Having covered sports for nearly two decades, I’ve run into athletes of all ilks. There’ve been really famous ones (Griffey, Favre, Bonds) and really obscure ones (Yinka Dare, anyone?); really tall ones (Shaq) and really short ones (pick a jockey—any jockey). I’ve been around absolute jerks (John Rocker) and absolute princes (Sean Casey), with stops up and down the spectrum.
My favorite of all, however, are the smart ones.
By “smart,” I don’t actually mean IQ. No, I’m referring to self-awareness; the all-too-rare acknowledgement that this whole thing (being able to throw a ball really hard, and being paid big bucks to do so) is completely random and inexplicable. This is why I’ve long been a huge fan of C.J. Nitkowski.
At first glance, C.J. is merely another journeyman pitcher in a nation filled with them. However, the 39-year-old native New Yorker is, really, anything but. Since being selected by Cincinnati in the first round of the 1994 June Draft, C.J. has worn eighth different Major League uniforms, as well as playing professionally in Japan and Korea. Last year, after not having been with a Major League organization since 2006, C.J.—using a sidearm delivery for the first time—signed a minor league deal with the Mets. He posted a 0.00 ERA in six games with Double A Binghamton, then a 7.53 ERA with Triple A Buffalo. Hey, no one’s perfect.
C.J., though, is much more than his statistics and uniforms. His blog has been one of the absolute best inside-the-game spots for years, and his sense of humor (often seen here on Twitter) is pointedly spot on. Personally speaking, I’ve been a huge Nitkowski fan dating back three or four years when—after agreeing to a book-for-jersey swap—he sent me this goodie (which I really need to frame) …
Here, in lucky Quaz No. 73, C.J. makes his World Series prediction, talks about the long, winding road of a wayward hurler, explains how it feels to throw at a hitter and describes the aftermath of his son’s near drowning. C.J. loathes the music of Celine Dion and the idea of streaking naked across a baseball field. Otherwise, he’s a pretty happy guy.
C.J. Nitkowski, the Quaz is your diamond …
JEFF PEARLMAN: First, C.J., lemme open with the lamest opening question in Quaz history. What’s your World Series prediction—San Francisco or Detroit?
C.J. Nitkowski: Detroit is my pick, because that city deserves it so much. Analytically, because their rotation is so good as is the middle of lineup. Like their new closer with no fear and mid-upper 90′s fastball. San Fran has a mojo thing going right now and opening at home, I believe, is a huge advantage right now—bigger than usual. With a little luck, like hitting a ball three times before putting it in play, they could make it a series. But this World Series should be Detroit’s—and for those fans and players they don’t have to hear about 1984 anymore.
J.P.: I just was on your blog, and read the amazing story of your 2-year-old son almost dying in a pool, and how that experience served to guide you closer to Christ and Christianity. I get it, I get it, I get it—and I can truly appreciate the passion and conviction. I really can. However, there’s something about this sort of awakening that has long troubled me (for lack of a better word), and it is this: You felt, by God having you home to save your son (you’d just been released by the Astros), he was sending you some sort of signal. Yet isn’t it equally possible it was just luck? And also, why you? What I mean is, thousands and thousands of people die every single day. Ethnic cleansing. Suicidal bombings. Car accidents. Heart attacks. Whenever I hear religious folks say, “God sent me a sign” or “God saved me,” I sorta think, “Great, but that sure didn’t help my great-grandmother in Auschwitz.” Tell me what I’m missing here. And are you 100 percent certain you’re right with this Christianity thing, or is there a sliver of a sliver of a doubt in your mind that perhaps, come day’s end, we’re just meaningless worm food?
C.N.: It’s certainly possible it was just luck, but I don’t believe that. There was too much there to dismiss as just coincidence for me. The day it happened I didn’t immediately become a Christian. I was confused about the whole thing but did feel something that I interpreted as God trying to get my attention. Ultimately that pause in my life opened my heart to the Gospel. It is what I needed at the time and ultimately it was the greatest blessing of my life. Had tragedy occurred that day like it does for so many people in the world everyday … I don’t know where I’d be spiritually right now. I don’t have to know, I can only go forward with what I’ve been dealt and use it any way I can.
