“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.
HALL OF FAMER
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.”
CHECK THE RECORD BOOK
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.
BEST EVER, POSSIBLY
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.
MENTORS, LATO AND ALGAR
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.
EAST COAST TRIPS
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.”
OLDER, BUT STILL TOUGH
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.”
NO OVER INFLATED EGOS
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.
A FAN FAVORITE
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.
FOR MY LITTLE BOY
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.”
GETS EVEN WITH MEREDITH
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.”
GATORS HONOR ZACK
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?”