On the afternoon of Thursday, January 23, former Woodlawn Middle School and Eastern Alamance High School standout Zack Littell made his way back to Woodlawn Middle to speak with the sixth grade student body.
Following an inspirational discussion about his childhood and his path from the Minor Leagues all the way up to a spot on the American League Central Division champion Minnesota Twins, Littell took numerous questions from the Woodlawn sixth graders. Below is a transcription of Littell’s Q and A session with the Woodlawn students.
Did you enjoy growing up in Mebane?
“I love Mebane. Growing up in Mebane, I loved the small town. For me, being a football player, the Friday night lights, having the community come out, it was awesome. And now Mebane is home. I travel eight months out of every year. And so coming to Mebane is coming home, which I really enjoy.”
Has your experience in larger cities changed your mind about living in a small town?
“Absolutely. The best part about Mebane is there’s no traffic compared to cities. I go to cities where everybody is in a hurry and it’s crowded. There’s people everywhere. If I want to go to the grocery store, it takes 45 minutes. It makes me appreciate small town living, where everything is at a little bit slower pace, and more wide open.”
How was your middle school experience?
“My middle school experience was actually really good. I played three sports here. I had awesome teachers - only one of which I still see. I had great teachers. I had great coaches. I thoroughly enjoyed being at Woodlawn. I wish I could go back - I’d trade with any of you.”
Do you have any advice for us?
“Other than than the one percent advice (get one percent better every single day) - that would be the biggest thing I could tell you - I would just say don’t take any of the days for granted. Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, if you don’t feel like being in school, or you love being in school. Just don’t take it for granted. Get everything you can out of each and every day. This doesn’t last forever. You’ll look back in a few years and think, ‘Middle school was a lot of fun. I wish I could go back.’ Treat every day like that.”
Do you have any special meal or routine that you follow before every game?
“Baseball players can be superstitious. I don’t like the word superstitious - I like to call it a routine - but it’s probably a superstition. I put my socks on a certain way. I put my left one on, then my right one on. Then I put my right shoe on, and then my left shoe. That’s one of my weird routines. As far as meals before the game - I used to be a starter. I started out pitching as a starter, where I’d only throw once every five days, and I knew which day it would be. So I would eat the same meal every time I was going to pitch.”
“I knew that I didn’t want to make my body feel bad. You know how if you eat a big pizza all by yourself, you just don’t feel very good right after. Well, I don’t want to feel like that when I’m pitching. So I used to eat the same meal every single day, which was a grilled cheese, and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. I know it’s crazy, but about an hour and a half before the game, that’s what I would eat. Now that I’m a reliever, I can throw every day. I couldn’t eat a grilled cheese every day. I have a rotation.”
Do you set goals for yourself each season?
“Absolutely. The first couple of seasons, when I kind of goofed off and didn’t set those goals, and didn’t take what I was doing seriously, it showed in the results. So the day I realized how important goals were, and how important it was to set those goals and hold yourself accountable, that was an important day. I usually do three short-term goals, and that could be anything from a month or less, to three long-term goals, which could be the whole season, or half a season.”
How many different pitches can you throw?
“I throw three pitches. I throw a fastball, a slider, and a cutter. But I used to throw a fastball, curveball, slider, cutter, and changeup.”
What was the most strikeouts you’ve had in a game in your life?
“I had 17 strikeouts in one game at Eastern (High). I haven’t had that in a long time.”
Do you play with the same glove each game, or do you have multiple gloves?
“I play with the same glove each game. However, I have multiple gloves. You know how you have your favorite pair of shoes? You’re going to hang out with your friends to the movies, you’re going to wear your best shoes. That’s what I do in the game. My best-looking glove, my favorite glove, I’ll wear out in the game. But then in practice, I wear my old beaten-up glove.”
Can you describe an example of when you struggled growing up?
“I kind of developed a lot quicker as a kid. I was a lot taller than some of the kids when I was younger. I was always a lot better than the kids I played with. And then when I got into eighth grade and in high school, everybody kind of caught up, and I stopped growing for a little bit, and the others kept growing. I don’t really know if it was a struggle, but it was different, the fact that I had to work at what I was doing, and I wasn’t just better than everybody, which was hard.”
