Going, Going, Gone: The Struggles of a Minor League Baseball Lifer

Jim Czajkowski, in his playing days.

The minor league baseball season has just begun. How rare is it for a minor league player to reach the majors? Just ten and a half percent will make it. Of those who do, one in five won’t last more than a year. This is the story of Jim Czajkowski, a ballplayer who, at the time of this writing in 1992, seemed to have missed his chance of reaching the big leagues, yet wouldn’t quit the game. Ultimately, it’s about the impact those years of minor league ball had on his and his family’s life. As chance would have it, two years later, a spate of injuries to Colorado Rockies pitchers would vault Czajkowski to the majors — for a career that would last 15 days, until a strike ended the baseball season and his one chance with the team. He is now a Toronto Blue Jays minor league pitching coach. This piece ran originally in the May 1993 edition of Inside Sports magazine, a publication whose own life was brief.

Jim Czajkowski, a 28-year-old relief pitcher for the Class AA El Paso Diablos, was growing tense. It was the top of the eighth inning in the next-to-last game of the 1992 Texas League season, a contest that would propel either the Diablos or the visiting San Antonio Missions to within a game of the league championship. Any minute now, Czajkowski was going to be called on to pitch. And for once, he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

It was hard not to sympathize. At the moment, the league was batting .296 against him, and his recent outings were trending downward. He’d been the losing pitcher the previous night against the Missions, when a punchless .216 hitter had walloped a ball over the 20-foot-high Marlboro Man sitting atop the rightfield fence — the player’s first and only home run of the year.

Czajkowski (pronounced Sigh-COW-ski), a tall Californian built like a muscled surf king, had no idea what he was doing wrong. Though he threw 90 miles an hour, harder than any pitcher on his team (90 was the mark of a power pitcher back then), the big leagues had never seemed further away. He suspected that after two months of subpar performances, he was almost out of chances with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Diablos’ major league affiliate. Almost out of chances, period.

Up in the grandstand, his 27-year-old wife, Cheri, crossed her fingers, sensing his hesitancy.

“Say a prayer for Jim,” she urged her companion, a pastor’s wife, when her husband entered the ballgame. Her friend didn’t have time. Three pitches and a two-run double later, Czajkowski was on his way to the showers.

“He’s never done this bad before,” Cheri said to her friend, as she watched her husband trudge off the field. “I just don’t know how we’re going to handle this.”

Czajkowski barely slept that night. He slumped on his living room couch into the wee hours, pondering where his career had gone wrong. The TV was on, white noise buzzing from it, the sound like that of a housefly.

Not much had gone right for Czajkowski since he’d joined the Diablos a season earlier— his ninth team in seven years of professional ball. His first year with the club, in 1991, he’d blown nearly half his save opportunities and had been demoted from closer to set-up man, a clear signal from management that his future with the parent team had stalled. Not that he needed more signals. Milwaukee was his third big league organization in as many years. He had failed earlier with the Atlanta Braves, the team that had originally drafted him out of college, and more recently the Pittsburgh Pirates had given up on him, too. Frankly, he was lucky to still be with the Diablos. This was his fourth straight year in Class AA, a level meant for players three or four years younger than he. At this point, he needed to advance or go home.

The Diablos’ manager that season was Chris Bando, a former catcher who had played nine years in the big leagues. While he felt badly for Czajkowski, he adhered to the game’s Darwinian, eat-or-be-eaten philosophy. “There’s a ton of Jim Czajkowskis out there,” he said, the day after the pitcher’s second straight meltdown. He noted that two months earlier, the then-28 major league teams had selected 1,412 graduating high school seniors and college students in baseball’s annual June amateur draft.

The top players chosen had become instant millionaires. But for most, the money was meager. The Braves waited till the 29th round to draft Czajkowski, in 1986, out of the University of North Alabama. They selected him mostly for his size and roughneck attitude. He signed for $1,000, a pair of spikes, a Braves jacket and an equipment bag. He didn’t need an agent.

Back then, Czajkowski didn’t realize what a longshot he was. Just ten and a half percent of his draft class would reach the majors, and of those, one in five would have careers lasting no more than a year. “You sign them and you let them sort themselves out, said Keith Leippman, the Oakland A’s player development director at the time. “You give a player like Czajkowski an opportunity, but there’s a constant supply of fresh talent, and sooner or later there will be a new one to take his place.”

These last months, Czajkowski had come to understand that. Once as cocksure of his talent as Reggie Jackson, he had now downsized his dreams. The day after his heater was smoked over the Marlboro Man, he glanced around his Spartan, $600-a-month apartment with its rented furniture and thin stucco walls. “To make it for one game,” he said, “that’s what I think about now.”

