UNION — One Union resident’s lifelong dream of playing big league baseball has finally come to fruition.
“I’m a baseball junkie,” admitted Zach Staniewicz, who moved to Union from Verplanck, N.Y. in 2008 with his mom, Cathy Staniewicz, in search of a lower cost of living and warmer weather.
Staniewicz, 26, began playing tee ball around age five and realized he had a natural ability. He said he has always had lots of support from his mother.
“I had a natural knack for it from the get-go,” he said. “When there’s something you’re good at, you want to stick with it.”
Not only did Staniewicz stick with it, but he has devoted the bulk of his free time to baseball ever since. He played baseball through high school and then at Concordia College in New York. After that, Staniewicz played with numerous independent baseball teams, including teams around the country as well as the Hamilton Thunderbirds in Ontario, Canada. He also played with the Union Dodgers through tri-county summer travel baseball and had a stint with the Spartanburg Crickets in 2008.
“I will not let anyone else out work me,” he said.
USC Union Bantams baseball coach Paul Wilkes, who was Staniewicz’s teammate in tri-county baseball, confirmed that.
“He has the drive,” Wilkes said. “He doesn’t let anything hold him back. I’ve seen how hard he works out, and if there’s a tryout or session with a pitching coach somewhere, he makes time for it. He doesn’t let time or having to travel to a different state hold him back. If there’s an opportunity, he’s going to go for it.”
Staniewicz is a pitcher, and he possesses the unique talent of throwing a great knuckle ball.
“The pitch doesn’t get the respect it deserves,” he said. “It’s the hardest pitch in baseball to throw effectively. With a fastball or a slider, you’re trying to spin it a certain way. With this, you’re trying to take the spin off, so it’s totally different.”
Staniewicz mentioned there is only one knuckle baller in the major leagues right now — 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.
Staniewicz joined the U.S. Air Force Reserves in 2011, and while serving at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, he received a call from a friend — Chris Nolan — who had worked with Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Nolan invited Staniewicz to come throw with Niekro, who is the only knuckle ball pitcher in major league history to have over 300 wins.
“Phil is one of the greatest guys ever,” Staniewicz said. “He had a lot of good things to say. He told me to keep working on the knuckle ball, so I committed myself to the pitch. He told me to eat, sleep and breathe the knuckle ball. He said it can’t be a secondary pitch; it’s gotta be all you throw. I took that advice.”
Staniewicz said Niekro filled him with confidence and reaffirmed what his attitude should be on the mound. He also tweaked some of his mechanical techniques.
“He wants to help me out, which is unbelievable,” Staniewicz said. “To meet a Hall of Famer is one thing, but for a Hall of Famer to want to work with you … is unheard of.”
After working with the Hall of Famer, Staniewicz began to look for a new team to join. While playing with the Crickets, Staniewicz was impressed with one of the opposing teams — the U.S. Military All-Star team. He looked the team up online; sent in a resume; and was asked to join. He took two weeks leave during the summer to play with the team.
“This is good baseball,” he said. “We were playing teams in the Cape Cod League and the Coastal Plains League.”
Although Staniewicz is a skilled knuckle baller, he admitted being afraid to throw the pitch at first while playing with the U.S. Military All Stars. He only threw the pitch in the bullpen until he was spotted doing so by assistant coach Rex Jenner.
“He was like ‘Whoa! That’s ridiculous! That’s a big league knuckle ball. That’s all I want you to throw. This is your calling. Not too many people can do what you can do.’” Staniewicz said.
From there, 90 percent of his pitches were knuckle balls. During a coaches’ meeting, Staniewicz was told that his coaches all believe he has something special, and head coach Terry Allvord told him he wanted to have him throw for a friend of his — Baltimore Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette. Staniewicz of course agreed and went to Camden Yards with the intention of throwing in the bullpen for Duquette before an Orioles game.
After eating lunch inside the stadium, Staniewicz went to the bus and asked his coach if he should get his gloves and cleats, but his coach said, “No, he’s already agreed to sign you.”
“Someone asked me, ‘What just happened?’” Staniewicz said. “I was like, ‘I’m not sure, but I think I just got signed by the Orioles!’”
Staniewicz then met with Duquette, who realized he had already worked with Niekro. Duquette gave him a verbal agreement during the summer and said he wanted to hire Niekro to work with him during spring training.
Staniewicz went back to Gwinnett, Ga. to work with Niekro Jan. 7-8, and recorded video of his sessions with him. He said Niekro believes in the knuckle ball pitch and wants it to live on. Staniewicz played the video on Monday afternoon, which displayed Niekro pointing at him and nodding with approval.
“Did you see that? Did you just see that!” Staniewicz exclaimed.
Niekro made several comments complimenting Staniewicz on the video, and Staniewicz was ecstatic that the Hall of Famer was welcoming him to a small fraternity of knuckle ball pitchers.
“That comment right there ate me up,” he said, smiling with pride at the screen of his laptop. “And his attitude. The way he’s been talking.”
On his way home from Georgia, Staniewicz received a call from the Orioles’ director of minor league operations, offering him a minor league contract.
“I think they’re gonna work with me and give me time to develop,” he said. “They’re hiring Phil to work with me during spring training in Sarasota. I don’t know for how long, but in my opinion, that is an indicator of commitment to me.”
He will go to spring training early camp on February 17, and he will officially start spring training on March 2.
“I have played independent ball, which is pro, but this is a Major League Baseball organization, and I will go to one of their farm teams,” he said. “This has been my dream forever.”
Staff Writer Derik Vanderford can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 29, or by email at email@example.com.