Last year, the Jacksonville Dragons were one of the Patriot League’s most surprising failures, finishing with a sub-.500 record that led to the firing of manager Harlan Davidson and the entire coaching staff. This season is a completely different story; the Dragons are in second place in the East and favorites to claim a playoff berth.
What has changed? Last season, Jacksonville disappointed both on offense (their 769 runs scored was a distant fifth in an eight-team league) and on the mound (they allowed 805 runs, the third-highest mark). They’ve improved in both departments this year, but while their pitching has gone from poor to mediocre, their offense has taken a leap from humdrum to excellent. So far this season, the Dragons have scored 778 runs, second only to California. They’re third in the league in batting average (.287), second in OPS (.874), and tied for second in home runs (222).
Manager Steve Califano, a former pitcher, says that he can’t take credit for the team’s improvement at the plate. “I know nothing about hitting,” joked the manager. “I barely knew which end of the bat to hold. The offense, what we’ve accomplished there, that’s all Ernie.”
“Ernie” is the Dragons’ hitting coach, Ernie Zambrucka. Both Califano and the Dragons hitters swear that Zambrucka has revolutionized the team’s approach on offense. “Last season, we kept falling short and we couldn’t figure out why,” said RF Roderick Hopps. “Since Ernie’s come along, we’ve been working twice as hard but having tons more fun along the way, and we’re definitely seeing the results.”
Zambrucka’s philosophy boils down to a few simple principles: Work hard, lift weights, and have a good time. “I’m no genius, and most ballplayers aren’t either,” said Zambrucka. “I like to keep it simple. Nobody ever thought his way to a batting title.”
Weightlifting and fitness are a key pillar of successful hitting, according to Zambrucka. He speaks on the subject with an almost religious fervor, and with good reason: he believes that weightlifting saved his life. When Zambrucka retired from baseball in the early 2000s, he became bored and depressed and fell into a cycle of drinking heavily and eating fatty foods, which caused his weight to balloon over 350 pounds. “I was eating and drinking my way to an early grave,” he now admits.
It took several years, but Zambrucka was able to get himself under control. He swore off alcohol, fried foods, and sweets. And he committed to a strict regimen of weightlifting and fitness. He’s dropped over 100 pounds from his peak, and he says that “I’m in better shape now than I was in my playing days.”
After getting his life back in order, Zambrucka decided to pursue coaching jobs in order to pass on his considerable hitting knowledge to the next generation. He’s done that in Jacksonville, dispensing tips left and right and tinkering with the swings of almost all the team’s hitters to maximize contact and power. In addition to that, he’s had them spend a lot more time in the weight room.
Last season, the Dragons’ weightlifting room was virtually deserted. Other than LF Rob Hartley, an introverted fitness enthusiast who liked to spend time pumping iron while avoiding the media, hardly any of the players used the equipment. The toxic environment under Davidson meant that players tended to leave the locker room as fast as possible, and those who stayed were generally more interested in drinking and partying than working out.
Under Zambrucka, that’s changed entirely. The first thing Zambrucka did when he took the Jacksonville job was to put up a pair of signs in the room: one said “TIME TO FEED THE PYTHONS” and the other said “NO AGONY, NO BRAGONY.” He then developed an individualized workout regimen for each Dragons hitter, which he posted to the wall along with a sign-in sheet. He likes the players that “the cream always rises to the top,” and emphasizes that working out is a key part of that. If a players is not hitting the gym as hard or as often as Zambrucka dictates, the coach makes sure that they do. “Ernie has no trouble coming out on the field during BP and grabbing a guy and dragging him to the weight room if he’s not putting in the reps,” said Hopps. “He’s serious about it.”
But the players insist that Zambrucka is not a taskmaster. “Ernie’s a fun guy, and he makes sure we have fun,” said 3B Jake Kapoor. “He doesn’t accept excuses, but he’s not afraid to have a good time with it.” The coach likes to blast AC/DC, Metallica, and other hard-rock tunes in the weight room. And he encourages the players to challenge each other to work harder and do better. He regularly organizes batting practice and workout competitions, where the winning team receives a cheap trophy and a free dinner courtesy of the losing team.
“If they’re only doing the work because I’m yelling at them or making them do it, it’s not going to work,” said Zambrucka. “But if they’re challenging each other, trying to one-up each other and outcompete each other, then they police themselves. That’s how you build the right culture for a championship team.”
Zambrucka’s approach seems to be working. Where there had been a disenchanted, diffident collection of underachievers, now there’s a tight-knit group of quality hitters pushing each other to higher and higher levels of performance and having a blast along the way. “There are a lot of good talented teams in this league,” said Kapoor. “We might not win it all this year. But you’d have a hard time finding a group of guys who are tighter or more determined. We’re all pulling on the oars together in the same direction, and we’re not going to stop until we reach our goal.”