(Former Wildcat Zach Reks, traded in the off-season from the LA Dodgers to the Rangers, got his first base hit in a Texas uniform Saturday. This is what I wrote about him in June of 2017, after he had helped Kentucky win the first NCAA regional championship in school history. Reks had quit college baseball but made his way back to the game. Now, he’s in the big leagues.)
For Zach Reks, it was the sunflower seeds.
Sitting on his couch in his Lexington apartment two years ago, resigned to not playing baseball, it wasn’t the crack of the bat or the satisfying pop of the ball hitting his mitt that he missed the most. No, it was something even more visceral.
“I missed having the excuse to chew sunflower seeds,” he said.
Not just chewing them, but chewing them in a dugout, surrounded by teammates, having fun as they tried to win a ballgame together.
Two years later, he’s doing just that after following a most unlikely path to the starting left-fielder’s job for 10th-ranked Kentucky. This weekend they’ll play arch-rival Louisville for a chance to make the Wildcats’ first trip to the College World Series.
“To be an integral part of the lineup,” he said, “has been a blessing.”
Not to mention the crest of a thrill ride that began in the mountains of Colorado.
That’s where Reks originally attended college, at the Air Force Academy. But at the end of one year, he had failed to distinguish himself, both athletically and academically.
Reks and the school decided they’d had enough of each other so he transferred, applying to every school in the SEC. Only Missouri and Kentucky accepted him. He headed for Lexington.
He didn’t pursue baseball initially; after struggling at Air Force, Reks said he knew he wasn’t physically ready to play collegiately at the highest level. So he began to juggle: school, a job at Toyota and workouts, looking to get himself baseball-ready.
“For some reason, I felt like I was going to get an opportunity somewhere,” he said. “I just wanted to be ready for it.”
That opportunity came at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
One of Reks’ former Air Force teammates, Bo Wilson, had transferred to Kentucky and was a pitcher on the 2015 Wildcats. One day, Reks went over to the ballpark to hang out with his buddy and throw the baseball. Then-UK assistant Rick Eckstein noticed and later flagged down Reks in the parking lot.
“I hopped off my moped and said hello to him,” Reks said. “He (said), ‘Do you know who I am?’ I was like, absolutely not. “
Who he was, was Kentucky’s hitting coach, just a year removed from a job in the major leagues, where he worked with the likes of Albert Pujols and Bryce Harper. And, oh yes – he’s the brother of former big-leaguer David Eckstein, the MVP of the 2006 World Series.
“After he told me who he was, I knew (of) his brother,” Reks said. “I grew up watching him play. My Dad was like, ‘You got to meet Rick Eckstein, the brother of David Eckstein?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He was like, that is pretty cool.’ And I said, ‘Yep and he told me I could play baseball at UK.’ “
That is, he could try out in the fall. Eckstein gave Reks a few tips on how to better pull the ball and then told him to show up for walk-on tryouts. “He said, No guarantees, but you’ll get a shot,” Reks said.
In order to maximize his chance at the audition, he put himself through his own version of two-a-days, working out in the morning and then, after school and work, again in the evening.
Reks also enlisted the help of two buddies – roommate John Baer and best friend Brandon Wesley. They helped him sharpen his hand-eye coordination by throwing him curveballs with whiffle balls, wrapped in different-colored tape, from only 20 feet away. Reks would have to report the proper color and learned to better recognize the spin.
He worked to improve his speed by running against resistance – Reks would run, attached to a rubber strap with Baer at the other end, providing the resistance.
“I had to get faster,” said Reks, who added cone drills to his workouts to help increase his acceleration. He and Baer would lift together as well. Baer played baseball in high school; Reks said he can’t even recall now how they met. “He’s a good dude,” he said.
And when Baer wasn’t available, there was Wesley. “He would step in and say, I’m here to help because I want to see you do this.”
Finally, tryouts rolled around. It did not go well. Hitting off a tee, Reks remembers doing little more than slapping a series of grounders to the shortstop, with Eckstein looking on.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry. I can fix this,’ ” Reks said. The next day, Eckstein provided more tips, particularly on how to pull and elevate the ball.
Apparently, the teacher liked what he saw in the pupil. “He said, ‘We’ve got something here. We can roll with this,’ “ Reks said.
And roll he did, all season long, starting 42 of UK’s 56 games (appearing in nine others) and hitting .331 – dramatically better than the .210 mark he put up at Air Force.
At the end of the season came the coaching change. Nick Mingione was the new head man and Reks suddenly was hearing a different voice in new hitting coach Todd Guilliams.
“Coach Gwill didn’t say much at first. He kinda just watched me for a while,” Reks said. And when the time was right, Guilliams stepped in with tips of his own, teaching Reks how to hit the ball where it’s pitched, as well as take it to the opposite field – vital information for a hitter who’d made a name for himself in the SEC.
“Last year I wasn’t getting pitched like I am now,” said Reks, an unknown back then who saw a steady diet of fat fastballs and hanging curves. This season, he’s seen more of the nasty stuff – sliders, changeups and fastballs away.
“It’s something I’ve worked on all season, hitting the other way,” he said. “The mental side of it all, that’s what coach Gwill has helped me with.”
Once again, it worked. Reks is hitting .360 (fifth in the SEC); he’s doubled his RBI total (44) and smashed three times as many doubles (16). And he’s the starting leftfielder for a team that’s two victories from a trip to Omaha.
“I’m sitting in the outfield thinking, wow,” he said. “It’s a feeling that not everybody can understand. You’re thinking about all the things you did to lead up to it.”
Two years ago, separated from the game he loves, Reks sat in his apartment, watching baseball games on TV, taking notes. At times he’d jump up, grab a bat and try to time his swing to the pitchers on the screen.
Now he’s in the lineup every day, trying to help his team win a championship.
“It’s special to think about,” he said. “It’s my motivation on the field. I’m trying to write a story no one has ever written. It fuels me to play how I play.
“I want to continue to play baseball and continue to write this crazy story that’s happened to me so far. I hope at the end of it, I can say I played in the major leagues and I started off sitting on my couch, doing nothing in college.”
Doing nothing. And missing the sunflower seeds…