Zach Parish had already accepted that baseball was likely in his rearview mirror.
Then a couple of phone calls during an afternoon workout on Sunday suddenly changed everything.
“It kind of ambushed me,” Parish said. “I was about to workout when I got a call from (Missouri Southern baseball coach Bryce Darnell), who said the Texas Rangers wanted to talk to me and possibly sign me. Within a few seconds, the Rangers called.
“After that last call, I just sat there in the weight room for I don’t know how long. I was shellshocked.”
It was just a week earlier that the MSSU product and consensus NCAA Division II National Pitcher of the Year announced on Instagram that he believed it was his time to hang the cleats and glove up.
“It hurts saying that,” the Instagram post continued, “but I know God has bigger plans for me in this next chapter of my life.”
Parish’s social media post came about a day after the conclusion of the 2021 MLB Draft, one in which the lefty wasn’t picked up by a team despite his historic D2 tenure that was highlighted by an all-time career strikeout record, countless all-conference, all-region and All-American awards, and his solidification as one of the best pitchers — if not the best — to ever wear a Missouri Southern uniform.
By Sunday, the 25-year-old Parish had already started looking for his first full-time job. It was the first time in more than two decades that his dream of becoming a professional baseball player was seemingly behind him.
Little did he know he’d soon be flying out of the state to sign his first professional contract as an undrafted free agent. Parish is slated to meet with representatives of the Rangers later this week in Arizona to solidify a deal, as well as find out which minor league level he will begin his professional journey.
“It’s all happening so fast, and I guess it’s just difficult to process all at once,” Parish said. “It started out when I was a little kid playing travel ball and playing in the Little League World Series. It was everyone’s dream to make it to the big leagues. Everything that’s fallen in line between then and now, it’s kind of surreal.
“I thought baseball was over for me just a few days ago. I played baseball longer than most people have thought about playing, and I knew I could be happy with how my career ended up and how I proved myself to everyone else. Then today, just hearing the person on the other end of the phone say, ‘We would like to welcome you to the Texas Rangers,’ it choked me up. I’m getting the opportunity I always wanted.”
A KID FROM OKEMAH
Brad Jones would be the first one to admit he was spoiled by Parish.
Parish was a senior at Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, Okla., whenever Jones embarked on his first campaign as the school’s head baseball coach. At that point, Parish had already established himself as a standout three-sport athlete — football and basketball being the other two — at a high school that was regarded for its prowess in academics and athletics, as well as the high number of its student-athletes who went on to excel at the collegiate and sometimes professional levels.
Simply put, it didn’t take long for Jones to realize that Parish had the “right stuff” to become Sequoyah’s next big success story.
“Having an arm like his to utilize in my first year as the head coach, he made things easy on me,” Jones said of Parish. “We used him in all sorts of situations and he always delivered. It was a blessing, but at the same time I was kind of thinking to myself that I’d never get a player like that ever again.
“I always knew he could do special things once his time at Sequoyah was over. He was naturally gifted, a lefty, he was tall and he had a build that he could grow into. So it’s no surprise to me that he went on to accomplish what he did. Maybe what did surprise me is how easy he made it look.”
One high school memory of Parish that stands out to Jones is his performance in the consolation finals of the Okemah High School tournament in 2015.
“A lot of people probably don’t know that Zach’s originally from Okemah and he moved to Tahlequah by the time he started going to school at Sequoyah,” Jones said. “So during his senior year, we ended up playing Okemah at their own tournament, and I think he had quite a few family members and old friends and coaches watching him. He ended up having about 16 strikeouts in a row. Of course, you can only get 21 outs in a seven-inning game.”
Parish proved to have a knack for fanning the opposition. He finished his senior season of high school with 117 strikeouts in 104 innings and posted an impressive 2.67 ERA.
Then, of course, the eventual D2 strikeout king went on to set the single-season strikeout record (107) as a freshman at nearby NSU, a year in which he was named the MIAA Freshman of the Year. He tallied 52 more punchouts in his sophomore season before opting to transfer to Missouri Southern in 2018.
“I felt like I needed a change and a fresh start,” Parish explained. “I struggled academically for whatever reason at NSU. I felt like moving and starting fresh would be the best situation for me to build my GPA back up and be able to graduate in four years. That’s the opportunity that Southern gave me.”
Parish said he began maximizing his full potential in Joplin before he even threw a pitch for the Lions.
Due to MIAA transfer rules, Parish was forced to sit out the 2018 baseball season, giving him the opportunity to focus solely on his academics to ensure his eligibility and get back on track for a timely graduation.
As he put it, it may have been the wakeup call he needed.
“With my situation and my grades, I absolutely needed that year to focus on the most important things,” Parish said. “It gave me time to dedicate and commit to the classroom and develop better habits. and it worked. Missouri Southern helped me get my credits all lined out. Mrs. (Amanda) Schmelzer worked tirelessly with me and tried to help in anyway possible to put me with the right tutors. We actually got it done like we all planned.”
Parish’s newfound work ethic wasn’t just exclusive to academics. It wasn’t long before he made changes to his lifting and conditioning, his diet, his sleep and his day-to-day organization.
The progress he made was made apparent both physically and from a performance standpoint by the time he made his return to the diamond for the 2019 season.
“That year Zach had to sit out, he would pitch on our Tuesday intersquads, and we knew then that he was the best pitcher we had on our staff,” Darnell said. “We knew how good he was and how good he could be. He just kept getting better, too. So that’s a credit to Zach and a credit to our pitching coach, Quentin McGrath. Zach’s work ethic in the classroom and in the weight room are second to none.”
Success encompassed the remainder of the collegiate career of Parish, who eventually set the D2 all-time career strikeouts record with 488 and finished with a career ERA of 2.16. More importantly, he finished his tenure at MSSU with a degree in general education, and he aims to complete a kinesiology degree within the next year.
“His mark will be forever left on our program simply because of the way he was able to work and the way he went about working,” Darnell said. “I’ve already said about everything I could possibly say about him. He’s one of those rare types of players that you might coach once in your lifetime. The good news is he’s not done yet. This next chapter in his career is one he deserves, and I’m excited to see what’s next for him.”