April 21, 2004
THE PROMISED LAND...
That's the title of a great Springsteen song. It's also a lyric that he's used in more than one song, the one place that we all have in our hearts, and do our best to try and reach.
Bruce didn't coin the phrase. I think it was the product of some other writer from a long time ago who knew a guy named Moses leading his people in search of a better life.
In my world, the Promised Land is usually thought of as three places- Omaha, the minor leagues, and the big leagues. As I have gotten older and hopefully wiser, things that have happened in my life showed me that there are destinations far more important. But as the coach of young college baseball players, I understand what drives them.
Yesterday, two former Florida Atlantic pitchers from the same 1992 team pitched an inning each in a big league game. Tim Harikkala pitched a scoreless eighth for the Rockies and CJ Nitkowski tossed a goose egg in the ninth for the Braves. The road back to the Promised Land has been a long and arduous one for each. But I would be hard pressed to find two young men who better exemplify all that is good in the people playing this game.
Tim came to FAU in the fall of 1991 as a pitcher who had never played college baseball in his two years at community college. He had tried out as an outfielder his first year and was cut. A broken leg his sophomore year prevented Tim from playing. That summer I got a call from my former student assistant Kyle Forbes, who said he had this tall kid from Lake Worth pitching for him on his Big League team. Kyle said that Tim was very raw but had a great arm.
That fall, I had another student assistant named Rich Freebourne working with the program. Freebie was a pitcher for us the two previous seasons and had ambitions to be a coach. I gave him Harikkala as his project with instructions to iron out his mechanics and see what develops. Tim had a good year for us and was drafted and signed by Seattle.
In 1995 he was called up and debuted against the Orioles. Cal Ripken took him deep, but it made Sportscenter that night so we all got to see Tim on TV. An ironic side to that game is that I sat with Tim at the first major league game he ever attended. It was at Camden Yards and our seats were in centerfield with Griffey playing in front of us. We were on a road trip to the D.C. area. Three years later Tim was Junior's teammate pitching against the Orioles.
Tim's career sputtered from that point. He went back to the minors, back up with the Mariners the next year for a spell, later was in Boston pitching for the Red Sox. He went to AAA with the Brewers where he had some real good years. Each off season Tim and his wife Jill would come to our Alumni Game and dinner. He would stop by to throw in preparation for winter ball in Venezuala, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or wherever a paycheck called him.
Last year, the Orioles brought him to their minor league complex for spring training. They liked what they saw, but had younger arms. No problem, Tim packed his bags and went to play in the Mexican League. Late in the summer, the Orioles called and signed Tim to their AAA team in Rochester. He had a great run and hoped for a call up in September, but the O's brass felt it wouldn't be fair to the pitchers that had been in their system all season.
Tim signed in the off season with the Rockies. He had a great spring training, giving up one run in 13.2 innings pitched, and was rewarded with a ticket back to AAA. He spoke last week with assistant coach John McCormack and was pretty down. He said it looked bleak.
Sunday his contract was purchased by Colorado and the rest you know.
Tim now has two beautiful kids, a strong, supportive, and beautiful wife, and another chance in The Promised Land.
CJ Nitkowski was a tall, lanky, lefty from Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey. He arrived at Florida Atlantic that same fall and quickly won a spot in our rotation. We had an okay team that year, but CJ pitched with nothing but bad luck. We rarely scored for him and he ended up 1-9. Halfway through the spring he came in and told me that he wanted to return to the northeast and be closer to his home. I tried to have a scout talk him out of it, but he needed to be happy and it wasn't happening for CJ at FAU.
He enrolled at St. John's, picked up a different curveball over the summer from a teammate and then blossomed into the eighth pick in the 1994 draft. In 1995 he was called up and pitched in the big leagues for the Reds.
CJ stayed in the major leagues until 2001. He was always in demand by someone as his record indicates:
94 Drafted Reds 95 Called up Reds 95 traded to Detroit for David Wells 96 Houston 99 Detroit 01 Mets 01 Minors Houston 02 Released by Houston 02 Re-signed by Houston to minors 02 Cardinals 02 02 Released then signed by Texas to minors 02 Called up by Texas 03 Minors Texas 04 Big Leagues Atlanta
But all those dates don't tell CJ's story. You can go to CJBaseball.com and get it firsthand, but I'll try to recount it here. It's a great story.
I stumbled upon his website and was intrigued with a journal that he kept of his season with Detroit. As I headed into the 2002 FAU season, I thought some of our parents and fans might find a similar journal, done by a college coach, to be of some interest. Thanks to CJ my Diamond Diary was started that year. We had a storybook season with a great bunch of seniors and won a regional. My son was a pitcher on that club, so some of it became more personal than planned, but people seemed to enjoy reading the stories.
I checked back to CJ's website and it had drastically changed. His journal was gone and nothing was updated. A link provided the answer.
On March 25, 2002 CJ was released by the Astros. To say the least he was shocked and disappointed. CJ left the park and went to his rented house in Kissimmee. He was eating lunch in the TV room when he heard a sound like water running. After a couple of minutes he noticed it again. Getting up to look, he saw the sliding glass door to the pool deck was open. The sound he had heard was the pool filter. That door was always locked because his two year old son couldn't swim. Panicked, he rushed outside and looked for his son. He found him submerged at the bottom of the pool. CJ jumped in and pulled him to the surface. There was no sign of breathing for what seemed an eternity, when suddenly the little boy started to breath. He was fine.
That event changed CJ Nitkowski forever. Why had his son picked the only day CJ was home to figure out the lock on the door? Why was it that the adult in the house with the worst hearing was able to hear the filter over the TV? Why had he been released that morning?
CJ began reexamining his life, and over the course of the next few months had some long talks with some fellow players who had strong religious beliefs. He has rededicated his life to Christ and uses his website to share his feelings.
I am sure The Promised Land holds several meanings for CJ. I am happy for him in all its variations.
I am happy for two good men who never gave up searching for The Promised Land. KC