Tyler Benninghoff was distraught.
He had Tommy John elbow surgery in 2016 after tearing a UCL, then rehabbed through a partial tear in 2020. But he fully tore the ligament again in spring training this year, and suddenly the rookie-level pitcher faced missing all of this season and next from the surgery. That would mean, in 2023, he'd be a 25-year-old minor league free agent with a twice-repaired arm looking for a new team.
The alternative, though, was even more daunting.
"What the heck do I do at 23 years old? No college education. And the only thing that I've ever really been passionate about is baseball," Benninghoff said. "And now I can't even throw a baseball anymore."
Then the Twins cast him a lifeline in the form of Z1CareerZone.
The online career training program aims to help professional baseball players transition into life without the sport, breaking down all the basics, from how to craft a résumé to what questions to ask in an interview. The Twins are the first MLB team to implement it.
Jeremy Zoll, Twins assistant general manager, estimated the organization has more than 200 minor league players in the system; a large percentage will never make the major leagues.
"These guys are all in on trying to maximize their potential and have the longest career they can, but then their careers often come to an abrupt end," Zoll said. "It just felt like we could be doing a little bit more to set them up for success."
The Twins committed to paying the fee of about $1,000 for the first 20 players who sign up. And in return, Jim Zasowski, president and founder of Z1CareerZone, will donate $250 back to the Twins Community Fund for each player who completes the program.
“The elephant in the room is no one wants to think about that or admit that they think their career could end sooner rather than later or that they're even considering life after baseball.”
Zasowski didn't develop this program with baseball in mind, more for recent college graduates. But as a Tennessee baseball alum, this recent turn feels a little bit like fate.
"I'm a baseball guy. I love baseball," Zasowski said. "I've lived and breathed and died it for a long time in my life. And to be able to see that this is helping them out is fantastic."
Z1CareerZone is an online course made up of five zones: strengths assessment, hiring process, résumé-building, social media and interviewing. Within those zones are 12 total modules — activities, quizzes, even taped video lectures from Zasowski — to help reinforce the information.
Each player receives a customized "playbook" to keep notes in and rely on once he finishes the program. Zasowski makes himself available for extra help, as well as career and résumé coaches for an added cost. Zasowski is also working on translating the entire program into Spanish, after some Spanish-speaking Twins players expressed interest.
On average, the program takes six weeks to finish, though players can take as long as four months. And because it is on-demand, players can work it around their schedule. Alex Robinson, a Class A pitcher whom the Twins released at the end of spring training this season, became the first player to complete the program, which he did in two weeks.
Robinson heard about it from a Zoom the Twins hosted for all minor league players that brought in former players Kevin Jepsen, Andy Wilkins and Tanner English to recommend it.
English, an outfielder who briefly touched Class AAA while in the Twins system from 2014 to '19, was a part of the somewhat fortuitous way Z1 found the Twins. English finished his college degree through MLB's partnership with Northeastern and benefited from a job placement program through the university. He told an agent he knew, Mark Leinweaver, to be on the lookout for something like that for other players.
An intern at CupCheck — Jepsen's lawn game company — then facilitated a meeting between Leinweaver and Zasowski after noticing the program on social media. Leinweaver made one of his clients, former Twin Dietrich Enns, be the proverbial guinea pig and test out the program using his own money.
The feedback from that, per Leinweaver: "Every minor league baseball player needs to take this."
Given all the strange Twins connections, and his working relationship with Zoll, Leinweaver knew the Twins were the organization to pilot this program he's convinced others will copy. Teams such as San Francisco and Cleveland have already shown interest.
Wilkins, for one, thought something like this was long overdue.
"I hope that this catches on and organizations invest in their people more so than just, 'What can we get out of them?' " Wilkins said. "I played for, I think, seven different organizations, and the Twins were by far one of the most thoughtful, caring organizations for their players."
The road ahead
On the Zoom, English tried to voice what many players avoid: Whether now or at age 40 after a long MLB career, at some point, they will have to move on to something else.
"It's not even re-entering the real world because in my eyes we were never in the real world," English said. "It is like just being birthed into this whole, big old ball of unknowns, and it's the scariest thing in the world."
One of his best friends is still a pitcher in the Twins organization and jokingly asked him after the Zoom how much the Twins paid him to promote this product. English said nothing, he just really felt like this was a great service more players should know about and take advantage of, and his friend became one of 11 players so far to take part.
That's a common hurdle the Twins have encountered when trying to pitch this. Zoll said he tried to assure players that signing up was not an indictment on their MLB chances.
"The elephant in the room is no one wants to think about that or admit that they think their career could end sooner rather than later or that they're even considering life after baseball," Zoll said. "Because they want to be 100 percent all in."
Beninghoff felt that way when he was one of the hundreds listening in on that spring training Zoom. Little did he know he'd reinjure his arm in a couple of days and find his opinion reversed.
Beninghoff is still working his way through the program and knows he'll use this information once he enters the workforce. But taking those strength-finding and career-aptitude tests from the first module actually helped him immediately.
"It came up with going back to school and getting a degree in construction management, which was kind of weird for me. I never really thought about construction management," said Beninghoff, who will enroll at the University of Arkansas this summer. "But after sitting down and doing this research, I was like, 'Man, this might be something, A, I'm really good at and, B, really enjoy.'
"For however long I do it."