Within a stone's throwing distance of the Twin Cities--yet far enough to be in its own world--lies Delano, the hometown of Baysox pitcher Zach Muckenhirn.
Minnesota born and bred, the left-hander comes from a land of communities dotted amongst the Land of 10,000 Lakes, where the people create a welcoming and hospitable, yet tight-knit atmosphere.
"It's a small town [that] has about 5,000 people," said Muckenhirn. "I really like home. Summers there are beautiful and [it's] always a short drive to a lake. I love the lake life. When I was growing up, the town consisted of two neighborhoods. Practically all of your friends lived [next to you], so you hopped on your bike, knocked on their door and played with all of your friends.
"You also knew everyone in school (and) had class with pretty much everybody. The sports teams also were very small, so they wouldn't cut anyone. I grew up playing sports with the same group of kids. Baseball, basketball, and football all pretty much had the same teams all the way through."
Nestled along the South Fork of the Crow River, Delano served as the backdrop of young Zach's development, complete with a cast of family members who played vital roles as he grew up.
"I am the youngest of three: my sister is the oldest and then my brother," said Muckenhirn. "My mom and dad still live in the house that I grew up in. My sister was done with college by the time I went, (while) my brother was in his fifth year for my freshman year. He was getting his Master's degree in Architecture and my sister is a registered dietician.
"Honestly, I think about this all the time. I think for my personal development, it helped me a ton that they were older than I was. You get to see them go through things, learn things, and show you how to do things whether they want to or not. We all got along and, even though there was an age gap, we shared interests and we all did the same thing.
"Part of that is my fault: I literally copied everything my older brother did so, whether he liked it or not, I was right there tagging along when he was hanging out with his friends. Now, I think it really helped us transition into adulthood [because} were all close and really good friends. We share a lot of interests and, no matter how long it has been since we have seen each other, we have things we like to talk about and stuff we like to do."
Then, there are his parents. She's a longtime paraprofessional at Zach's high school. He's a longtime accountant. Deep within the DNA of the baseball player are the traits established at home.
"That's the other thing too: obviously my brother and sister were good role models, but my parents [were too]," said Muckenhirn. "Even to this day, they are my parents but are also two of my closest friends. I can talk to them about anything. They also showed me how to work hard, how to stay focused on something, [how to] push yourself, and obviously how to handle things. [They showed me] how to be as good of a person as you can be. That is probably why even now I just don't go to them when I need something, I feel like I can go to them to just be around them and hang out. They taught me how to be who I am."
So, who is Zach Muckenhirn? For one, he's a lover of the learning. After all, he studied Computer Science and Math while at the University of North Dakota (with a minor in statistics, by the way).
"One thing that I can do is take virtually anything and turn it into a learning process and learn something from it," said Muckenhirn. "I'm always putting myself in challenging situations--not to fail, but to grow. I am really goal driven, too, so I always have some target in my mind no matter what it is that I am doing. There's always something down the road that I am shooting for.
"My mind tends to drift into places that I guess other guys' minds doesn't. I don't want to say that I am the nerdy guy because that's a cliché at this point. Everyone claims to be a nerd, but talking about school, and studying, and science is right up my alley.
"That is why this whole revolution in baseball with numbers, data, using computers and technology makes me very happy and excited because that is how my brain works. I am an analytics guy in a baseball player's body. I am trying to experiment with myself trying every day to incorporate as much information as I can and trying to couple that with athleticism and ability."
Incorporating this unique combination has led to a bit of a transition during pro ball. The kid from Delano quickly adapted to life in a much different environment.
"(One thing) that I have learned is how to fit in a little better in a clubhouse," said Muckenhirn. "Pro ball in general was a totally foreign concept for me when I first did it. Growing up, being a professional baseball player sounded like a nice dream to have, but there is no way that I could do that. Being a part of it all the time, I definitely learned how to interact with the guys, but I also learned about myself.
"Let's say I'm struggling or I can't seem to change something or something goes off the rails a little bit. (I'm learning) what it is about me that makes me click again: what is it I have to do to get back on track?. As the years and games go by, you sort of filter out 'this is the stuff that made me successful' (and) 'this stuff was kinda useless. I shouldn't really focus on that anymore.' Just kind of learning what works for me and staying focused is probably the biggest thing for me."
This juxtaposition between brains and brawn helped catch the attention of the Orioles back in 2016. Two months after the University of North Dakota's baseball program was eliminated due to budget cuts, Muckenhirn became the highest-drafted player in UND history, going in the 11th round.
"I did not know that I got drafted when I got drafted," said Muckenhirn. "We were actually doing some yard work outside and I was literally shoveling dirt or pulling weeds. Then, I came inside and had a missed call from my college head coach. He actually got a hold of my dad first and I was like 'what did he want to talk to you about?' and [my dad] was like 'you probably just want to call him back.' That is how I found out.
"That was a crazy time actually because, while it culminated in being drafted on that day, the baseball program had been cut. What had been happening was I starting games on Friday nights, getting on a plane that night and flying to other schools to take official visits for my senior year. Then, I would fly back to meet my team on Sunday so that we could fly back to UND together.
"So I was pitching, visiting schools, obviously finals, final projects, trying to navigate scouts and trying to convince them that I was worth something. I also had to talk to my agent about trying to figure things out. It was a pretty crazy, crazy time."
Of course, he made it through that craziness and has played in four different levels in the Orioles' minor league system over the past two seasons. Part of how the lefty got to this point of his career reverts back to home.
"(I) have to think about 'what got me here in to begin with? What am I good at? Why would I be successful while playing pro ball? Why can I be successful in the classroom?' You just have to rely on the fact that if I have done this stuff before, I can do it now. I just have to stay focused a little longer. It will be over one way or the other soon enough. You just kind of have to roll with the punches and rely on your strengths. That's even stuff you talk about when you're in the middle of a game, too."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.