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Monday, June 23, 2014

Interview Part 1: Jim Czajkowski, Stepped Foot

New Hampsire Fisher Cats pitching coach Jim Czajkowski, right, keeps an eye on his pitcher during a June 2014 game at Trenton. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: Stepped Foot | Part 2: Daily Work
Part 3: Life Lessons

TRENTON, NJ - Sitting in the bullpen at Colorado Springs, Jim Czajkowski's pitching coach went down the line of pitchers.

Czajkowski was a 30-year-old relief pitcher on his fifth organization in nine seasons. He had yet to make the majors.

Now, before this July 1994 game, his pitching coach Frank Funk matter of factly delivered messages to his pitchers: Who was ready to go that night and who wasn't.

"Frank Funk walked down and started pointing fingers," Czajkowski recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently, "telling guys 'you're OK to go tonight, you're OK to go tonight.'

"He then pointed to me," Czajkowski recalled, "and he said 'you're going to San Francisco tomorrow, and then pointed to the next guy and said 'you're OK, you're OK.'"
New Hampshire pitching coach Jim Czajkowski throwing batting practice before a June 2014 game at Trenton. (G21D Photo)
Czajkowski tried to keep his excitement under control. San Francisco was the major leagues, where his parent club the Rockies were playing.

He also knew that he'd been told that before, in a previous organization. The call up didn't materialize then.

"I tell the young guys now, 'don't ever think you're going somewhere until you touch down and you're there,'" Czajkowski, a long-time minor league pitching coach and 2014 pitching coach at AA New Hampshire, said.

With that, Czajkowski's excitement had to wait.

"I never got too excited about that until I actually stepped foot in Candlestick," Czajkowski said.

He had made it. He was in the majors.

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.
One of Jim Czajkowski's New Hampshire pitchers, Radhames Liz, looks in before a pitch in a June 2014 game at Trenton. (G21D Photo)
Czajkowski covered his early time learning the game as a youth while moving frequently for his father's job, then his time in college and then realizing his dream to play baseball professionally.

He then told of 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 was born in Ohio, but he grew up around the United States. His father was a purchasing agent for a large construction company, a job that took the family of six to Alaska, Oregon, Alabama and California.

It was in California that Czajkowski spent his high school years, at Fairfield High School outside of San Francisco.

As the family moved, Czajkowski learned the game. He came from an athletic family. His three older brothers were all good athletes. His father also loved baseball.

New Hampshire pitchers Randy Boone, left, and Tyler Ybarra head to the bullpen before a June 2014 game at Trenton. Their pitching coach is Jim Czajkowski. (G21D Photo)
"It was just a natural progression," Czajkowski said. "If I wanted to hang out with my older brothers, I had to play with them, whether it be basketball, baseball or whatever."

On the baseball field, Czajkowski recalled finding his niche as a pitcher. He could throw the ball just about wherever he wanted.

"I had real good control," Czajkowski said. "I was a very thin-frame guy that couldn't overpower people. In the outfield throwing, I had a cannon of an arm. It never really translated to the mound until I got a little older."

"When the two met, I knew I had legitimate stuff," Czajkowski added.

In college, Czajkowski moved around, as well. He started at Solano Community College in Fairfield. He then moved to San Jacinto College outside of Houston, where his father was then based.

By then, he had gotten some offers from Division 1 schools. But Czajkowski wanted to play. That was important. Throughout his college years, Czajkowski said, he "majored in eligibility."

So his choice was an up-and-coming Division 2 school, the University of North Alabama. There, he got playing time. He also got noticed.

That came, he recalled with a mention in USA Today. Czajkowski got the mention by putting together 23 scoreless innings as a reliever.

Then, in the regional tournament, Czajkowski showed his durability by going in five games in three days, throwing 90-plus throughout.
New Hampshire pitching coach Jim Czajkowski talking with players after batting practice in June 2014 at Trenton. (G21D Photo)
"The ability to bounce back, the ability to throw hard, was good enough for the scout to give me a chance," Czajkowski recalled.

When draft day came, though, Czajkowski wasn't expecting to hear his name called. He was expecting to return to school that fall to finish his degree.

That's because, while he had success his senior year, he still didn't get to pitch as much as he thought he'd have to to get drafted.

Then the Braves came calling, taking Czajkowski in the 29th round of the 1986 draft.

"It was a dream come true getting the opportunity to play professional baseball," Czajkowski said, saying later, "I had no idea. I thought my career was done."

He had gotten his foot in the door. His next task was to keep that door open until he realize his other dream: Making it to the majors.

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

Go to Part 2: Jim Czajkowski, Daily Work

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