Czajkowski has sacrificed almost everything in pursuit of reaching the big leagues. A professional ballplayer with seven years’ experience, he earned $2,500 a month for five months that season — barely enough to support him and his wife and their two young boys. Even that was step up from his first contract, for which he received a total of $2,100 for three months of play. His first two years, he had to take out bank loans in order to get by.

At times, Czajkowski couldn’t even afford his own equipment. “Teammates who’d been released would dump their spikes in the garbage,” he recalled. “I’d pull them out and wear them. Got some gloves that way, too.” While playing in Greenville, Georgia, and Beloit, Wisconsin, he slept on people’s floors. His life was nothing like he’d imagined it would be.

The dream — playing major league baseball — had been Czajkowski’s singular focus since age 12. The fifth in a family of six athletic children, he had won local fame as a Fairfield, California, schoolboy pitcher. He had hoped to be drafted following his senior season in high school, and had headed to college only when no big league team did. When asked what he had majored in, he replied, “Eligibility.”

Eventually, the Braves took a flyer on him after a scout happened to see him pitch for North Alabama, where he served as an occasional starter and all-purpose reliever. “He wasn’t an outstanding prospect,” said Dickey Martin, the man who signed him. “But he threw in the mid-80s and I liked his attitude.”

That wasn’t what Martin told Czajkowski, though. “The scouts don’t tell you how small your chances are,” the pitcher said, in his El Paso apartment. “They say, ‘Go for your dreams!’ I figured I’d be in the big leagues by the time I was 25.”

When Czajkowski reported to the Braves’ rookie league team in Idaho Falls, Idaho, he looked around the clubhouse, saw he was the biggest guy there and assumed he’d be the ace of the pitching staff. But one needs more than a fastball to be an effective pitcher, and Czajkowski was slow to learn that lesson. His only other pitch was an inconsistent slider. He was confounded when smaller hurlers passed him by.

He did have some success at the minor leagues’ lower reaches, where his fastball proved enough of a weapon to earn him the nickname, The Polish Prince of Darkness. By mid-1989 he had accumulated 51 career saves, had made three straight Class A All-Star teams and was chafing that the Braves hadn’t promoted him to Class AA.

He didn’t know, however, that Atlanta’s team executives had already cooled on him as a prospect. They had grown frustrated with Czajkowski’s inability to develop a second pitch, which made success above Class A unlikely. Another organization might have shown more patience, but at the time the Braves were rich with pitching prospects, future Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine among them. “Jim needed another pitch to get to the next level, and he kind of got lost in the shuffle,” said Buddy Bailey, Czajkowski’s manager at the time.

In midseason, the Braves decided it was time for a final assessment of his potential. They promoted Czajkowski to their Class AA Greenville team to see what he could do. His first games there, pitching in relief, he lost both ends of a doubleheader. Thereafter, he was exiled to long relief, often pitching in contests that were out of reach. Cheri, pregnant with their first child, didn’t join him. The move wouldn’t have been viable financially. She remained in Durham, North Carolina, where they’d lived before Czajkowski’s promotion.

Czajkowski finished that 1989 season with a 1–6 record and an unsightly 5.56 ERA. Several months later, the Braves scouts and minor league executives voted unanimously to release him. “If only one person had given a positive statement, we would have kept him,” said Bobby Dews, Atlanta’s assistant farm director at the time.

Not every baseball organization was as rich in pitching as the Braves, though, and in 1990 the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him, enamored by the promise of his fastball. “He was a big, aggressive kid with a strong arm,” said Chuck LaMar, then the Pirates’ minor league director. “Like a lot of organizations, we believed we could take that strong arm and fix him.”

Their interest in him didn’t survive the season. “He couldn’t put things together,” LaMar recalled. “One night he’d show everything we’d been looking for, and the next night he’d have nothing.” After a few weeks, the Pirates demoted him from their Class AA team in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to their Class A club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A month later they traded him to Milwaukee for career minor leaguer Greg Edge, Czajkowski’s infield equivalent. When the Brewers assigned Czajkowski to their Class A Beloit, Wisconsin, team, he sensed he was on his way out of baseball.

Cheri suspected the same. A part of her was ready to move on. “Nobody who didn’t love Jim as much as I do would stay with him,” she said. “The money’s no good and we’re uprooted all the time. There have been times when I think, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and there have been times when I’ve said in my prayers, ‘Why can’t we just get out of this and get on with our lives?’”

