in his arm. And he proved it.

“Darren was by far the best pitcher that 2000 season,” Bruckert said. “In all my years of managing, I have never seen two great pitchers feed off each other like Zack and White. They rooted for each other and backed each other. The whole team fed off them.”

And when it came to winning the ISC championship, Zack knocked off the Broken Bow Travelers, 3-1, in the winners bracket final – tossing a one hitter. Then he showed his gracious side.

“After the game, Darren came into the huddle and the first words out of his mouth were for Michael to lead us to the title in the final game,” Bruckert said. “Many great pitchers might have (complained) at not getting the ball, but not Darren.”

White went on to hurl four innings against the Travelers and then handed the ball to Zack. And after dealing with White’s frenzy of drop balls, Broken Bow suddenly had to face Zack’s riser.

“Michael said that they only had one time left through the lineup and they wouldn’t be able to adjust,” Bruckert said. “Well, that’s exactly what happened. Darren struck out almost every batter those last three innings and we had the title. Never have I witnessed two great pitchers that had that kind of respect for each other.”

Zack was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Pitcher and first team All-World with a 3-0 record, while White (3-0) was named second team All-World.

Zack enjoys superstar status in a sport little known outside its small, but loyal following. In every tournament, in every game, he draws a crowd. His fans beseech him to pose for pictures and sign autographs. And he never refuses anyone, said Hendricks.

“He is the greatest ambassador for fastpitch that I have ever seen,” he said. “I marvel at the time he takes with fans and how much they love to be around him.”

But there’s one incident that Hendricks has never forgotten. It happened at the Canadian National Championship in 1995. Zack was signing autographs when a woman came up to him carrying her son. He was about six or seven and had a physical disability, Hendricks said.

The mother politely held up her program and asked Darren to sign it for her little boy. But he did much more than sign the boy’s program.

“Darren talked to the boy and called him pal,” Hendricks said. “Then he took off his hat and put it on the boy’s head and said, ‘here you go pal.’ The mother and boy were overwhelmed with emotion. The smile on that boy’s face was so special. I will never forget it.”

Over the years, Zack has played for some outstanding managers. But three stand out above all others: Jack Fireman (sponsor) and Terry Baytor of the Gators, and Bruckert.

“They knew how to deal with talent,” Zack said. “They knew how to utilize talent and keep everybody happy.”

And as for pitchers, he’s battled against some great ones. White, of course. Brad Underwood, certainly. But the pitcher that commanded Zack’s attention was Peter Meredith.

“Meredith was just amazing,” he said. “He threw so hard on the left and right side of the plate and made the ball move.”

He remembers losing some close games of the 1-0, 2-1, variety to Meredith. But then the tables turned and he started evening the score.

“When I got that first win, then I knew I could compete,” Zack said. “I started putting the ball on the corners with juice instead of trying to throw it by hitters. Being able to spot the ball is it. If you can’t hit spots, you’re going to get pounded by the good hitters.”

The years have slipped by for Zack. He turns 50 on August 9th. And his riser and drop don’t quite devastate hitters as they once did. Last year marked a first in which he didn’t pitch in the World Tournament. Instead, he opted to pitch for the Ohsweken, Ontario, Redmen in the ISC II Tournament of Champions.

Some great pitchers might trip over their egos, thinking it beneath them to drop down from the World Tournament and pitch in the ISC II.

But not Zack.

The game is all about having fun and competing, he said. And he showed that he still had some gas left in his arm as he compiled a 3-1 record in 33 2/3 innings, while striking out 42, along with a respectable 2.08 ERA.

“In the ISC II, there’s about 20 teams that could win it,” he said. “It’s competitive. It was great and I had fun.”

Come August, Paton will journey from Canada to Midland for Zack’s Hall of Fame induction. But Paton won’t travel alone. He says that 10 or 12 of Zack’s former Gators’ teammates will be on hand for the ceremony.

“This is so well deserved,” Paton said. “It’s not only for his dominance, but he’s the most humble teammate anyone could have. You could be the lead off hitter or the guy who doesn’t get to play much, Darren treats everyone the same and that makes this recognition so special.”

