Zona Has Baseball In His Blood

Madison’s Shortstop Grew Up In The Game

By Greg Madia
Daily News-Record

HARRISONBURG – Not long after the nine innings are over Nick Zona knows at least a few text messages are coming and sometimes to expect a phone call with a couple of voices on the other side of the line.

The James Madison freshman shortstop is the youngest member of a family built on baseball.

“There were a couple of three-way calls with everybody asking, What were you thinking?” or saying, “Good job,” Zona said with a grin on his face earlier this week.

His Dad, Jeff, is a special assistant to Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and travels the country this time of year evaluating the top amateur pitchers in preparation for the Major League Baseball Draft each June. His oldest brother, Jeff Jr., is an area scout in norther Florida for the Philadelphia Phillies, and the middle brother, Anthony, is a graduate assistant and the recruiting coordinator for the University of Charleston (W.VA) baseball program.

And Nick will have some of those mentioned conversations in person this week.

Jeff said he’s working and attending Saturday and Sunday games between JMU (7-1) and No. 8 Louisville (5-3) as part of a three-game series beginning today at Jim Patterson Stadium in Louisville. Anthony said he was planning to see Nick on Thursday when JMU stopped in Charleston for lunch on its way to face the cardinals.

“Now with them doing all their three things in the game, I catch myself reflecting on it a little bit more than I ever did before,” Jeff Zona said during a phone call earlier this week on his way to scout a game at Campbell University in North Carolina. “Just because before you’re trying to get ’em to the next stage. … You’re just locked in, but now when they have it, it kind of chokes you up at times because you never knew how it was going to work out.”

All three Zona boys played baseball, football, and basketball at Hanover High School in Mechanicsville, according to their dad, but stopped playing the other two sports at different times and never could put the bat or glove down.

“We knew baseball was the one sport we all really loved and knew a lot about,” Nick said.

Anthony pitched two years at Patrick Henry Community College ahead of spending his junior and senior seasons at Charleston before staying on with the program in the role he’s in now. The Baltimore Orioles drafted Jeff Zona Jr. in the 32nd round of the 201 MLB Draft, but he said he got hurt after high school and never pitched again.

“My trade was I knew baseball and I knew scouting,” Jeff Zona Jr said. “So I just worked for free for three or four years as a bird dog and then I finally broke in and got a paid job.”

With a scout for a dad, a scout for a brother and a coach for another brother, Nick Zona is never short on baseball advice especially when everyone around him recognizes the potential.

Through eight games with Madison, Zona is hitting .346 with five RBI’s and three steal. Dukes coach Marlin Ikenberry calls him, a polished fielding shortstop,” too.

“He’s way better than me and my middle brother were,” said Jeff Zona Jr., who will go home after a long day of scouting in the Sunshine State only to watch Nick’s at-bats late at night via replay on Facebook. “He’s way more athletic and a better player than we were and, yeah, he’s off to a good start. His work ethic is there and he’s got some God-given ability, so he’s got to maximize it with the work ethic and I think he’s got that.

“Over time, I think he’ll turn into a really good player.”

Said Anthony: “He’s the perfect blend of what me and my older brother didn’t get. He definitely got a good mix of everything in terms of athleticism and speed and how to play the game of baseball at a high level.”

It’s what Ikenberry saw when we initially recruited Nick and was willing to wai for because Nick originally committed to Virginia Tech as a sophomore and wasn’t headed to JMU until after the Hokies had a coaching change in 2017.

What didn’t hurt was Ikenberry knew the Zonas well, dating all the way back to the late 80’s.

“I was either a sophomore or junior in high school,” Ikenberry said. “And I’d catch three pitchers during the offseason. One was Dwayne Henry (a former pitcher of the Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers), one was Tommy Greene (a former pitcher of the Braves, Astros and Philadelphia Phillies), and the other one was Jeff Zona, his father.”

Jeff pitched two minor league seasons following his college career at Virginia Commonwealth before his scouting career began. He was a scout with the Boston Red Sox for 16 years ahead of joining Rizzo and the Nationals.

“Then I recruited his older brother (Jeff Zona Jr.) when I was at VMI and didn’t get hi,” Ikenberry said. “And then recruited Nick, so I’ve known the family for a long time. But, obviously, the baseball IQ of Nick is extremely, extremely good.”

Nick said he’s taken pointers from talking to and watching each of his brothers, whether it was in the backyard or their games, and that he learned countless lessons from simply being around his dad. Jeff was also a college roommate and still is a friend of Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto.

“The baseball part of it was an education for my kids that they lived through the guys I scouted and signed,” Jeff said. “They heard all the stories of the players I scouted and signed.
“…They’ve gained a lot of knowledge and information of the inner workings of what we do with the Nats because I’m close to Rizz and that’s what we do. They’re tuned to it and have their opinions, but it’s because they know. It’s like someone who works for IBM and knows computer systems, it’s what they lived.”

And Jeff will be around to watch his son play as much as possible and as frequently as he can overlap a work trip with JMU’s schedule.

Last week, he was in attendance when Nick ranged to his left, slickly fielded a ball, spun and threw to first in the bottom of the ninth to record an out in JMU’s 3-1 over Longwood.

“I’ve got it on my schedule for when they go to Cal State Fullerton,” Jeff said. “I’ll probably go out a few days early and be there through that series and then a little bit  beyond seeing pitchers out there and I’ve got him out there.

“It might not always be at Harrisonburg that I get to the games, but I got a good chance to get around depending on who they play. Elon has two pitchers I need to see, so I’m saving that for when JMU goes to Elon.”

Louisville has pitching prospects and so do the Dukes – starter Kevin Kelly and closer Nick Robertson are both in D1Baseball.com’s Top 20 Colonial Athletic Association draft prospects for 2019.

And Nick Zona said it’s great when his dad can see him play and do his scouting at the same time like he can this weekend. Louisville has made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last seven years and appeared in the College World Series three times in the last decade.

“I’m really excited about playing on the main stage,” Zona said. “It’s great playing here in Harrisonburg, but to get us playing nationally on ESPN3 and all the big channels with others teams watching, I think that’s going to be really cool to show ourselves off and show our team.

“I’ll be awesome for us to showcase what JMU baseball is about.”