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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Interview Part 3: Jim Czajkowski, Life Lessons

New Hampshire pitching coach Jim Czajkowski, left, talks with infielder Kevin Nolan during a June 2014 game at Trenton. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: Stepped Foot | Part 2: Daily Work
Part 3: Life Lessons

Jim Czajkowski regularly reaches back to his playing days in his current job as a minor league pitching coach, but he reaches back to his days growing up, he recalled recently.

"My mom was a teacher growing up, so I consider myself a teacher of baseball," Czajkowski, pitching coach for 2014 at AA New Hampshire, told The Greatest 21 Days recently. "I teach these guys, I give them life lessons on what baseball is about. They can use it or they don't."

Czajkowski's own life lessons in the game date back more than a quarter century. He spent 12 of those seasons as a player, including 558 total pitching appearances in the minors and all of five appearances in the majors.

He's spent much of his time since his playing career ended helping to mold young pitchers and send them on to the next level, first in the Braves system and, since 2011, with the Blue Jays.

Perhaps Czajkowski's biggest life lesson came with sticking it out for nine seasons in the minors before finally getting his call to the major leagues in 1994. Waiting for him in his long-awaited major league debut was San Francisco's Barry Bonds, Matt Williams and Darryl Strawberry.
New Hampshire pitching coach Jim Czajkowski on the field prior to a June 2014 game at Trenton. (G21D Photo)
Czajkowski spoke with The Greatest 21 Days before a recent game at Trenton's Arm & Hammer Park, where Czajkowski's Fisher Cats were taking on the Trenton Thunder.

Czajkowski covered his early time in the game, turning pro and then his efforts to stay in the game long enough for someone to give him his shot at the bigs. That was something he had prayed about, asking to get just one day in the majors. He got 15.

He then told of working to get back in the game, trying to get someone to give him a shot at coaching. He's been coaching in the minors ever since.

Czajkowski's major league debut came July 29, 1994 with the Rockies in San Francisco. It was Czajkowski's ninth season as a pro. He recalled stating his case on the mound at AAA Colorado Springs for his shot at the majors. He had a 2.71 ERA in 44 outings.

"I was pitching so well that I almost forced the issue," Czajkowski said. "'Hey, this guy needs a chance.'"

After an injury to another pitcher, Czajkowski got his chance.
A New Hampshire hitter swings in a June 2014 game at Trenton. In the foreground is fill-in manager Sal Fasano. (G21D Photo)
Called up to the Rockies for a series at San Francisco, Czajkowski debuted against those three hitters, Bonds, Williams and Strawberry. He also debuted in front of a host of family and friends. Czajkowski spent his high school years in Fairfield, outside of San Francisco.

When he got to the mound, Czajkowski recalled his nerves going away. "Now it was just competing against guys you dream about competing against," he said.

His debut didn't go as well as he had hoped. He gave up three hits, two of them on broken bats, "but I managed to get out of it. I gave up just one run," Czajkowski recalled.

With that, Czajowski was a major leaguer. There were also major league problems on the horizon that Czajkowski had no control over. He also didn't have time to ponder them.

"I was so locked in at the moment that I didn't care about the strike," Czajkowski said. "My dream has cone true, I was in the big leagues."

Czajkowski got a total of five outings with the Rockies late that July and early that August. In 8.2 innings, he gave up four earned runs. His final outing came Aug. 9, two days before the players struck.

Czajkowski spent the next three seasons trying to get back. His 1995 season started poorly at Colorado Springs. He believes he ruined any chance he had that year with his bad start.
Getting ready before a June 2014 game at Trenton. Jim Czajkowski is leaning against the fence, on the right. (G21D Photo)
In fact, Czajkowski recalled, he pitched awful.

"I tell these guys all the time, I ruined my chance of getting another chance with the Rockies my first month," Czajkowski said. The lesson there: Don't let up.

After that, Czajkowski played two seasons in the Blue Jays organization, but he never saw Toronto. He even looked elsewhere, including Japan, but he never got to go. His career was done.

His next task was to get back into the game as a coach. It took him two years, but he finally got his foot back in the door with the Braves.

Those two years were spent getting his resume out to organizations and getting letters of non-interest back. He had almost given up on it, he recalled. What got him in, Czajkowski said, was a visit to his old minor league teammate Steve Avery, who was rehabbing at AA.

The Braves, it turned out, had a couple jobs open. After some phone calls and interviews, Czajkowski was in.

"It was kind of a perfect fit because I'd been drafted by the Braves, all their coaching staff was pretty much still intact. I knew a lot of them, they knew me," Czajkowski said. "It all kind of fit together."

He then spent the next 11 seasons with the organization as a minor league coach. He spent six of those seasons at rookie Danville.
At the rail during a June 2014 game at Trenton. Jim Czajkowski is on the left.
He recalled the rookie level as particularly fun, because they were just learning to be a professional, Czajkowski said.

"These guys," Czajkowski said of his AA hurlers, "they're a little bit older. They know how to act professional. They should be able to do professional type things. The coaching is less, it's just tweaking motion, mechanics and talking about strategies."

Then there's the personalities. Czajkowski and any coach has to deal with many different ones. He knows he must approach each personality differently. Once he figures that out, he can decide whether a more direct approach is necessary, or one with more encouragement would work.

"I give it a couple weeks of me knowing these guys," Czajkowski said. "Spring training's not enough because everyone's just fighting for a job there. But, during the season here, I've got to find out what's my tool going to be."

And, once they get to know him, they know Czajkowski speaks from experience.

He experienced everything they're experiencing and then some.

"They look at my resume, they know I was pretty much a career minor leaguer," Czajkowski said. "So whatever they're going to do, I've done already. So I think I can relate to them on those issues.

That resume includes six seasons with time at AA, five with time at AAA. It also includes that one season, 1994, where he got 15 days in the bigs.

"I kind of know what they're going through," Czajkowski said.

Part 1: Stepped Foot | Part 2: Daily Work
Part 3: Life Lessons

Be sure to read Part 1: Jim Czajkowski, Stepped Foot

1 comment:

  1. Was he featured in an article, I think Sport Magazine, around 1992-94 and his struggles in the minors?

    I think it was him, it was a rather sad article about him and his struggles to make it to the majors, and how little money he and minor league players made. I remember them talking teams liking his size as a pitcher, and him later briefly making it to the majors before the 94' strike.