During his monthlong winter break, Zack Brown could have stayed at the University of Kentucky and spent time with friends and baseball teammates.
Instead, he spent most of the time in his hometown of Seymour, visiting with family, helping lead a pitching clinic and most recently returning to his first school and reading one of his favorite childhood books.
On Jan. 7, he read a couple of chapters of Mike Lupica’s book “Heat” to second- and third-graders at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School during the day and fourth- and fifth-graders during Title I Literacy Night.
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“My mom and dad (Cathy and Bob Brown) really don’t get to see me too often outside of baseball, so it’s just good to get back and see the family and catch up with people in the town, too,” said Brown, who graduated from Seymour High School in 2013 and is a sophomore at UK.
He attended Brown from kindergarten to third grade before going to Seymour-Redding Elementary School for fourth and fifth grades.
“Heat” was one of Brown’s favorite books when he was in elementary.
“The baseball theme and just the pitcher theme, as well, it was just a good book,” he said. “It told a good story, and I enjoyed reading it. This brought back a little memory, and I kind of recollected on the book a little bit.”
Jeff Klakamp, Seymour’s Title I director, helped provide copies of the book for fourth- and fifth-graders to take home. Brown autographed each book, and students received a bookmark with Brown’s picture and information on it.
Brown said it was fun reading to the kids and answering their questions, and it’s his goal to be a role model for them.
“I always looked up to athletes,” he said. “My cousin was a high school athlete when I was growing up, and I always looked up to him, so I know what it feels like whenever you have an idol or someone you can look up to. I just enjoy having people that appreciate me, and they let me know that. It really means a lot.
“I don’t do it for looking good or anything like that. I do it because I enjoy being here, and these kids like having me here.”
Bridget Longmeier, Brown Elementary’s literacy coach, said Brown is a great example of a student-athlete.
“He said to one of our classes that his mom wouldn’t let him play baseball if he didn’t make all A’s and B’s, so I think (Brown’s parents) were really instrumental in him focusing on the classroom,” Longmeier said.
“He’s got such a great work ethic, and I just think he’s inspiring. I think it’s just great for (kids) to see they can be successful in everything, anything is possible, and they can have dreams and goals and carry themselves the way he does on and off the field.”
Seymour High School baseball coach Jeremy Richey also spoke highly of Brown during Literacy Night.
Richey said through hard work, Brown wound up being a four-year starter for the Owls. He set numerous school records as a hitter, pitcher and shortstop; earned all-conference and all-state honors; and played in the North-South All-Star Series.
Brown became the second Seymour player to be drafted by a Major League Baseball team out of high school. However, he turned down an offer to play for the Chicago Cubs and chose to pursue a degree and baseball career at Kentucky.
“He is a great kid, he is a great student and obviously, he is a great baseball player,” Richey said. “Every school that he was offered a scholarship to play baseball, he also qualified for academic money. After three semesters at UK, he has a 3.9 GPA. He is the real deal.”
Brown said he is glad his parents made education a priority. That has stayed with him all these years.
“There are certain standards you have to be at to even play in middle school, high school and college to even earn a scholarship, so you have to make sure academics come first,” he said. “Student-athlete is what it is — student first, and then athlete second. I spend probably as much time with baseball as I do with school.”
Brown’s message clicked with the students, including fourth-grader Skyler Cockerham and fifth-graders Landan Lee and Donovyn Thomas.
“Getting to see him read and educate and help us learn more, it’s good that he still likes to come here and still likes to hang around here,” Skyler said.
Landan said Brown is his inspiration for baseball.
“I’ve wanted to pitch, but I was afraid to,” he said. “But now, I think this year, I’m probably going to pitch. He has made me want to pitch because of how fast he can pitch.”
While Landan isn’t quite to Brown’s level of throwing 96 mph, he is motivated to keep working on his game.
“It’s good having him come back because he’s telling us not to give up on our dreams and always to follow them,” Landan said.
Donovyn said it was neat learning he had three things in common with Brown — going to Brown Elementary, playing baseball for Seymour and playing shortstop.
Richey said Brown has been a good example for kids to follow.
“He treats my kids like brother and sister, and when you see him with other kids, they all feel comfortable around him because of the attitude that he has and the way he works with kids,” Richey said. “I’m most proud of the young man that he has become because they don’t come any better than Zack.”
After a successful high school career, Brown had five starts among his 19 appearances in his first year at UK, posting a 5.65 ERA and 1-1 record through 28 2/3 innings pitched.
His win came in the NCAA Tournament regional elimination game against Kansas at Louisville. The Wildcats then lost to Louisville to finish at 37-25.
“I struggled location-wise my freshman year,” Brown said. “I had a few line drives hit right back at me, which wasn’t too fun, and I finally realized that it doesn’t matter how hard you throw when you get to that level. People are going to hit anything that’s straight, so you’ve got to have movement, location, just be able to pitch more.”
In the summer, Brown played for the Amsterdam Mohawks in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League in New York. They won their third straight league championship series and finished with a record of 40-11.
Brown returned to UK in the fall, and the Wildcats played in some scrimmages. This winter, Brown has done some throwing and exercising to prepare for his second spring season, which kicks off Feb. 13 against Ball State in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Individually, Brown said he wants to develop a change-up to keep hitters off-balance. Team-wise, the Wildcats have some shoes to fill with National Player of the Year A.J. Green going to the MLB.
“We lost a lot (of players), and we refueled,” Brown said. “We’re probably going to start a few freshmen, maybe at least one at first base because he can hit the ball pretty well. Our pitching staff is going to be a lot better. Our hitting is going to be more well-rounded, not just at the top of the lineup.”