On the afternoon of Thursday, January 23, Minnesota Twins pitcher Zack Littell, a native of Mebane, spoke to the sixth grade class at Woodlawn Middle School. It was a unique opportunity for the middle school students to get up close and personal with one of Woodlawn and Eastern Alamance High School’s favorite sons - a bona fide American success story with roots right here in Mebane.
“I was born right here in Mebane. I still live here in Mebane. As a matter of fact, I sat in those same seats years ago. I went to Woodlawn. I went over to Eastern. So I’ve been here all my life.,” Littell told the students as he began his conversation. “While I was at Woodlawn, I played basketball, football, and baseball. I loved all three of them. All of the coaches I had were really able to help me find my passion in sports. So I took that on to Eastern. At Eastern, I played football and baseball.”
Littell went into detail about the years of extensive practice and workouts that he undertook to hone his skills as a baseball standout, resulting in his selection in the 11th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft by the Seattle Mariners.
“I used to spend hours every day - hours - at school. I’d be working on footwork, lifting weights, watching film, getting ready for football. And then I’d leave school, my mom would come pick me up, and we’d drive an hour to baseball practice, so I could continue to develop in both sports,” he said. "That was important to me. I loved it. There wasn’t anything else I’d rather do. As I got older, I realized that maybe I had a future in baseball. Which was a pretty crazy thought. I mean, I know when I was a kid, I wanted to play in the Major Leagues. How many of you want to play in the MLB, NBA, or NFL? I was just like you guys - I wanted to be at the very top of my game.”
“To even think that was a possibility was a pretty crazy thought for a 16, 17-year-old kid trying to graduate from high school. I realized it’s a lot more realistic that I think. After four years of high school, and all that practice - all the hours I put in working on what I was doing - I was drafted in the 11th round by the Seattle Mariners in the Major League Baseball draft. Which was a pretty cool thing. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was probably in a little over my head. I had graduated (from high school), and I was 17 years old. I was still a kid. As much as you want to imagine that you’re grown up and ready to go and be on your own, you’re not. Being away is hard. Two days after I was drafted, I was sent out to Arizona on my own. I flew out to Arizona, and I was assigned to the Rookie Level Mariners team.”
The former Eagles star explained how he was lonely and homesick when he first left Mebane to begin his professional baseball career in Arizona, but he quickly realized that he wasn't going to let a lack of hard work stand in his way of realizing his dreams.
“For anybody who doesn’t know, in baseball, when you’re drafted, you don’t just get to go to the Major Leagues,” Littell explained to the middle school students. "In the NBA, if you’re drafted, you to to the Major Leagues. In the NFL, if you’re drafted, you go to the NFL. You’re there. You’re playing on TV and you’re at all these cool stadiums. In baseball, it takes a little longer. You’ve got to work for seven different Minor League teams, starting at the very lowest, and going all the way up to Triple A.”
“I started at the very bottom. I was in the rookie level Arizona League. I was by myself in a place that I didn’t know. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any connections. I was just on my own, and that was hard. I struggled. I didn’t have a great first year. I came home, and was really unsure as to whether or not I’d made the right decision. I could have gone and played in college and developed a little bit more, and grown up a little bit more. But I chose to go in professional baseball.”
“I came home that first offseason not really knowing what to do. I spent that offseason, honestly, I kind of goofed off a little bit. I let that fear and that stress kind of get me, and I didn’t take what I was doing seriously,” Littell continued. “I think in middle school and high school and college, you have the luxury of playing the game you love, or doing what you love, whether that be sports or anything else in life. I didn’t realize that I had just made baseball my career. It was no longer just go out there and play for fun. Did I have fun playing? Absolutely. But I realized there was a lot more at stake.”
When he arrived for Mariners spring training the following year in Arizona, Littell made a fateful decision to drown out those things he couldn't control, while vowing to himself not to get outworked by anyone. While it was intimidating competing with some of the top baseball talent in the world, he quickly worked his way into a top prospect in the Mariners organization.
“I show up for spring training. Spring training is where all the players go down to one place and we get ready for the next season. I show up in spring training in 2014 - an 18-year-old kid. I showed up, and I saw 200 other players. All who played for the Mariners. All of these guys were competing for 25 spots in the Major Leagues,” Littell recalled. "Imagine you show up, and you have 200 people trying to do exactly what you’re doing. And trying to be better than you. And that was tough.”
“But right then and there - I don’t know what it was - I decided that nobody was going to outwork me. You might be better than me. You might be more naturally talented than me. You might be bigger, stronger, whatever it is. But you won’t outwork me. That’s the only thing I could control. And so that’s what I chose to do. That was the most important decision I made in the seven years I played in the Minor Leagues. Hopefully I can play for a long time, and I don’t expect that to change. But that decision right there was the most important decision I made.”
“From that day forward, I told myself, every single day get one percent better,” he continued. "If I could get one percent better - it doesn’t have to be baseball. It could be anything in life. If I could get one percent better every single day, you never know. In a year you look up, and all of a sudden, you’re a whole different person. You’re a whole different player in a lot of cases. So with that mindset, I took it forward. It doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle. I still struggled. The next year, I spent in Virginia. It was nice because I was closer to home. But on the field, there were still struggles. I still had a lot to learn, and I had a lot of development to do. That was tough.”
In 2016, Littell finished the season and came home to Mebane. One day the phone rang. It was Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, indicating that Littell was no longer a Mariner. Soon after, he would get another call from another organization - the Minnesota Twins.