Is there a lot that you have to do to get better?
“I spent more time than I want to admit practicing baseball in high school. I probably missed a lot of time with friends, and missed doing a lot of cool stuff because I was practicing baseball. One of my best friends to this day had a little hitting cage in his backyard, and we used to spend hours and hours back there hitting in the cage. As it turns out, I wasn’t a hitter (as an American League pitcher).”
How did you become interested in baseball?
“I loved every sport when I was a kid. My parents put me in soccer. I swam. I did baseball, football, basketball. I did it all when I was a kid. I don’t know that I ever really loved one more than the other. I just kind of got really good at baseball. And it kind of chose itself. I truly love the game of baseball, but it definitely chose itself as far as a career.”
When did you know you wanted to become a professional athlete?
“I knew I wanted to become one when I was tiny. But when did I think it was realistic? Probably around my junior year of high school. I started having some colleges looking at me, and coming to see games. We started having a little dialogue. There was a very, very small possibility of being drafted, and luckily for me, it came true.”
Who was your role model when you were younger?
“I’ve had a lot of role models. While I was at Woodlawn, Coach Carroll - I used to love Coach Carroll. I was attached to him, everywhere he went. He was a coach here for a long time. He was a huge role model in middle school. In high school, I had a summer ball coach that I looked up to like he was my dad.”
“I realized really quick that the relationships you make are more important than what you’re doing. On the baseball field, those relationships I get to build every day with teammates and coaches and everything, that’s huge. Today, I still have mentors. A lot of the guys that I play with - my teammates - are like mentors to me. And I look at them in that light as well.”
Who inspired you and helped you reach your goals?
“My family has been awesome. I have a family that is fairly athletic. My sister was a cheerleader in college. My brother played high school football and baseball. My mom was a high school and college athlete, and so was my dad. They put in a lot of hours driving me all over the country. We’ve driven to Arizona to play baseball. We’ve driven to Texas to watch my sister cheerlead. So having that support system was probably the most important thing.”
What has been one of the most challenging events you’ve faced in your life?
“Honestly, I would say after my first year getting drafted. I spent that year in Arizona, and I came home. Not only did I question whether or not I had made the right decision (to go professional instead of attending college), I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to play baseball. I was out there in Arizona with a lot of people I didn’t know. People that spoke different languages. In baseball, we get players from Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic. They speak different languages.”
“I didn’t have very many friends. I didn’t have anybody to talk to or hang out with off the field. That was hard. Coming home, and doing some soul searching, and realizing what was important to me and where I wanted to be in five years was a challenge, for sure.”
What was your backup plan if you didn’t make it to the Major Leagues?
“Originally, I was supposed to go to Appalachian State. If I’d never made it to the Major Leagues, I’d fully intend on going back to school. My mom would not have let me - to this day, she would not have let me not finish college. So I would have gone back to school and either done Construction Management, or I was actually accepted as a Kinesiology major. One of those two for sure if I went back to school.”
Is there anyone specific that influenced you to get better?
“There were a lot of people. I would say where I’m at right now, most of the time it’s my teammates. As you get older, and you who have played on sports teams with your friends since you were young, you realize how important it is to have that bond. All of you working towards the same goal. It’s helped me be the absolute best version of myself.”
What type of training does it take to be a baseball player?
“We run a lot. I don’t like running, but I do it. I spend two or three hours in the weight room. Nothing too crazy. Obviously, we throw a lot as pitchers. I know hitters spend lots and lots of time in the batting cages hitting. As a pitcher, I can’t do that. I throw five times a week. I drive up to Raleigh two times a week for bullpen (sessions). I spend a lot of time in Physical Therapy and with my Chiropractor, just to make sure my body feels good all the time.”
“It never stops. Especially in the world of professional sports. I can’t just take a day off. I have to think about what I eat every day. I have to think about how I treat my body. How much sleep I’m going to get, and how I’ll feel the next day. So there’s a lot to think about.”
