By Rowan Kavner
Unless you understood his journey, it might seem strange that Dodger minor leaguer Zach Reks was on a golf cart in the Dominican Republic bringing supplies back to his condo when he fielded the call that let him know he made the Dodgers’ 40-man roster in November.
Reks is not the typical baseball player, and his path to getting his first call up to the big leagues Monday was similarly unconventional. He has been a barista and an engineer. He has worked at gyms in Chicago and a coffee farm in Hawaii. His interests expand beyond a baseball field.
To quell the psychological toll of not playing minor league games last year, Reks explored different outlets when he wasn’t working out at the Dodgers’ alternate site. He played guitar and piano. He painted. He got into cooking with one of his roommates. He even began the early stages of starting a nonprofit to aid struggling minor leaguers.
“I think Zach is definitely one of the more interesting guys that I’ve spent time with as far as what he does with his time outside of baseball,” says Triple-A Oklahoma City manager Travis Barbary. “He just likes trying different things, I feel like. He understands there’s more to life than playing baseball, and I think having interests outside of the game has kept the game of baseball itself fresh to him.”
Missing a baseball season last year served as a refresher to Reks about the opportunities he’s been given and how grateful he is to play the game every day. It’s a chance that Reks doesn’t take for granted, particularly considering his path to professional baseball.
Long before posting a .341/.445/.577/1.022 slash line with five home runs in 32 games at Triple-A Oklahoma City this season, and years before getting drafted in the 10th round in 2017, Reks took time off school in 2014 to work as a process engineer at a Toyota plant in Troy, Missouri. In 2015, he was working for Toyota in the summer at a different location in Georgetown, Kentucky, less than 20 miles from the University of Kentucky’s campus in Lexington.
In his free time, Reks would run and work out. One day, he rode his moped to a field in the summertime when he ran into Kentucky baseball assistant coach Rick Eckstein, who asked the athletic 6-foot-2-inch outfielder if he ever played baseball. In high school, Reks set a conference record with a .609 batting average. He also played at the Air Force Academy in 2013, though that didn’t pan out. Kentucky turned out to be a different story.
Reks went on to post a .331 batting average with seven home runs in his first season for the Wildcats in 2016. He recorded a .352 batting average the following year, then got drafted by the Dodgers, where he swiftly ascended the ranks. By 2019, he had already reached the Triple-A level, swatting 19 home runs with a .901 OPS for Oklahoma City. Then came the pandemic.
Weeks after his time ended at the Dodgers’ alternate site, Reks went to the Dominican Republic for Winter League play. He played well for a few games until a slight quad pull. He decided to shut it down when he got the call from Dodgers director of player development Will Rhymes that he earned a spot on the 40-man roster. Reks returned home to Chicago to rest up for the new season. He took a couple-week break from working out and a month break from baseball.
“Occasionally, I’d go in and take some balls off the tee just to stay loose,” Reks says. “But the majority of it was to take your mind off the game for a little bit, take a break, relax, do something that’s fun for you. I like to paint. I like to play guitar, play piano.”
Reks has learned that, even as a pro baseball player, he needs creative outlets. Painting helps fill that desire. His grandfather was an artist who typically worked with oil-based paints. He taught Reks how to draw and to shade, which developed into painting. When Reks worked for Toyota in Missouri, he lived in a small apartment complex with an outdoor porch, where he’d put a towel down and practice spray-painting. It’s still a hobby today. For his mother’s birthday earlier this month, Reks bought her a pair of all-white Nike Air Force 1s, which he plans to paint in a design of her choosing.
“The game can really consume you, and you have to realize that life is not all just baseball,” Reks says. “It’s hard for me to not want to try to learn new stuff every day, no matter what it is.”
That includes figuring out the details on the nonprofit coffee company he has in the works.
Reks has taken his laptop on minor league road trips to plan out the company’s future. With the help of friends in Chicago, Reks’ nonprofit is in the midst of final logo designs. He has enlisted Sugar Creek Coffee in North Carolina to supply the coffee, and he has recently decided on the flavor for his first bag of coffee.
“The mission behind the whole project is to help minor league players who are struggling in the offseason to find work, to find some sort of income that’s stable so they can live and not have to worry so much about where they’re going to get their next check from,” Reks says. “Holding a job in the offseason is hard to do, especially when companies want people to be there 9 to 5 or working early in the morning. You’ve got to train. You’ve got to hit baseballs. You’ve got to field baseballs. There’s a lot to do in the offseason to prepare to win a World Series. I just want to help people out, help put money in their pockets and maybe take some stress off their life.”
In the past, those types of interests off the field may not have been welcomed by sports coaches and teams. But Barbary appreciates Reks’ outlook on life. He understands the importance of protecting minor leaguers’ mental health. And he believes Reks’ ability to get his mind off the game benefits him as a baseball player.
“There’s even days where I’ll tell guys not to come in until an hour and a half before gametime — spend time with their family, go out and do something they normally don’t do through the course of the season just to get away from it,” Barbary says. “In the past, it was always, ‘Go, go, go. Work, work, work.’ I think we’re finding now the rest and recovery part of that is really important.”
It has worked for Reks, a multidimensional outfielder who’s thriving for an organization that fosters his interests instead of suppressing them.
“They’re just really supportive of everything I do on the field and off the field,” Reks said before getting the call-up. “The conversations have just been, ‘Get ready to help our team win this year at some point.’ Whether that be beginning of the season, late in the season, middle of the season — just be prepared, have your routine ready so when you come to the big leagues it’s business as usual.”
On and off the field, outfielder Zach Reks is not your average call-up was originally published in Dodger Insider on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.