In 2016, a young catcher in the Chicago White Sox organization inspired me with his hard work, grit and determination. That catcher, Bernardo Sebastion (Seby) Zavala has gone from being a 12th round pick to becoming a four-time minor league All-Star. Now, as the Charlotte Knights starting catcher, Zavala has made the White Sox’s 40-man roster and is on the brink of a major league call-up.
Not only did Seby practice and play hard while reaching for his goals, he was the catalyst for me to begin writing about baseball. Since I didn’t have much of a forum or following in 2016, I’ve saved this interview since then, and was planning on using it in a future book. I don’t know when I will have the time or the content to undertake such a project, so I wanted to share this transcript with you now, and let White Sox fans to see who’s on deck in the organization’s minor league pipeline.
This interview with Seby came on Oct. 10, 2016. I remember how strong Seby’s work ethic was (still is), and how unselfishly he played the game. He made me a “Sebyliever” in 2016, and continues chopping down the doubt tree of anyone who believes he isn’t a major league-caliber catcher.
I never met the man, but I do believe that Coach Gwynn would be very proud.
DAN VICTOR: When did you realize that you were going to be a professional baseball player?
SEBY ZAVALA: I always thought I was a pretty good baseball player. I was never the guy with the most talent, but what I do best is grind everything out: at-bats, games, even off-the-field stuff.
I guess I knew I had a really good chance to go far the year after I redshirted in college, because of all of the information I gathered sitting with [Zavala’s manager at San Diego State] Tony Gwynn. Sitting with him, I was able to learn how to read hitters and understand their game plan, so I can make them do what I want. From there, I knew if I could get physically bigger and start catching every day that I really had a chance to go far.
DV: Do you still love the game, or does being a pro just feel like a job now?
SZ: Of course I love the game, but what I have learned to love more is the process. There is a certain routine one must have during the season, and even the offseason. There is a higher level of urgency now that it is a “job,” but at the end of the day, it is a game and you have to have fun doing it.
DV: California is a hotbed for talented baseball players. Were you the best kid on your high school team?
SZ: I wish I could say I was the best player on my high school team, but my high school has had a few big leaguers, and hopefully some future big leaguers. Most recent is Rio Ruiz from the Braves, who got called up late this season. Playing with him on my team was awesome, because we all knew he was a special player.
DV: Was Coach Gwynn the guy who recruited you? What was he like?
SZ: Coach Gwynn was not the person doing the recruiting at the time when I went to SDSU. He was an amazing person, he cared about everyone on a personal level. [Gwynn died of salivary gland cancer in 2014, and Seby has a home plate tattoo on his left shoulder with Gwynn’s major league No. 19 in the center.]
DV: You caught bullpens for Stephen Strasburg before. Does catching for the guys that blow up the radar gun hurt your hand?
SZ: Yes, he would come by SDSU sometimes and throw bullpens. I wasn’t the only one to catch for him, it was whoever was available. Usually if someone is blowing up your hand, you’re catching the ball wrong. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, because sometimes the pitcher might cut the ball or have a little sink, and yeah, it could hurt. But most catchers work really hard every day to make sure we do things right so that doesn’t happen.
DV: You got a decent signing bonus [$100,000], but there are a lot of misconceptions the fans have about money, like you guys are rich ballplayers.
SZ: Yes, the signing bonus (after taxes) is nice to have, and you don’t have to worry as much as some of the other players, but it is nothing that allows me to just sit back and relax.
DV: Did you know the White Sox were going to take you on draft day, or were you expecting someone else to call your name?
SZ: I had no idea the White Sox were going to pick me, or were interested in me. I communicated more with other teams the day before the draft. I think I talked the most with the Royals. [The scout that signed Seby compared him to Jorge Posada.]
DV: Do you work in the offseason, or devote your time to training for the next season?
SZ: Last offseason I did not have a job, but this offseason I plan on working a little bit. The offseason could possibly be harder than the season, because I’m working hard to gain the weight I lost, and then some. Gaining weight is almost a full-time job because of the way my body type is. [Seby’s first full season in the North Carolina heat, he caught approximately five days a week, and experienced significant weight loss.]
DV: At this level, how much instruction is really happening?
SZ: There is instruction going on every day, but the best instruction someone can get is actually from themselves and learning from their mistakes. Somebody else can tell you how to do something and it may come easy, but in a stressful situation you might crack and forget, or maybe not be able to complete the task at hand.
DV: Do you live with a host family? What is the experience like?
SZ: I do not live with a host family. Kannapolis has host families who would provide certain things for us. If we needed to borrow a vacuum, dishes, they let a couple guys borrow a car, things like that, they would assist us however possible.
DV: Are there any times you feel overmatched and think “Damn, this guy is too good?”
SZ: There are many times when facing someone you say “Dang, that guy has a good pitch, or made a good play.” Knowing or understanding what an opponent’s skills are will enhance your own game against them. If you know a pitcher has a really good slider that he uses with two strikes, you try to hit the fastball before he throws his money pitch. It’s about taking away his strengths.
DV: How do you kill time on the bus or in the hotels?
SZ: There is definitely a lot of time to kill before games. In between batting practice, long bus rides. I like to stay competitive, playing cards or video games.
DV: I read that you majored in criminal justice and want to be an FBI agent if baseball doesn’t work out. True?
SZ: Yes, Ive always been interested in protecting this country. I wanted to go to the Army right out of high school. After telling that to my dad, he was all right with the idea. He said I could do that, and he would be happy. The only exception was that I was going to college first. So I decided to continue playing baseball, and always have the military/government job in the back of my head.
DV: What is the big difference in talent from one level to the next?
SZ: The difference between every level is consistency. Whether it is a pitcher pumping strikes more consistently, or hitting with a more consistent swing.
DV: You played for a Hall-of-Famer, caught bullpens for a big league All-Star. Those are pretty cool experiences. Who is the coolest guy you’ve met in the game?
SZ: I enjoy talking to anyone who has played in the big leagues — even if the player only got one day in the big leagues. Everyone who has made it has something to offer. There is such a long list of players and coaches that I’ve learned from in the first year and a half.
I would still have to say Tony Gwynn was the most influential, because I was so behind in my baseball IQ that he jump-started it and made me realize my full potential.
He made me think like a big leaguer. He made me ask the right questions. I am where I am now because of him.
Follow Dan Victor on Twitter @slydanno70.