This was a stressful period for the young family. Czajkowski and his wife were saddled with debt. Over the winter, to save money, they moved in with Cheri’s parents, in Tennessee. Czajkowski took a job at a local Walmart processing returned merchandise, earning just over minimum wage. His baseball career seemed tenuous, at best. True, the Brewers hadn’t released him. He considered calling to check his status, but decided against it; he didn’t want to give them any ideas. Still, he could see the writing on the wall. “Every night, Jim talked about quitting,” Cheri said. “It was a delicate issue. I couldn’t be the one to make him quit. I was afraid that one day when he was around 45, he’d look me in the eye and say, ‘I could have made it.’ We’re very much in love now, and that would ruin our marriage.”

Meanwhile, up in Milwaukee, it was the Brewers’ turn to assess their commitment to Czajkowski. Like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee had a weak bullpen, and the team saw enough potential in him to renew his contract. In a show of hope that he would find that elusive, second pitch and make the big league club, they promoted him to the team’s 40-man roster. “We feel that anytime you can find a kid with good arm strength, you can teach him a second pitch to get him to the majors,” said Bruce Manno, Milwaukee’s farm director at the time, sounding very much like Pittsburgh’s LaMar.

Czajkowski was elated. “Every player dreams about getting that one chance to show what he can do,” he said. “This was going to be mine.”

He fumbled it. Czajkowski finished the 1991 season at El Paso 5–2, with 11 saves. But those numbers were deceiving. He surrendered 100 hits and 29 walks in just 78 and a third innings. Over the course of the season he was demoted from closer to middle relief, and ultimately was dropped from the 40-man roster. “We thought we could teach him that second pitch,” Manno confessed, “but we couldn’t.”

Czajkowski blamed off-field problems for his failure. Cheri had spent the entire 1991 season with her parents in Tennessee; she was pregnant again, and they couldn’t afford to live together on his salary. To make matters worse, Cheri’s father was dying of cancer.

The couple saw each other just three days that summer, when Cheri gave birth to their second son in mid-July. Czajkowski agonized that his baseball career was fracturing his family. “On the field, I couldn’t concentrate,” he said. “Here I was playing ball, while Cheri was 2,000 miles away, too pregnant to lift up our one-year-old, trying to take care of her dying father.”

But the Milwaukee executives observed an entirely different set of issues. They saw a limited pitcher so frightful of failure that he had sacrificed his native aggressiveness on the mound — the single trait that had defined him as a pitcher.

“Something changed in him,” said Dave Huppert, his manager that season. “Maybe it was because he had never succeeded at the Double-A level and had started doubting his ability. Maybe he’d had his hopes set on pitching in Triple-A, and he felt the air go out him when he got sent down. Whatever it was,” Huppert continued, “all of a sudden he got timid out there. He’d walk a batter, fall behind in the count and come back with a fastball over the middle of the plate that would get hit a mile.

“We’d tell him, ‘Be aggressive, try to get a feel for the hitter and change speeds.’ He’d listen to us and throwing on the side he’d do fine. But in a game, he couldn’t do it. He was a very emotional pitcher, very hyper, and he’d get between the white lines and forget everything we told him. It was very frustrating for us. The only reason he wasn’t released after the season was because good arms aren’t a dime a dozen.”

For Czajkowski, and to the Milwaukee executives who oversaw his career, the 1992 season proved more of the same. Bando had become the Diablos manager. Except for a spate of midseason injuries to the team’s other pitchers, he might have been released. “I told him the organization was losing its patience,” Bando said. “I told him, ‘You’re 28 years old. It’s time to do something, or your time is up.”

Czajkowski didn’t know how to respond. Earlier in the season, in desperation, he had consulted a psychologist to help unravel his problems, but it hadn’t worked. His first thought, after his meeting with Bando, was what to tell Cheri. “After all our sacrifices, after all we’ve been through,” he said, “I wondered if God was now going to take baseball away from us, too.”

Cheri was as shaken as her husband. “We don’t have a life outside of baseball,” she confided. “All our friends are in baseball. Our most important milestones happened around baseball. Our honeymoon was during winter ball. The year Josh [their first child] was born, the doctor had to induce my labor two days before spring training so Jim could be there. Jim was in El Paso while I carried our second baby. We’ve given so much to baseball. I wanted us to see it through.”

Czajkowski managed to survive the remainder of the season, in part because he teased management with occasional dominant outings and in part because the other Diablos relief pitchers were as ineffective as he. When challenged on why he remained convinced he’d eventually make it to the majors, he repeated the name Tim Fortugno, as if it were a mantra.

