Published September 13, 2013
SAN FRANCISCO – Ideally, had he stayed healthy, Kyle Zimmer would be a September call-up and be making his major league debut this month for the Kansas City Royals.
Yet with Kansas City shutting him down in mid-August to protect the prized pitching arm of its top prospect, Zimmer has been presented with a special opportunity off the field: He returned to college at the University of San Francisco.
And because his season was cut short as a precaution, Zimmer's timing was perfect to get back on campus for Day 1 of fall semester. He probably couldn't have done it had he finished out the season for the Royals.
He has all the hours he needs — and then some — for studying, too.
"It's really weird, especially after taking a full year off," Zimmer said. "I'd never gone to college without playing a sport at the same time. Now, I just wonder how normal students do it because there's so much free time. It's definitely a lot different than I remember. You have so much time to get your work done."
Zimmer's mild shoulder tightness keeps him from doing any weightlifting or on-field work at this stage, though most pitchers with heavy workloads typically take extended time off during the fall and winter before resuming a throwing program in December. He has been running and working out his lower body.
Zimmer, the No. 5 overall draft pick in 2012 who celebrated his 22nd birthday Friday, underwent elbow surgery last August to remove loose bodies that had been there for years. The procedure allowed him to get full arm extension in his delivery, spiking his velocity from 93-97 mph to 95-100. In fact, he averaged about one pitch tipping 100 mph in each start this season, throwing about 15 to 20 in all.
Returning to school is quite the change of pace for Zimmer, who has never been a college student without the constant balancing act of also being an athlete and getting to practice or games.
For USF coach Nino Giarratano, having Zimmer back on campus means so much — to the program and to the university. And to anybody else who might need some inspiration or a good example in the classroom.
"He's just a bright kid," Giarratano said. "It just can help so many other kids and people, for people to see that. It can help college baseball and professional baseball. It's a positive thing for everybody. So many kids talk, 'I'm going to go back to school,' then life happens and before you know it you're married and have kids or you're off doing something else."
Zimmer called Giarratano's wife, Brenda, the academic coordinator for athletics, to let her know he wanted to return.
"At some point I always wanted to come back," Zimmer said on campus between classes this week. "I felt like it was a great opportunity and a perfect time to do it because after this year, I feel like every year more and more life gets in the way."
Coming back after baseball season would be tricky because he already would be several weeks behind with classes well underway.
Zimmer is enrolled in four upper division business classes this semester, and he will still be a few courses shy of his degree in business administration. Zimmer hopes he can finish up as time permits in the coming year.
"It would be nice to do some online, but they're upper-division business classes, so it could be tough," Zimmer said.
The Royals pay for school and his housing. When he arrived in the Bay Area last month, he went straight from the San Francisco airport to his first class on the Hilltop.
"It was such a whirlwind," Zimmer said.
Zimmer went 6-9 with a 4.32 ERA in 22 starts with 140 strikeouts over 108 1-3 innings between Class-A Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas this season.
He was pitching at his best when his season ended early.
Now, he is enjoying time with his little brother, Bradley, a sophomore right fielder and projected high draft pick himself after earning MVP honors in the Cape Cod League this summer. The elder Zimmer is living not far from USF with a couple of old teammates. Zimmer is among a large group of former Dons to return to campus for winter workouts.
That's to the credit of Giarratano and his staff, Zimmer said.
"Everybody finishing their season or playing independent ball or different things, everybody comes directly here, just because it's such a great atmosphere," Zimmer said. "Anybody who comes through here, their time here is so special and they build so many great relationships and grow so much as a person."
Before he gets back to his baseball load in the coming months, he has a standard to maintain as a 4.0 student.
"As of now," Zimmer said with a grin.
"Hopefully, he keeps it," Giarratano said.