What player inspired you to become a baseball player?
“None of y’all are going to know his name, but there’s a guy named Chipper Jones who played for the Braves a long time ago. It’s pretty crazy that you all might not know Chipper Jones - it makes me feel old - but he was my hero when I was a kid. I loved that guy. He was a third baseman. I liked the way he played. I liked the way he carried himself. I just thought he was really cool, and I wanted to be like him.”
“Everything I did on a baseball field, I tried to make it look like Chipper Jones. I would say he inspired me. And some of the struggles that came with it were realizing how hard I would have to work. When I was younger, everything came a little bit easier. And then as I got older, I realized it was going to take a lot of work to get where I wanted to be - like Chipper Jones.”
What was it like facing batters that you grew up watching?
“That was one of the hardest things for me. You grow up watching and idolizing these guys. For me, guys that are still around - Joe Mauer, who just retired. I grew up a huge Joe Mauer fan, and I got to play with him. Brett Gardner of the Yankees. Josh Donaldson. There are only a handful of them left. And every time one that I kind of grew up watching and idolizing steps in the box, it's one of those moments where you have to step back and say, ‘He's just like you.’ He bleeds red. He wakes up in the morning and eats breakfast just like you do.”
“It’s definitely really, really cool to have that opportunity to do it. But it's kind of scary at first.”
What do you do to handle the pressure of being a pro athlete?
“I think the only pressure that it put on us is from ourselves. I don't feel any responsibility to have to explain myself and my decisions to anybody. However, I know that people look up to me, and I don't take that lightly. I know I had a handful of role models coming up, and guys that I wanted to be like and carry myself like. And it's pretty awesome that I get the opportunity to do that. I wouldn’t really call it pressure. I just think it's one of those things that you have to be conscious of, that people are watching. And that's a privilege. It's definitely not something that is a right. It’s earned.”
Did you have a nickname? And if you did, how did you get it?
“When I was young - when I was really young - everyone called me Coco. There was a baseball player for the Athletics at the time - he played a little bit of everywhere - his name was Coco Crisp. He was an outfielder, and he was known for being dirty all the time. He was always rolling in the mud. It would rain on the field, and he would go sliding across it. His jersey was always dirty. A coach somewhere along the way gave me the nickname Coco. I used to love to dive for balls. I loved being in the dirt, playing in the dirt. I got that when I was young.”
“Now, people just call me “Lit,” because my last name is Littell. So I get called “Lit” a lot. When I go in to pitch (at Minnesota’s Target Field), the board says, “It’s Lit.” Lit is a word that you all use, right?”
Was there ever a time in your baseball career that you thought about quitting?
“There have been lot of times when I wanted to give up. As much as I love playing baseball, it is my job. I get paid to do it. Just like anything, it doesn’t matter how much you love it, sometimes you don't want to do it. Sometimes you don't want to go to work. And there are days when I wake up, and I don't want to go play baseball. It's just the way it is. And then there are times when I’m struggling off the field, or I’m struggling with something at home or whatever it may be, and I don’t want to be there anymore. I want to just stop and quit.”
“I think realizing that, and acknowledging that, and saying, “Okay, we can move forward. This isn’t the end of the world.” It’s something that took me a long time to learn. But now that I’m there, I have less and less of those moments. I realize the sun is going to come up the next day. Whatever is happening that moment, it’s going to pass.”
How nervous were you when you were pitching against the Yankees in the postseason?
“I was nervous. I was really nervous. It was funny. I warmed up out there, and I felt good. I wasn't nervous at all. I was surprisingly cool. I expected to be nervous, and there were no nerves. I got out on the mound, picked the ball up and looked up, and it hit me like a truck. All of a sudden, I can feel my legs shaking. And Aaron Judge steps into the box. A lot of you guys know Aaron Judge. He steps into the box, and I’m thinking, “This is it.” I was very nervous.”
“I was very nervous. I walked Aaron Judge and hit Brett Gardner, and came out of the game. But it was good.”