As far back as he can remember, Zunino was hanging around ballparks, tagging along with his father Greg, a scout with the Marlins back then. "When he first got to tee ball, he was a little advanced,” Greg remembered. “One day they are playing catch and he says, ‘Coach, when are we going to take infield?’” The father laughed. The kid was serious. "He always wanted to get better,” Greg said. And he has.
In 2009, Zunino's senior year at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Florida, Michael committed to a baseball scholarship to the University of Florida. And he turned down the A's, who chose him in the 29th round, choosing to become a Gator. And he was SEC player of the year in 2011.
During the 2012 college season with the University of Florida, Zunino hit .322 with 28 doubles, 19 homers and 67 RBI for the Gators. And Baseball America named Zunino their 2012 College Player of the Year.
In the spring of 2013, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Zunino as the #1 prospect in the Mariners organization.
Zunino is low-key and a great kid with a tremendous work ethic. And he is a leader both on and off the field. He is not afraid to speak up in front of his peers. He plays hard and he plays when he is tired and/or beat up. He has impressive makeup and a high baseball IQ.
October 6, 2012: Zunino got married to Alyssa.
Mike initially pitched and played shortstop, but his favorite player growing up was Charles Johnson, the first-round draft selection of the Florida Marlins in 1992. Greg Zunino was the area scout who followed Johnson first in high school and then at the University of Miami, setting up a strong relationship between the two. That carried over to young Mike.
And that led to his eventual evolution into a catcher.
"When he was playing Little League, I was hoping he would be good enough to get a scholarship," said Greg Zunino. "And then I remember Gary Hughes was in town when Michael was 10, and Gary said, 'He's not bad back there. Interesting.'"
Hughes, who was a scouting director for both Montreal and Florida, was the Yankees' area scout who signed Greg Zunino, a 31st-round draft choice in 1981 out of the University of California. Hughes later convinced Zunino to go into scouting and hired him in Florida.
By the time Mike got to high school, his father's expectations had grown. He not only had watched his son play, but knew the inner drive that Mike possessed. The elder Zunino admitted disappointment that his son lasted into the 29th round in the draft that senior year in high school.
"I told [the area] guys that they missed on him," said Greg Zunino. "But it worked out well. He went to Florida and got bigger and stronger."
"It kept me from getting too complacent," Mike said. "I learned so much more about myself. Every day, I felt I got better." And the scouts paid attention.
"I probably had the lowest draft number on him [that time]," Greg Zunino said. "I would have loved to have had him in our organization, but I am happy he wound up in another organization. It's good for me to be able to back away. He's on his own. He has to establish himself."
Zunino's leadership skills are off the charts.
Mike's dad, Greg, played at University of California, Berkeley, before the Yankees selected him in the 31st round of 1981 draft. He spent two seasons in the Minor Leagues, then went on to play professionally in Italy, where he met his wife Paola, a catcher for the Italian national softball team. Greg's brother, Gary Zunino, played three seasons (1979-1981) in the Minor Leagues, too.
Zunino loves baseball. The feeling likely started when he would go to work with his dad, Greg Zunino, a scout for the Marlins from 1992-1998.Mike often tagged along with Greg, watching games for five or six innings at a time.
"We used to sit up in the stands, and he'd hold the radar gun," Greg said. "[Mike] would go for awhile and then he would get bored when he was younger. His mother would take him out and he'd have to go throw the ball against the wall."
If it involved a baseball or a bat, it didn't take much to keep Mike occupied while growing up in Cape Coral, Fla.
"He'd always be out in the backyard—we had a bucket of balls, a tee and a net—and he'd go out there and hit 100 balls every day," Greg said. "If you've ever been down to Florida in the summer, it's a little warm to do that."
Mike has been able to compartmentalize his woes at the plate in 2014 to emerge as one of the best defensive catchers in the American League.
"Today my catcher was outstanding and probably saved the game for us," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. "He did a tremendous job for us. Sometimes that goes unnoticed."
Ask Greg, and he'll say Mike's always been able to separate offense from defense and one pitch from the next. He's always been able to maintain a high energy level. Seeing him discouraged is as rare as a Honus Wagner rookie card, though there was one time in high school when Mike seemingly had had enough.
"It wasn't his best game," Greg recalled. "And they'd have to do the field after. I'm sitting in my chair, and he walks in and he says, 'God I hate this game.' He just walked right by and went in his room."
The next day, Mike got three hits.
"This game's pretty good!" he said after walking through the door.