The ISC will present Zack with his Hall of Fame plaque and he will take his place amongst the ISC’s greatest of all time. But don’t expect him to retire anytime soon.

“I’ll play until I can’t anymore,” he said. “What would a summer be without playing ball, eh?”

For more great fastpitch news, visit these websites:
Al’s Fastball
Fastpitch West
International Softball Congress
North American Fastpitch Association
2010 ISC World Tournament, Midland, Mich.

22 Comments so far ↓

  1. Glen Moreland says:

    Congratulations to Darren on his enshrinement into the ISC Hall of Fame.

    This is a wonderful accomplishment which is well earned and much deserved.

    A great ambassador for fastball,
    a tremendous competitor, a true champion and above all real gentleman!

  2. Kammueller says:

    It was a privledge to finally throw against Darren at the AAU this past January. I proudly add my name to the long list of losing pitchers.

  3. Larry Lynch says:

    In 1993 when the Toronto Gators burst onto the fastball scene with a Napoleonic surge, the Waterloo Twins played them in practically every tournament around, and regularly in the ISC Travel League. We lost to Toronto 13 times that season, and Darren was on the mound for 12 of them. Our club had some pretty good hitters but the best ofthem came back to the bench just shaking their heads,” that guy is unhittable ” was the response. Over the years we had many epic Gator battles an later when darren moved to Tampa and Decatur we saw the master Z do his magic with those teams as well. Two things stick out regarding Darren: 1995 ISC ‘s and 10 straight shutout wins will never be matched. It was a privelege to watch the great one completely dominate the opposition. Secondly, and I think the most compelling of all the great Darren stories or memories, his humility. He has never failed to embrace a fan, sign an autograph or pose for a photo. He is the Babe Ruth of our game and there isn’t a teammate, an opposition player or coach, or a fan who would not agree, he is the best thing that has happened to our game in this era. Congratulations Darren, you are a pitching giant with a heart to match. Larry Lynch

  4. Bob says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I pitched for the So. Calif. Bronze in the 1983 ASA A Nationals in Bloomington, Ill. When I interviewed Darren, he said he pitched in the tournament too. His team finished fifth, he thought (forgot to ask him which team). He would have been about 23.

    I should make a post and list all the pitchers who have lost to him and what they have to say about the game..:)

  5. Glen Moreland says:

    Congratulations Darren on your upcoming induction into the ISC Hall Of Fame.

    I agree with Hawk that Darren was an outstanding pitcher and a great competitor but it will be for his humility and roll as the sports ambassador that he will be most remembered!

    After a wonderful career with many accomplishments this induction is well deserved.

    Always playing the game the in the spirit it was meant to be played Darren truely is a real gentleman.

    Well done!

  6. Derek Mercer says:

    Had the privledge to play against, and coach with Newfoundland teams against one of the best human beings, and pitchers a person could ever know.
    Congrats. Zack.

  7. vivian hermsen says:

    Hi Kevin: I am a first nations fan of fastball from years, back when my brother Reg Underwood first started fastball in Victoria. Darren was the greatest role model any young up coming ball player could look up to. I recall a game in Victoria when Darren’s was playing and he was not playing at the time, Darren was on his way to the washroom when he spotted my Dad in the stands and he made a point of coming over and shaking his hand and saying “hello Mr. Underwood it is a pleasure to see you again.” My dad thought he had died and went to heaven. Well my Dad has gone to heaven and I know he was just as proud of his son Reg as he was of Darren. Congratulations Darren to you and your family, cause we all know that the family goes through every inning played weather we are there at the game or home with the kids. It is not always affordable or easy with kids in school or to young to travel. So just knowing that they understand and support you makes every pitch or swing of the bat a little easier. So Darren give your family a big hug from the Hermsen/Underwood family and remember it not just our roots one looks at but what we produce from that tree we were gifted with. God bless you and your family. I just thought of a game my son Gary played against you and he joked and asked if he put his status card on his bat if that would help him get a hit. We laughed for years after cause that game he did make contact with the first pitch and got on, on a error which he never forgot. love ya Darren and THANK YOU for years of enjoyment.

