When Bruce Zimmermann’s baseball pursuits took him out of Maryland, and thus out of the purview of the man that served as his first pitching coach, the habit of breaking down every one of his starts with his father endured.
From the time Zimmermann blossomed into a pro prospect at Mount Olive (North Carolina) to his fifth-round selection in the 2017 Major League Baseball draft by the Atlanta Braves and eventual trade to the hometown Orioles, the postgame calls that were once a baseball exercise became a way for Zimmermann and his father, also named Bruce, to stay connected.
For a father who poured so much into his son’s journey, it kept him along for the ride.
“My dad was a big part of my career,” Zimmermann said, “I knew how much it meant for him for me to call him and just kind of fill him in and tell him how I did and go through the game.
“Now, it’s more that the game is so fast and so different and it’s ‘The Show,’ it’s not about looking for advice or things like that. At this point, for me and my dad, it’s somewhat centering to just go back and have that conversation, and I know he appreciates it a lot when I call him and ask him his advice or ask him what he saw or things like that. It’s more of a sentimental thing now, more than anything, but I still enjoy doing that with him. It means a lot to him, and means a lot to me.”
For Zimmermann, an Ellicott City native and Loyola Blakefield graduate who began his college career at Towson University, the foundation for pitching that helped him at every step in his career came from Bruce Sr.
The elder Zimmermann and his brothers moved to the Baltimore area from New York in high school and quickly took to the Orioles, back when they were the class of baseball. Bruce Sr. pitched at the University of Dallas and was keen to pass the game along to his sons, even if he didn’t push it on them.
He coached Zimmermann’s older brother, Joe, through his baseball career and helped his daughters with their soccer and softball teams. But pitching was his passion, and the younger Bruce had two prime examples — an older brother who he could tag along with and emulate, and a father who was happy to teach him.
Bruce Sr.’s pitching philosophy — “if you throw strikes and keep the ball in play, the players will react for you and you’ll be better off for it” — is evident when watching the rookie Zimmermann. He’s consistently around the strike zone, and at his best mixes a contact-oriented approach with some swing-and-miss secondary pitches.
In his first full season in the majors, Zimmermann has a 4.83 ERA with a 1.475 WHIP with 53 strikeouts in 59 ⅔ innings, though he was placed on the 10-day injured list before his scheduled start Friday with biceps tendinitis after he felt more sore than usual after his most recent outing.
He credits his father for the sound foundation of a clean, repeatable delivery, and says the long-toss program his father believed in has helped keep his arm strong. At least once a week while growing up, Bruce Sr. would catch a bullpen session for his son on the mound in their side yard.
And though the grip has changed some in professional baseball, it was Zimmermann’s father who taught him the changeup he’s so comfortable throwing now — even if he now laughs about its efficacy in Little League.
“Kids don’t even notice the difference between a changeup and a fastball at that age, but it is the reason why my changeup is as good as it is today, because I’ve been throwing it since I was probably 9 years old, when it was a palm ball,” he said. “But I was always throwing it. That is one pitch that I will give 100% props to my dad for.”
Bruce Sr. is happy to accept the credit on that front, describing his son’s changeup as needing a backup beeper like a heavy duty truck when it’s at its best.
But a time came when such proud declarations about his son had to come from a paternal perspective, not one of a coach. As Zimmermann’s senior year of high school approached, a growth spurt meant he was throwing so hard that his father couldn’t catch him anymore.
So finally, Bruce Sr. was able to sit back and watch his son’s career start taking off.
Both at Towson and later at Mount Olive and in the minors, Zimmermann was a gym rat who worked to maximize the opportunity in front of him. He developed a bump in velocity that put him on the major league radar before his junior year of college, he said, but until then, he was happy to be fulfilling his father’s wish for him to play in college.
Zimmermann was cruising through the Braves’ farm system and had made it to Double-A in his first full season when the Orioles acquired him in a July 2018 trade for Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day. That brought him back home to pitch at Double-A Bowie and made the calls to his father a little simpler. After all, he could see many of the starts himself.
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Bruce Sr. never thought of those talks as baseball breakdowns as his son climbed closer to the big leagues. He simply appreciated that “he would see that as something he wanted to do.”
“I wasn’t calling him and pestering him, that it was important to him to include me — even though I never asked and never pressured him,” Bruce Sr. said. “But, I always enjoyed going over things with him and in a very light manner. It was never heavy handed or trying to tell him to do something other than what the plan was, be it in college or the pros. More importantly, it was just him feeling comfortable enough for him to talk to me.”
Any son making the majors leagues is a moment to cherish, let alone when his father was such a big part of his journey to get there. That’s why Zimmermann pitching for the team his father grew up watching is all the more meaningful this Father’s Day.
“I pinch myself every morning, as does my wife [Marcie],” said Bruce Sr., whose big family has been a consistent presence during his son’s burgeoning big league career, including watching from the stands in Boston as he earned his first major league win in April. “Just to make sure that we don’t wake up and it’s a dream. It’s indescribable for both of us, just to feel so blessed that we can sit there and actually watch our son play major league baseball.
“How many parents have the opportunity to see a son or a daughter play a professional sport? Let alone for the home team, and let alone in such a special position as a pitcher. Very, very rare.”
That everyday joy isn’t lost on his son, either.
“It means a lot to me that I can do that, and I know that he’s gotten a lot out of seeing all of his kids succeed, but I’m not going to fake it — I know that watching me pitch in the big leagues is probably one of the best things he’s been able to enjoy in his life, without sounding conceited at all.” Zimmermann said. “I just know it’s a big deal for him. He grew up loving the game of baseball. … I know it just means a lot to him that I’m able to continue to play the game that I love, and just be out here and doing it.”