Something told me I’d be hearing about Verplank’s own Zach Staniewicz again. The former Hendrick Hudson grad (circa 2004) is still the poster child for “Never Say Never”. You can’t possibly imagine what he’s done between the time he graduated Hen Hud and agreed in principal to a Minor League workout with the Baltimore Orioles next spring.
Concordia College, 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 are just part of his résumé. Senior Airman Zach Staniewicz pitched for them all before landing in the 440th Airlift Wing where he recently ran into Baltimore Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette, who fell in love with Staniewicz’s knuckle ball, a knuckler former MLB star Charlie Hough and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro have tweaked and modified. The 6’3”, 225-pound Staniewicz has clung to every thread of amateur baseball in American Independent leagues in the hopes of getting over the top and into the bigs, and the knuckle ball might just do the trick.
He’ll have his shot, which is all he’s ever wanted. After touring the Independent circuit for several years, the Concordia grad thought it might be time for a change. Coming from a family with three members having served in the Coast Guard, the military seemed his natural calling. In June of 2011, Airman Staniewicz began to focus on “Nondestructive Inspection” as a career choice and after basic training he was assigned to the 440th Airlift Wing at Pope Field, N.C.
He took up residence in South Carolina with his mom, Cathy, his No.1 fan, and found a home with the U.S. All-Stars where Staniewicz saw an opportunity to combine his Air Force Reserve service and the game he has been so passionate about since his time in the Cortlandt National Little League.
Since 1990, more than 25,000 armed forces personnel have represented their service with the U.S. All-Stars, a program initiated by former President George H. W. Bush. Staniewicz will be the first to admit that his 86 mph fastball was only “Independent” good, but like NY Mets’ sensation R.A. Dickey, it was his knack for the knuckleball that would earn him a chance to latch on with the Orioles’ spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla. next spring where Niekro will try to stimulate the emerging pitcher’s development up the Minor League ladder.
“I don’t foresee signing any paper work till the off season,” said Staniewicz, who always has a back-up plan in place. “I hope to work with Mr. Niekro before spring training. He is only a couple of hours from me in South Carolina, so I just have just keep throwing and staying in shape until next spring. I’ll be ready.”
Staniewicz, now 26, is still chasing the dream that nearly died his junior year at Hen Hud when a screaming line drive smacked him right below the eye. In the graphs below, you can read a modified story I wrote about one of the most inspiring teen-agers I’ve ever met, perhaps the most inspirational. His rise through the ranks of American amateur baseball is far from meteoric, but it is a journey drenched in eternal hope, one that can be best described as both courageous and exhausting.
If, as they say, God has a plan for everyone; can you imagine what Zach Staniewicz was thinking in the spring of 2003 when the right-handed pitcher was struck — square in the eye/cheekbone region — by the hardest line drive his coach, Paul Natale, had ever seen… his vision as blurred as his future in the blink of an eye.
“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, then in his 34-year as 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 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.
Imagine what goes through the mind of a 17-year-old when two of the things he loves most in life are snatched in such harrowing fashion. If God has a plan for that kind of misery, Zach Staniewicz — lifelong Yankee fan — was down with it. The kid kept smiling, and never took pity upon himself.
It would take a special chap to bounce back from the misfortune Staniewicz had encountered, but they could have written one of those “made-for-TV” specials about the way Staniewicz shot back one day his senior season on Sunset Field in Montrose during an incredible 6-5 win over Lakeland. His story would be one of inspiration, rising above a state of affairs that could make or break a teenage boy.
Affixed over his baseball cap and attached to his helmet was a hard plastic safety guard, which made him look more like Eli Manning in the pocket than a pitcher on the mound; this, after two extensive operations to repair the damage to his eye socket and cheek bones. It was cumbersome and he stuck out like a sore thumb, but it was just another obstacle Staniewicz would overcome in a life full of hurdles.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I’d do anything to play baseball,” Staniewicz said that day, holding back his emotions when asked about his purpose in life and God’s plan for him. “I do it all for the love of the game. God is definitely testing me, though. He wants to see if I can take it. I think I’m doing a pretty good job of accepting what he has planned for me. I have something to prove to him.”
He proved a lot upon his return to the varsity diamond on a day when it looked like fate, or God’s plan, would once again burn the young man. In a 4-4 seventh-inning tie with Lakeland, Staniewicz faced Section 1’s toughest out – Hornet slugger Alex Martinez – with one down. After working the count to 3-and-2, Staniewicz got the big guy to go down swinging, but catcher Garrett Glashoff lost the ball and the subsequent put-out, allowing Martinez to reach first base before scoring the go-ahead run on a double off the bat of pinch hitter Nick Souza. Once again, God’s plan for Staniewicz seemed to be testing the youngster, who got out of further damage with some crafty hurling.
The ever-accountable Glashoff, knowing full well where blame might ultimately lie if the Sailors were to lose, would help atone for his error in the bottom of the seventh with a game-tying single to left before scoring the game-winning run, courtesy of, you guessed it, Staniewicz.
