On an autumn evening in 2017, Louisville baseball coach Dan McDonnell was leaving work when he noticed one of his freshmen walking the wrong way.
The team had just wrapped up a meeting, after a scrimmage, but this kid was headed back toward the facility.
“What’s up, man?” McDonnell said, rolling down his window. “Whatcha doing?”
“Just going to hit,” the player responded.
Surely there were other ways for Zach Britton to kill a Friday night on a college campus. But he was used to doing extra work, even when no one was watching.
That’s why, in high school, he drove out-of-state to train year-round and skipped prom to work out. In college, he overcame a surgery and a position change to excel at a storied program, before the Blue Jays took him in the fifth round of last month’s MLB draft.
“He ain’t running around chasing what other college kids are chasing,” McDonnell said. “He’s all baseball. This kid is a baseball rat.”
Before he was a baseball rat, Britton was a scrawny teenager in Batesville, Ind. As a sophomore at Batesville High School, he ditched his other sport — basketball — and started bulking up.
Britton packed on nearly 40 pounds by his senior season, thanks to lifting, a disciplined sleep schedule and double-chicken Chipotle bowls.
As a player, his growth was more difficult to track.
“There was so much that I didn’t see, due to the fact that Zach, 24/7, is working on his game,” Batesville baseball coach Justin Tucker said.
During the season, Tucker saw Britton hit soft-toss with his father, Barry, after practices and games, as well as on weekends. But in the winter, when the weather didn’t allow for outdoor reps, Britton had to get creative.
Batesville, with a population of 6,700, didn’t have an indoor hitting facility. So on school nights, Britton drove 50 minutes to Cincinnati to take swings. Then he’d go home and lift for two hours. Then he’d stretch or throw.
“I was very obsessive, but I’m a perfectionist,” Britton said, fittingly, on a recent car ride home from the Cincinnati complex. “I was always big on trying to work harder than anybody and kind of push the limits of what I could do, working-wise.”
Hard work is important, but so is talent. Fortunately for Britton, he wasn’t short on either.
One time, his talent almost got him in trouble.
By his senior year, Britton could mash home runs with ease over Batesville’s 325-foot fence. That spelled trouble for the string of white houses sitting on the other side of the fence, with only a 30-foot strip of grass and a two-lane road as a buffer.
The baseball barrage prompted one tenant to call the park commissioner and request that Britton be forbidden from taking batting practice.
“They actually put up a little temporary fence in front of the house, hoping that it would stop balls from going up and hitting the garage door and windows,” Britton recalled.
The team responded by sending a few players out beyond the park limits to keep guard whenever Britton was at the plate. It’s a story Tucker still tells his players now.
“To our freshmen and sophomores, he’s pretty much a legend at this point,” Tucker said.
Britton’s sweet swing, which McDonnell described as “whippy,” was the first thing the college coach noticed. Britton was also a top-notch catcher, ranked No. 1 in his state by Perfect Game.
There were two catchers ahead of Britton when he arrived at Louisville, but he continued working at the position during his first stint of collegiate summer ball in 2018. By then, Britton felt “something pulling” when he squatted behind the plate, but he played through it.
Back at Louisville later that summer, Britton got an MRI and began rehabbing what he thought was a simple groin strain. It turned out to be a sports hernia, which required surgery, forcing him out of the fall season his sophomore year.
Meanwhile, two new catchers joined the team. Suddenly, Britton was out of practice and one of five catchers fighting for playing time. He tried first base and outfield in 2019 (but was primarily a designated hitter), then transitioned full-time to left field in 2020.
On a Louisville team that cranks out MLB draft picks annually, other players could’ve passed Britton by. But he never lost faith in himself.
“There’s a lot of guys with a lot of talent,” McDonnell said. “The other half is straight up makeup and belief in yourself. And this dude believed… He acted like he was the best hitter in the program.
“And not in an arrogant way — just in a very confident demeanour. He’s a guy you want on your team, you want in your dugout, you want around your hitters.”
Every year, more of Britton’s promise shone through. Season by season, his batting average jumped from .239 to .288 to .322. In the same way, his slugging percentage surged from .375 to .470 to .542. When the NCAA suspended its season, he led the nation in doubles (11 in 17 games).
“At a certain point, you think that if you put in all this time and extra hours, the game is gonna reward (you),” said Bryan Hoeing, Britton’s teammate in high school and college. “And I think it did.”
— Louisville Baseball (@LouisvilleBSB) May 19, 2020
Baseball stopped, but Britton didn’t. He hung around Louisville until their workout facilities shut down, then spent two months living and training with a teammate in Panama City, Fla.
Now he’s back in Batesville waiting for his next step. Signing with the Blue Jays was only the beginning.
Britton knows that baseball has forced him to miss certain moments with family and friends throughout his journey, but he’s at peace with that. His sacrifices are serving a greater purpose.
“I want to be as good of a player as I can and I don’t want to have any regrets, looking back, that I could’ve worked harder,” Britton said. “That’s just not me… I left no doubt that I worked as hard as I could.”