Baseball ran deep in the Zunino household. Mike's Dad's baseball experience extends back decades (he's worked for the Expos, Marlins and Reds), but he took a hands-off approach while Mike tore through the ranks, earning All-State honors in 2009 during his senior year at Mariner High School in Cape Coral.
"I never really was the scout where I'd try to show him a lot," Greg said. "When he came to me and asked, 'What do you think of this swing?' or things like this, I'd help him. Until he really came to me, I'd sort of let him do his thing."
But Greg noticed the cerebral way Mike played the game and the way he asked about how to approach certain situations. When Greg helped coach his wood bat team during the fall, he let Mike call his own pitches— something he wasn't allowed to do in high school.
"He always told me to go out there, play, have fun and trust yourself," Mike said. "That was probably the best advice he gave me."
In 2009, Mike didn't sign with the Athletics after they took him in the 29th round of the draft. Instead, he went to the University of Florida, where he led the Gators to the College World Series three years in a row. In 2012, Mike won the Golden Spikes Award, Johnny Bench Award, and Dick Howser Trophy.
That June, the Reds, for whom Greg worked as a scout, had the 14th pick in the first round of the draft, but there was no way Mike was slipping that far. Greg said he was thankful that the organization didn't ask him to evaluate his son, but they were going to take him if he was still available.
"Not that it would be a really low report, but we probably had the lowest grade on him, because we know where all the little flaws are," Greg said. "I'd grade him a little bit lower on the hitting. I think that's why they didn't have me do it, because it either goes that way or the other way and you're so high on him."
When the Mariners selected Mike with the third overall pick, they knew they were getting a player who grew up around baseball. Tom McNamara, the Mariners' director of amateur scouting, had known Greg for years, and he knew Greg had passed down to his son an authentic love of the game.
"I think Mike is a sponge. You can tell by the way he plays," said McNamara. "He likes being out there. He likes to learn and he's always playing. I think he got that from his mom and dad." (Adam Lewis MLB.com, 6/12/2014)
When people talk about leaders in the Mariners 2015 Spring Training dugout, one name that should be added to that group is Mike Zunino who, despite his youthful status, is quickly growing into a central figure in the Mariners' plans. Watch any of the pitchers work at the club's Peoria facility, and you'll see Zunino in the middle of things, discussing strategy with Seattle's highly-regarded hurlers and pushing, prodding and cajoling the talented arms in camp.
"He's just interested, and that's huge," said veteran lefthander J.A. Happ, the one newcomer to this year's rotation. "Some catchers sometimes can get focused on offensive stuff, but he's very focused on trying to run a staff and learning what guys want to do and the best way to back that. I think as we go forward, it's going to be even better, just getting to know each other and getting a better feel and having a plan."
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon saw in 2014 what the 2012 first-round draft pick brought to the table. He said then that Zunino could be an All-Star backstop once he becomes more consistent with the bat and learns the league better. In the 2015 spring, Zunino has worked hard at hitting the ball to right field and keeping his bat in the zone longer as he strives to raise his batting average from the 2014 season.
"I've seen a real nice maturation process," McClendon said. "I see more leadership skills coming out, taking charge of the bullpen sessions and BP sessions. It's nice to see. Your catcher is the leader on the field. Nothing starts without him. It's nice to have a guy with high energy."
Zunino works hard at his craft and takes a personal interest in each of his throwing partners.
"If [pitchers] can feel comfortable and know I have their best interest in mind, then they can trust me and we can all be on the same page," Zunino said. "That's a big thing between a pitcher and catcher, to gain their trust so they know in hard circumstances, or when push comes to shove, I'm not putting a pitch down just to put it down. I have their best interest in mind."
Zunino's defensive mindset paid dividends in 2014 for a team with the lowest ERA in the American League. McClendon appreciated that Zunino never let his offensive struggles leak over into catching.
"I was very proud of him," McClendon said. "From a defensive standpoint, he always separated his offense, and he understood what was most important from him, and that was to run that staff, control the running game, block balls in the dirt. We have some tough guys to catch, and he did a tremendous job last year." (Johns - mlb.com - 3/16/2015)
There are reports of some work ethic issues with Zunino. And Mike is not as strong as he was when he was in college. (Spring 2016)
July 2, 2016: Mike Zunino and James Paxton, who came up through the Minor Leagues to play in the Majors together, were reunited as a pitcher-catcher duo in the 12-6 win over the Orioles. "There's few guys that can actually work their way up [together]," Zunino said. "And to be able to be a pitcher and a catcher and be able to do that, it's been nice."
