Baseball America’s 2014 National Freshman of the Year was 3 years old when his father, Patrick, registered him for T-ball in Pembroke Pines, signing a waiver because little Zack Collins was two years younger than the others.
Turned out Zack at 3 was considerably better than his 5-year-old teammates.
“We’d put him at shortstop, the ball would be hit to second and he’d run over and grab it before anyone got near it,’’ said Patrick Collins. “He was all over the place, so we had to stick him in the outfield to give other kids a chance.’’
That didn’t work, either.
“Finally, we said, ‘Zack, let the other kids play!’’
Seventeen years later, Collins — now a 6-3, 220-pound power-hitting terror at the plate, and a catcher behind it — will lead the No. 9 Miami Hurricanes in their 7 p.m. season opener Friday against Rutgers.
“Zack’s incredible,’’ said Andy Suarez, UM’s left-handed ace who spurned $987,800 as a second-round draft pick to return to UM (44-19 in 2014). “Zack’s already a big-league hitter. It’s crazy.’’
And the big leagues, already in line for Collins’ gifts, can’t even draft the left-handed-hitting sophomore until after the 2016 season.
That, in turn, makes UM coach Jim Morris very happy, as he attempts to get his team back to the College World Series for the first time since 2008.
“Zack is fun to watch,’’ Morris said. “He loves to hit.’’
Collins was the sixth player in UM history to be named National Freshman of the Year, joining hefty company in Chris Hernandez (2008), Ryan Braun (2003), Kevin Howard (2000), Pat Burrell (1996) and Alex Fernandez (1989).
A consensus All-American and ACC Rookie of the Year, Collins hit .298 last year with a team-leading 11 home runs, 54 RBI and .556 slugging percentage.
And he did all that after starting the season 1 for 27 — a 0.37 batting average.
Collins’ first career hit after an 0-for-17 start was almost worth the suffering: a sixth-inning, three-run blast at Mark Light Field to break a 2-2 knot and give UM a victory over the Florida Gators.
“It was meant to be,’’ Collins said. “The whole crowd knew I was in the biggest slump in the world and everybody went crazy, including me.
“I was trying to hit a home run every time I got up. I was trying to be a hero, and it was the wrong approach.’’
Collins grew up a huge Canes fan. He attended Jim Morris’ baseball camps every year, and was part of UM’s Baseball Buddies program that pairs youth-league players with Hurricanes on the field before lineups are announced.
Recently he pulled out a photo his mom took of him standing next to Gaby Sanchez, the former Miami Marlin and Pittsburgh Pirate who played third base at UM. Collins was 8.
“I never realized it was Gaby Sanchez until just now,’’ Collins said. “I was standing next to a future major-leaguer.’’
And he, in turn, could be destined for the same. The Plantation American Heritage graduate was drafted out of high school in the 27th round by the Cincinnati Reds and is being touted as a top major-league prospect.
He was the MVP of Team USA’s 16-Under squad and was named International Baseball Player of the Year when the U.S. won the gold medal against Cuba. He played for Team USA this past summer in the Netherlands and Cuba, and led the collegiate national team with three home runs in 55 at-bats.
When asked which achievement ranked higher, National Freshman of the Year or making Team USA, Collins said it was a tough choice, but he’d go with the latter.
He called it “an awesome feeling’’ to wear the USA jersey. “It’s kind of weird how when you put it on, it gives you this electric feeling.’’
MLB.com analyst Jim Callis listed Collins as the No. 8 prospect among national-team players, most of them older.
“He has a carrying tool in his massive left-handed power,’’ Callis wrote. “Collins’ pop earns him some comparisons to Kyle Schwarber, who played with the U.S. squad last summer and went fourth overall in the 2014 draft to the Cubs.’’
UM assistant coach Gino DiMare said what makes Collins stand out is his bat speed, “the ball jumping off the bat. It comes through the zone a little differently than other guys. He’s explosive, in a class with Yonder Alonso or Pat Burrell or Ryan Braun.’’
And this season, expect the ball to fly off his bat even farther, as the newly designed baseballs with flatter, tighter seams will mean less wind resistance and more home runs.
“We’re going to score a lot more runs,’’ Collins said. “I expect an amazing season for all of us.’’