I try to simplify Christianity as much as I can for people who ask whether or not I can be sure it’s the real deal. I believe it should come down to one very simple decision for people: is the Bible legit or not? I encourage people to investigate that on their own because at the end of the day this is what we were left with—God’s word. It’s either all true or all a lie. I do not believe there is an in-between, that some is true and some is not. Or that we can handpick what we accept from God’s word and what we reject. It’s all or nothing in my opinion. I choose to believe the Bible is God’s authentic word and the story of Christ as the Redeemer of sins, the Gospel, to be true.
There is an extremely small part of me, Jeff, that almost wishes it weren’t true. Not for myself, but for others. If in the first moments of my death I were to somehow realize Christianity was a fraud I’d have no regrets. From an earthly standpoint my faith has made life more understandable and enjoyable. The sadness for me in the truth of the Gospel is for those that have rejected His offer of grace and ultimately spend eternity separated from God. If its true, and I believe it is, I have nothing but a broken heart for those who choose not to believe Jesus Christ was willing to stand up for them.
J.P.: You made your Major League debut with the Cincinnati Reds on June 3, 1995. You were 22-years old, one year into your pro career. Less than two months later you were traded to the Tigers in the David Wells deal. I’m wondering what you remember—feelings, emotions, nerves—from that debut, and how it felt (bam!) to be dealt elsewhere in such a short period of time. Was that the moment when you first realized, “Shit, this is a business.”
C.N.: A lighter question, thank you, I hope your audience is still reading. My Major League debut was surreal for me. I almost couldn’t believe I was there. It happened so fast. I hadn’t even been in Big League camp yet (strike year ’95) so I didn’t know any of my teammates. Suddenly Barry Larkin was my shortstop and Deion Sanders was my center-fielder. It was crazy.
I handled the emotional part of the trade well, I think. I had heard rumors about me possibly getting traded but didn’t really think it would happen. There was no internet buzzing with baseball rumors and sources blabbing every minute they could, so it was a completely different environment than today. I didn’t put too much thought into the business as a whole. I was traded, OK, now what? I’m going to Detroit, OK, pack your bags.
J.P.: You were the ninth overall pick in the 1994 Draft. Most ballplayers I’ve known who were selected similarly high believe—in their hearts—that they’re destined to become to next Nolan Ryan or Rod Carew or Rollie Fingers or … you know. A star. Did you? And, along those lines, what’s the difference between those few who become superstars and folks like yourself—successful, durable, Major League veterans who last for seemingly endless years yet never reach that highest of high levels?
C.N.: I was an extremely late bloomer in baseball terms, and didn’t know I would go that high in the draft until about two weeks prior to being picked. Well before the draft, as a child growing up in suburban New York City, I expected to be the next Ron Guidry or Dave Righetti. Getting drafted didn’t really enhance that belief. If anything it tapered it back some. Once I was in the game as a professional I don’t think I really ever saw myself becoming the next anybody. Now this was real, this was my job, one I love. After the draft I was just trying to be the best C.J. I could be and that was it.
When I look at where I was drafted and what became of my career, I have two options. I can look at it as a disappointment and think I should have be been much better and much more successful or I can look at the history of the draft and be proud of my fortitude and durability despite the lack of stardom. I choose to the do the latter. I think what ultimately separates me from a guy like say Andy Pettitte or Tom Glavine is consistency. My raw ability in my prime was as good or better than both of those guys but they were/are significantly better pitchers than me. It was my inability to execute consistently and sometimes over-think the game that cost me that level of success.
J.P.: For the first decade of your career you pitched exclusively in the Majors (and minors). Then, after spending all of 2006 with the Pirates’ Triple A affiliate, you agreed to a one-year deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. How did this come to be? Why did you make the move? What were your primary concerns? And how did you come to embrace playing elsewhere?
C.N.: The deal fell in my lap, offered to me by a former pitching coach of mine who was then working for the Hawks as a scout, a team he once played for. The decision was simple. I just finished a very productive Triple A season at 33-years old and wasn’t sniffing the big leagues. I made $60,000 that year. I was offered a guaranteed contract nearly 10 times that with incentives to play in Japan. It was pretty much a no-brainer. My only real concerns were does this signify the end of my Major League career and could I handle living in Japan, a country I knew nothing about. Neither ended up being a big deal. I loved living in Asia and I’m getting a chance to chase the dream one more time in the United States six years later. I had to get to the place where I told myself this is your career, a game, yes, but I use baseball to support my family, follow the best opportunities for all involved, not just me.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your professional career? Lowest?
