By LARRY HYPES
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD — If we pitch him, they will come.
For Zak Wasilewski and the Bluefield Blue Jays, that is part of the mantra for the 2013 Appalahian League baseball season. Wasilewski, a 19-year left handed pitcher and Tazewell High School graduate, is excited to be living his dream as a professional baseball player and glad to be so close to home.
“I just want to make the most of it (playing at Bowen Field). To be honest, I feel like I’m starting this season playing for Bluefield and for Tazewell,” grinned Wasilewski, who graduated from THS last year after a record-setting career for Lou Peery’s Bulldogs. “This is a great opportunity and I want to do my very best.”
Jays manager Dennis Holmberg, in his 43rd baseball season -- including 36 campaigns in the Toronto organization -- feels the same about all his players but recognizes that ‘Wassy’ is in a unique situation.
“He’s a left-hander from Tazewell and I like left-handers,” beamed Holmberg during a Monday workout. “Zak has a chance to further his career, he is beginning his climb up the ladder, and we would love to have everybody in Bulldog green up here (Bluefield) when he is on the mound. Any time Zak pitches, it would be great to see all of his friends, former teammates, and all local fans come out in support.”
Harry Kammer, a club booster and fan, says, “I know that blue is the color of choice for our team, but wouldn’t it be great to have a sea of green (Tazewell color) in the stands? The Blue Jays are Bluefield’s and Tazewell’s team, and Richlands, and we are excited about Zak being with us. I am a promoter at heart and this can be a fun thing for all of us. We can all cheer together.”
There is an excellent chance, in fact, that Wasilewski’s first professional start might happen this coming Friday, June 21, against the Greenville, TN, Astros.
“We’re thinking real seriously about that (starting),” confirmed Holmberg. “The weather forcecast looks good, Zak is preparing for it, and we are hoping to keep that schedule. It would be special, no doubt about it, if it happens.”
Wasilewski, a life-long baseball fan and loyal Bulldog, recognizes just special.
“I would love to be able to pitch Friday, and not just because it would be my first start in the league. You know, both Jack (Compton) and Billy (Wagner) played for the Astros. How great is that?” he said.
Compton and Wagner, like Wasilewsi, were both All State performers at THS. Compton played in the Appy League in 2000 for the Astros affiliate. Wagner was the overall 12th player chosen in the ‘93 draft by the Houston Astros and went on to an All-Star career with the ‘Stros, Philadelphia, Red Sox, Mets, and Braves as he posted 422 career saves.
Wasilewski just completed extended spring training at the Jays’ Duneden, FL, complex before being assigned to Bluefield.
“I really worked hard in the off-season to get in the best possible shape,” notes new Jay. “Spring was fun and a great learning experience. I pitched against the Yankees, Phillies, and Pirates. I was pleased with my effort. Believe me, professional hitters are a challenge so I have had to work hard on every pitch.”
Wasilewski knows a little about hitting after posting a career .504 average in high school with a THS-record 25 home runs. Nevertheless, his turns at the plate are likely a thing of the past.
“All pitchers think they are good hitters,” laughs Blue Jay pitching coach Tony Caceras. “There is a reason they are pitchers. My job — our job — is to develop these young men, including Zak, into pitchers. At this level, these guys are learning their craft.”
Holmberg agrees, noting, “Zak has a lot of physical talent. Right now, he’s a little like a bull in a china shop. I want him to learn how to walk carefully through that shop and not charge through it, if you get the idea.
“With his strength, the task is to slow the game down and let it come to him. All of the players out there on the mound are going to have to develop into pitchers and not be throwers if they expect to make it to the next level.”
Caceras adds, “Everybody here was a high school star. Not many of them got ‘hit around’ when they were pitching. Well, now all the players were either all region, or all city or all state, so the talent level is greatly improved. I guarantee that every young pitcher will have nights when they get hit hard and it is how they respond to that will determine their future success.”
For his part Wasilewski is determined to give baseball his best shot with a solid array of weapons.
“I want to stay aggressive with my fastball and move to the change when I need to,” notes the 6-1, 190-lb. hurler. “If I’m in the strike zone, I will feel good enough about that and I may go the curve sometimes as my put-away pitch. A lot of people ask about velocity and I’ve hit 94 (miles per hour) but usually I keep a rhythm slightly less than that.
“I just want to be comfortable out there and do my job. Just give my team a chance to win, that’s what I’m after.”
Local fans are eager for that to happen, too.
Each player is assigned a ‘sponsor’ and Wasilewski got Springville residents Carl and Lynn Burnett. Lynn taught at Springville Elementary from the late 1970s until she retired in 2002. She and her husband will never retire from being baseball fans and are thrilled to be working with Zak.
“Oh, this is wonderful,” notes Lynn. “Carl is as happy as he can be. We’ll find out what Zak likes to eat and get him some good food to take on road trips, or something like that. Whatever we can to help him be comfortable and play better is what we’ll do.”
Don Whitt, a THS grad of many years ago, whose son, Scott, was a fireballing pitcher for Bill Kinser’s Graham G-Men in the 1970s, is also happy with the new pitcher.
“It’s wonderful to see some Tazewell at Bowen Field,” says Whitt. “I look forward to Zak representing himself, the area, and Tazewell well. We all want to see him have a great career here and move a step closer to the major leagues.”
Holmberg says, “Just how quickly Zak, or any of the Bluefield Blue Jays, make that move will be up to them. He (Wasilewski) is a good kid. The main ingredient is for him to listen, and then adapt.”
Bluefield fans hope Wasilewski gets ‘in a zone’ and becomes a success.
That transition may well begin in a 60-foot, 6-inch zone this coming Friday.