(Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium - Vancouver, BC) - When we think about the key members of the Vancouver Canadians who have brought a Northwest League Championship to this city as well as giving the club one of the league's best home records over the past couple of summers, we often come up with the names Balbino Fuenmayor, Drew Permison, Nick Baligod, Eric Brown, and many other players.
However, we sometimes forget about the people behind the scenes who play just as big a role as the guys on the field throwing the big pitches, making the plays, and getting the hits.
Jim Czajkowski, who is back in Vancouver for his second season with the Canadians as the Pitching Coach, is one such person whom the spotlight isn't on but certainly deserves a lot of credit for his excellent work with the team.
See, Czajkowski guided the C's pitching staff to one of the top ERAs in the league last summer, and is looking to continue developing the future Toronto Blue Jays pitchers who are all aiming to one day play under the bright lights of Rogers Centre. The Canadians pitchers definitely have a lot of respect for Czajkowski and take any kind of advice he offers in the hopes of one day making it to "The Show" just as he had back in 1994 with the Colorado Rockies.
After all, Czajkowski has been involved in the game at the pro level for the last four decades either as a player or coach, and has tons of experience to pass on. He's got a Northwest League Championship ring under his belt, pitched 12 seasons of professional baseball (including his stint with the Rockies in 1994), and worked as a pitching coach in the Atlanta Braves organization for a decade before getting the same job with the Canadians, minor-league affiliate of the Blue Jays.
Besides, who else can say they faced Barry Bonds, Matt Williams, and Darryl Strawberry back-to-back-to-back in their major-league debut? Jim Czajkowski can make that claim, and he did pretty well too that night at San Francisco's Candlestick Park while pitching for the Rockies.
"The first batter I faced in the big leagues was Barry Bonds," Czajkowski recalls fondly. "He got a base hit. And then Matt Williams was next. He got a base hit. Next was Darryl Strawberry, and he got a base hit. I ended up getting out of the inning giving up just one run. But that's a pretty good trio to face, one-two-three.
"I look back on it. Bonds got a clean, hard hit. But Williams' and Strawberry's were both broken-bat base hits. I did what I wanted to do [when pitching to Williams and Strawberry]. It just so happened they got enough of the barrel [of the bat] on it to get [those two hits].
"I was there to break some bats," he adds with a laugh.
So, how did he end up landing the job in the Blue Jays organization? "I have a long list of organizations that I've been with," Czajkowski says, again with a laugh. "During my playing days, I started out with Atlanta, then went to the Pirates [in the Rule V Draft] and moved to the Brewers organization. Free agent over to the Cubs. Free agent to the Rockies where I made it to the big leagues in 1994. Became a free agent and was with the Toronto Blue Jays organization for two years in 1996 and 1997. Got a coaching job in 2000 with the Braves for 11 years.
Still had some contacts with the Blue Jays. When the Braves let me go, it seemed to be a good fit for everybody. I called [Blue Jays minor-league director] Charlie Wilson and [Blue Jays minor-league pitching coordinator] Dane Johnson and some of the people I knew, and they did their research and thought I was good enough to be a Blue Jay."
His goal as the Pitching Coach of the Canadians is to ensure every pitcher goes through the season being healthy while showing improvement on the mound.
"My role is specifically dealing with the pitchers and getting them ready, making sure the guys are healthy, continuing our throwing and conditioning program that we've set up for them, [and] making sure it's adhered to. Basically, my role is overseeing the pitchers."
That goal hasn't changed, even after a championship season. "Basically, it's trying to keep everyone healthy," Czajkowski adds. "Changing a guy's [throwing motion] is not what I want to do. But I see that [a pitcher's throwing motion] may promote a possible injury, I go through the channels and we make the change. Usually that's with the newcomers. The guys who have been here for a year kind of know what we expect as Blue Jays, and understand what their roles are."
