Calling Dr. Turtle to Hall of Fame
Feb. 10, 2011
RALEIGH, N.C. - On one weekend during his freshman season, the best home run hitter in NC State baseball history found himself in head coach Sam Esposito's doghouse - because he couldn't lay down a sacrifice bunt.
Twice in the same weekend against Virginia, Phillip Craig Zaun was asked to move runners up a base with a sacrifice, twice he failed to put his bat on the ball and twice he ended up hitting into inning-ending double plays.
Those misfires, coupled with a 0-for-16 slump, earned Zaun the only job worse than sitting on the bench beside Esposito: batting-practice catcher. He spent the latter half of his freshman season with those duties and was a part-time first baseman and designated hitter as a sophomore. After two seasons, he had just seven home runs in 208 at-bats.
"It's one of those things where you just realize you have to be better," Zaun said. "It's not high school anymore. Putting on that gear and catching batting practice every day was tough. It bruises your ego. You have a choice of standing around and pouting about it or you try to get better. I worked hard through the next couple of summers to get bigger, stronger and better.
"I didn't want to be a small fish in a big pond."
Instead, he became NC State's most feared "Turtle," a two-time All-America first baseman and slugger extraordinaire. As a junior and senior, Zaun belted 47 of his 54 career home runs and terrorized ACC pitching as part of the most productive offense in NC State history. Those two seasons, he posted a .400 batting average and a .820 slugging percentage.
As a senior in 1988, he matched Tracy Woodson's mark of 25 homers and drove in a remarkable 87 runs, single-season records that still stand. He was named second-team All-America and ACC Player of the Year.
Friday night, Zaun and former teammate Brian Bark will join Tom Sergio as the newest inductees into the NC State Baseball Hall of Fame during the annual First Pitch Banquet at the Raleigh Downtown Marriott.
A native of Mechanicsville, Va., just outside of Richmond, Zaun followed Woodson, his childhood hero, to Raleigh to play for Esposito, the former Chicago White Sox infielder. He wound up erasing many of Woodson's offensive marks and was a key contributor to a Wolfpack squad that won the 1986 ACC regular-season title and qualified for three NCAA Tournaments.
The three-time first-team All-ACC selection has clear and sharp memories of his playing career, though few of them deal with his own hitting exploits. He might not immediately recall that he hit well over .500 with a 1.214 slugging percentage against ACC competition as a senior, but he vividly remembers watching from the bullpen his freshman season as Andrew Fava twice hit late-inning, game-winning home runs against North Carolina, back when the Tar Heels had four first-round draft picks in the lineup.
He remembers the bloody broken finger Greg Briley suffered while warming up for the first game of the 1986 ACC Tournament at Durham Athletic Park, a mishap that opened up room for Zaun at first base when Scott Davis was moved to second to replace Briley.
He remembers the pact he made with catcher Bill Klenoshek before his junior season - that they needed to combine for 30 homers for the season for the Wolfpack to have a productive offense. Zaun hit 22 and Klenoshek added 10 and the Wolfpack advanced to the finals of the ACC Tournament in Greenville. During that week-long tournament, Zaun blasted pitchers from Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Clemson, including a 4-for-5 performance against the Tigers in which he hit two monstrous homers and drove in five runs in the 11-7 victory.
What he remembers most about the Georgia Tech game -- the Yellow Jackets first loss in the tournament in three years -- was that he drove all the runs except the game-winner, which was forced in when Alex Wallace took a base on balls. He still give Wallace for stealing the headlines in the next morning's newspaper.
"That was the best baseball we played my whole time at NC State," Zaun said. "That was one of my fondest memories, because it was some of Coach Esposito's last games. I remember that tournament like it was yesterday."
Zaun frequently wore out Clemson pitchers, so much so that one day after Zaun hit another towering home run against the Tigers, a lady came storming into the press box ranting about the Clemson coach's decision to pitch to the 6-1, 210-pound slugger: "Why are we pitching to that guy? He just kills us every time. We should walk him every time he comes to the plate!"
