It's the top of the fourth inning at Bart Kaufman Field and the IU baseball team finds itself in a jam.
Illinois is in Bloomington for a late-April game and has runners on first and second base with one out.
As the Hoosiers look to get their defense set, one voice echoes around the stadium.
“Double play, guys, double play.”
It's not the voice of IU Coach Chris Lemonis. He might be telling his team the same thing, but he has hand signals for that. Instead, the voice is coming from the stands — specifically from IU’s honorary assistant coach, Zachery “Coach Z” Mezger.
Zach has long been connected with the turnaround of IU’s baseball program. He joined the team before Bart Kaufman Field even existed. He was brought in by former IU Coach Tracy Smith while Sembower Field was the home of the Hoosiers.
Zach was the manager of the Bloomington High School North football team while Smith’s sons played, and through that connection, he was brought to IU.
“He was there when there was not a lot of support for baseball, and he’s grown with the program,” Smith said. “That’s one of those things that makes the story so special.”
However, IU’s turnaround story pales in comparison to the story of Zach’s battle.
Zach has been diagnosed with septo optic dysplasia, cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and pulmonary hypertension.
In simpler terms, Zach, 26, is cognitively 10-12 years old, struggles with short-term memory and is considered legally blind.
When he was less than six months old, an MRI discovered excess fluid in his brain. Kelly Mezger, his mother, said she recalls doctors telling her he would be a “vegetable.”
Due to the excess fluid, Zach experienced seizures before doctors decided to place a shunt to drain the fluid. Twenty-three years later, Zach finds himself in the stands for most, if not all, IU baseball home games.
Zach's condition requires constant care, but Kelly and his father Jeff will do anything to get him to the games.
“They give him so much,” Kelly said. “I will sacrifice my sleep to keep his heart happy.”
The work of the Mezger family does not go unnoticed.
“It’s a three-person team, it’s not just Zach,” Smith said. “The fact that they’ve dedicated their lives to giving their son the happiness to be a part of that is an example for all parents of what it truly means to be supportive.”
Zach is not embarrassed by his scars, either.
During the game against Illinois, he took off his hat and showed his new friends the the scars his battle has left behind.
“Scars are for studs,” he and his family say.
He is not ashamed of his differing abilities either. To the Mezger family, there’s no such thing as disabilities; rather there are advantages and abilities.
The athletes learn that as well.
“They get used to my advantages,” Zach said. “They get used to me.”
He just wants others to understand.
“When people look at me like I’m different, it really hurts my feelings,” Zach said.
Those close to Zach have learned to look at him no differently. Over time, Zach has bonded with numerous professional athletes through ProCamps.
ProCamps is an event management and sports marketing company that helps organize sports camps for athletes. Zach grew close to the company through Smith’s brother-in-law, Gregg Darbyshire. Darbyshire is the co-founder of ProCamps and has welcomed Zach into yet another big role.
“He got so good at understanding what we do, I called him the co-CEO of ProCamps,” Darbyshire said.
Zach has built friendships with athletes such as Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and many more.
As much as Zach enjoys them, the athletes gain a lot from Zach as well.
“He’s a great reminder for the athletes and an inspiration,” Darbyshire said. “This is a young man that could feel sorry for himself, and instead he takes what he has and makes the best of it. It’s good for them to be reminded of how blessed and gifted we all are.”
Zach has done much more than just inspire the athletes.
“For my kids, they don’t see Zach any different because Zach is their friend,” Darbyshire said. “As a parent, you’re not prouder of anything than that. I love for my kids to be around Zach.”
One athlete in particular who has been close with Zach is former IU player Kyle Schwarber, now an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs.
Schwarber has stayed in touch with Zach after going professional. Zach has taken part in Schwarber’s camps while also attending Cubs spring training.
However, the moment that stands out to the Mezger family most came moments before the biggest game of Schwarber’s career. On the day of game seven of the 2016 Major League Baseball World Series, Zach sent Schwarber a message wishing him luck.
Just two hours before first pitch, Zach got a response: “thanks for your support. love you bub.”
“Bub” is the term Zach uses to describe the members of the IU baseball team.
“These guys are part of my family— my brothers and my bubs,” Zach said.
Bub is also just one of the nicknames Zach has handed out to his friends. Smith goes by “skip,” Lemonis is “riff-raff” and former IU women's basketball player Tyra Buss is “sissygirl.”
During the women's basketball WNIT Championship run earlier this year, Zach grew close with Buss and members of the team. During the WNIT quarterfinal game at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall between IU and the University of California at Davis, Zach sat courtside with Lemonis.
“He’s the biggest fan out of anybody,” Lemonis said. “I don’t know if anybody in that arena was more excited than he was. He kept turning to me and saying ‘the roof’s gonna come off.’”
The off-field bond between Lemonis and Zach stretches beyond IU athletics.
“We FaceTime about three times a week, and if I don’t answer I get a text that says ‘FaceTime,’” Lemonis said. “He’s just a good friend.”
Lemonis took over as IU's head coach in 2014 after Smith left to take the head coaching position at Arizona State. The Mezgers and the Smiths were worried about how to break the news to Zach. It was not easy at first, but over time Zach has learned things happen for a reason and has grown to enjoy the trips to Arizona.
One piece of Smith will always remain close to him for Zach, as well.
When Zach helps coach third base during practice, he wears the No. 21 helmet that was previously used by Smith. All the while, the bond built between Lemonis and Zach is one of the best outcomes.
“I love him,” Zach said. “He took me under his wing.”
Smith has noticed the way IU baseball has developed under Lemonis, but Smith has also admired what Lemonis has done with Zach.
“I really appreciate what he’s done with the program and with his relationship with Zach and the Mezger family,” Smith said. “The fact that he’s embraced that and built upon it is certainly a testament as to who Chris is as a person and a coach.”
Despite coaching IU baseball and cheering on many other IU teams, Zach has still kept up with his own sports. Zach participates in Special Olympics, particularly in bowling and basketball.
Zach said his sister, Amelia, taught him his “sweet shot” and has been his “biggest supporter and biggest pusher of him to be his best.”
But right now, Zach has a top priority — 2018 IU baseball.
He says the team needs to take it one game at a time as it approaches postseason play. The key to winning — no errors.
“I don’t want any errors because if I see an error I get really pissed off,” Zach said. “Don’t drop it, do not drop it.”
As long as the team can keep the defense clean, the goal is simple for Zach.
He points to the wall in right-center field of Bart Kaufman Stadium commemorating IU's 2013 College World Series team.
“Our goal is that right there — CWS,” Zach said. “I think this year we can get a championship.”
In the end, regardless of the result, Zach will continue to have a constant smile on his face and a positive attitude, despite any struggles he may face. His family says they continue to live by the motto “We thank God for the memories of the day,” and when they wake up, “We thank God for giving us another to love and be blessed by our wonderful, amazing life.”
With each wonderful day he has, Zach continues to cherish every moment while also taking his position seriously.
“Winning or losing, we still love the fans,” Zach said. “When I walk out the gate, I’m just like a regular kid. When I come in, I’m Coach Z.”