GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Eric Zimmer keeps a busy schedule as an anesthesiologist in San Diego, but he’ll break free whenever possible to travel to Arizona in March to spend time with his two sons. Kyle is a pitcher in the Kansas City Royals‘ system, and Bradley is an outfielder in the Cleveland Indians‘ organization, and it’s a treat for them to meet up at the end of a long day of Cactus League baseball with an assurance that dad will pick up the tab.
After one recent 90-degree grind, Kyle brought a couple of friends from Royals camp and the group convened at a combination restaurant/bowling alley/billiards/laser tag emporium called the Main Event in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale to share stories and crush some bar food.
“It’s sort of an overgrown Dave & Buster’s,” Eric Zimmer said. “We played some video games and yukked it up and unwound a little bit. Then you’re done and you come out of the parking lot, and one of them turns left to go back to his complex, and the other one turns right to go to his. And dad gets to stand there with a big smile and be thankful and grateful that this is even happening.”
In the Zimmer family’s dream scenario, all roads will eventually converge at Progressive Field in Cleveland or Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City — where the brothers will stare each other down from a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. It’s a more novel occurrence than you might think.
Baseball brother acts are part of the fabric of the game. The DiMaggios, Alous, Boyers, Alomars and Molinas made their marks as position players, and the Perrys, Niekros, Martinezes, Forsches and Deans achieved success as pitchers. And there have also been 15 pitcher-catcher brother batteries in the major leagues since 1876, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. The most noteworthy: Rick and Wes Ferrell of the Boston Red Sox, Mort and Walker Cooper of the St. Louis Cardinals and Norm and Larry Sherry of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Zimmers have a chance to achieve a more unusual feat: They’re trying to become the fifth brother tandem in more than 50 years to square off when one is primarily a pitcher and the other a position player. That scenario last played out in 2013, when Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Colby Rasmus doubled off his brother, Cory, who was pitching for the Atlanta Braves at the time.
Sibling rivalry remains a motivational force as the brothers navigate the upper reaches of the minors. Kyle needs to conquer an exasperating run of health issues, and Bradley needs to refine his swing and make more consistent contact. They’re eager to apply the finishing touches and go head-to-head for the first time in organized ball.
“Absolutely, we’ve talked about it,” Eric said. “We’ll get calls from reporters or their old coaches will say, ‘We can’t wait to see when you guys face each other.’ And very quickly you can see that gleam in their eye. It takes them back to when they were a 12-year-old vs. an 11-year-old racing down the beach in La Jolla. It’s ‘game on,’ and family bragging rights are on the line.
“They’ll joke with each other and Bradley will say, ‘Don’t bring that weak 98 mile an hour cheese in here, or I’ll turn it around.’ Hopefully they’ll be able to play that scenario out a few times.”
The Zimmers grew up in San Diego, 14 months apart, and quickly became accustomed to wearing the same uniform. They played on the same Little League squad, were teammates at La Jolla High School and spent a year together at the University of San Francisco before Kyle left school as a junior and was selected by Kansas City with the fifth pick in the 2012 draft.
When the brothers weren’t playing baseball, they participated in every other sport imaginable (sans football). They played golf, tennis, soccer, volleyball and whiffle ball. They enjoyed surfing off the California coast and snowboarding at Big Bear and Mammoth Mountains, and dabbled in roller hockey, skateboarding, water-skiing and wakeboarding. They even embraced the “Dodgeball” trend after the Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn movie came out in 2004.
Kyle briefly played basketball in high school, while Bradley was an outstanding lacrosse player. And they both gravitated toward water polo.
“It’s a fabulous sport for baseball guys because it’s four or five months of monster, nonimpact workouts,” Eric said. “I always said, ‘Water polo is great, because it kept them tired and hungry and got them nasty.'”
Kyle, now 25, and Bradley, 24, were subject to only three rules growing up: (1) They had to finish their homework before the games began; (2) they weren’t allowed to specialize in one sport until they turned 16; and (3) football was forbidden. Period. End of story.
Beyond the structure of organized sports, impromptu competitions broke out routinely. Games that began as casual affairs invariably escalated into something more.
“It’s always been a big brother, little brother thing,” Bradley said. “He would give me [grief] and put me in my place when I needed to be. We would play just about every game there was until the sun went down. Whoever was deemed the winner that day would be bragging, and it would turn into an argument.”