C.N.: First big league was a highlight—7 innings vs. the Phillies against Curt Schilling, we won 1-0. I was 22, it was a national game on ESPN. Low: Getting flat-out released in 2002 from Triple A Memphis (Cardinals) in July after pitching to a near 10.00 ERA. Thought my career was over. A few weeks later I made my way back to the big leagues with Texas, another high after all that had happened (same year I almost lost my son).
J.P.: You’re a conservative. I’m not. We’ve discussed this vaguely in the past, but I want to get more specific here. You’ve played sports for a long time, which means you’ve played and eaten and lived alongside myriad nationalities. I always like to think that athletes would be more understanding and open-minded than most others, especially when it comes to the struggles many minorities face in this country. You’ve certainly seen the impact, say, social programs have had on kids raised in the inner-cities; how many depend on places like the Boys & Girls Club to show them the way. And yet … all I hear from Republicans are terms like “welfare state” and “social entitlements”—as if poor people devote their lives to jobbing the system; as if they don’t need help; as if there aren’t benefits to assisting those in need. So I ask, C.J.: A. How am I wrong here? B. How in the world does a Christian man—following the lead of a savior who walked with the destitute—support of a party of seemingly so little empathy?
C.N.: Well phrased. I’m not that well-versed in this so don’t jump down my throat on my answer. At the end of the day I don’t trust most politicians and I don’t think any particular one represents what I believe entirely. Unfortunately this is the political system we have and I think we’re forced to pick who represents most of what we believe.
I would wipe out the term “minorities” when we talk about the struggles our citizens face. That makes it a race issue to me. All ethnicities in this country struggle and I agree our government should offer assistance to those in need. I also believe there are people that absolutely abuse the system. If we’re not careful I think we can unintentionally encourage that. There is a line somewhere between helping and hindering when it comes to assistance. One I’m not sure government is capable of drawing.
I grew up average middle class, maybe lower. Neither of my parents went to college but they taught me charity and how to help people strictly by example. My parents took in abused foster kids when I was young and my mother worked at a shelter for battered women. I saw first hand as a very young kid brokenness in poor families and what it looked like to help. After retiring from a 20-year career in the Navy my father taught ROTC at high schools in Manhattan and Passaic, N.J. He would often invite students to come spend a weekend with us to get away from difficult lives. Sometimes he would give them jobs around our house to make a little money—money I’m not sure we really had. These students were almost always minorities, not that it mattered or that I even noticed at the time, and it wasn’t until I was much older did I realize what he was doing and his heart.
The point is I get helping, I’ve been taught it firsthand. When it comes to government policies I don’t think any politicians have pure motives and I believe we throw away millions, maybe billions, each year with misdirected funds. It stings a little, especially in this economy, when you feel like your tax dollars are wasted. I tend to lean on the side of less government help strictly because I have little confidence in their ability to facilitate it efficiently. We, you and I, can solve these problems. I don’t do enough.
J.P.: Earlier this year you signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets. I thought you were pretty much a lock to make a team with such a troubled bullpen. What happened? And, when you left, were you convinced your career was over?
C.N.: I threw for the Mets in February in Port St. Lucie as a tryout. It went really well and thought I would be offered a minor league contract. It didn’t happen. I was home for more than four months, training and waiting for an opportunity, and it finally did happen. They signed me in mid-July and I’m getting a chance to prove that my new sidearm delivery is something that can compete in the Big Leagues.
J.P.: I have been killed repeatedly for insisting Mike Piazza used performance enhancers. I look at his body; his background; the zits; the change in size; I hear other players laugh at the idea of him being clean (off the record to me). On and on. It just seems soooo obvious to me. When people say, “How dare you say that—he never failed a test,” well, I laugh. Because the testing was a joke. My question for you, C.J., is this: What are we supposed to do here? Is it wrong to assume? Is it logical? Should we just shrug and move on?
C.N.: Testing was a joke but I don’t think there is anything we can do about it now. I understand the speculation with some players, the indicators that a player probably used PEDs. But I also believe that it is unfair to speculate publicly without hard evidence. I believe most of the guys (prior to Canseco speaking out) who used got away with it. During the bulk of my Major League time prior to real testing, 1995-2003, I believe a lot of guys probably used. I knew it was going on, considered it myself but ultimately didn’t … but I think I was ignorant to how much it was really happening.
