Minor league job creates big league opportunity for Central grad Zumbach

PELLA—A little shy of a warning-track fly ball away from the playing field at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, 2018 Central College athletic training graduate Brandon Zumbach got his first shot in the big leagues last summer, spending much of the pandemic-shortened baseball season parked outside of the home clubhouse, screening visitors.

Yet about all he saw of the Astros’ playoff run was viewed on a 40-inch monitor next to the door.

“Unfortunately, there are people going in and out of the clubhouse all the time,” he said. “So I did not get to the see the games unless I slipped up to the suite level for a little while. I spent my time under the stands.”

Zumbach was nonetheless thrilled with a perch far closer to the majors than he ever envisioned as a sparingly used relief pitcher during his first two years at Central.

Like a majority of the world, his 2020 summer plans were erased, but for Zumbach, the global pandemic also brought opportunity. Originally ticketed to be back in Iowa with the Astros’ Class A Quad City Bandits as a minor league athletic trainer, Zumbach spent just a week at spring training in early March before his future was abruptly shrouded in a COVID cloud. Team camps in Florida swiftly shut down.

“We were told, ‘Go home, we’ll call you when we need you,’” he said.

All minor league seasons were canceled. Meanwhile, discussions between players and owners about when, where and how the major league season resumed moved slower than an aging catcher running out a ground ball.

“I was very nervous,” Zumbach said. “I would find myself listening and watching a lot of the ESPN Major League Baseball network media and the discussions that were going on.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended contracts, green-lighting teams to lay off employees. Some did.

“I was fortunate enough to work for an organization that did not furlough anyone all season,” Zumbach said.

Instead, when preparations began to relaunch the season in late July, Zumbach got a call to report to Houston to assist with the Astros’ COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In addition to those chores, he got to see how a major league staff operates. It was an athletic training education.

Zumbach had interned with the Kane City (Ill.) Cougars, Iowa Cubs and in the New York Yankees organization, but was even more impressed with what he saw at the major league level in Houston.

“It was what I expected to a certain extent but probably amplified at least double,” he said. “I knew what the higher levels of baseball were like in how they take care of players but the amount of effort the organization goes to, to really take care of (the team’s) entire families was really something I’ve never seen before. It’s a testament to the organization and what they’re willing to do to provide assistance to family members who are going through a difficult time. They provide access to some of the world’s leading doctors during a family member’s pregnancy or if you have an individual who has an unfortunate illness pop up.”

The experience heightened his respect for the Astros.

“It’s not something that is completely foreign to other organizations but there are organizations that are willing to step out a little further and really go the distance to make sure that you and your family are well taken care of,” Zumbach said. “I would say the Astros are one of those organizations.”

Zumbach is part of a stream of Central graduates who have landed prominent roles after being a part of the college’s highly regarded athletic training program, such as Nate Weir ’05, coordinator of rehabilitation with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Zumbach credits the broad-based academic preparation Central provides, as well as the connections he developed within the program, for his opportunities.

“I wouldn’t be in these positions in professional baseball if it hadn’t been for my experience at Central,” Zumbach said.

John Roslien, associate professor of exercise science and head of Central’s athletic training education program, said program graduates working in professional baseball, such as Joe Rosauer ’12, who is now a minor league athletic trainer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, help Central students searching for a door into the field. Rosauer was working with the Diamondbacks’ affiliate at Kane County when he brought Zumbach aboard in 2017.

“Joe Rosauer is really the one who reached out to John because he was looking for an intern and John really spearheaded everything after that,” Zumbach said. “I interviewed for that position and was selected. Joe’s been an instrumental part in helping me get to where I am now and, ultimately, helped me land the position with the Astros. Joe and John have really helped me throughout my career and providing the opportunity to work in professional baseball.”

That Kane County internship led to the internships with the Cubs in Des Moines and at the Yankees minor league facility in Tampa, Florida in 2018 before he landed a full-time spot with the Astros.

Zumbach values his Central education even more now that he’s in the field.

“In my conversations with colleagues and other athletic trainers in the industry, the wealth of knowledge and the breadth of experience that Central is able to provide makes other people jealous,” he said. “It’s something that is really unique to Central. Having the ability to get experience as a sophomore in so many different areas that an athletic trainer can go into, where you’re in a dental office or you’re in a doctor’s office or you’re out on the field at Central. Other people aren’t getting that experience. They’re not going out onto the field until at least their junior year or are even seeing the field for the first time in their senior year. For Central to provide that, it’s really hard to describe how valuable that is.”

There’s also no classroom lecture that can mirror the experience of serving as a health professional in a multi-million dollar industry immersed in a pandemic.

“It was an opportunity to really expand my knowledge,” Zumbach said. “Infectious disease is not an area I would ever think to call myself an expert in, but it’s an area I’ve really seen my knowledge expand in. And being in Houston really gave me a chance to see how Major League Baseball operates, and what I need to be doing to progress in my career.”

But he’s also eager to gain the minor league field time the virus denied him. Where that next field is located for Zumbach remains as much a mystery as the fate of the 2021 baseball season. The minor league structure is getting a major league overhaul and the sport’s leaders are tight-lipped on what little they know about what might emerge.

“I believe I’d be added to a similar level to what Quad City is at, but I would gain additional experience on how teams operate and what types of decisions an athletic trainer needs to make on a regular basis versus being a symptom screener for COVID,” Zumbach said. “Hopefully that all comes through but everybody’s at the mercy of the pandemic right now.”

It’s a role that’s high in its demands and low on glamour but one he embraces.

“It is definitely some serious hours and I’m very thankful to have the family that I do because there’s a lot of understanding since I have to miss family events in the summer,” Zumbach said. “I’m working from 10-11 o’clock in the morning until midnight or one the next morning. Then I go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again. And I travel for six or seven months out of the year.”

The payback exceeds the size of the paycheck, though.

“I would say there’s never a time that I don’t want to be there,” Zumbach said. “It’s long, hard hours but it’s really rewarding. To see when the athletes you worked with come back from an injury, move up in the organization and do well at the next level because of the work you’ve done in keeping or getting them healthy, that’s the reward and that’s why we do it. I had guys I worked with last year who made their major league debut this year and to see them get to that point was honestly as rewarding as actually working on the field.”

Even distanced from the field, Zumbach sensed the energy of the big league pennant chase oozing through the clubhouse walls.

“It was the most exciting playoff run I’ve been a part of because it was unexpected, based on the way we had played throughout the season, but it was one of those things where you could always tell the guys were capable of putting that type of run together,” he said. “It was just a matter of when it was going to happen.”

Because Houston was one of the designated post-season playing sites, Zumbach also got to provide some assistance with the first few games of the National League Divisional Series.

“It was a good experience to see how that operates,” he said.

It capped a sometimes anxious yet memorable summer.

“It was a very exciting and educational experience,” he said. “It’s hard to really assess at this point because we’re so close to it, but the experience that I got from being down there, being exposed to those guys and seeing the stadiums and how everything operates, was incredible.”

Posted by on Dec 1 2020. Filed under College Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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