While he has been impressed with every pitcher on the C's staff so far this summer, Czajkowski admits there is one who has stood out. "This year, it's still a bit early, but Mr. [Javier] Avendano has been very, very good for us right now. I saw him in Lansing also when I went to coach there for four days. I saw him in spring training too. Very solid [in terms of] body frame. Good stuff. Sneaky fastball. Other than that, it's always a surprise with the new guys. Bobby Brosnahan, Colton Turner. I'm kind of excited to see what they can do.
"I kind of know what to expect with the other guys, and I expect them to turn it on a little bit. I had a talk with Drew Permison about last year, about letting last year be last year and this year be this year. Looks like he's off to a good start. Really, the bullpen will be the success of this team, I think.
"The starters will be a little bit more solid than they were last year, with Eric Brown being in the rotation. He's had [a couple of] rough [outings] but I love the way his stuff is. He throws strikes, makes things happen, and that's basically all we can ask for in a pitcher."
Speaking of last summer, he won a Northwest League Championship ring in 2011. A natural question to ask is: Does that ring rival what he's accomplished during his career as a pitcher and a coach?
"I'd say making it to the big leagues is the career highlight," Czajkowski says without hesitation. "Last year being on the coaching staff of a champion was my first [experience] in doing that. I'd played on some Triple-A championships and some winter ball championship teams. As a player, you have some part. It's either me getting it done or not getting it done, whereas as a coach, I've really got to rely on players. What I teach the players, is it working? Are they getting what we're saying?
"Last year, when it came to the playoffs, our pitching was okay, and our hitters just turned it on. Game Two against Eugene, they turned it on. It was really the hitters' show from there. The final game [of the championship series], it was the Jesse Hernandez show. Hernandez just [pitched] a phenomenal game. We had some combination of both hitting and pitching for a couple of games in the playoffs. That was fun to watch."
Speaking of fun, does Czajkowski get to do any of that in Vancouver when he's not at the ballpark? "In Canada, whatever my wife wants me to do, is what I'm going to do," he says. "This is such a beautiful [city with] lots of things to do. She's my 'Party Coordinator' or my 'Guide' for Vancouver.
If she sees something that's fun to go do, we're going to go do it. Whale watching is one of the things on my list of things to do during our off-days. Last year, we walked across the [Capilano] Suspension Bridge and the parks here are amazing, so there were a lot of walks in the park. The temperature is so ideal for getting outdoors and doing things. It's just kind of fun to go out and do it."
Czajkowski isn't strictly a baseball guy. In the off-season, he also follows other sports, mostly football and basketball. "But I do watch hockey some," Czajkowski adds quickly. "I enjoy minor-league hockey. There's [an independent] team in the Knoxville [Tennessee] area and it's fun to watch those guys because they're really trying to push themselves [to get on to an affiliated organization] and you can really see it when they play. They're trying to compete for the scouts in the stands watching them. That's fun to watch."
He admits he does have a soft spot too for organizations he used to play for, and was excited for the Rockies when they made it to the World Series in 2007.
"Anytime the Rockies or any of the former teams that I played on," he says. "Not that there are any players there but there are some staff members that in the organizations still, players that I played with who are coaching now in those organizations, I root for them. If I'm not going to get a championship ring, I want some of my friends to get one. As long as they're not matched up against the Blue Jays or something like that, then you know, go ahead, Rockies win it all."
His favourite team of all-time, though, is undoubtedly the San Francisco 49ers. "They have been my team for a long time," he smiles when thinking back to the glory years of his childhood team. "When I was growing up in the Bay Area, Joe Montana and those guys were just coming in. They had 'The Catch' [when Montana threw a game-winning touchdown to Dwight Clark in the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys in January 1982] and then they went on a good run for many years. I just kind of liked them. I moved around my whole life and that's where I finally settled down, where my folks got settled down."
Czajkowski is certainly happy to have settled down in the Blue Jays organization, and glad to be back in Vancouver this summer. He'll be looking to try and help the C's win another Championship, while continuing to develop the future of the Toronto Blue Jays.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.