Joel Zumaya: The man who made his fastball go “Zoom-Zoom”

I once found myself in a group of passionate Tigers fans in Lakeland who were fighting over each other to shake the hand of a former Detroit pitcher. A few feet away from the crowd was Mickey Lolich, sitting at a small table, his arms crossed, only occasionally interrupted by a fan wanting to shake his hand.

The man who was causing such a stir was Joel Zumaya, who pitched all of 209 2/3 innings in the major leagues, winning 13 games. Lolich practically tossed that many innings in half a season in 1971 for the Tigers, and  Mick won 217 games, all but 10 of them wearing the Old English D.

Why do we often find ourselves more fascinated with the “what if’s” in sports? Why is Mark Fidrych more remembered than players who spent dozens of years in baseball? Why is Zumaya such an iconic player to so many Detroit fans who felt the thrill of The Summer of ’06?

Players who seemed to be destined for greatness, who give us a satisfying taste of their talent, but who don’t make it, are undeniably interesting. Zumaya, like Fidrych, belongs in a small group of Detroit athletes who delighted us, but were taken from us too soon.

Zumaya tossed his last pitch in the majors more than a decade ago, in 2010. The last batter he faced was Jim Thome, who has a Hall of Fame plaque now. The last game home run he allowed was to Chipper Jones, another Hall of Famer. Zumaya’s baseball story seems as if it belongs in an earlier generation. But as the 2021 baseball season begins, Zumaya is still only 36 years old, younger than Max Scherzer, younger than many who still earn a living playing the game. But his magic right arm, where thunderbolts lived, has nothing left in it.

When the 2006 season started, when the Tigers inched their way north to start the schedule, there were many changes with the team. Gone was Alan Trammell, replaced as manager by Jim Leyland, the cigarette-sucking, mustache-wearing 145-pound ball of energy and spitfire. Gone were many of the dreadful players who had been the rotting core of the 2003 team that lost an embarrassing 119 games. In their place were plenty of nobodies and rookies, and a few veterans sprinkled in. At the time, many people felt the Tigers were just trying to make themselves look respectable. A good season? 75 wins would have been celebrated. A winning record would probably have resulted in a parade.

But the 2006 Tigers had a lot of surprises listed on their 25-man roster as they broke spring camp and went north to Kansas City to start the season against the Royals.

There was a young center fielder who always seemed to be smiling and running hard, a man with a long name (Granderson) and a long swing that looked too long to be successful. There was a red-headed first baseman with a few extra pounds on his frame, named Chris Shelton. There was the “awe-shucks” third baseman Brand Inge, who wore his socks up high and struck out like it was a bodily function.

Then there were the young pitchers: 23-year old Justin Verlander, a tall, leggy right-hander from Goochland High School somewhere in Virginia; and Zumaya, a thick-chested, bear-like right-handed relief pitcher from sunny, sandy-beached Chula Vista, California. Both Verlander and Zumaya had arms that made the scouts drool all over their radar guns and notecards. They both had a swagger too, something you couldn’t teach.

“I don’t think [they] can learn anything more down there [in the minor leagues],” Leyland said to reporters when the final opening day roster was revealed. “I want the best arms we have. Talent can get you a long way. Experience will come. We may as well start that now.”

Zumaya had a great nickname already, before he threw his first pitch as a rookie reliever. His teammates called him “Zoom-Zoom” because his fastball could touch 100 miles per hour. It’s not accurate to say that Zumaya could reach 100 with his heater: he actually flew right past it. Frequently, the gun clocked his fastball at 103 or more. That’s a lot of zooooooooom zooooooooooom.

Later, when he announced his retirement from baseball at a far too young age, Zumaya recalled his first outing in 2006. The Gambler, Kenny Rogers, handed him a 2-1 lead in the 7th inning, and Zoom-Zoom was staring at Kansas City’s best hitter, Mike Sweeney. Zumaya might have been nervous, he didn’t even touch 99 MPH against Sweeney, before losing him to a walk. But the next hitter got something more.

“I wasn’t doing anything tricky,” Zumaya said after the game. “I just gave them the fastball, and was like, ‘here you go.’ “

Reggie Sanders saw two pitches over 100 miles per hour before striking out by connecting with air. The next batter struck out as well, and a few batters later, Zumaya was out of the inning. Leyland brought his young reliever out for the 8th, where he fanned another KC batter. Zoom-Zoom was in The Show.

