It could be said that Relief Pitchers need to have a short memory – to forget about what happened prior to being called from the Bullpen and instead, to concentrate on what’s ahead of them to get the win. Florida native, Zac Curtis, is making a splash in Major League Baseball (MLB) with the Philadelphia Phillies as a Lefty Relief Pitcher. Ironically, it’s his obstacle-filled past that molded him, and his will to achieve something better, that led to his present-day success in the Big Leagues.
Zachary Aaron Curtis was born to Scott and Tracy Curtis in Panama City Beach on July 4, 1992. When Zac was six years old his parents divorced and he, his mom, and her boyfriend, Tommy, moved in with his grandmother to start a new life together. “I took the divorce pretty hard and was against Tommy for a long time even though he was kind to me and my mom and took good care of us. I went to Patronis Elementary School (PES) from 2nd – 5th grade. Those were tough years because I didn’t get to see my dad much and I rejected Tommy so I didn’t feel like I had a father figure in my life,” explains Curtis.
Zac stayed away from home as much as possible, playing outside with friends and ultimately, as a fifth grader, found himself involved in mischief at school that yielded a few weeks of detention and clean up duty to repay the debt to PES. Suffice it to say, boys were being boys and there was no major harm, but the next phase of Zac’s life at Surfside Middle School was when his world started to spiral out of control.
“When I was in the sixth grade I came home one day and my mom wasn’t there… and she never came home. That continued for a few weeks until one day when I entered the house my mom, my dad, and my aunt were there. My mom was crying so I knew something was wrong,” remembers Zac. His mom explained that she would be leaving for a while to go to an alcohol rehabilitation program because she had a drinking problem and needed to make positive changes.
Zac’s grandmother had moved out-of-state so while Tracy Curtis was gone Zac lived with his dad for a couple of months in a stable environment and his life stayed on track for a while, but it was a difficult transition. His mom’s wellbeing weighed heavy on him and soon he became complacent in school. However, better times were ahead of Zac and with his mom back home his seventh-grade year, he experienced as close to a normal childhood as he ever had in the past. He joined the wrestling team and was doing good in school – life seemed great!
As quickly as the future got brighter, with a few bad choices, the brightness dimmed rapidly. Zac recalls, “I got in with the wrong group of kids – older kids – my grades fell and I started disrespecting my family. It affected my mom because I came home one day and one of her friends was there. She told me Mom had relapsed and it was my fault. They blamed it all on me. I took that to heart. I shut everyone out of my life and even began experimenting with drugs and alcohol myself.”
Tracy was gone all the time, drinking again and Zac was completely on his own. “For three months my 8th-grade year, I was home alone, taking care of myself, cooking, cleaning and getting myself to school. I was at Arnold High School and again, I started making poor choices. I began skipping classes – I think I went to my math class three times that semester. Mom went to rehab once again, but when she came back she kept drinking and then she split up with Tommy, who was the only good thing in her life,” remembers Zac.
Zac and Tracy moved from place to place, not being able to afford the rent and so they would have to move again. He would sometimes stay with friends – he never felt like he had a real place to call ‘home.’ Zac definitely got off track and increased his alcohol and drug use until finally, one day, he was caught skipping class and got suspended. “It hit me that if I kept doing this, I was either going to die or end up in jail. I made the hard decision to not only leave my high school but the entire state of Florida, including my parents. I called my grandmother who lived in Hendersonville, TN, where other family members were, and she agreed to let me stay with her.”
When Zac told his mom he was moving away, and it was because he didn’t want to end up on the wrong path, she withdrew him from Arnold, quit her job and two days later they were in Hendersonville to make a fresh start. Zac’s uncle, Andy Griffen, taught at the local high school so that helped with the transition and ultimately, with accountability.
On the downside, now Tracy was back in her hometown with old friends who still had bad habits. “It was Christmas Eve and I was staying at my Grandpa’s house when I woke up to crying and loud talking. I walked into the living room to see him and Mom and she was sobbing and covering her face. When she looked up at me, I saw stitches all the way across her bottom lip, just barely holding it together. She had been driving drunk, ran off the road, hit an embankment and slammed into two trees. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and her face hit the gear shift. The car was totaled. I was trying to get away from this life and make a new start, yet my past was still following me.”
Zac wasn’t putting his best foot forward at Hendersonville High School and his uncle noticed. He sat Zac down and told him if he didn’t get his ‘crap together’ he wasn’t going to graduate. Thankfully, Zac listened and buckled down and showed everyone what he was truly capable of and that’s when his future truly started to shine and positive opportunities came his way. He hadn’t played organized baseball prior to high school other than little league when he was in Florida. He wasn’t one of the biggest players either, but he worked hard and earned a starting pitcher position and was named All-District and All-Region twice and also two-time Left-Handed Pitcher of the Year for their district. “I got attention from colleges my senior year, but I went to a JUCO my freshman year to get my grades up. After I graduated in 2010 I went to Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, TN where I continued to play baseball. I was finally going in the right direction.”
