This is the second installment in The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team, 1981-2016. Today, we look at first basemen.
To recap how this team was selected, current players and players who finished their eligibility prior to 1981 were not eligible. Players who began their college career before 1981 but finished in 1981, ’82 or ’83 were eligible, with their pre-1981 achievements more or less grandfathered into this. This affected several players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.
At the end of the day, both objective analysis and subjective opinion played a role in determining who made this team. I’ve taken painstaking care in going over this to make sure I’ve included everyone who is worthy. If, however, I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent. And if your favorite player did not make this team, it was not intended in any way to diminish that player. NC State has had more than its share of great players. I couldn’t list everyone.
Coming Tuesday: Second basemen.
• First Base — Turtle Zaun (1985-88)
Not surprisingly, two names jumped off the page when I went through the candidates at first base, and this was about as close a call as I had to make. In the end, I chose Turtle Zaun by a nose over Tracy Woodson. Zaun, whose nickname was given to him as an infant and had nothing to do with his celebrated lack of foot speed, won on a combination of longevity and peak value. Woodson’s great 1984 season was the greatest individual offensive season in school history, but it wasn’t that much greater than Zaun’s two great seasons in 1987 and ’88. Woodson’s slugging percentage in ’84 was a school-record and otherworldly .930, the only time a Wolfpack player ever slugged better than .900 in a season. His overall stat line that year was jaw-dropping. Still, Zaun is the only Wolfpack player ever to slug better than .800 twice (.834 in 1987 and .811 in 1988, which rank 2nd and 3rd in school history). He still stands among the school’s all-time leaders with a .372 career batting average (4th), 54 home runs (2nd), 195 RBIs (5th) and a .711 slugging percentage (2nd). He earned first-team All-ACC honors three times — in 1986, ’87 and ’88 — and captured ACC Player of the Year honors as a senior in ’88. He is one of just two Wolfpack players, along with Pat Clougherty, to hit 20 or more homers in a season twice (22 in 1987, 25 in 1988) and holds the school record for RBIs in a season with 87 in 1988. Zaun didn’t show much power his first two seasons, but he did hit for a solid average, batting .305 as a freshman and .322 as a sophomore. Head coach Sam Esposito, looking for more than singles from a corner infielder and DH, challenged Zaun after the 1986 season, demanding more run production. So Zaun hit the weight room and the results were dramatic. No player in program history has enjoyed back-to-back seasons comparable to Zaun’s junior and senior campaigns. He batted .402 (10th in school history) with 18 doubles, 22 homers (5th), 66 RBIs and a .485 on-base percentage (8th) as a junior in 1987; then topped that by hitting .399 with 19 doubles, 25 homers (tied for 1st), 87 RBIs (1st) and a .489 on-base percentage (tied for 6th) as a senior in ’88. He was never quite as great as Woodson at his peak but he was great for longer, and the overall arc and length of Zaun’s career pushed him past Woodson and over the top here. In short, his peak was close enough to Woodson’s and lasted twice as long. In 2003, he was voted to the ACC’s 50-man 50th Anniversary team.
• Second Team — Tracy Woodson (1982-84)
Quite honestly, Tracy Woodson could have been listed as a utility player for the purposes of choosing this team. He played second base as a freshman in 1982, shifted to third as a sophomore, then settled in at first base as a junior in 1984. First base was his position from then on and in all candor, he’s here because of that 1984 season, an utterly mind-blowing campaign, which, again, he turned in as a first baseman. Woodson batted .373 in 1984 and led the ACC with a school-record 25 homers (one every 6.32 at-bats), a then-school-record 77 RBIs, and a video-game-like .930 slugging percentage. He did all of that in just 40 games. That will almost certainly stand forever as the greatest single offensive season in school history. He was an easy choice for All-ACC, ACC Player of the Year and All-America. Woodson’s ’84 season didn’t quite come out of nowhere but it kind of seemed that way. He batted just .232 as a freshman in 1982, but with a team-best eight homers and 37 RBIs in 33 games. He followed that by hitting a respectable .299 with 13 homers and 52 RBIs as a sophomore in 1983, again leading the team in homers and RBIs. That’s two solid if unspectacular seasons, but hardly predictive of the explosion to come. Woodson’s ’84 season made national headlines, yet critics and naysayers were quick to note NC State’s soft non-conference schedule, a semi-valid point that ignores the fact that Woodson hit everybody that year, not just the cupcakes. Besides, if it was that easy, how come no one else did it? We’re talking a homer every 6.32 at-bats. There are numerous players who can’t do that in batting practice. Woodson earned second-team All-America honors in ’84, becoming just the second Wolfpack All-American in 15 years (by comparison, 13 NC State players made All-America the following 15 years). At this point, we need to talk about opportunity and length, not strength, of schedule. Before 1986, the Wolfpack never played 50 games in a season, usually playing way fewer than 40. Rivals around the country, meanwhile, were routinely playing more than 60. Some West Coast teams played 90 or more games. In this respect, NC State was very late arriving to college baseball’s modern age. That was hardly Woodson’s fault but he was certainly a victim of it. The Pack played just 115 games in his three seasons. He saw action in 110 of them. By comparison, Turtle Zaun played 115 games combined in 1987-88 alone. Jeff Pierce played 135 games in his two seasons in Raleigh, 1990-91. Despite the glaring lack of opportunity, Woodson still ranks third in school history with 46 home runs and ninth with 166 RBIs. His career slugging percentage of .720 is a school record. Records for homers per at-bat have not been kept over the years, but it’s unfathomable that anyone can approach his career mark of a home run every 8.78 ABs. No one considered for this all-time Wolfpack team was even close. It’s quite fair to assume that had NC State given Woodson more opportunities by playing, say, 50-60 games a year (as opposed to 38, 37 and 40), he might well be listed ahead of Zaun on this all-time Wolfpack team. Food for thought, but I don’t deal in hypotheticals. It may be unfair because of it, but it’s Zaun and Woodson, not Woodson and Zaun. End of discussion. In 2003, Woodson was voted to the ACC’s 50-man 50th Anniversary team. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the third round of the 1984 June draft, and he was in the big leagues in time to play in the 1988 World Series. He had the game-winning RBI in Game 3. He played in parts of five big league seasons for the Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. He currently is head baseball coach at his hometown University of Richmond.