Czyz’s decision pays off

Sunday, August 23, 2009

He was without doubt the greatest closer in Kansas University baseball history.

Don Czyz recorded an NCAA-best 19 saves during his senior season in 2006. The 6-foot-2 right-hander compiled a spotless 6-0 record and a 1.56 earned-run average, striking out four times as many batters as he walked.

No one shut the door like Czyz did, and no one did more to help the Jayhawks capture their lone Big 12 tournament title that spring.

Prior to the June ‘06 free agent draft, Baseball America’s scouting report opined that his “…body and arm action aren’t ideal, but he throws strikes and competes like a bulldog.”

The Florida Marlins selected Czyz in the seventh round. Any player selected in a single-digit round is considered a major-league prospect. Czyz’s future looked bright.

Where is he today? Czyz works for Kansas City Power & Light Co. as a contract administrator. His name is now on the list of the legions of pro baseball hopefuls who never came close to making the major leagues.

Not that Czyz, who grew up in Overland Park and graduated from Blue Valley High, has any regrets.

“No, I do not,” he told me from his office in Kansas City, Mo.

As it is with most pitchers, an arm injury hastened Czyz’s decision to give up pro baseball. In early June of last year, he tore the triceps muscle in his pitching arm while with the Marlins’ Class A farm team in Greensboro, N.C.

A triceps tear isn’t the end of the world. In contemporary times, just about any injury can made as good as new — or almost — with proper treatment and rehabilitation. All it takes is time.

So essentially Czyz had come to a crossroads in his life. He was 24 years old, he was spending his second year at the Class A level and had been around long enough to know he would be lucky if he reached the bigs by the time he was 28, if he did at all.

“I came to the realization,” Czyz said, “that there might be a brighter future if I finish my degree.”

Another semester in school was all he needed to obtain a diploma in economics. So he pulled the rip cord. Czyz retired from baseball, reasoning that “the rehab would prolong my returning to get a degree.”

Czyz enrolled on the KU campus a year ago this week and became a December graduate. Then after a few months of job interviews, he landed the job with KCP&L last spring.

KU baseball coach Ritch Price admires what Czyz did. Price has seen many of his former players linger too long in the minor leagues, dreaming the dream and refusing to face reality.

“Czyz is an interesting guy,” Price said. “He’s very goal-oriented, and he was frustrated where he was at. He was tired of the grind, and tired of being broke.”

Now that Czyz is back in the real world with the rest of us working stiffs, he stands as a classic example of a student-athlete who heard the message and paid heed.

We rarely hear about them, but sooner or later most of them come to realize they have a much better chance of making a living with a sheepskin than they do as a professional athlete.