  8. Nick McCurry says:

    Congrats Z-Man! I had the honor of having Darren pitch for our Ashland ESS team. I knew we would have trouble keeping him for long, as you could see he had the ability to be the best in the world. (turns out, I was right,he was the best). It was always an honor and a real pleasure to compete with and against him over the years. Z-Man, you are first class, on and off the field. Thanks for the memories! Nick

  9. Doug your number 1 fan says says:

    It is a honour to call Darren and his family my friends.I watched Darren first pitch in the super tough New Zealand curcit with all the best kiwi pitchers he did great on a average team in 1989. He then came to Vancouver in 1989 to play and we have been good friends ever since.What a true legend of the game I was so truly blessed to watch him pitch so many games in the tough Norwest.Have a great day in midland Zee your number 1 fan and Pal Dougie bro

  10. Les Barber says:

    Congratulations to the Greatest Fastball Pictcher of All Time on your Trifecta of Fastball Hall of Fame Inductions, as Larry Lynch says in his comments you are the Babe Ruth and the Nolan Ryan of Fastball, Bob Otto did a great job in not only writing about Darren Zack’s Legendary Pitching accomplishments, but about Darren as a wonderful, kind Human Being that always had time for Fans and time to mentor young people, I once told a friend I would have loved to have hit against Darren and been his Catcher and then I thought about it again, just being his Catcher would have been fine.
    Les “Ironman” Barber

  11. RICK ELIAS says:

    Congrats Darren. It is a well deserved honor. Im proud to have played with and against you.You and your family are excellant people first and unbelievable ambassadors for the game.

  12. Craig Crawford says:

    It was a thrill playing with and against Darren over the years. One little known thing in 1995 when we had lost to the Ravens, I was in right field when a high throw to the plate allowed the winning run to score. In the face of defeat Darren put his arm around me and let me know that “This is how records are broken pal”. The rest is history. Something I will never forget.

  13. abbie carricato says:

    hey big guy–just finished reading about your accomplishments in fastball. congrats for being an outstanding athlete and person. keep on that highway.best of luck in future.

  14. Harry Boghigian says:

    Caught Darren back in 83 with the Belmont Merchants. Without a doubt the greatest pitcher i ever play with or against. Back then we played against The Fog, Dennis Armel, Al Lewis, the Quinn Brothers. He beat them all and this was when he was a kid. No surprise to me turned out to be the best ever. The thing i appreciated the most about Darren, was that he was a kind compassionate human being and a great teammate. Congratulations Darren on your upcoming induction. Still have the old Belmont Merchants Yearbook if you would like it.

  15. carmen guenette says:

    my dad caught for you and you are also my cuzin apperantly witch makes me feel pretty special.. that i will try to live up to your great achivements im am already starting to pitch and when im a bit older i will be better and hope to play in isc’s just as you did.

  16. Just wanted to congratulate Darren for his achievement and to thank him also for his contribution to the sport. As a native person, I am extremely proud of him and what he has done to raise the level of achievement for our people. It is a treat and honor to see him come out for the Native Canadians every year. I hope he continues to show up. Darren is featured in our CNFC website under our Athlete Profile section.

  17. Thank you for the article. I will post a link to it =)

  18. Bob says:

    Thank you Stephanie. I saw Darren pitch in three ISC World Tournaments. He’s in that rarified class of athletes we call “one of the best of all time.” I enjoyed talking with him and writing about him. Here in southern California it’s the Native Americans and Latinos that are keeping the sport going. The Soboba reservation had a 14 or 16 team tournament in November. That’s really good numbers for these parts.

  19. David Matte says:

    Congrats Zack,You were always the best. I just wanted to say keep in touch with me on Facebook, we can talk about those crazy Port Aux Basques days,David Matte

  20. Anne Keshane-Rowan says:

    Love it! I’ll play till i can’t play anymore, what’s summer without ball, eh?…Now thats so true. Love of the game, can’t be good if you don’t love what you do!

  21. Tim Henderson Sr. says:

    It sure was great to see ya pitch. I hope to see ya at the games at Bloomberg. Congratulation big fella.

  22. syl skalecki says:

    congrats Darren—you are true inspiration to all young children —your character and humbling manner is admired by your nation and all nations worldwide– garden river and sault ste marie are very proud of you………best wishes to you and family—-syl

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