By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It took about as long as it takes to spell his last name for Zak Wasilewski to decide on his future.
According to Karen Wasilewski, Zak’s mother, her son is going to pass on playing college baseball and head to Florida next week as part of the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
Wasilewski, the standout Tazewell left-handed pitcher, was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 14th round of the Major League Amateur Draft on Tuesday. He was the 445th overall selection in a process that goes for 50 rounds.
He had previously signed to play at two-time defending NCAA champion South Carolina, but baseball, not school, was his first choice.
“He told them he was a ballplayer more than a student and he wanted to take a chance,” Karen Wasilewski said. “I told him, ‘Life is all about taking chances and you might not get that chance again. Sometimes you have to go for it.’
“He can always go to college. He is very intelligent, but this chance may not come again. He is very excited.”
So was Tazewell head coach Lou Peery, who had another hard-throwing left-hander — Billy Wagner — drafted in the first round out of Ferrum College in 1993, and he enjoyed a long career as one of the top closers in major league history.
“This is something he has worked for ever since I can remember when he was 11 or 12 years old,” Peery said. “He worked hard and had his mind set on it and I am glad his dream has finally come true.”
Lou Peery Field in Tazewell was a busy place this spring, with pro scouts often seen high above home plate, holding radar guns to check the speed on Wasilewski, who regularly throws in the low-to-mid 90s, and also swings a mean bat as the school’s all-time leader in home runs.
“It was his decision, and this is what he was playing for,” Karen said. “He could take a chance and go to college and get injured and then the door may not get opened again.”
Peery knew that Wasilewski was going to be a winner, no matter which direction he chose.
“You would figure it would be a tough situation, but you have got the best of both worlds,” said Peery, Tazewell’s long-time baseball coach. “He can play professional baseball or he can play for one of the best college teams in the United States. Which door do you go through, one or two.”
Karen Wasilewski said that the family expected Zak to go in the top 10 rounds of the draft that began on Monday and continues today, but that having both ACL and Tommy John surgery may have scared some teams off.
Yet, Wasilewski had a stellar senior campaign, including a no-hitter of Class AAA state champion Princeton.
“You don’t know what each team is wanting,” Karen said. “It is hard to tell, but I think Zak’s injuries kind of deterred them a lot.
“Zak has proven that is not an issue. He threw a no-hitter against Princeton that won the West Virginia state. He has proven himself, and now he has to prove himself on a different level.
“We are all so excited.”
It made for a couple of anxious days at the Wasilewski household.
“Zak was pretty upset and kind of nervous,” Karen said. “Since Zak was 8 years old he has wanted to be a baseball player and play ball.
“His dream hasn’t stopped. He loves the game and you have got to do what makes you happy.”
Wasilewski’s mother credit much of Zak’s development to Peery and his Little League coach, Steve Mitchem, who visited with him earlier in the day, trying to keep his spirits up as the draft progressed.
She said Wasilewski — who will turn 19 later this month — was also in contact with his agent about the decision, and another former left-handed Tazewell pitcher, Taylor Herald, helped as well, simply asking Zak what he wanted to with his life.
There was never a doubt. His has maintained a one-track mind, and for good reason.
“He didn’t let anything be a distraction for what he wanted to do,” Peery said. “He worked harder and stay focused on what he needed to do and he got it accomplished.”
Wasilewski follows Wagner as the second Tazewell to be drafted by a major league team. Another Bulldog, Jack Compton, signed as a free agent and spent some time in the Houston Astros’ organization after playing at Bluefield College.
“Not many schools have the privilege of having players who come out of high school and play ball even if that is what the goals are,” Peery said.
Ironically, Wasilewski could begin his professional career with the Bluefield Blue Jays. The Appalachian League season begins on June 19, which is just three days after Wasilewski turns 19.
Now that is a birthday present.
—Contact Brian Woodson