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Grand day

Star Amherst lefty is primed for draft — as is the town’s baseball patriarch

Lefthander Kevin Ziomek, considered one of the top prospects from New England in tomorrow’s draft, takes the mound in his last regular-season game. Lefthander Kevin Ziomek, considered one of the top prospects from New England in tomorrow’s draft, takes the mound in his last regular-season game. (Nancy Palmieri/For The Globe)
By Marty Dobrow
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2010

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AMHERST — Stan Ziomek was in his usual spot, hanging his cane over a chain fence and plopping down on a folding chair beneath a beech tree resplendent with supple May leaves. The chair sat at the crest of the hill behind the backstop of the Amherst Regional high school diamond, just to the first base side.

It was the sparkling Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend, a perfect night for baseball. Ziomek sat next to other old-timers, his thick white hair covered by his familiar maroon cap, its crown stitched with a white “A.’’

In Amherst, Ziomek has been running youth baseball programs since he helped start them in 1952. Some of the scores of people who greet Ziomek before this game refer to him as “Mr. President,’’ others as “The Commish.’’

“What I really don’t like,’’ says Ziomek in his gravelly voice, “is when they call me ‘The Czar.’ “

Ziomek still pretty much does it all, serving as “a democracy of one,’’ according to his son Peter. He is involved with training umpires and getting sponsors. He still fields calls from angry parents convinced that their kids have been shafted in the Little League all-star selection. He has raked this field hundreds of times and literally seen thousands of players come through the ranks.

Quite possibly, the very best of the bunch will be on the mound this night.

Stan’s grandson, Kevin Ziomek, is the top high school baseball prospect in New England. The strapping 6-foot-3-inch lefthanded pitcher with low-90s heat and a sharp-breaking slider has a scholarship waiting for him at Vanderbilt. It’s a tremendous option — but it likely won’t be the only one.

“Pro baseball,’’ Kevin acknowledges, “has been my dream.’’

On a recent NESN Red Sox pregame show, Peter Gammons discussed New England’s top prospects and called Ziomek, “maybe the highest-rated player of them all.’’

While Kevin finishes his work in the bullpen, his grandfather throws out the first pitch at the field, which has a new scoreboard that reads “Stan Ziomek Diamond.’’ His pitch is low and away — “A slider in the dirt, just like Daisuke,’’ says Stan.

He then watches as Kevin takes on Cathedral, the best team in Western Massachusetts. Kevin strikes out the side in the first, without allowing so much as a foul ball. Stan nods his head.

Major League Baseball’s draft is this month — it begins tomorrow — and this is also the month Stan turns 86 years old.

Sometimes 86 years is how long you have to wait in New England to realize your baseball dreams.

“Really, it’s a miracle,’’ he says, “to see something like this happen in your family.’’

Weaned on baseball
Baseball in Amherst is definitely old school. It’s Norman Rockwell-like — fathers playing catch with sons. That comes directly from Stan, who was born in this town and loved the game from a young age, but never got to play it.

At Little League age, he was picking onions and potatoes for long hours on the family farm in the midst of the Depression. He served in the Marine Corps in World War II, then returned to Amherst. A few years later, working for the town, he launched the program that would become his enduring legacy.

Greg Vouros, Kevin’s coach at Amherst Regional, came through the ranks in Amherst. He says that all players are drilled by Stan in “little things like making sure your shirt’s tucked in, looking like a ballplayer.’’

Kevin grew up in that mold. He was constantly pitching in the backyard with his father and Little League coach, Peter, or playing home run derby with his next-door neighbor, Sean Cunningham. He went to his first game at Fenway Park as a toddler.

Each winter, Kevin and his two younger brothers would go to the Amherst baseball banquet organized, of course, by their grandfather. Stan always managed to secure speaking commitments from professional players, and Kevin would hang on every word.

“I used to love to listen and try to get their autographs,’’ says Kevin.

Both parents, Peter and Megin, are lawyers in town, and education was always a priority. Of course, there was no indication early on that professional baseball was in the cards. Kevin and his high school teammates insist that he was not an exceptional player at the lower levels. By his sophomore year, though, he “really bloomed into what he is now,’’ according to teammate Derek Osborne. He made the varsity that year and struck out 16 in one game.