Somehow, it was only fitting that Staniewicz would have the bat in his hands in the end, with a chance to change his oft-bedeviled destiny and win the game after Hornet coach Denny Robinson opted to intentionally walk Sailor John Palmiotto for the second time to face Big Zach.
“I took it as an insult this time,” Staniewicz said, moments after pushing the game-winning run home with a well-struck single. “I had to take this opportunity and cash in.”
Staniewicz, who scored a 1,200 on his SATs while recovering, could have cashed in his chips during an extensive rehab, but he never questioned his faith. He fell hard, as hard as any kid could when his life was turned upside down that fateful spring. The bones in his face were shattered; making an indescribable noise that witnesses swear was the strangest sound they’d heard on a ball field.
“It was horrifying,” said Joe Barthemulus, a sportsman about the Peekskill/Hen Hud athletic scene at the time. “We thought he might be dead when he first went down. I never heard or saw anything like it. Look at him now, though, some story.”
Indeed! It was a dream game for Staniewicz, beating Lakeland like that and returning to the mound against all odds. He stroked a clean, game-winning RBI single up the middle in his first game back from intensive surgery. In my 25 years on the local sports beat, I don’t know that I’d ever been happier for a kid. I know for a fact, though, that I’ve never seen a happier mom. Cathy Staniewicz, Zach’s guidance through the misery, welled up in tears at the sight of her boy amidst a pile of happy Sailors that day. Through the passing of her husband and a prior marriage separation, Zach Staniewicz became the man of the house; as his older sister and brother, Sadie and Taylor, were serving with the Coast Guard.
Zach Staniewicz never skipped a beat, despite two major operations and a cautious mother, who wondered if she should keep her son from pitching again due to the fact that Zach was playing with fire every time he took the mound.
“He works every day of his life for a day a like this,” Cathy Staniewicz said after that Lakeland game. “He is the indomitable spirit in our midst. He seems to have come into this world with wisdom and understanding beyond his years and says, “Mom don’t worry”, and he just finds a way to work things out. My fate has always been in God’s hands, the Holy Spirits’ works and Jesus as my friend. It was an extremely difficult time for us. Zach’s eye needed to be operated on immediately as he had no movement with it. We just prayed and prayed.”
When the ball hit Zach’s eye, the bone 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. He needed to be operated on quickly and by someone with expertise. David Staffenberg, in the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, disengaged the muscles and took a piece of bone from his skull to repair the broken orbs.
“During this time I couldn’t even think of him pitching again,” Mrs. Staniewicz said. “But I never spoke of it. As difficult as it was, I knew I had to allow this decision to be made by Zach. I would support whatever his decision was. Then the moment came, shortly after his first operation, ‘When I pitch again’, were his words. I just swallowed hard and said ‘okay, let’s work on getting better and get the protective equipment you’ll need’. That’s what we did.”
He met all of his doctor’s appointments with unbridled optimism and craftily went to the internet for information regarding protective devices. Before long, Zach had it all worked out.
“Baseball is his absolute passion, and Zach would do anything to get back on that mound again,” Hen Hud AD Tommy Baker said at the time. “Within a week or two of his injury he was talking about coming back and playing again. It was unbelievable.”
Still, he had double vision when he looked upwards throughout the winter. Another operation was required and Dr. Staffenberg suggested taking another piece from Zach’s skull and placing it behind the eye to bring it out further to be symmetrical with the other eye. The brain would be less confused without this physical discrepancy, so a second operation was necessary in February. 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.
Zach Staniewicz, a baseball junkie, never missed a practice that spring as he rehabbed, even though they didn’t count toward his eligibility.
“In my 30-something years of coaching kids I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a kid,” Coach Natale said at the time. “After the injury, we didn’t know if he’d have the guts to get back out there to play again. I don’t know many kids that would, but Zach has the heart of a lion. If you didn’t see what he went through, you have no idea of how difficult it was. He got hit with one of the hardest line drives I’ve ever seen right in the face.”
And he never blinked. Whether he throws an inning in the bigs or not, I can only pray that my children have half the hutzpah, half the inspiration, half the determination and perseverance Zach Staniewicz has had during his ascendance through the ranks of amateur baseball. Every manager who’s ever coached him will likely tell you he’s the hardest worker on the team, and every teammate will tell you he’s the nicest guy they’ve ever met, and I can vouch for that.
“Amazing story,” Hen Hud A.D. Baker said the other day. “We’ve spoke often over the years and it’s always been the same conversation; ‘I’m pitching with so-and-so now and I haven’t given up on my dreams’. He’s been all over the place and he’s never given up, so I’m not at all surprised to hear that the Orioles are going to give him a shot next spring: You up for a road trip?”
Indubitably, Mr. Baker; I’m up for Sarasota next March. I’m buying if you’re flying.