Mike Zunino catches eyes (and balls)

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Mike Zunino met Johnny Bench for the first time, he asked the Hall of Fame catcher for advice on how to improve his game. Bench's response was simple and to the point: Catch every ball.

"I was, like, waiting for a long explanation. But it really makes a lot of sense," Zunino said.

Catching every pitch is sound advice, indeed, for Mariners catchers, who led the league in passed balls in 2012. Not that Seattle fans aren't accustomed to such dubious achievements. Since Dan Wilson retired in 2005, the Mariners have been through a steady progression of disappointing catchers who couldn't hit or couldn't catch or, quite often, couldn’t do either.

But there is hope now that help is finally on the way behind the plate in the presence of Zunino. He was the Golden Spikes Award, Johnny Bench Award and Dick Howser Trophy winner while playing at the University of Florida last year, as well as the No. 3 pick in the draft. He hit .360 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs in 44 games at the Class A and Double-A levels. He drew raves during the Arizona Fall League. Baseball America ranks him as the game’s 17th best prospect and the best in the Mariners' organization. Keith Law ranks him 15th overall.

Zunino, who turns 22 next week, is hitting .211 so far this spring, but he has impressed the Mariners behind the plate with his good hands and his movement.

“He has all the intangibles,” Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “Leadership. He shows poise. He’s just a guy who exudes confidence. Pitchers will be very comfortable pitching to him.”

He also has an infectious personality. Monday of this week was a coveted day off for most of the Mariners, but Zunino was instructed to come in to catch a simulated game that morning. While most of his teammates were back home sleeping, Mike was at the ballpark, eagerly looking forward to a morning behind the plate.

“I’m playing baseball!” he said. “I enjoyed my time at the University of Florida; but when I can come here instead of going to class, it’s obviously a lot of fun. To be in my first spring training and be in a big league camp -- it’s a blast.”

Baseball has always been a part of Zunino’s life. His father, Gary, met his mother, Paola, while he was playing in Italy and she was a catcher on the Italian softball team. Greg had been an outfielder in the Yankees' system in the early ‘80s, then went to play in Bologna, Italy, for several years. He and Paola married and moved to Florida, where they raised Mike.

Greg is an area scout in Florida for the Reds; and when Mike was growing up, his father would occasionally take him to games he was scouting. The two were a little like Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams in “Trouble with the Curve,” last summer’s movie about an old scout and the daughter who travels with him. Mike Zunino, of course, might not be as good-looking as Adams is, and Greg Zunino says he can’t hear a hitch in a batter’s swing as Eastwood somehow does in the movie. But as far as the interaction? “My wife said that’s how we act a lot,” Greg said.

“Mike would sit back and ask, ‘Why did he throw that curveball then?’ He would ask what I thought about the pitcher. He was just always asking questions.”

“You see that in kids who are raised in the game and have been around it all their lives, like the Boones [Bob, Aaron and Bret],” said Zduriencik, who remembers scouting games with Greg Zunino. “The baseball genes are there. The intelligence is there.”

What sort of a report did Greg send the Reds about his son?

“My dad always said he would never write a report on me because it would be the most critical one,” Mike said. “He would know every fault, every weakness. He said he wouldn’t mind putting in a report, but he always wished I would go before their pick.”

He did. The Reds picked 14th in last June’s draft, long after the Mariners had chosen Zunino.

Paola also was an influence on Mike, often playing catch and throwing to him in the backyard while Greg was out scouting games.

Because of Paola’s background, Mike was eligible to play on Italy’s World Baseball Classic team this year, but he turned down the invitation so he could concentrate on his first big league camp.

The Mariners have two catchers on their 40-man roster: Jesus Montero, who showed the sort of skills behind the plate during his rookie season last year that lead many to see his future as a designated hitter, and 32-year-old Kelly Shoppach, who has shown little offense since his big league debut in 2005. The hope is that Zunino will be able to replace them sometime this season.

“We’ll see how spring training unfolds and go from there,” Zduriencik said. “We have to remember he’s only played 44 games of professional baseball. He’s lived up to our expectations. I expect him he’ll be a major league catcher in a very short period of time.”

Whatever his future, Zunino is wearing an auspicious number: Bench’s No. 5.

“No. 5 has been a good number for catchers,” Zunino said. “It was nothing I had a selection in. I just came to camp and saw it was No. 5 and the first person that comes to mind is Johnny Bench.”