Last year as a junior, things exploded. He went 6-2, with 83 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings. In Amherst’s first playoff game against archrival Northampton, Kevin retired all 21 batters, striking out 18. His grandfather, sitting with longtime friend (and long ago UMass coach) Dick Bergquist, was amazed. Both had watched thousands of games in person, but neither had witnessed a perfect game.

Courtship begins
The first wave of interest came from college coaches. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin had been tipped off to Ziomek in a letter from Bergquist. Last summer, Corbin went to see Kevin in a national showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Corbin says he was taken both with what he saw on the mound, and with Kevin’s maturity.

“He’s an old soul,’’ said Corbin, “and I loved how family-oriented he is.’’

After a visit to Tennessee, Kevin signed a letter of intent. He knew that Vanderbilt offered not just strong academics but a top-notch baseball program. While he knew he would have to remain in college for three years before entering the draft, he saw how well that had worked for others. In each of the last three years, the Commodores have had at least one player picked in the top 10 in the nation, including the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, David Price — now a star lefthander for the Tampa Bay Rays.

“It seemed to be the best of both worlds,’’ said Kevin.

But making the college choice was just the beginning of the process. The Ziomeks have had lengthy home visits from more than 20 major league teams. From his vantage point next door, Cunningham was amazed at the traffic.

“There were always BMWs there with license plates from all over,’’ he said.

Then there were the forays by agents — referred to as “advisers’’ at this stage of the game. During one of Kevin’s basketball games this winter, he was cheered on by former Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen — who is now an agent.

Kevin estimates that 15-20 advisers contacted the family, including Scott Boras. While acknowledging that they had valuable information, Kevin’s father said the visits were “probably the least enjoyable part of the process,’’ and that the family has decided to “go it alone for the time being.’’

Things have hardly slowed down. There were more than two dozen scouts at Kevin’s first start in April. Vanderbilt chimed in to try to shore up Kevin’s commitment, enlisting Price to place a call a few weeks ago. After games, the Amherst team bus often has been held up while Kevin answered questions from the media or signed autographs.

Draft speculation has Kevin going anywhere from the second round to the seventh. That wide range is due to the perception that he’s leaning toward Vanderbilt. Signability questions with high school standouts recently have led many teams to back away, though big-market teams have increasingly gone after elite players in later rounds with big money.

The Red Sox, for instance, gave Rhode Island high school standout Ryan Westmoreland a $2 million bonus at the end of the fifth round of the 2008 draft. That was more than three times what any other fifth-rounder received. In Gammons’s NESN interview last week, he speculated that the Sox might apply a similar tactic with Ziomek.

Ready for next level
For his part, Kevin has been trying to enjoy the last drops of innocence in Amherst. He and his teammates recently rented a stretch limousine with their dates to go to the prom at the Knights of Columbus in Chicopee. Before getting in the limo, they all took a photo in their tuxes with Stan Ziomek.

“We’ve known the parents and the kids for so long,’’ said Megin, who acknowledges she has mixed feelings about seeing Kevin’s high school experience come to an end. “It’s a good group of boys. They’re academically strong. They’re athletic, and they’re just nice, nice people.’’

On that Friday night against Cathedral, Kevin struck out 14 and surrendered just four hits, but an uncharacteristic spell of wildness (five walks) and some sloppy fielding behind him led to a 5-3 loss, his first of the season after six wins. The four earned runs sent his ERA soaring to 1.21.

Afterward, he dutifully answered questions for the media while a sling iced his shoulder and elbow. He looked wistfully at the bench, where teammates ate pizza and reconnected with girlfriends. Stan folded up his chair and went home with his wife. A few minutes later, the lights blinked out at Ziomek Diamond.

They will be shining one more time tomorrow night when Amherst opens the playoffs against Chicopee. Stan will be back under the beech tree. Kevin will be back on the mound.

The first pitch is slated for 7 p.m., the same time the baseball draft begins.