New York Yankees: Kyle Zurak playing for all the right reasons

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 26: A general view of New York Yankees hats and gloves during the game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, June 26, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 26: A general view of New York Yankees hats and gloves during the game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, June 26, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** /

Loving the game of baseball is not that much different from any other kind of love. It can take you to the highest mountain top, and it can break your heart. But in those little moments you can’t help but smile. Just ask New York Yankees reliever Kyle Zurak.

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Kyle Zurak was at a disadvantage in finding that love. The Bills Mafia may run strong, but the baseball season is actually quite short. That did not stop Zurak from wanting to play the game. Now, he has a chance to play for the nearby New York Yankees.

Not all roads are equal. Some players find their way to baseball on their own. As the old saying goes, baseball is a family game. That is exactly how Zurak found his way.

“I have brother that’s six years older than me, and we always were best friends growing up,” Zurak said. “I would always go to his big diamond games dressed in my tee ball uniform. I would play in the dirt and want to play in the games.”

He grew up and played on the big diamond. And he was pretty good too. Zurak went on to commit to Radford University in Virginia.

Moving down south, his season was longer which subjected him to some minor injuries. After sitting in the mid 80’s his freshman year, Zurak came back healthy and throwing in the low 90’s the next year. Still, there was no talk of being drafted.

So, Zurak did what any college student would and decided to line up a job. Even though getting drafted was still his goal, there were no guarantees. With his junior year looming, having an inside sales job with Taylormade Golf to fall back on made things a little easier.

“You’re telling me the worst thing to happen is that I go live in San Diego, California?” Zurak said. “Oh no!” he added jokingly.

With two years to go until he started his job, Zurak decided to do whatever it took to keep playing baseball. That meant he had to eat right, work out consistently, and keep developing every part of his game. That all sounds a lot easier than it is.

In the summer before his senior year, Zurak played for the Butler Blue Sox in a prospect league. His host family obliged to his healthy diet. Working out, however, was not the easiest task in the world. There was no good way to get to a gym.

“I would walk three, four miles in the morning to work out before a game,” Zurak said. “One time my catcher and I walked six miles in the morning to go to this little tiny gym and got a good workout in. It was kind of fun.”

All the hard work paid off. As the 2017 MLB Draft approached, it became clear that some team was going to take a chance on him. Any draft hopeful will tell you that they are happy to have their name called at any time by any team. For Zurak, becoming a member of the New York Yankees was very special.

“It was very, very cool to become a Yankee,” Zurak said. “[The Yankees] are the coolest organization in the world. It is the most recognizable logo in the world. You see people who don’t know anything about baseball wearing a Yankees cap because it’s the Yankees.”

From Buffalo to Virginia, Zurak’s baseball career kept moving him further south. His professional career was no different after being assigned to the Gulf Coast League. After performing there, he was promoted to the Pulaski Yankees.

While in Pulaski, Zurak met a coach that he really clicked with, pitching coach Gerrardo Casadiego. The two were lucky enough to cross paths again in the Arizona Fall League (AFL).

“It’s fun, [Casadiego and I] make jokes around each other and at each other,” Zurak said. “But once you step on the field or in the bullpen you get serious. He sees stuff in me and I can tell that he cares.”

Even when times get rough, Zurak can always hear the voice of Casadiego saying ‘Zurak, you can do it!’ That kind of encouragement along with the teaching allowed the reliever to skip right to full season A ball in Charleston. It is the same reason he was ready to go when called upon for the AFL.

The AFL combines some of the best talent in each farm system into one place. It is a prospect lover’s dream. It isn’t uncommon to see players like Ronald Acuna polishing their game in the desert before reaching the majors. This year, the big bat was Vladmir Guerrero Jr.

“I faced Guerrero Jr. and I pitched well to him,” Zurak said. “He got a hit…It was a ball off the plate and he had a base hit. There is nothing you can do to that, I just tipped my cap to him and he won the battle.”

This was Zurak’s first real exposure to that level of talent. To his credit he did show great poise on the mound. That story ends with the batter after Guerrero Jr. striking out.

Finding that kind of mental consistency is exceedingly hard to do, but it is something that relief pitchers need. Zurak is constantly working on that. He asked other players in the AFL how they ease their mind. One thing he heard was reading, so that’s what he started to do.

Zurak is a proud member of the Bills Mafia. However, with pain in his voice, he admitted to reading Tom Brady’s book. The words have really resonated with him.

“The mentality aspect is so big as both a minor leaguer and as a relief pitcher,” Zurak said. “It’s a grind. You have to be able to turn the switch on when you hear your name. It’s making sure I bring every ounce of what I can bring to the field every day.”

It’s Zurak’s goal, as is each of his minor league peers, to keep moving up until they reach the top. But as fun as it is to compete every day, there have been moments off the field during Zurak’s short two-year career that have humbled him.

In one instance, it was the case of a sick family friend that really brought him joy.

“Her uncle asked for a baseball card and a ball and I signed them,” Zurak said. “It was the happiest I have almost ever seen another person. It’s because of the Yankees logo, and it’s someone taking a moment of their time to care.”

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It was Zurak’s goals and his dedication that got him into the New York Yankees organization. In such a short amount of time he has tapped into his youth when he was playing catch with his brother and learned that the game is much bigger than just himself.

For every dream he has fulfilled, there are so many more players who fell short. Being humble and appreciative in success is something that Zurak seems to have in spades. As is important with any player, he understands the importance of the name on the front of the jersey.

“I think it is a very cool experience that just a little percentage of human beings get to do this kind of thing. It’s a blast to be able do…I’m a minor leaguer and nothing crazy right now, but that Yankee logo is so crazy, it’s big, it’s so important to people.”

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The next step for Zurak is Double A, then maybe Triple A. With the right mentality, and Casadiego’s words ringing in his ears, there is no reason the ultimate dream cannot be fulfilled.