The Tigers were using Fernando Rodney to close out games as the 2006 season started, so Zumaya was the flame-throwing setup man. In April he had one poor outing against the Mariners, but otherwise Joel recorded five holds. In May he recorded 19 K’s in 15 2/3 innings and had a 2.30 ERA for the month. Late in May at Comerica Park, he faced the Yankees, and struck out Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Jason Giambi. His fastball registered at 103 miles per hour. By that time, with the team in first place, Zumaya was a folk hero.

With a thick soul patch under his lower lip, and a beefy physique, and that amazing right shoulder, Zumaya became a star in Detroit. The sight of him jogging in casually from the bullpen with a serious look on his face would send the fans at Comerica Park into an uncontrollable frenzy. He wasn’t Fidrych, there was no talking to the ball, no shaking the hands of his infielders, but he was a pop star on the mound.

In June, Zumaya allowed only two runs in 14 games, and lowered his ERA. He struck out five batters in two innings against the Rays, and four in less than two innings against Toronto. His 100 MPH+ heater could be erratic (he might walk a batter now and again), but Zoom-Zoom usually bore down and made his pitches. He was the most exciting bullpen performer in Detroit since the short meteoric success of Kevin “Hot Sauce” Saucier.

Wouldn’t you know it? The Tigers would face the Yankees in the playoffs, and for Detroit fans there’s nothing like beating the Yanks.

In Game Two of the AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium, Zumaya came on in the 7th inning and blew away Jeter. The next inning, protecting a one-run lead against the Bronx Bombers, Zoom-Zoom whiffed Giambi and finished off the inning by fanning Alex Rodriguez. Amid the deafening silence at Yankee Stadium, you could hear Zumaya’s teammates hooping it up in the dugout in support of his effort. One inning later, Todd Jones closed out the win, Detroit’s first in the post-season in nearly two decades.

Zumaya didn’t pitch as well in the World Series, he had an infamous throwing error, but he was a rookie pitching in the Fall Classic, and with his fastball and that of Verlander in their arsenal, it seemed like Detroit would be back again, after falling to the Cardinals.

He had his first injury in his second season, when he strained his forearm lifting an air conditioning unit out of his window. Later he would famously hurt his elbow playing the video game, “Guitar Hero.” Only Zoom-Zoom could get away with such a story.

Finally, in 2010, after three years of nagging injuries and four stints on the disabled list, Zumaya was healthy as the season started. He seemed unhittable. He was still setting games up, working in front of The Big Potato, Jose Valverde. Zumaya pitched eight games and 12 scoreless innings to start his season. He was 25 years old and he could still pump the fastball in at 100 MPH plus.

“I feel good, and I’m strong, after missing time the last few years,” Zumaya told reporters early in 2010.

Through his first dozen games in 2010, Zoom-Zoom had a 1.47 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings. Impressively, he had tamed his pitches: he did not walk a batter in those first 12 games.

Zumaya would most likely have been named to the All-Star team in 2010, but then everything changed. On June 28, he took the mound against the Twins in the 7th inning. Leyland summoned him into the game with a man on first base and nursing a two-run lead. Zoom-Zoom got the third out of the inning. He came back to pitch the 8th, ready to pump that fastball again, to do his zoom-zoom once more. He got Thome to bounce out, then he dug in to face Delmon Young. His first pitch was a 99-MPH heater knee-high for a strike. But Zumaya went down quickly to the grass near the mound, clutching his famous shoulder. His arm was limp, the pain was incredible.

“I felt it break,” Zumaya said later, tears in his eyes.

A bone in Zumaya’s forearm, behind the elbow, had snapped. His season was done. No All-Star Game, no more strikeouts, no more zoom-zoom.

There was rehab after rehab after rehab, but Zumaya’s arm was never the same. Most alarmingly, he couldn’t throw without pain. He became a free agent after the 2011 World Series, having not pitched in almost two years. The Twins signed him to a minor league deal, gave him an invite to spring training, but one sunny day in Florida for his new team, Zumaya felt the sharp pain again. He had torn his ulnar collateral ligament. He underwent Tommy John Surgery and missed the entire 2012 and 2013 seasons. The following February, in 2014, he was waiting to see if he could pitch without pain, when he made the decision to retire.

A 13-12 record. Less than 210 innings, and only five saves. It seems like a fleeting, unceremonious big league career. But Joel “Zoom-Zoom” Zumaya was a flame-throwing monster who scared the hell out of opposing batters with a fastball that touched unthinkable numbers on the radar gun. He was the fastest pitcher the Tigers ever had, but just not the most prolific one.