Fortugno, a plucky lefthander, had been Czajkowski’s teammate at Beloit, and later at El Paso. The previous spring, after kicking around the minors for as long as Czajkowski, he had finally caught his break and made the California Angels as a 30-year-old rookie. Like Czajkowski, he had a wife and two small children, and had never earned more than $7,000 in a season playing baseball.

Players like Fortugno, though, are as rare as finding an Indian head penny. It had been at least three years since the San Antonio Missions — the Diablos’ opponent in that critical, end-of-season series — had had a single player over age 25. “Czajkowski is 28,” reminded Bando. “A prospect is someone between 20 and 24.”

In truth, none of the baseball people who have passed through Czajkowski’s life still consider him a prospect. Not his managers or pitching coaches, not the scout who signed him, not any of the player development directors who shifted him like a chess piece from team to team.

And yet, not one will level with him. Not even now.

“Sure, I felt guilty [about extending his dream],” said Dews. “But he could throw over 85 miles an hour.”

“To tell Czajkowski to hang it up would break his heart,” said Bailey. “You hate to crush a kid’s dreams. I was a backup catcher who topped out at Double-A, and I know that’s how it was for me.”

Joel Youngblood, a former big league outfielder/infielder who managed the Baltimore Orioles’ 1992 Class A Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, is similarly uncomfortable suggesting to a borderline player that his chances of making it are slim. “Let’s say a guy goes to the bullpen one day and develops a pitch that is unhittable,” Youngblood said. “Would that change his life? That’s why he’s here, hoping that something will click. It’s not up to me to decide whether he’s ever going to do that or not. But as long as he’s in uniform, he has a chance to do it.”

In fact, that’s what happened with Los Angeles Dodgers star pitcher Orel Hershiser. He, too, struggled in the minors, at one point surrendering 20 runs in just seven innings. He went to his pitching coach and manager and asked if he should hang it up. They ducked the question, he later came to understand, and advised him to keep pitching. In the process, he perfected a marvelous sinker — one of those “unhittable pitches” Youngblood talks about — and became one of the game’s preeminent players.

For a brief moment, it seemed that that was about to happen for Czajkowski, that he had at last mastered his craft. It was now the third and final game of the series that would determine whether the Diablos or San Antonio would win the Texas League title. The Diablos entered the seventh inning holding a 5–2 lead. But the Missions were threatening. They loaded the bases with one out and Billy Ashley, the Missions’ top slugger who would be called up to play leftfield for the Dodgers the following week, was next to bat. Bando signaled for Czajkowski to enter the game.

Ashley had already homered twice off Czajkowski that season — once off the scoreboard in right-center, and once over it. This time, though, the pitcher was fired up and ready. He fanned Ashley on a low, tailing fastball, struck out the next hitter, then breezed through the eighth. In the ninth, he extinguished the Missions on five pitches.

Czajkowski’s teammates raced onto the field, cheering and punching their fists in the air. The pitcher hugged his teammates, then climbed into the stands and embraced his wife. “What stops me from quitting is a night like this,” he exulted afterward, in the Diablos’ raucous clubhouse. “Last night I threw my best stuff and got hit, and I thought maybe I wasn’t good enough to pitch anymore. Now I believe again. There will be another day. Jim Czajkowski will get a chance to prove himself again.”

Sadly, not everyone agreed. Grady Mack, then a scout for the Florida Marlins, an expansion team that would join the National League the following year, had been studying Czajkowski from a box seat behind home plate. In a few months the Marlins would be drafting players, some from the Texas League. “He has some ability,” Mack conceded, as the Diablos celebrated around the pitcher’s mound, “but he doesn’t have major league stuff.” He cited a ninth-inning pitch that one of the Missions players had driven to deep centerfield — a ball that had been caught on the warning track. A major leaguer, he said, would have hit it for a home run. “He’d be a fill-in guy at Triple-A,” Mack concluded. “He’s not a major league prospect.”

Following that 1992 season, two months prior to Czajkowski’s 29th birthday, the Brewers gave up on him, too. The club announced plans to focus on its younger pitchers, and released him. “We gave Jim every opportunity to improve,” Manno said. “We felt we had exhausted every avenue to get him over the hump.” Later that off-season, the Marlins passed on him, as well.

Czajkowski and his family endured some difficult, anxious months. In early December they were teetering financially and without health insurance. But Czajkowski planned to hang in there, believing he was too close to making the majors to quit. A few days later, his name appeared in a Chicago Tribune article. He had signed a new minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs.

“This organization needs a lot of pitching,” Al Goldis, then the team’s minor league director, told reporters. “Czajkowski’s a big kid with a live arm, and there’s not too many guys out there with live arms. Hopefully, he can come around for us. Who knows?”

Author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.” Has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and ESPN.com.

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