By Melissa Couto
Rob Zastryzny grew up in a household that idolized Wayne Gretzky. Last season, he played baseball with The Great One’s son.
Zastryzny, an Edmonton-born left-handed pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization, shared clubhouses in both Boise, Id., and Geneva, Ill., with 21-year-old outfielder Trevor Gretzky, who was traded to the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday.
Zastryzny called Trevor “awesome, and a great teammate,” but says his father, James — an electrician who spent most of his life in the Alberta capital — was much more enthusiastic when he realized his son would be playing alongside the Gretzky genes.
“My dad texted me after I signed and told me (Trevor) played in the Cubs system and I know he was excited,” Zastryzny said. “Him and my mom both grew up as Oilers fans and had season tickets to watch Wayne play.”
Gretzky, who hit .274 with one homer and eight RBIs in 41 games, was dealt for first baseman Matt Scioscia, 24, son of Angels manager Mike Scioscia. After playing at Notre Dame and being drafted in the 45th round in 2011, Scioscia hit .194 with 11 RBIs in 40 games with the rookie-class Arizona League Angels, class-A Burlington and class-A Inland Empire.
Zastryzny was selected in the second round out of the University of Missouri and signed by the Cubs last summer as the highest Canadian-born pick in the 2013 draft class. He reported for duty with Chicago’s low-A ball team in Boise in July, where he first met the baseball-playing Gretzky.
One month later, Zastryzny was introduced to the former hockey-playing Gretzky after a Hawks home game against the Vancouver Canadians.
“I talked to Wayne briefly,” Zastryzny said nonchalantly before admitting that meeting a childhood idol of his was “definitely a big deal.”
“I’m sure my parents were jealous,” he added.
James and Sandra Zastryzny moved from Edmonton to Corpus Christi, Tex., in 1993 for work and “to get out of the cold,” Rob joked.
Despite leaving Canada at the age of one and growing up entirely in the United States, however, the 21-year-old says he considers himself “50/50 Canadian-American.”
And part of that means never letting go of his hockey roots.
Zastryzny proudly wears the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Oilers jersey his dad bought him this past Christmas, and the background photo on his Twitter profile is of Chicago Blackhawks teammates Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook after Canada won Olympic gold — by beating the U.S. — in Vancouver in 2010.
But aside from a deep love of Canada’s game, the southpaw also holds a wide knowledge of history and geography north of the border.
“(My parents) decided when they moved to the States that I would grow up with some Canadian in me,” said Zastryzny, who was home-schooled with an emphasis on Canadian studies until he reached middle-school age.
All grown up now, Zastryzny is experiencing his first taste of minor league spring training at the Cubs camp in Mesa, Ariz.
He pitched 11 games in his first pro season last year, compiling a 2.25 earned-run average through 24 innings between low-A Boise and single-A Kane County.
Zastryzny says he’ll never forget the feeling of stepping out onto the mound for the first time as a Chicago Cubs prospect — July 7 against the Colorado Rockies’ low-A affiliate Tri-City Dust Devils.
The towering 6-foot-3 lefty pitched one inning of relief in a 3-1 loss to the Dust Devils, giving up a one-out walk before striking out the next two batters.
“That first outing was the most memorable moment (of his first pro season) for sure,” he said. “It was only for an inning but it was a great feeling getting out there and competing at the next level.
“Pro ball has been great so far … the best part was getting moved up to Kane County and getting to play baseball in (the suburbs of) Chicago so close to Wrigley Field. We always had a lot of supportive fans and it made it really fun.”
Rather than dwelling on his past success, Zastryzny is looking forward to what the future holds for him this season. But first, he says, there’s work to be done.
“I need to improve my off-speed command and needed to build my stamina back up,” Zastryzny explained, highlighting his areas of focus this spring. “I’ve worked really hard on both and am seeing progression so I’m excited to put them to work.”
Between training and pitching in minor-league games in Arizona, somehow Zastryzny still finds time to keep tabs on his beloved Oilers. Mostly though, that means watching games in frustration as Edmonton’s 25-39-9 record so far this season has them dead last in the Western Conference.
The present-day team is a far cry from the championship-winning Oilers dynasty that dominated the NHL in the 1980s. That’s the franchise James Zastryzny fell in love with before bestowing his fandom onto his son.
The younger Zastryzny says he isn’t bothered by Edmonton’s recent struggles, though.
“Give ‘em a couple years,” he said. “They’ll be back on top.”