On a sizzling afternoon in North Texas, Zac Cook cruises down I-35 on his way home from practice with the Texas Stix, a team for whom he coaches. Wearing a pair of orange-tinted sunglasses and a black Stix hat, he’s relaxed and proud, even if the sports he loves is in disarray at the professional level.
Despite the ongoing issues surrounding MLB’s labour negotiations, Cook is feeling relieved and optimistic about his own future. Five days ago, he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays as an undrafted free agent. Regardless of what is going on now, with the global pandemic or otherwise, he’s a professional baseball player.
“Being a free agent has a new meaning now,” Cook, 22, told Blue Jays Nation. “I’m still happy with the opportunity I’ve been given and the way the team has received me, even being a free agent sign.”
On the day of the shortened 2020 MLB Draft, he was in Oklahoma City, Okla. coaching with the Stix. On Sunday, teams were allowed to start signing undrafted free agents, which they did with immense efficiency.
Immediately, he got a bunch of calls from teams feeling out where he was at mentally. Though there was some back and forth with the Blue Jays, as is expected in negotiations, he felt confident in the organization and signed. Not only did he get the chance to speak with members from all levels of the organizational hierarchy, but he recognized that they were the first MLB organization to increase the pay for minor-league players.
A native of Flower Mound, Texas, Cook spent the last four years at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) playing for the Mavericks of NCAA’s Sun Belt Conference. In 596 at-bats spread across 165 games, he slashed .294/.395/.396, adding 32 doubles and 25 stolen bases. Along with teammate Cesar Gomez, who signed with the Houston Astros, Cook’s transition to professional baseball underscored a successful year for the program.
“He had already opened some eyes,” UTA head coach Darin Thomas remarked of Cook’s time with the program. “I really think his best days are ahead of him. I think he just started to turn the corner using the tools he’s got.”
Versatility has always been one of Cook’s strong points. As a baseball player, he can play almost anywhere on the diamond. During his sophomore year, he filled in for injured UTA teammate Connor Aube in the outfield while still developing as a middle infielder. As a student, he turned down offers from Ivy League giants Dartmouth and Cornell to focus on baseball. Though he briefly considered playing for Ole Miss, he decided on staying in his home state.
Now, he holds an undergraduate degree in economics and finance and is already halfway through completing his Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus on economic data analytics.
In high school, Cook was a member of the Mu Alpha Theta National Honor Society, a mathematics honour society for American students, a fact that’s listed on his player page on UTA’s website. Inspired by his mother, Jennifer, an elementary school teacher, he understood the importance of education from a young age.
“I forgot that was even on that bio page,” Cook laughed. “I guess my freshman year when it said ‘list of clubs or activities’, I just thought of that!”
And so, while his talents on the field are intriguing—Thomas compares him to a Craig Counsell or Brock Holt-type player, but with more speed and a significantly stronger arm—his academic prowess is fascinating in itself. If baseball doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, he can rely on a solid educational foundation that he’s been building since his high school years.
Cook had some past connections to the Blue Jays organization; Matt Young, current hitting coach for the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, coached him as a member of the Stix during his senior year of high school. Young, who joined the organization in 2018, says Cook was a little unsure of himself early on, but eventually settled in.
“He’s one of my favourite kids I ever coached,” Young said of meeting Cook as a high schooler. “He was a guy that was always trying to learn. You could see the drive. He’ll do anything to try and make himself better and seeing that in someone in any aspect of life is kind of inspiring.”
As a young player, Cook appreciated that Young didn’t show off or beat around the bush when giving instructions. His guidance wasn’t, as Cook said, “blowing smoke up your butt”. Instead, all the instruction he got from Young was earnest, profound, and put him at ease. Young being with the organization made the decision easier for him, especially when it came time to decide where he’d be signing.
Now, Cook is in a somewhat precarious situation. With a contract signed but no place to play due to COVID-19 shutting down the MiLB season, he’s unsure of what will come next. While Young and his fellow coaches are working hard to keep their hitters engaged in the middle minors, the new signees are in a bit of limbo now that they’re technically under the organizational umbrella.
“The word that comes to mind is ‘fluid’, it’s a very fluid situation,” Cook observed. “Whatever happens, I’m gonna try and stay in the best shape possible.”
The hope is that, within the next week, he’ll head down to Florida to complete his physical and take care of all the miscellaneous administrative hurdles associated with his signing. From there, it’s up to the organization as to where he’ll begin his professional career.
Until then, he’ll be working with the Stix’s Class of 2023 team, all while trying his best to stay in shape. He doesn’t need to teach his players how to play baseball, he says, nor should he bore them with pompous gloats about his success at the Division I level. As far as his coaching goes, he’ll try and learn from Young, who put aside the self-righteousness associated with some players-turned-coaches. Of course, his eyes will still be firmly focused on the prize, which should hopefully reveal itself as MLB’s current situation resolves.
Contrary to some of his fellow recent signees, he doesn’t feel like he was cheated out of a large signing bonus or undervalued given the current circumstances. In a weird sense, the pandemic created new opportunities for seniors coming out of college who otherwise would have little leverage in negotiations.
“If the season hadn’t ended if the pandemic hadn’t been there, I would’ve been lucky to get $20,000 dollars,” Cook admits when addressing the current state of MLB’s labour relations and how being an undrafted free agent changed his approach. “I honestly feel happy and blessed. It’s never been about the money, it’s called a signing bonus and that’s all it is, it’s a bonus.”
Despite facing an uphill battle ahead of him, Cook is another potential-filled name that the Blue Jays have added to their organizational depth chart. With any luck, the versatility and adaptability that he possesses will be showcased far beyond the confines of college baseball.