For more than a decade, A.J. Zapp earned a living playing professional baseball.
But that was a decade ago.
These days, the former Center Grove High School star earns a living in sales for a sports apparel firm. When he’s not working, he’s either shuttling one of his three children to a sports activity, coaching his son’s travel baseball team or watching big-league games on TV.
He does not miss the year-round grind of playing pro baseball.
Or does he?
“I’ll tell you what; I still get the itch every February and March for spring training,” said Zapp, 38. “It’s winter, it’s cold, and I think, ‘Should I be going to Florida or Arizona for nice warm weather and playing baseball?'”
OK, so he does miss playing — understandable for a man who was, and still is, the only Johnson County resident ever selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft.
On June 4, 1996, while a senior first baseman on the Center Grove baseball team, Zapp was taken in the first round by the Atlanta Braves. The 27th overall pick, he signed shortly after the Trojans’ season and went on to play a combined 11 minor-league seasons with four different big-league organizations: the Braves, the Seattle Mariners, the Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Although he never got a big-league call-up, he came close a number of times after Triple-A stints with Richmond (Braves), Tacoma (Mariners) and Louisville (Reds).
Zapp’s best season was in 2004 with Tacoma, when he belted 29 home runs, drove in 101 runs and posted a career-best .291 batting average.
Despite never getting a big-league nod, Zapp enjoyed his pro career, which sprouted from a phenomenal two-year run at Center Grove.
Although he grew up playing baseball (his father, Doug, coached him throughout Little League) and was an accomplished travel league player with the Indiana Bulls, Zapp didn’t make the Trojans’ varsity team until his junior year.
He made the most of his varsity exposure, however, instantly becoming one of the state’s — and eventually one of the nation’s — top power hitters.
College and pro scouts attended Center Grove games in droves, and Zapp had received — and accepted — an offer from Notre Dame his senior year.
But as his senior year progressed, his pro stock rose, to the point where he was ultimately forced to choose between college and signing a professional contract.
When the Braves came calling in the first round, the decision was basically made for him.
Zapp, who hit a school-record 16 home runs and batted .524 his senior year, signed with the Braves and spent the next 11 years playing virtually year round.
Between instructional league, spring training, regular-season and winter leagues (he played in Australia, Puerto Rico and Venezuela), Zapp never took a break from baseball.
“I didn’t spend too much time at home during my playing days. I lived out of a suitcase, but I enjoyed it,” Zapp said. “I wouldn’t change it.
“I got to meet a lot of great people, played with a lot of great teammates and see a lot of cool places around the world playing baseball.”
Today, he’s still close to baseball. He coaches his son’s travel team and takes in as many big-league games as he can.
“Every night I’m watching a ballgame, whether it’s on ESPN or MLB Network,” he said. “I still enjoy coaching it, and I enjoy watching Major League Baseball games every evening.”
Zapp, who won the Indiana’s Mr. Baseball winner in 1996, still lives in the Center Grove area and remains close to his former Trojans teammates.
What follows is a Q&A interview with Zapp, who recalled the buildup 20 years ago to becoming a first-round draft pick.
Q: You didn’t play on Center Grove’s varsity until you were a junior, right?
A: My sophomore year, (the Trojans) were the No. 1 team in the state the majority of the season. They had some very strong seniors, so I didn’t get my opportunity to play varsity until the very end of my sophomore year, and ended up with only 10 at-bats.
Q: What were your goals the first two years of high school? Were you even thinking about college or pro baseball?
A: I kind of knew there was a chance I could possibly play college ball after high school if I continued doing my thing, getting better, and so I had an idea. But it wasn’t until probably the summer after my junior season that, OK, now the professional scouts are starting to attend my games and the (Indiana) Bulls games in the summer.
I would say college was on my radar freshman, sophomore and early junior year, and then that summer between my junior and senior year is really when my (pro) stock rose. Scouts were coming to my house for in-home visits, and then it became real.
Q: As a teenager, how tough was it to process the fact pro scouts were attending all of your games?
A: I tried to just stay focused. They (his parents) took a lot off my plate, with a lot of the in-home visits and a lot of the conversation before school and before the game and after the game, which was really nice. I could just try to stay as normal as possible, being a junior in high school playing baseball.
“It was a lot to take in, but I think everybody got used to it, with a lot of the scouts at the games that spring my senior season. My teammates were great. I’m still friends with them today. We’re in fantasy football leagues. I think they (teammates) kind of enjoyed it. We had a great team. We were 32-2. We were winning, having fun. It was a lot, but my teammates and I handled it very well.”
A: Did you feel pressure to perform with scouts watching every single game?
I didn’t feel as much pressure in high school as I did when I played pro ball. It was a little bit different. In high school, I just remember going out there and just playing and having fun.
Years later (in the pros), you’re breaking down your swing, you’re playing every night. You’ve got to put up numbers and all that stuff. But in high school, I don’t remember putting that much pressure on myself.
Q: What went through your mind when you found out you were a first-round selection?
A: The draft started around noon, and I think I got the call just 30 minutes after the draft started. It was pretty quick. It was the Atlanta Braves. It was actually my scout. He said, ‘Hey, we drafted you first round, the 27th pick overall, congratulations.’ It was just a short phone call and congratulations.
My family was there; we were all excited. All that hard work, hitting in the winter and the travel baseball, it all paid off and became reality. So it was a great moment for everyone.
Q: How difficult was it to choose between going to Notre Dame and signing with the Braves?
A: It was a very difficult decision. We told a lot of the professional scouts if I was going to be drafted in the first round, then more than likely I’m going to sign. Second round, we’ll see. And third round, if it’s late, I’m probably going to go to Notre Dame.
That’s what we told everybody, so they kind of knew where they needed to draft me for me to sign. Now, it’s all about sign-ability. A lot of these clubs don’t want to waste their high picks if they can’t sign them.
On the fourth of June, getting drafted in the first round, 27th overall, that was something that I could not pass up. To this day, I have no regrets for signing. Even though I did not get to the big leagues, I went to four major-league spring trainings and everything, but still no regrets. I had a good run, put up some great numbers, and wasn’t at the right place at the right time, but I’m totally fine with that.
Q: You got paid to play baseball for 11 years, right?
A: I know, which is crazy. It is a business, but still you get to play baseball for a living. I had a good run. I enjoyed it.
I got to play with a lot of great people and meet a lot of cool people and Hall of Famers, great coaches, people I still keep in contact with today.
Name: A.J. Zapp (full name is Andrew Joseph Zapp)
Residence: Greenwood (Center Grove area)
High school: Center Grove (1996)
Major League Baseball draft: Was selected in the first round (27th overall pick) in 1996 by the Atlanta Braves
Family: Is married to Nikki Zapp; couple has three children, son, Evan, 11; and daughters, Ellen, 9, and Emilie, 6
2000;Myrtle Beach;High A;Atlanta;8;49;.268