Who was that, asked a couple of astonished reporters. "Oh, that was Mrs. Wilhelm," said sports information director Bob Bradley, referring to the wife of legendary Clemson coach and former NC State player Bill Wilhelm.
Zaun's senior season was a time of transition at NC State, as Esposito retired and turned the team over to longtime assistant Ray Tanner.
"What I remember most about Turtle was just what a torrid two years he had, especially that last year (1988)," said Tanner, now the head coach at defending national champion South Carolina. "We had a really good offensive club that year, and he just picked us up and carried us. He was just on such a tear, and he got hotter as the year went along.
"It was, without a doubt, as good a year as anyone in the country had that year." Zaun was certainly feared at the plate, though not on the basepaths. What would you expect from someone who has never answered to any other name than "Turtle"?
But it's a misconception that his name came from a lack of speed. It's not a bad assumption, considering Zaun didn't steal a base in his four years of college, rarely legged out infield singles and sometimes found himself as the second out on double-play grounders.
"My mom gave me the nickname when I was a week old, but I was never able to outrun it," Zaun said.
Zaun's mom said she used to cover her son in blankets when he was a newborn, because he wasn't exactly the cutest or cuddliest baby in the world. "He wasn't a pretty thing," his mom once told a couple of newspaper reporters. "Even his grandmother said he wasn't pretty."
So they covered his head with blankets. But he was always poking his head out, looking for light, a friendly face and a little fresh air.
"He looked just like a turtle, sticking his head out like that," Nell Zaun said. The unusual nickname never cost him any respect among his teammates, though his 7½ hat size frequently caused him some grief.
"They call me `Box Head,'" Zaun once told The Sporting News. "I hear more about that than I do about my name or my speed."
What current head coach Elliott Avent, who was a graduate assistant during Zaun's career, remembers about the slugger is how much everyone looked up to such a consummate student-athlete.
"Turtle was kind of like Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees," said Avent, who was a graduate assistant during Zaun's career. "He was a guy everyone looked up to almost like he was a 10-year veteran. He did everything right off the field and on the field. He knew how to win and how to compete.
"He had every aspect of the game you needed to win."
Zaun might not have been fleet, but he certainly wasn't slow. A dean's list and honor roll student, Zaun earned a degree in chemistry and was accepted into dental school at both the University of North Carolina and the Medical College of Virginia before his senior season.
After his monumental final season, Zaun was drafted in the 10th round by the San Francisco Giants, but made the difficult decision to forego professional baseball in favor of going to dental school.
"It was a tough time," Zaun said. "My folks came down to Raleigh the day of the draft, and the following day, the Giants sent their regional scout over to talk to me. They thought I was too big of a risk to sign because I had already been accepted to dental school.
"It wasn't a good experience. I felt like I was being penalized for going to class. I basically just said, `I had a great experience here, I'm ready for the next chapter of my life.'"
While he made the decision wistfully, he has no regrets about it.
"You play and you have some success and you think you're going to be the next big thing," Zaun said. "There is a lot of little boy in all of us and baseball is the ultimate little-boy sport. It was a tough decision, but I don't look back on it with regret. I made the right decision."
Zaun has a thriving dental practice less than two miles from the house where he grew up. He introduces himself to new visitors with the name on the sign outside his office, Phillip C. Zaun, DDS.
"You can't just walk in and say `Hey, I'm Turtle," Zaun said. "They won't let you anywhere near their teeth."
Before long, though, they all call him the same thing as the rest of his patients: Dr. Turtle.
Zaun and his wife have three daughters, and he has but one hope for them when they are ready to go to college.
"I always tell my kids I just hope you guys have as much fun and feel the same way about your university when you leave as I feel about mine," Zaun said. "I don't care where you go or what you study, I just hope it is that special of a place to you. That's really all I can say.
"NC State is a truly, truly a special place for me."
By Tim Peeler, email@example.com.