By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- Zach Jarrett could've easily fallen into the sport of auto racing. Such a path would've hardly been surprising coming from a kid born into a family with such a rich racing tradition.
Jarrett spent most of his childhood cheering for his father, NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Dale Jarrett, as he zoomed and weaved around the track. He met many of his childhood friends at the various racing venues, and he vividly remembers when Dale Jarrett won the Winston Cup Championship in 1999.
But Zach Jarrett didn't share that same love of stock car racing that his father and grandfather, Ned Jarrett, had driven to hall of fame racing careers.
Instead, another passion was growing inside Zach Jarrett.
"All of my friends at the racetrack ... they'd go race go-karts and everything and that'd be why they weren't at a race one weekend. But I wouldn't be at a race one weekend because I had a baseball tournament," Zach Jarrett, who is playing for the Woodstock River Bandits in the Valley Baseball League this summer, recalled on Monday evening. "I always loved going and supporting my dad, but I always felt like I wanted to do something different."
That something was baseball.
And while Zach Jarrett's love for life on the diamond isn't exactly what one would expect from child with such a hearty NASCAR pedigree, his interest in baseball hardly developed by accident.
Zach Jarrett's maternal grandfather, the late Jasper "Jack" Spears, played professional baseball for 11 years in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. It was Spears who cultivated that love of baseball in a young Zach Jarrett.
"I always was around him whenever my parents went off on the weekends, when he would keep me. We would always watch baseball together and I just grew a love for it at a very young age," Zach Jarrett said. "From middle school on I said, 'I want to do something with baseball. I love baseball. This is what I want to do.' It just sort of grew on from there."
Zach Jarrett rode that passion to a successful high school baseball career at Hickory (North Carolina) High School, which then led him to a spot on the roster for the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
He finished up his freshman season with the 49ers this past spring, during which he batted .248 with two home runs, 17 RBIs and five doubles in 141 at-bats in what he called a valuable learning experience.
Zach Jarrett now finds himself in the Valley Baseball League, where he has been busy sharpening various aspects of his game with the River Bandits in preparation for his sophomore season at UNC-Charlotte next spring.
It's been an interesting month and a half for Zach Jarrett who, like all college players who venture through the Valley League, has had to adjust to using wooden baseball bats and become accustomed to the grind of playing baseball every day.
But he said it's making him a better player.
"You're on your own, you're living with somebody else. You're depending on yourself," Zach Jarrett said of the Valley League experience. "You don't have anybody else really there talking to you, really helping you out. So it's a grind, you've just got to keep pushing and pushing. It'll truly show who the real players are, who's going to persevere and who's going to keep fighting the entire season."
Jarrett's namesake alone has brought a little buzz to Woodstock this summer, but he's also making considerable noise with his play on the diamond for the River Bandits.
Following Monday's 5-4 win over Front Royal, Jarrett was batting .278 (30-for-108) with a home run and 16 RBIs, a team high. More than that, Jarrett has brought energy to the River Bandits and his versatility (he can play third base, first base and the outfield) has been a gift for Woodstock manager Phil Betterly this summer.
Betterly said Jarrett, who stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs 215 pounds, has made plenty of adjustments, particularly with his lower-body mechanics while in the batter's box, since arriving in Woodstock at the end of May, and those tweaks have been breeding success for Jarrett over the last several weeks.
"He's started to really raise his game to another level," Betterly said of Zach Jarrett, who carried an 11-game hit streak into Tuesday night's home game against New Market.
Perhaps the greatest part for Zach Jarrett is that his father has gotten witness a lot of his success first-hand this summer. Dale Jarrett, who now works as a NASCAR analyst for ESPN, has made fairly regular appearances in Woodstock over the last two months to support his son, much as he did during Zach's freshman season at UNC-Charlotte in the spring.
"He takes a lot of interest in what I do," Zach Jarrett said. "It happens to be after a lot of games that we'll talk on the phone or something. And I'll even do that with my mom. She's been around it so long that she understands everything and knows everything that I do. They're very involved in my baseball life and they love every minute of it."
Zach Jarrett hopes to one day follow in Spears' footsteps and play baseball professionally, but for now he's simply enjoying the chance to make his own mark.
"I'd love to do that," Zach Jarrett said of playing professional baseball. "That's always been my dream. ... You always want to reach that next level as a competitor, and if you can do that you feel like you've really accomplished something. That's always a goal set in mind and I'd love to do that. ... But wherever it takes me, I'll love it."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com