Rule No. 1 on a road trip for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats is no coach or player can go No. 2 in the bus bathroom. Jim Czajkowski has been on more buses that he would care to count in his 22 years as a minor-league pitching coach, including the past two with the Fisher Cats. The 1982 Fairfield High School graduate would much rather have a 10-hour trip stretch to 12 if a few extra stops will keep the bus smelling as fresh as a daisy.
Czajkowski speaks from experience after spending 34 seasons in professional baseball, including 12 as a player. The Fisher Cats ended their season at home Sunday when four pitchers combined on a shutout in a 1-0 win over the Harrisburg Senators. With a one-year contract, Czajkowski has no idea if the Fisher Cats or any other team will offer him a job for a 35th season. This is his second stint with the Fisher Cats. His first was in 2014.
His 59th birthday will arrive Dec. 18, so more than half of his life has been spent coaching in Georgia, Virginia. Florida, Canada and New Hampshire. “I used to think I should get a 9 to 5 job so I could be home and play with (sons Josh and Zak),” Czajkowski said. “As long as there’s a place for me, I’m going to keep doing it.”
There is no way Czajkowski could do it without the support of his wife Cheri. He recalled how the couple relied on loans to make ends meet when he was pitching in the minor leagues and was not paid for going to spring training. All those years of living with a tight budget paid off in 1994 when he made it to the major leagues. Czajkowski made his debut with the Colorado Rockies on July 29, 1994, two weeks before a strike by major-league players halted the season.
“I prayed and asked God to give me just one day in the big leagues, I got 15 times what I asked for. I kept thinking, ‘Why didn’t I ask for five years?’” said Czajkowski, who had one memorable moment during those 15 days.
Czajkowski joined the Rockies in San Francisco for a four-game series with the Giants. He managed to get 75 tickets for each game so his family and friends would be on hand if he happened to pitch. The call came in the seventh inning of the second game with Barry Bonds, Matt Williams and Darryl Strawberry to bat for the Giants. Each hit a single to produce a run, but a double play bailed Czajkowski out of the inning with no more damage.
His second opportunity came in the series finale. The Rockies were fuming after accusing Giants pitchers of throwing beanballs earlier in the series. An inside pitch to Andres Gallaraga left the Colorado slugger with a broken hand. Having Czajkowski settle the score would have made sense because the no-name rookie had nothing to lose.
That was not Czajkowski’s intent after allowing home runs to Bonds and Williams. Pitching inside got him to the major leagues and he figured he had to stick with that strategy if he was going to survive. The Giants thought otherwise after he plunked Royce Clayton and Kurt Manwaring to ignite a bench-clearing brawl.
“I faced Royce in Double A and I knew he liked the ball out over the plate. I pitched him in,” Czajkowski said. “I would throw my fastball on guys’ hands and they would hate it. I knew if I was going to stay in the league, I had to pitch how I pitch. I had to own the inside.”
Czajkowski was fearless to the extent of balking at an order from manager Don Baylor to issue an intentional walk to Bonds. “I would have rather thrown four pitches inside,” Czajkowski said, “and maybe even hit him.”
His time in the major leagues amounted to 8 2/3 innings in five appearances with the Rockies. His duty now as a minor-league coach is to develop pitchers so they will make it to the major leagues and last longer than he did.
“I play a part in getting them to where they’re going and they all want to get to the next level,” Czajkowski said. “With the technique these guys have, it’s easy to throw hard. It’s still not easy to throw strikes.”
Making a living as a minor-league pitching coach is not easy, but there is nothing Czajkowski would rather be doing. “It’s been a long road. I stuck with it even though it was tough at times,” he said. “I get to watch a baseball game every night. That’s a pretty good gig.”