The boys were blessed with athletic genes. Their father Eric played college baseball for UC San Diego, and their mother, Cathy Hutchins, was an accomplished hurdler at San Diego State. The parents divorced 16 years ago, but they remain amicable and still attend their sons’ games together.
Bradley, the laid-back Zimmer, was the natural athlete, while Kyle was tabbed as the cerebral, analytical brother. He logged a 4.2 GPA in high school and flirted with Princeton, Yale and other Ivies before settling on San Francisco, where he transitioned from a third baseman to a star pitcher for the Dons.
When the Royals gave Kyle a $3 million bonus in the 2012 draft, they were convinced he was better than Mark Appel, Kevin Gausman or any of the other collegiate pitchers that year. General manager Dayton Moore, who previously worked in the Atlanta organization, watched him pitch and was reminded of a young Adam Wainwright.
Then Kyle fell victim to a mind-numbing series of injuries that forced him to dig deep for resolve. He had bone chips surgically removed in 2012, missed time with elbow tendinitis in 2013 and spent much of the next two seasons recovering from surgery to repair his right labrum and rotator cuff. Last summer, when Kyle thought his problems were mercifully behind him, he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome — the same malady that ended Mets starter Matt Harvey’s season in July. He had surgery in August to address the problem.
“Going through it is the worst thing in the world,” Kyle said. “You can ask anybody who’s been injured for an extended period of time. It rips out part of you. That competitive spirit is fighting to get out, and it’s at bay for so long. It’s awesome to watch your teammates succeed, but you want to be out there with them.
“Like it or not, you’re forced to learn patience. Step one is to show up every day and try keep a positive attitude through it all. You know, in the end, whether it’s in baseball or life, it’s going to make you better, because you have to mature and learn patience and adapt to adversity.”
While Bradley was hitting .250 with 15 home runs between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus last season, Kyle watched his games via computer and passed along observations. If he couldn’t play, he could at least take solace in helping his brother progress.
If there’s a different, more optimistic tone in Kyle Zimmer’s voice this spring, it’s because his body is finally telling him what he wants to hear. The old aches and doubts have subsided, and he feels the ball coming out of his hand with more fluidity, the way it did in more promising times.
“Instead of just getting through the day, I’m getting up and attacking the day,” he said. “It’s the difference between getting up and saying, ‘Oh gosh, I hope I can get through today’ and saying, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get after this.'”
Nevertheless, the Royals dispatched Kyle to minor league camp after only 2 1/3 innings with the big club, and he’s in the process of building up innings and arm strength against a backdrop of skepticism. Baseball America, which rated him as Kansas City’s top prospect in 2014, now ranks him 10th in the organization.
The spring has been more eventful for Bradley, who hit .359 with a .641 slugging percentage in his first 39 Cactus League at-bats. He made a splash in Cleveland’s spring training opener when he launched an opposite field home run while his grandmother, Cathy, shouted her approval from the Goodyear Stadium stands.
Bradley stands at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, and Cleveland manager Terry Francona sees some similarities to Von Hayes, a rangy left-handed hitter who amassed 1,402 hits and 143 homers over 12 seasons in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“He has a really high ceiling because of his tools, but he still needs to play,” Francona said. “You don’t know what that swing is going to turn into as he learns to repeat it more and he faces better pitching. Is he a home run hitter? Will he hit for average? It’s fun to watch the development.”
The brothers shared an apartment during Cactus League play in 2016, but they’ve branched out this spring. Kyle is rooming with fellow Royals infielder and minor leaguer Whit Merrifield, while Bradley is staying at Cleveland’s team hotel in Goodyear. The 20-mile drive is far enough for them to spread their wings, yet close enough to keep tabs on each other and have dinner when their schedules permit.
After rough days, they commiserate. And when things go well, they’re more emboldened to focus on the ultimate goal — displacing those pesky Rasmus brothers as the latest pitcher-hitter brother tandem to match skills on a big-league diamond.
“My impression right now is that they’re both planning on major league baseball careers,” Eric said. “They’re not just saying, ‘Hey, it’s been fun to get to Double-A or Triple-A, and if it doesn’t work out, that’s OK.’ They have the skills, the talent and the readiness, and they both feel like they belong.”
From the moment they first kicked up sand while running sprints on a Southern California beach, they’ve had a lifetime to prepare.