In a world gone wholly mad, I can’t help but seek out the best possible story after having rankled so many feathers last week in a piece against administrative folly, so I’m digging into the vault for this feel-good piece. This particular story is perhaps the most inspiring tale I’ve covered in my 25 years along the local sports circuit: It is a testament to family and friends, of love and triumph, about a likeable boy who became an industrious man that never stopped — not for one second — chasing an improbable dream.
Way back in 2004, Hendrick Hudson High senior pitcher Zachary Staniewicz graduated with All-Section honors and a dream of becoming a Major League pitcher. That dream took the 6’3” right-hander from Concordia College to all points north, south, west and east, including stints in both independent leagues and military barnstorming clubs.
But a funny thing happened in his travels when the 26-year-old Staniewicz began tinkering with a knuckleball, which was ultimately fine-tuned by the game’s finest knuckleballer, Atlanta Braves Hall-of-Famer Phil Niekro; the only knuckle ball pitcher in major league history to have over 300 wins.
As a result, Staniewicz recently inked his first pro deal to pitch for the Baltimore Orioles whereby he’ll report to Sarasota, Florida for pitchers and catchers in early February as a member of Major League Baseball: The realization of a dream that began in the Cortlandt National Little League well before the turn of the century has finally come true.
“It’s still pretty surreal to me right now,” Staniewicz said Monday from his home in Union, SC. “I’m so pumped for the chance to show my stuff. I’ll just stay humble and do what I do, but when you have the approval of a Hall of Fame pitcher like Phil, it helps a lot with your confidence.”
Staniewicz’s baseball story doesn’t begin or end like most tales. His was a legend that began in harrowing fashion; when, in the spring of 2003, the pitcher was struck by the hardest line drive his high school coach, Paul Natale, had ever seen. The screaming rope had caught him square in the eye/cheekbone region. His future was as blurred as his vision in blink-quick fashion.
“I got out there on the mound before the ball hit the ground because I’d never seen or heard anything like it,” said Natale, the former 40-year veteran Sailor skipper. “I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. It was the scariest moment in my coaching career.”
Staniewicz had his world rocked that day April day against arch-rival Peekskill. But it was nothing compared to what would happen two weeks later when his dad, Bill, would pass away from melanoma, leaving he and his mom, Cathy, on their own at Martin’s Trailer Park in Verplanck, NY. Still, even while lying in a Bronx, NY hospital bed for weeks on end, his lifelong quest of playing professional baseball never wavered.
Staniewicz would eventually make a full recovery but the road to hoe was immeasurably tough for a high school junior to overcome. He did so only through his faith and his tight-knit family (sister Sadie and brother T); in particular, a spiritual mom who stood by, thick or thin.
When the ball crushed his eye socket, the bones directly behind the eye – the orbs – were broken and the muscles and nerves of the eye were pushed into it and entrapped, prohibiting any eye movement. Dr. David Staffenberg, in the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Hospital, disengaged the muscles and took a piece of bone from his skull to repair the broken orbs.
To this day, the doctor recalls the operation as some of his finest work. Still, Staniewicz had double vision when he looked upwards throughout the winter of 2004. Another operation was required Again, Staniewicz had to be patient with the healing process but he kept going back for the green light from Staffenberg. Four weeks later the doctor gave him the “okay” he had prayed for.
And from that very day to this point in time, Zachary Staniewicz has parlayed a military career in the Carolinas into a lifelong dream. He’s had pit-stops at Concordia College, the Southern Collegiate Baseball League, the Bridgeport Blue Fish, the Frontier League, the Continental League, the Brantford Red Sox, the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings, the Spartanburg Crickets and the U.S. Military All-Stars; as just part of his résumé. Senior Airman Zach Staniewicz pitched for all of them before landing in the 440th Airlift Wing in the U.S. Air Force.
He recently had the good fortune of crossing paths with Baltimore Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette, who fell in love with Staniewicz’s knuckle ball.
“We had a couple of bullpen sessions and Phil said I was filthy,” Staniewicz said. “He was actually all googly-eyed watching me. The next thing I know I get a call from the director of minor league operations and he’s telling me they want me to come in and sign a contract. I still can’t believe it.”
Duquette immediately ushered in Niekro as part of the package. Niekro, who welcomed Staniewicz into the “Knuckleball Fraternity”, Staniewicz and the Orioles have forged a professional relationship the Orioles hope will be mutually beneficial as they seek to catch R.A. Dickey in a bottle. Former NY Mets’ 2012 Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, the former 38-year-old journeyman, recently hedged his knuckleball into an All-Star campaign, and the Orioles are hoping Niekro can turn Staniewicz’s knuckler into similar fortune.
“I’ve actually been in touch with R.A. Dickey,” Staniewicz said. “I’m hoping to work out with him when I report in February. He seemed open to it.”
In any other organization, Staniewicz would seem to be the longest of long shots to climb the Minor League ladder to the pros, but Baltimore did resuscitate the careers of journeymen Miguel Gonzalez and Lew Ford just last year. And when it comes to Airman Zachary Staniewicz, nothing is impossible or remotely improbable.