It was in community college that he met his bride, Chelsea Richardson, who played softball for VSCC. Zac transferred to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN and played baseball there and he and Chelsea got married a day before Senior Day at MTSU. They now have a four-year-old son, Greyson who is the center of their world!
Curtis would go on to complete a Bachelor of Science degree at MTSU and in the 2014 MLB draft, he was selected in the sixth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He started out with the Hillsboro Hops in Oregon (Short-Season) and would be called up to the majors for the first time on April 30, 2016, for his big league debut to pitch against the Colorado Rockies.
“My mind didn’t have a chance to process what was going on because I was flying all day, then I got to the field to play catch for a while, ate and it was time for the game. I went in during the 9th inning with two men on base and facing Gerardo Parra. I got him to hit into a double play with three pitches and my night was over. On the way home, it finally hit me – it was definitely a ‘wow’ moment,” said Zac.
The talented 5’9″ Lefty has experienced a lot of success in his first few years of the pro ranks. He received Baseball America Short-Season All-Star honors and a Northwest League Mid-Season All-Star selection. He was a MiLB.com Organization All-Star and a Midwest League Post-Season All-Star. He was promoted to the major leagues from the low minors after striking out 22 batters in 10 1/3 innings (a ratio of 19.2 per nine innings). Curtis was traded to the Seattle Mariners in November 2016 and on September 11, 2017, he was claimed off waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies. Click here for full stats/projections.
J.R. House, a former MLB Catcher and Field Coordinator/Catching Coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks minor leagues, got to know Zac when he was playing for the Hops and said, “He was extremely tough and knew how to pitch – extra gear to the fastball.” He and Curtis have remained friends and stay in touch.
What continues to drive Zac to be the best? “Once my son was born, he and Chelsea became my inspiration because I wanted to make it and do well for them so that I could give them the life they deserve. The hardest thing about being a professional baseball player is being away from my family. Going for long periods of time without being able to kiss my wife and play with my son is tough, but they know I’m doing all of this for them so that one day we’ll be able to live how we want and not have to worry about anything.”
Wes Warren, Realtor in Panama City Beach, went to school with Zac at Hendersonville High School and the two played baseball together. “Zac is the true ‘American Dream’ and the ultimate underdog who has earned everything that comes to him. His life exemplifies the feel-good story of someone who defied all odds to get where he is. He had every opportunity and excuse not to make it, not just with MLB, but in life. Aside from the challenges of his upbringing, he is smaller than his teammates, but he still made it. When you hear people say that you can do anything you set your mind to, that’s exactly what Zac’s life testimony is about.”
What are some aspects Zac enjoys about being a big league baseball player? “I love being able to make a kid’s day. I remember being the kids hanging over the rails at a game asking for an autograph and I didn’t even care who they were – they were all superstars to me and now being able to just take a second and talk to a fan or take a picture with a child is the best feeling ever. But nothing compares to the feeling I get when I’m pitching in front of the big crowds and even though all those people are watching me, what gives me chills is knowing that my biggest fan, my son Grey, is watching either in the stands or at home on TV.”
I asked Zac what he wanted his legacy to be and he said, “Simple – small guy from a small town with not many outside believers and to make it and having shown the world that you can be anything you want to be in life or in sports.” His advice to others going through life’s hardships is much of the same. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do something you want to do. You control how far you go and how good you will be. Put in the time and work and good things will come.”
The fast pace of Philadelphia, PA is a little more than what Zac is accustomed to compared to the farm town in TN, but he says the fans are great and he likes the rich history of the city. What’s 2018 looking like for the Phillies? “We’re a young team, but this team is hungry to bring a winning team back to Philly and with what the Eagles did and the 76ers are playing great… now, it’s our turn to make some noise in the league and play like we can. We will surprise people this year!”
Zac is currently spending his days at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, FL with the team for Spring Training 2018 and he (and his hair) recently made the ‘5 Best Flows from MLB Photo Day’ on theScore.com. Chelsea and Greyson remain in TN, but they travel to see him when they can. Zac still has other family members in TN, including his mom, who currently has a steady job and is doing well.
I’ve always said that sports mimic life – both take discipline, dedication, perseverance and drive… Zac’s story is truly inspiring. It’s impressive to see a young man endure all that he did at such an early age and manage to not only come out of it unscathed but to make it to the top – to the BIG LEAGUES. That’s what I call a Major Relief.
Thank you to the following who helped to make this story possible: ESPN Radio/Panama City, The Coach James Hale Show, Wes Warren, Paul Kuo, Scott Barber, Ballengee Group, J.R. House, Coach Todd Harless, Mike Ginn, and the Phillies Organization.