People travel to France to study philosophy at the Sorbonne or cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. They don't go to learn the fine art of throwing breaking pitches. "I picked up my slider, my best pitch, over there," says Rangers rookie reliever Jeff Zimmerman, who graduated from Texas Christian in 1993 and then played in some of baseball's farthest outposts, including a south of France ville, Montpellier. "Had I thrown it in college, I might have had a shot at getting drafted."
Since being called up from the Triple A Oklahoma RedHawks last month, Zimmerman, 26, a righthander, has made Francophobes out of American League hitters, many of whom have flailed at that French-fried slider. Through Sunday, Zimmerman was 2-0 and, having allowed just two runs in 26 innings, led American League relievers with a 0.69 ERA. Opponents were hitting .094 against him. "I didn't know who Jeff Zimmerman was until halfway through last year," says his manager, Johnny Oates. "Now, when I go to take him out after two innings, guys on the bench yell at me to keep him in."
Despite leading TCU with eight wins as a senior in 1993, Zimmerman failed to attract the attention of scouts. A native of Kelowna, B.C., he spent a summer with the Canadian national team, after which his pitching coach, Greg Hamilton, persuaded him to play in a French league, where Hamilton coached during Team Canada's off-season. Zimmerman expatriated himself to the Montpellier Barracudas—even farther off the radar than TCU. "About junior college-level," is how he describes the competition in France. "But it was good because I could experiment and work on different things."
That's how Zimmerman picked up that biting slider. After the 1994 season he returned to Vancouver and, hoping to play in the '96 Olympics, spent another year as a starter for Team Canada. When Canada failed to qualify for the Atlanta Games, Zimmerman figured his baseball career was over. He earned an MBA at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and started a search for "any kind of corporate job." Months later and still unemployed, he decided to give pitching another shot. "I had an interview scheduled with Fidelity in Boston," Zimmerman says. "The night before, I called and said, 'Sorry, I'm going to be a baseball player instead.' "
In May 1997 he signed with the Winnipeg Gold-eyes of the independent Northern League, went 9-2, led the league with a 2.82 ERA and earned the rookie pitcher of the year award. Still, no scouts banged on his door. At the urging of his younger brother, Jordan, a pitching prospect in the Mariners' system, Jeff—whose repertoire by now included the slider, a changeup and two low-90s fastballs—sent r�sum�s to all 30 major league teams. Only the Rangers gave him a look.
Zimmerman went a combined 5-2 with a 1.28 ERA in two minor league stops last season and was a late cut by the Rangers this spring. He was soon called up to help bolster Texas's middle relief corps, and in his major league debut on April 13 he struck out four of the six Mariners he faced and started a string of 11? scoreless innings. "His best assets are his presence and his command," says Oates, who originally used Zimmerman for mop-up duty but now trots him out to set up closer John Wetteland. "He has no fear."
The very model of a French Foreign Legionnaire.