Q&A: Todd Zeile Talks ‘Ultimate Rivals,’ Foreign Substances, and Best MLB Moment

Todd Zeile played for 11 teams over the course of 16 MLB seasons from 1989-2004. He had a career batting average of .265, belted 253 home runs and drove in 1,110 runs. In 2000, he helped the Mets reach the World Series where they fell to the Yankees.

These days, along with being a Mets pre- and post-game analyst on SportsNet New York, Zeile is co-founder of Bit Fry Games, which is set to release Ultimate Rivals: The Court on Apple Arcade and eventually on video game consoles. 

Sports Section caught up with Zeile to talk about the release, the gaming industry, his career in baseball, the foreign substance debate, and much more.

SPORTS SECTION: What can you tell me about Ultimate Rivals: The Court?

ZEILE: It’s a fast-paced three-on-three basketball game with modified rule sets. It harkens back to the times of NBA Jam with super moves, but The Court has this updated, modified environment and look and feel. 

Then it has the secret sauce of being able to cross the athletes from all of the major sports into The Court to play a mix-and-match game of superstars/superheroes. It’s a sports game built with the dynamics of a fighting game. 

You pick your team based upon the attributes you want to exploit in the game and not necessarily just who your favorite athlete is.

That adds a little bit of a unique flavor to it, and it’s pick-up-and-play. For a guy like me who’s not a good gamer, it’s also got a lot of depth and a lot of repeatability for people who want to continue to get better because it is sensitive to the gaming touch as you continue to play. 

You have licensing deals with nearly every major sports league’s players’ associations. How were you able to pull that off?

That goes back five-plus years when I got this call from BitFry Games CEO and founder Ben Freidlin. I was not involved in games, but we sort of aligned on this idea of being able to cross athletes.

The original concept was like being in a sports bar or by the water cooler and having that debate of whether or not LeBron James could be a good tight end, or if Bo Jackson is better at football or baseball, then taking that to the leagues and players’ associations.

I was fortunate after having a long career in baseball and being a part of the licensing committee with the MLB Players’ (Association) that I had a lot of relationships in sports. We started knocking down one domino at a time, starting with baseball and then on to hockey and basketball, and finally with the NFL players as well.

It was challenging at first to get everybody to understand that they could cross the IP and not undermine their own licensed product or their own IP. 

Why were the leagues so interested in the game itself?

Two factors really made it where everybody felt this had some potential. First of all, from a fan base standpoint, they recognized that sports games had all gone to ultra-simulated. Those are harder to play and take a lot of time and skill. They’re amazing to look at but are more challenging for some of the younger gamers. 

The leagues and players recognized they were losing some of their younger fan base and this might be an opportunity to get them back through gaming. It created this idea of multi-generational parents/children playing together, which is also I think key to these leagues’ and players’ sensitivities as far as their fans. 

Also, having a 365-day season. There is no seasonality when you can mix and match all of the athletes from all the different leagues, as opposed to other sports teams that are limited to the season when their sport is active.

What’s the timeline for release?

It’s looking like the second week in July on Apple Arcade. 

We had a closed beta and had about 30,000 signups in a relatively short amount of time and the feedback has been really, really fantastic. We’re looking forward to getting this on the market.

Is the next step getting into gaming consoles like Xbox and PlayStation?

Yes, absolutely. It’s always been the goal of the company to be a premium console game and PC. The type of game, the fast pace, and the potential for great competitive multiplayer online I think really lends itself to the PC and console world.

Were you always a gamer? Did you play when you were in the MLB?

I did, but very casually. I played some of the games with my kids. They were experienced gamers after 10 minutes, it felt like, and that was always frustrating to me. When Nintendo came out with the Wii, I’m like, “OK, well, this is something I can identify with because it’s easy to pick up and play and it’s kind of family-oriented.” 

My kids could be better than me and you can get really good at it, but you didn’t have to be an expert to play. You didn’t have to know the 36-button combinations and study for two months to be able to put plays together. It was that concept that appealed to me.

When you were playing 16 seasons in MLB, were you thinking about a future in business once you retired?

Sure. I was a guy that toward the end of my career looked to do other things. 

It’s not easy to try to reinvent yourself a number of times so this was an opportunity to kind of get back to sports a little bit. I’d sort of drifted away from sports.

I had a long career in baseball, but at the end of the day, I was 38 years old when I was done and had a lot of life left. You have to figure out ways to keep involved, and this keeps me stimulated and motivated. I was never a guy that was going to walk away and spend five days a week on the golf course.

The big story these days is pitchers using substances to grip the baseball. What’s your take on it?

Quite honestly, I think it’s bad timing and as much politics as it is practicality.

The reality is that the pitchers have been sort of taking back the upper hand this season. Offense is down and pitching is dynamic. But two years ago, the big complaint was that balls were flying out of the park at a record pace and pitchers had no chance 

Well, the pitchers were using substances on their hands in 2019 as well, and nobody really cared about it. And by the way, most hitters would rather know that the pitcher has a good grip on the ball. I’m already starting to see some balls, up and in, hit batters even in the last week with these rules. 

There could be something better regulated. I don’t think it’s necessarily as egregious as the stories are being made. And I think it’s ironic that the league decided to change the baseball this year and make the seams higher and the ball a little softer, which is an advantage to the pitchers. 

Right now, they run the risk of guys getting hurt in the middle of the season just arbitrarily. They could’ve made announcements that they’re going to be taking a better look, but to make this huge statement in the middle of the season runs the risk of creating problems that are worse than the problem of having the sticky substances in the game.

You hit 253 home runs during your career. What do you make of the new wave of power hitters such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.,. Fernando Tatis Jr., and Ronald Acuna Jr. hitting balls a mile?

I love watching those kids. I follow them closely and I watched (the Mets’) Pete Alonso do amazing things two years ago by hitting 53 homers as a rookie. I’ve gotten to see Tatis a lot over the last few weeks and Guerrero and Acuna so there’s still some offense in the game. 

There are still guys having dynamic seasons from an offensive standpoint and I think it’s great. They are exciting players. I like the flare and the style that they bring. 

Gone are the days of my generation of old-school baseball. It’s a new era and I was resistant to it for a while because I was sort of a very even-keeled, unemotional, old-school player on the field, so I’ve had to adapt to the new style.

The Mets are in first place in the NL East. Can they keep it up? 

I think they certainly can. They’ve been injury-plagued and the good news is they’ve been able to find ways to maintain that lead with some reserve guys coming in and playing really good baseball, and with great starting pitching and a solid bullpen before it got really banged-up.

But they’ve got some of their regular guys coming back and they’re going to have to plug them in and jumpstart that offense to be able to maintain that lead.

What’s it like watching Jacob deGrom when he pitches?

I love it. It’s can’t-miss TV every time he takes the mound. We’ve run out of superlatives every time we do a game because he’s rewriting the pitching record books. Even when he’s not feeling 100 percent or when he’s having his little ailments to take him out of the game, he continues to just marvel with the stuff and the location and the precision.

Do you have a fondest memory in your career? 

The 2000 World Series with the Mets was amazing. It was a great time to be in New York and we ended up on the short end of that (against the Yankees), but given that was my only World Series experience and I played well in the New York subway series made it amazing.

But if I had to pick one specific moment, it would probably be a year later. Going through 9/11 in New York City and then the role and impact that the Mets had on re-establishing the sports in the city and playing the first game back here in New York, and the big win against the Braves was probably my fondest memory because of the magnitude of that moment.

Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic, and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at Chris.Kuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.