(Editor’s note: This column, published in the Feb. 11, 2011, edition of the Citizen’s News, discusses local softball player Ryan Zsiga’s zany approach to the sport. This feature was an honorable mention at the 2011 Connecticut SPJ Awards among sports columns in the community non-daily category.)
BEACON FALLS, Conn. — I’ve been looking for a role model for a long time. Yeah, of course my parents fit the bill in one way. I’ve got some old teachers I really admire. And there are some guys in sports media whom I look up to. But I’m not sure any of those have sufficiently quenched my thirst for a top-notch role model.
I think I found who I was looking for, though. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Ryan Zsiga.
If you’re from Beacon Falls, there’s a good chance you know Ryan. He’s been involved with town sports since he started playing when he was five. He was the all-decade catcher on Woodland’s baseball team. Now, fresh out of the University of Tampa, he’s a teller at Naugatuck Valley Savings and Loan in town.
Perhaps most importantly, though, and the reason I’ve decided I want to be just like Ryan is this: He’s an uber-competitive — and possibly clinically insane — slowpitch softball player.
This spring and summer, Zsiga has been a part of five different teams, including the squad sponsored by St. Michael’s Church, has traveled down to Virginia for a tournament, and has played in 72 games, over which his teams have compiled a 54-18 record.
The volume of Zsiga’s softball pales in comparison to its quality. He keeps his own stats — accurately and extensively — and they’re outstanding. Here’s his bottom line: 126-for-242 for a .521 average with 24 doubles, six triples, 24 homers, and 122 RBI.
“This is definitely my best home run and RBI year for sure,” Zsiga says. “A-Rod and I don’t get along, though. I’ve done this all without human growth hormone.”
But stats only tell part of Zsiga’s story.
Softball sort of snuck up on Zsiga, he says. Believe it or not, he didn’t grow up aspiring to be a local slowpitch softball stud.
“I never even expected to play softball like this,” Zsiga says. “I expected to play baseball for the rest of my life. I went to school at Tampa and when you have guys getting drafted in the second round, it just wasn’t working out for me.”
He joined the St. Michael’s squad his senior year of high school in 2005 just so there would be an extra man on the bench. From there, he says, his career only grew.
“It progressed in college,” Zsiga says. “My roommate and I were intramural heroes. My sophomore and senior year, we drove to Wake Forest for a tournament. After that, I wanted to find as much to play as possible.”
He’s done just that. He has stayed with the St. Michael’s team, which he has led to three straight Naugatuck church league championships. This year, he batted .605 with that club, smashing 18 homers and driving in 62 runs in 23 games.
“My first year I was the shortstop,” Zsiga says, “And since then I’ve been in left field, 90 percent of the time hitting in the three-hole, sending balls into outer space.”
He also plays in leagues in Seymour and Waterbury as well as a Sunday morning league for a total of six to eight games a week. Zsiga has fought through nagging injuries to remain a feared force among local softball circles.
“Surprisingly my arm has held up very well,” Zsiga says. “I’m known more for my rocket arm actually. I’ve battled leg injuries for two months, but I completely rested them in Tampa for a week and I felt like new. I’ve been like Joe Montana with a bat out there.”
But it’s not for the fact that he’s so darn good at mashing that Ryan has become my role model. It’s the fact that he goes against the grain of society and does things with vigor and reckless abandon, without regret or remorse. He goes for the throat, and I love it.
“I kind of like people knowing my name,” Zsiga says, “and seeing that if I’m in left field, don’t run on me or I will throw the ball at your temple.”
And no, he doesn’t take it easy on lesser — or more elderly — competition.
“I like playing with old dudes,” Zsiga says. “In my baseball days, I was a catcher and not known as being fast. Now I’m like freaking Maurice Greene out there. When you play against 50-year-olds, you look like a track star.”
He carries his equipment with him at all times, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Perhaps the key to his softball prowess is the secret of his pants, which he doesn’t like washing.
“It’s a combination of laziness and superstition,” Zsiga says. “If I’m absolutely r—ing the ball, then something’s going right and I’m not washing them. If I go 0-for-10, I’m burning this pair and getting new ones.”
Zsiga has already become a force to be reckoned with due to his pure athletic ability and fierce competitive edge, taking no prisoners — including spectators.
“I can confidently say the longest home run I ever hit was back on my 20th birthday,” Zsiga recalls with a glowing grin. “I got a hold of one to left field and it smashed into a windshield of a car when the guy was sitting in it. If the windshield wasn’t there, it would have hit him right in the face. He just sat there for a few minutes and drove away.”
Guaranteed, some of you out there are thinking, “Wow, this guy is a loser.” Well, you’re wrong, but I’ll let Ryan defend himself.
“You’re a loser,” he says to you. “You don’t take it seriously enough. Why play something if you’re not going to take it seriously? I’m not saying I play Monopoly and snap a guy’s arm if I don’t get Boardwalk, but it’s all competitive.”
It all boils down to the thrill of competition — and rarely the agony of defeat — for Zsiga.
“It’s a substitute for baseball for me,” he says. “I was crazily in love with baseball when I was younger and this is pretty close to the sport I played for 15 years. And I love winning championships at a rapid pace.”
He’s not stopping any time soon, either. But he does know when he’s going to ride off into the sunset.
“As long as my body holds up and I don’t perform like a schlubb, I’ll play,” Zsiga says. “If I get arthritis, I quit.”
(Editor’s note: Here’s how the column looked in print.)