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Playing with a Purpose

When JP Zapata returned home to San Angelo after serving four years in the U.S. Army, including a one-year deployment to Iraq, he began contemplating what his future would hold.
  • JP Zapata
    JP Zapata
    Photo by Sarah Glenn

Already a husband, a father of two daughters and 24 years old, he had savings in the bank, available funding for his education and this crazy idea that had kept nagging him since he last played competitive baseball in 2007.

A product of the San Angelo youth baseball leagues, Zapata had starred at San Angelo Lake View High School. A three-year varsity starter, he led the Chiefs in hitting and earned all-district honors. He even played in an all-star game after his senior season. But that is where his career seemed to end until it was resurrected in 2014 when he earned a walk-on offer to play for the Angelo State Rams following a tryout.

“I never let go of the dream of playing college baseball,” said Zapata, who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 as a tomography engineer with the 4th Infantry. “The Army really taught me a lot of discipline and to stay focused, regardless of the situation.”

When his stint in the Army ended in March of 2013, it opened the free agency chapter of Zapata’s life. He spent time with his young family and enjoyed returning to his life away from the stresses of serving in a warzone. He also used the time to re-learn baseball.

Armed with a bucket of baseballs, he would throw by himself in a nearby field. He hit off a tee, took imaginary swings and fantasized about the possibilities. Fantasy became reality when he took part in the ASU tryout camp before the 2013 fall semester and was one of only two students from the 30 at the camp to earn a spot on the Rams’ roster. Head coach Kevin Brooks and the other Rams players could see his determination, the potential in his lefty swing and the leadership he could bring to the clubhouse.

“We could tell right away that he had a really strong work ethic instilled in him,” said senior pitcher Jake Feckley. “He talked to us about his time in the military, about being married and having kids. He told us that if he was going to spend time away from his family to play baseball, he was going to give it everything he had and would be out here with a purpose.”

Zapata did not seek recognition for his time in the Army, and few outside the team even knew his story until his success at the plate demanded its telling. In the second game of the 2014 season, he came on as a pinch-hitter and drew a four-pitch walk. In his next five plate appearances, Zapata got a hit each time. After serving in Iraq and being away from baseball for seven years, he had started his freshman season by going 5-for-5 at the plate. And, he proved it was no fluke by posting a .337 batting average for the season with three triples, two doubles and 23 singles.

“My first year was a great experience,” Zapata said. “I really wasn’t expecting to play much my freshman year, but I got opportunities and took advantage of them. It was great to have my family in the stands cheering me on, as well as being able to develop friendships with my teammates. I thought coming back to play would be fun, but I couldn’t have imagined how it worked out.”

  • Wes Bloomquist

    Wes Bloomquist

    Wes Bloomquist was the director of new media in the Athletic Communications Office at Angelo State University.
    E-mail Wes at wes.bloomquist@angelo.edu.