At one time, they were all Rams.
They are the four former University of Rhode Island baseball players currently playing professional Minor League Baseball. Catcher Zach Zaneski is in the Texas Ranger system, playing for the Single A Hickory Crawdads in the South Atlantic League.
The other three are pitchers. Eric Smith is in the Class A Advanced California League with the Visalia Rawhide, an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Nick Greenwood was recently traded to the Quad City River Bandits (Single A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals), while Tim Boyce is in his first season of pro ball with Pulaski, the rookie league affiliate of the Seattle Mariners in the Appalachian League.
Now in his third season as a professional, Zaneski is the veteran of the group. This season has been his strongest so far, as he is batting a strong .305 with six home runs and 39 runs batted in through 65 games for Hickory. His batting averages ranks third-best on the team, and he has played his way to an everyday spot in the line-up.
Part of being a player in the minor leagues is being ready to move up a level when called upon. At the end of last season, Zaneski was called up to the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the Triple A affiliate of the Rangers, just one step below the majors. He appeared in four games, faring well with three hits in 10 at bats.
While there is a clear difference in the talent level between the college game and pro ball, the approach to the game is the same for Zaneski as it was during his URI days. This is now a career for these players. This is their job, and there is high pressure to keep performing at a high level.
“From a mental standpoint, for me, it isn’t any different,” Zaneski said. “I have taken baseball very seriously and will continue to do that. It is a little mind boggling sometimes to think that if I don’t play well or I make a stupid decision off the field that my playing career could be over.”
Despite the pressure that comes with playing in the pros, Zaneski said the transition was made easier because of the program at URI. Head Coach Jim Foster, who also was a catcher during his own 10-year professional baseball career, runs the Ram baseball team like a pro team. The standard he has brought to URI is evident, as the program has seen five players drafted in the last two seasons, an impressive feat for a school in the Northeast, which is not considered a baseball hotbed.
“I have been taught since college from Coach Foster to go about my business the right way on and off the field, which makes it easy to have fun playing the game,” Zaneski said. “It all starts from the top down and I don’t think there is another coach in the Northeast who can match up with Coach Foster. He is one of the most knowledgeable baseball coaches that I have met, including professional baseball. The assistant coaches have contributed tremendously which is unlike most other programs in the Northeast. It really is a one-of-a-kind situation at URI.”
Zaneski isn’t the only former Ram enjoying success this season. Boyce, who just finished his collegiate career at Rhode Island, recently earned Appalachian League Pitcher of the Week honors. With an 8-2 record, he leads the league in victories. Drafted in the 44th round of this year’s draft, Boyce has worked as both a relief pitcher and a starter.
Greenwood, in his second professional season, has done the same. Drafted in the 14th round in 2009 by the San Diego Padres, Greenwood was traded this summer to the Cardinals’ organization and assigned to Quad City in Iowa. In his first six appearances for the River Bandits, Greenwood has a sparkling 1.50 ERA, allowing just nine hits and two runs over 12 innings.
Last summer, Greenwood was an all-star for the Single A Eugene Emeralds before getting promoted to the Fort Wayne TinCaps, where he helped the team win a Midwest League championship.
Smith, a second-round pick for Arizona in 2009, made the Midwest League All-Star team this summer for the South Bend Silver Hawks before he was promoted to Visalia, the Diamondbacks’ top Single A team. In his most recent start, Smith earned his second win with the Rawhide with a strong six innings of work.
As a catcher, Zaneski had an up close look at Greenwood, Smith and Boyce.
“Nick, Eric, and Tim have gotten to the points where they are now because of a lot of hard work,” Zaneski said. “They have been blessed with great arms, but have worked tremendously hard throughout their careers to make themselves better. In my opinion, Northeast guys are tougher than the majority of other baseball players. We have to play in tough conditions year in and year out, and have learned to overcome a lot of obstacles. I hope they continue to overcome obstacles all the way to the big leagues.
“I do take a lot of pride in how Nick, Eric, and Tim are doing. I still have great connections with those guys and talk frequently. We all have great relationships and I only wish the best for those guys.”
Each of the players still is a bit off from the ultimate goal of reaching the big leagues. However, just getting a foot in the door in professional baseball is hard enough, and the fact that URI has four young players playing professionally speaks volumes of the program.
“I still wish I could go back and play at URI. I absolutely loved it,” Zaneski said. “I go back every off-season and work out with the players, and meet up with my teammates who I played with at URI. I will always have a tremendous amount of pride in URI baseball.”