“He (Cashman) said, ‘Zack, I want to welcome you to the New York Yankees. You’ve been traded.’” Littell remembered. “That was tough. It was kind of a bittersweet moment. Because you’re excited. I get to play for the Yankees. But I had to say goodbye to some of the friends that I had made. These guys are guys I’d spent four years with. We’d learned together, and we’d really bonded. But going to the Yankees was an exciting opportunity. I spent one season with the Yankees, and learned a lot. Learned a lot about myself. It was almost like restarting.”
“I spent that year, and I learned a lot. Learned a lot about myself. And I get a call in August. It’s the Minnesota Twins, saying, ‘Zack, we want to welcome you to the Minnesota Twins. You’re now a Minnesota Twin.’ So I got traded again,” he added. “To this day, that phone call (from the Twins) was the best phone call I’ve ever received. Since the day I became a Twin, I’ve loved the people, the players, the coaches, and the staff. Everybody has been awesome. They have this energy about them, and it’s been like that since I’ve been there. It’s not just one person. It’s the whole organization. They want to be the best. And it’s not individually the best. They want to be the best organization in baseball. And that appealed to me. That mindset of never wanting to stop developing.”
Littell spoke about some of the many reasons why he’s glad he’s wound up playing in Minneapolis for the Twins, the defending American League Central Division champions. Littell was a big reason for Minnesota’s surge to the top of the AL Central in 2019, as he became one of the team’s top setup men. Littell produced a 6-0 record for the Twins last season, compiling a 2.68 earned run average and 32 strikeouts in 37 innings pitched over 29 outings.
“The Minnesota Twins are at the forefront of a lot of development that is going on in baseball,” Littell explained. “They’re the first in a lot of things, whether it be analytics or technology or on-field staffing. They’re the first. They are always willing to grow from other organizations. So that really appealed to me, and I loved it.”
Littell recalled for the Woodlawn Middle sixth graders one of the proudest moments of his life - the moment when he received the call to the Major Leagues, as well as his MLB debut with the Twins, which came in an appearance against the Chicago White Sox on June 5, 2018.
“On June 4, I received a phone call. This phone call was a little different. This was the one that all players in my situation are waiting for. It was a call that I was going to the Major Leagues - which was awesome. Out of all the baseball players in high school, it’s something like .001 percent that make it to the Major Leagues. So getting that phone call was something that I had been looking forward to my whole life,” Littell remembered. “They told me that I was starting the next day, and I had to fly to Minnesota. I was in Rochester, New York at the time. I caught a flight in the middle of the night. I get there, and I don’t sleep at all. I’m too nervous. I can’t sleep.”
“I get up out of bed the next morning, and I can’t eat. I’m too nervous. All I can think about is whether or not I belong on that field with all those guys. Those guys you watch on TV are the best in the world. They are the best. There is nobody better. There are 750 players in the Major Leagues. And they are the 750 best players,” he continued. “So I’m getting ready, trying to prepare myself for that game, and it’s tough, you know. There’s doubt whether or not I should be there. I’m just second-guessing whether I belong on that field, and it was hard. But it goes back to that decision I made in 2014, where I said nobody was going to outwork me, and nobody was going to out-prepare me.”
“All that day was a little bit of a blur,” Littell recalled. “We get to game time, and we go out there. I made a conscious decision about ten minutes before the game. I said, I don’t care how this game goes. I just want to enjoy the moment. This only happens once. There’s a lot of those moments in life. They say in the Minor Leagues, the old saying is you only get one day to you. Meaning you only get to go out there for your first time once. In twenty years, nobody is going to remember the result. Nobody is going to remember how you performed.”
“What I will remember is walking out there, and feeling how it felt to step on the mound. Seeing the lights. The people in the stands. Hearing the announcer call my name as I walked out onto the field. And that stuff mattered, so I chose to focus on that.”
Although Littell’s actual debut wasn’t the stuff of legend - six earned runs over three innings and his first MLB loss - he soaked in his one and only moment to be a first-time big leaguer.
“Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t focus on the results, because it didn’t go very well. I gave up six runs, which the baseball players out there know that’s not very good. I only threw for three innings. It was tough,” he recalled. “I had to come off the field, and already be second-guessing (myself). I was saying, ‘Hey, I didn’t perform as well as I could have. Maybe I don’t belong here.’”
Littell informed the Woodlawn students that his feelings after his Major League debut were critically important in his development. He realized following that experience that not only did he belong in the Major Leagues, but that he would have to find silver linings in failure if he was to stay there.
“That moment right there (after the MLB debut) was the second-most important in my career. It was when I realized that any failure that we don’t learn from is the only real failure. There is no such thing as failure if you learn from it,” Littell told the middle schoolers. “I used to have this Minor League coach that would tell me that all the time. And it drove me nuts. Especially in baseball. The best (hitters) in the game fail seven out of ten times. That’s 70 percent of the time. That’s a lot. And they’re considered the best ever. That’s hard for me to understand, because no one likes to lose. No one likes to fail. No one likes to fall down. It’s just not something you want to hear.”
“But in that moment, after my debut, when I realized that the world didn’t stop turning, the sun was going to come up the next day. I’m going to get to keep playing baseball. I realized that I had to work. It was a learning opportunity. My Major League debut was a learning opportunity.
So from that day forward, I realized that 2014 decision that I made to be the best - to become one percent better every single day - was the most important decision I’d ever made.
Littell gave the students a special piece of friendly advice - one intended to help them find ways to incrementally grow as students, as athletes, and as people one day at a time.
“My message to you guys is show up every single day - it doesn’t matter if you’re having a good day, you’re having a bad day, you’re having a tough day, you’re having a rough day, whatever it is. Everyone has their problems. Get one percent better. Whether that’s in the classroom, whether that’s as a friend, as a daughter, son, brother, sister - get one percent better,” he said. “All of a sudden, you’re going to look up in one year or two years and say wow, I’m a completely different person. And it’s going to be for the better.”