Both drafted by the Mariners, Paxton signed in 2011, and Zunino in 2012. They've been up and down since and most recently spent the beginning of the season in Triple-A Tacoma, both working out the kinks before being recalled. Paxton came up on June 1, and Zunino got the call after Steve Clevenger fractured his hand.
Zunino made his season debut, hitting a pair of home runs, including a two-run shot in his first at-bat. He also threw out Manny Machado attempting to steal second base. "We've been working together for a long time and kind of learning together," said Paxton, who earned his second win. "He knows me really well and knows what I'm working on, knows what I'm capable of. So it's just nice to have a guy back there to know what I'm thinking."
Both have made changes to their game this season. Paxton has developed his secondary pitches and Zunino has learned how to be patient and take better at-bats. And that all started down in Tacoma. "For me, it was his arm slot," Zunino said of Paxton's progress. "He really found that about halfway through April and he's just made great strides. Its still relatively new to him he's still finding some triggers and where to be consistent at but it's been incredible. His velo has come up. His off-speed stuff's been great. And he's pounding the strike zone."
Paxton has continued to develop in the Majors, so Zunino had to adjust his pitch calling to incorporate the cutter, slider and changeup more. But the chemistry was still intact. "Once you get to build that relationship and they trust you, that's when it's seamless and [there's] not much shaking off, not much second guessing," Zunino said.
And Paxton said he felt very confident with Zunino behind the plate. "I know that Z's going to block anything that I throw up there in the dirt," Paxton said. "He's such a great defensive catcher and he does a great job catching the ball back there and calling the game. I really enjoy having him back there." (M Lee - MLB.com - July 3, 2016)
April 19-22, 2019: Mike was on the Paternity list. “Everybody is good and healthy,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “No baby yet, to my knowledge. But he had given us a heads-up that the plan was that his wife was seeing a doctor and he was going to go back.” This was the birth of his first child, Rhett Michael Zunino.
April 22, 2019: After welcoming the birth of his first child, Rhett Michael Zunino, Mike Zunino returned to the Rays lineup and was interested to see if he would benefit from the "dad strength" that some of his teammates have raved about.
“It’ll be nice to hit my first homer today, huh?” Zunino said before the game. “Everybody talks about [dad strength], so it’ll be nice to see if that works into effect sooner rather than later."
That dad strength surely came sooner rather than later, as Zunino blasted a go-ahead, two-run home run off Royals starter Brad Keller in the seventh inning to break a 3-3 tie. It helped the Rays snap a four-game losing streak with a 6-3 win against Kansas City. It was Zunino’s first home run of the season, and it traveled 425 feet and had an exit velocity of 106.6 mph.
“It took long enough, but it’s one of those things that if it had to come at a time, that was a pretty good one,” Zunino said after the game. “It was a special moment, feeling good at the plate with obviously having three games off, but I felt pretty good the first couple at-bats and got a good pitch to hit.”
Zunino and his wife, Alyssa, drove down to St. Petersburg from their Gainesville, Fla., home. The family spent the night at the hospital before spending Easter at home in Gainesville, enjoying an Easter dinner. When Zunino returned to the clubhouse after the game, he came back to a couple of photos his wife had texted to him of Rhett.
“They were all watching. I have a bunch of pictures of him, so it was cool,” Zunino said. “It was the first time talking to her knowing they were going to watch the game together. It’s something special. It was cool, and then to get the text of him and everything afterwards was the icing on the cake.”
Not only was the home run a special moment for Zunino, it was a key moment in the win. After falling behind 3-1 in the fifth inning, the Rays had to rally back from a deficit for the fifth consecutive game. Fortunately for the Rays, this time they were able to finish the comeback thanks to Zunino’s two-run shot.
“That’s something that he’ll be able to talk about for a long time,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “The way it came and how big of a hit it was at the time is even more impactful. It was good to have him back.”
Zunino has now hit 96 home runs over his seven-year big league career. But Monday’s home run ranks above the rest.
“That has to be number one,” Zunino said. “Just for the timing of it. It’s one of those things where you do that and you remember certain ones. That’s definitely the top one.” (J Toribio - MLB.com - April 22, 2019)
June 2012: The Mariners made Zunino the third pick overall in the first round. And he signed on July 2 for a $4 million bonus, via scout Rob Mummau.
Jan 12, 2018: Mike and the Mariners avoided arbitration, agreeing on a deal worth $2.975 million.
Nov 8, 2018: The Mariners traded C Mike Zunino, LF Guillermo Heredia and LHP Michael Plassmeyer to the Rays for CF Mallex Smith and CF Jake Fraley.
Jan 11, 2019: Mike and the Rays avoided arbitration, agreeing on a deal worth $4.4 million.