June 1, 2005 - As he made his way across the infield during batting practice May 19 at Tucson Electric Park, Alan Zinter was rudely met by a line drive off the bat of teammate Scott Hairston, forcing the Sidewinder first baseman to leap to safety.
"Welcome back," bellowed a voice from somewhere deep in the outfield.
After being reassigned to the Diamondbacks' Double A farm team for a short stint to rework his contract, Zinter returned to the Sidewinders May 19 and to resume his role as the team's very own Father Time. The evening game against Round Rock didn't just mark the veteran journeyman's return to the Triple A level, it also happened to be the first baseman's 37th birthday.
As the oldest player on the Sidewinders, the Oro Valley resident has made a career on the diamond, a la Crash Davis of "Bull Durham" and minor league lore. Zinter, who, like Davis, broke into baseball as a catcher, has spent the better half of 17 seasons in professional ball bounding between 15 pro teams from Pawtucket, R.I to Seibu, Japan.
Logging more than 5,700 at bats in a little less than 1,700 minor league games hasn't come without its share of glory, however.
"I consider myself major league insurance," said Zinter. "We have such a young team here that if something happens up there (on the Diamondbacks) there still could be some value for somebody like me. That's what keeps me going."
What keeps the fire burning is the prospect of returning to the majors, he said.
Life on the ball field for Zinter hasn't always been about the long bus trips, quick meals and insect filled stadiums of the minors. In 2002 and again last season, Zinter enjoyed two lengthy stays in the majors for the Houston Astros and Diamondbacks respectively.
Zinter has appeared in 67 games in the Bigs - 39 in 2002 with the Astros and 28 last season with the Diamondbacks - during which time he launched three homeruns and collected nine RBI.
"It's like walking into a cathedral," said Zinter of his Major League debut, which came June 18, 2002 in Milwaukee. "It was real baseball, everything you've ever dreamed of."
The biggest of his 13 major league hits came last year on Sept. 28 in Bank One Ballpark. In the bottom of the 11th inning with the Diamondbacks trailing by one, Zinter lined a two-run homerun into the right field stands to give Arizona a 9-8 win.
What's the key to longevity? Zinter says he's been able to last 16-plus seasons by staying fit.
"I take care of my body," he said. "Because I've noticed that the guys who play a long time take care of themselves."
For a 6:30 p.m. game, Zinter said he usually arrives at the stadium around 1:30 p.m. to begin his daily regimen.
Being a switch-hitter skilled at multiple positions certainly hasn't hurt his ability to play for almost two decades, either. This season he is splitting time between first base, designated hitter and as a pinch hitter.
As Zinter's career was getting started on the pro level, many of his current teammates were slipping on a baseball glove for the first times in their lives.
When Zinter was originally drafted, in the first round of the 1989 amateur draft by the New York Mets (24th overall), Sidewinder teammate Edgar Gonzalez was only six years old.
As a freshman at the University of Arizona, Zinter was a teammate of current Sidewinders skipper Chip Hale, who was a senior for the Wildcats.
"The thing that sticks out in my mind about him at that time really was his passion for the game," said Hale of playing with Zinter on the 1987 UA squad.
Zinter hasn't ruled out the possibility of staying in baseball once his playing days are over. One day he'd like to take on a manager role much like Hale.
As for the ribbing he consistently takes from his much younger teammates, the 37-year old Zinter has a response.
"I just turn around and say I hope someday you can say you played 17 years," said Zinter. "There's not a lot of guys who even played that long in the big leagues."
This year, Zinter is hitting .253 with two homeruns and 13 RBI - adding to his lifetime .249 average, 249 home runs and 912 RBI in the minors.
For now, talks of retiring are just distant thoughts.
"I don't know," said Zinter of when he might hang up his cleats, "Right now I'm having too much fun."