Left-hander C.J. Nitkowski has pitched for nearly two dozen teams over his globe-spanning professional career, but it all started at Chattanooga's Engel Stadium in 1994.
Nitkowski was the first-round Draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds that season and was dispatched to Chattanooga to begin his career as a member of the Double-A Lookouts. Engel Stadium had seen better days by the time Nitkowski arrived -- the stadium was built in 1930, and the Lookouts vacated it after the 1999 campaign in favor of brand-new AT&T Park.
Improbable as it may seem, Nitkowski once again had reason to toe the Engel Stadium rubber in 2012. The 40-year-old left-hander plays the role of Phillies pitcher Dutch Leonard in the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic 42, portions of which were filmed in Chattanooga's now-82-year-old ballpark. Before Spring Training -- where Nitkowski hoped to break camp with an MLB club -- he talked with MiLB.com about his acting career, his return to Engel and his last attempt to make it back to the Major Leagues after a seven-season hiatus.
MiLB.com: What led to you obtaining a credited role in 42? Did you have show-biz aspirations you were keeping under wraps until now?
C.J. Nitkowski: It's a long story...
I coach my son's 12-year-old baseball team here in Atlanta. One of the players on my team has a younger brother who plays on an 11-year-old team. This 11-year-old has a teammate whose mom, Donna, does some work in casting and has been an extra herself. She was helping a local casting agent find experienced ballplayers for an upcoming feature film about Jackie Robinson. Donna mentioned this to the mom of my player, who in turn mentioned that her 12-year-old's coach is a former baseball player. My player's mom told me, and I made a connection with Donna.
(Go to C.J.'s site to read the rest of this improbable casting saga.)
MiLB.com: When were your scenes in 42 filmed and what was the process like? Was the pressure to perform similar to what you usually feel on the mound?
Nitkowski: I filmed in the summer -- I think it was mid June. The days were longer than I expected, sometimes 12 to 14 hours. A lot of standing around waiting for cameras to be moved or just waiting for your scene to be shot. I never really felt any pressure, they were asking me to do what I had been doing my entire life.
MiLB.com: The Ebbets Fields scenes in 42 were filmed at Engel Stadium, the same ballpark where you started your professional career. Nearly two decades later, what was it like to return to Engel? And what are favorite memories from when you played there?
Nitkowski: It was great to go back there. The stadium left such an impression on me when I first played there in 1994. It wasn't so much the building itself but what it represented to me at the time. I was 21 years old -- my entire life I had dreamed of playing professionally and now I was. Engel was where it all started. To go back and visit again, after all these years, was really a treat for me.
MiLB.com: Meanwhile, in real life, you are in the midst of a big league comeback attempt. What was it like to return to the world of affiliated baseball last year, and how do you feel about your chances in 2013?
Nitkowski: It was strange being back last season. I hadn't played in the United States since 2006; a lot has changed. The guys all seemed so young to me. I didn't know what to expect at first, it had been so long and I was using a new side arm delivery. Overall, it went pretty well. I quickly proved I still belonged and got really close to making it back to the big leagues. I'm not sure if I'll get the chance in 2013. Teams have some hurdles to jump to see value. I'll be 40 in March and I have a new delivery that doesn't light up the radar gun. But I see a few other guys doing what I do in the Major Leagues right now. I am very capable of holding down a left-handed-reliever role in the big leagues. It just takes the right team to see the value in what I do, that has a need and is willing to give me a shot.
Ed. note: Nitkowski is not currently pitching in a Major League organization.
MiLB.com: Your pitching career has featured many twists and turns, and would make a good film in its own right. Who would you choose to play yourself in The C.J. Nitkowski Story?
Nitkowski: First, we'd have to change the name of the movie if we'd want anyone to come see it. Truthfully, I don't know. I think I prefer it be an unknown actor. Someone who could best portray what this journey has been like for me -- one filled with amazing experiences and lots of ups and downs.