Zunino wins top award


Florida catcher Mike Zunino, center, the No. 3 pick in this month's MLB Draft, helped lead the Gators to the College World Series by hitting .322, with 19 home runs and 64 runs batted in.

Brad McClenny/ Staff photographer
Published: Friday, June 15, 2012 at 1:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 15, 2012 at 2:56 p.m.

OMAHA, Neb. — The slogan for the College World Series is “History Happens Here.”

On Friday morning, it did again.

Mike Zunino, the hard-nosed Florida catcher who was the school's highest-ever pick in the Major League Draft, was named UF's first winner of the Dick Howser Award, which goes to college baseball's best player.

The announcement came at TD Ameritrade Park with Zunino's parents and fiance Alyssa Barry in attendance.

“It's an honor,” Zunino said. “It's something I'm always going to remember. I'm so grateful to have an opportunity to play at Florida. Not in my wildest dreams did I think all of this could happen. I came here and was hoping to get to the College World Series once. My expectations have been blown out of the water.”

This season, Zunino has hit .322 with 19 homers and 64 RBIs while starting every game for Florida.

The award was voted on by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Previous winners have included Jason Varitek, Todd Helton, Mark Teixeira, Stephen Strasburg and Buster Posey.

The award is named for former Florida State player and coach Dick Howser, who also was a Major League manager until his death in 1987. Howser's daughter Jana made the announcement and told a story about talking to Zunino and his family at last year's CWS.

“I told him, ‘I hope to have a conversation with you next year,'” she said.

The award was also special for the executive director of the Dick Howser Foundation in St. Petersburg. David Feaster wore an orange-and-blue tie to the announcement. He is a graduate of Florida's business school (1976).

“We've been doing this 26 years, and I'm a University of Florida alum and we've never had a Florida Gator win the award,” he said. “So the integrity of the selection process is there.”

Feaster said the large trophy on display with Zunino's name inscribed will be housed at the College Baseball Hall of Fame. Zunino received a smaller version of the trophy and another copy will go to the University of Florida. Feaster said Zunino will be honored during a Florida home game in November and it will likely be the Missouri game.

Zunino always showed an interest in baseball, said his father Greg, a scout for the Cincinnati Reds.

“I told him I hoped he'd be good enough to get a scholarship,” Greg Zunino said. “He hates losing. If we play cards, he gets really upset when I beat him. To this day he's never beaten me at H-O-R-S-E, but he kept working at it and kept trying.”

Zunino started as a freshman at Florida but struggled at the plate in his first year.

“I remember he was hitting about .204 and he came to my office really dejected,” said Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan. I told him, ‘You've been our catcher from the start and you're going to continue to be in our starting lineup. A month later, we're in Omaha and he's our hottest hitter.”

Zunino had one game that year when he dislocated his left thumb twice in a game and was pulled out in the seventh inning.

“His mother was on top of our dugout and she said, ‘We're not getting an X-ray until the end of the year,' ” O'Sullivan said. “That's the physical aspect of it.”

After a strong postseason in 2010, Zunino went on to be the Player of the Year in the SEC as a sophomore.

“I had the dislocated left thumb and broke my right thumb earlier in the season so it was hard to throw and hit,” he said. “But that boost of confidence got me going.”

Also on Friday, Florida's Brian Johnson was announced as one of three finalists for the John Olerud Award, which goes to college baseball's best two-way player. That award will be given later this month.

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