J.P.: You play Dutch Leonard in the upcoming Jackie Robinson film, 42. How the heck did that happen? And what can you tell us about the movie?
C.N.: Long story how I got the part that I don’t want to type via iPad. I fell into it, pure luck and had a great time filming. I’m hoping they do a good job with this movie. An important topic that really focuses on Jackie’s rookie year, from what I understand. I had some cool baseball scenes that I’m really hoping come out well and make the final cut.
J.P.: How many times in your career did you intentionally throw at a batter? What does it feel like to do so? And is there a moment of fear when a guy charged the mound?
C.N.: I threw a ball right at a kid’s helmet in college because his teammate lined out the at-bat prior and talked trashed when walking by the mound. That was really dumb of me and thank God he ducked and the ball hit his bat for strike one.
Rafael Palmeiro was kicking our butt in Detroit one series and in the final game after getting up 0-2 in the count I decided I would throw a fastball as hard as I could right at his wrists. The intention being he’d either move and get uncomfortable or I’d break his hand. He moved, I did it again, he moved. I then threw him my best knuckle curveball for swing and miss—strike three. My catcher was fired up. I should have had the same attitude in my career more often.
The first and only time I was told to drill a guy intentionally I was pretty nervous. I honestly didn’t even know why we were doing it, which is bad on my part. I came in the game—”OK, you have to hit the first batter, first pitch.” I was pretty young at the time. First pitch, four seam fastball inside, I’m going to hit him …”Strike one!” Oh crap, I threw a strike. My catcher was pissed at me. It took three pitches, but I got him, in the butt.
I’ve never been charged but I’ve gotten a few dirty looks and the “I’m thinking about charging you, or at least pretending to” look before. There is an adrenaline rush that comes with that but I’ve been able to avoid any real physical mound altercations.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH C.J. NITKOWSKI:
• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Mel Rojas?: Mel Rojas was a cool dude but my best story with him revolves around a 22-6 loss in which he allowed 11 runs in relief. I faced one batter in that game and took the loss.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: The Detroit Tigers used to use an airline called Pro Air one season, or as we dubbed it, Pro Scare. My favorite thing to do was watch Danny Patterson during take offs and landings. The sounds that came from those planes were not normal and turned his face a shade of white I’ve never seen before. Each safe landing was like a celebration that life would continue for each of us.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Andy Benes, Burger King, sushi rolls, Dan Zanes, The Humpty Dance, Steel Magnolias, granite counters, Sean Hannity, cucumber salad, the Astrodome, Dunkin’ Donuts, Celine Dion, The Muppet Show: Sushi rolls, cucumber salad, granite counters, The Dome, DD, BK, Muppets, Humpty Dance, Benes, Hannity, Steel Magnolias, Dan Zanes, Celine Dion.
• We give you 15 starts for a Division II college next season, what’s your ERA come season’s end?: 15 starts? 1.80, 10-5 record and a blown out rotator cuff.
• I’m quite certain you’re not going to vote for Barack Obama. How confident are you in a Mitt Romney victory?: Not very.
• The 10 best ballplayers you’ve ever seen?: Not in order, of my era: Barry Larkin, Jeter, ARod, Randy Johnson, Jeff Bagwell. Barry Bonds, Mike Mussina, Nomar, Cal Ripken, Don Mattingly.
• Would you rather eat 40 nuggets of snot from the nose of Colter Bean or have to streak naked across Yankee Stadium before Game 1 of the World Series?: Tough call, one would make me throw up, the other would make 50,000 fans plus media and field staff throw up. I’ll streak.
• Five reasons for one to make Suffern, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: Bagel Train, Pasquale’s Pizza, Ireland’s Pub, Lafayette Theater and “The Suffern Ballfields”—the place where mediocre major leaguers are born and bred.
• Could an openly gay ballplayer survive and thrive on a Major League roster in 2012?: I’d like to think so. This might be a stretch but in some regards I think it would take the right person. Just like Branch Rickey believed it would take a man of Jackie Robinson’s character to make breaking the color barrier in 1947 work, the same might be said in this regard. Perez Hilton? Probably not. Anderson Cooper? That might be better.