Andrew Zito recalls having to make a decision near the end of his career as a high school baseball player in central Florida, but it wasn't a matter of choosing which college scholarship to take.
He decided to stop playing.
"I hung up my cleats," he says, and enrolled at the University of Central Florida (UCF). He earned his degree in marketing, with a minor in sports business, in 2010 and moved to Chattanooga two years later to work for the Lookouts, then the Class AA Southern League affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Zito says he started as a food-and-beverage intern, for which he earned "600 bucks a month and a place to live." He was later promoted into group sales, then to group sales director and, in 2019, to vice president of the Lookouts, now affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds.
"We all do whatever it takes, on a nightly basis, to have a successful event," he says. "That means I could be greeting people at the gate or helping clean up after a kid who's had too much ice cream.
"We all wear a ton of hats, and it's the relationships we build that keep us coming back every day. It's really special," he says.
Zito notes his classroom experience at UCF, but adds that his experience outside the classroom has proven at least as valuable, especially taking volunteer opportunities with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars and the Orlando Predators, a National Arena League indoor football team.
"That was when I understood I could have a career in sports and not be on the field (as a player)," he says, adding that his volunteer experiences ranged from serving as the Predators' media ambassador to a Jaguars game at which he "wrangled footballs in front of 60,000 fans" at halftime for kids participating in a skills competition.
And then there was a marathon run in Orlando, where he volunteered to be a mile-marker cheerleader.
"They bussed us out at 5:30 in the morning, to mile eight," he recalls. "We were in front of a lady's house, and she invited us up to have breakfast.
"Our job was to cheer the runners, and I will never forget the reactions from them as we're standing there, cheering for them -- the appreciation they had. That sticks with me," he says.
Zito says that after graduating from UCF, he took some time to figure out what he wanted to do. He recalls a buddy prodded him to attend the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings in Dallas in December 2011.
"I dropped 52 resumes, got 11 interviews and one job opportunity -- in Chattanooga," he says, adding that he moved north right away and started in January 2012.
The Lookouts won Southern League titles in 2015 and 2017 and made the playoffs in 2023. Zito says it's "super special to be part of a winning team ... and to see these (players) grow and try to reach their dreams of the major leagues."
One might wonder whether, after a decade-plus in Chattanooga, Zito might be thinking in terms of his next stop, perhaps further up the ladder toward the big leagues. Not so fast, he says.
"When I think of going somewhere like the (New York) Yankees or (Atlanta) Braves, I'd go in as a number," he says. "There are 14 of us (full-time staff) here who make this thing happen every night -- every decision, every relationship, affects the bottom line of this organization. Being here has provided me incredible opportunities to be involved and make a difference. I get concerned about losing those opportunities and becoming a cog in a wheel.
"And it sounds corny, but Chattanooga just gives you a big ol' hug," Zito adds. "The people are so nice -- they support each other. There's a homey, fun feel about Chattanooga that's hard to picture anywhere else."
* Age: 36
* Hometown: Fort Myers, FL
* Education: University of Central Florida (marketing/sports biz)
* Hobbies: First and foremost, I love hanging with my Golden Retriever, Betty White; enjoying all the outdoor activities Chattanooga has to offer — just being outside, hiking, exploring the region, trying new food.