Polish RifleJuly 27, 2011
“The worst it’s been butchered here is when we went to Bowling Green, he (public address announcer) pronounced my first name as ‘Steve’ and the last name was ‘War-zick,’” recalled Wawrzasek. “That’s probably the worst it’s ever been. I don’t know how you mess up Stosh with Steve, but he did.”
Throw away the second W. Replace the S with a Z and it trips right off the tongue.
“W-A-R-Z-A-Z-I-K would be the easiest way to spell it to pronounce it,” said Wawrzasek. “It happened every year in school with new teachers, but you get used to it.”
Which brings us to that unique first name. Get ready for a new twist on the Abbott and Costello Who’s On First? routine.
“Stosh is Polish, and if you translate, it’s Stanley,” explained Wawrzasek. “On my birth certificate, it’s Stosh. My father is a Stanley, but he goes by Stosh, because that’s what his mother called him growing up…that was her first language. My Mom calls him Stosh. Everybody calls him Stosh, and if they answer the phone and hear ‘Is Stosh there? Uh, which one?’
“But it’s not Junior and Senior…he’s Stanley, I’m Stosh.”
Wawrzasek inherited more than just the funky family namesake. The Stosh way to play is to have fun, soak up the moment and relish the good times on the diamond.
“My parents always told me if you’re not having fun it’s time to take a break, and I’ve never gotten to that point in my baseball career because I love the game,” said Wawrzasek. “I enjoy playing and I don’t think that will ever stop. I’ve just got to keep that mentality and it will rub off on other people as well.”
What this 6-0, 249 pound right-hander never intends to do is rub teammates the wrong way. The former 16th round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008 is cognizant of when it’s time for monkey business or strictly business.
“In certain situations you don’t want to go and interfere with something,” said Wawrzasek. “Let’s say he’s having family problems or personal issues, you don’t want to interfere with something like. But if he’s just getting down from the game, if you have a bad outing as a pitcher, or go 0 for 4 as a hitter, it happens. Just come back the next day positive.”
The life of the clubhouse began his baseball life growing up in Canada. Unlike many Canucks who have a hockey stick placed in their crib at birth, Wawrzasek took baby steps in a different direction.
“I was born with a baseball glove on my hand,” said Wawrzasek. “Surprising enough, I’ve never been on skates, never been on the ice. I’ve wanted to, but I never have. It was basically I wanted to play baseball so that’s what I did.”
For young Stosh and the Wawrzasek family, chasing your dream by chasing a puck just didn’t fit into the daily agenda in Langley, British Columbia.
“When you’re younger, you always have those early hockey practices at like 4, 5 in the morning and my parents would be driving to work at that time and didn’t want to rely on another family to pick me up every single time or drop me off at practice then take me to school,” said Wawrzasek. “So I kind of just pushed hockey off to the side and stuck with other sports. I played everything else…football, rugby, basketball, soccer; lacrosse for a little bit, but baseball was my main sport.”
Wawrzasek soldiered forward with his singled out passion. But pitching was not the focus early on, choosing instead a smorgasbord testing ground.
“When I was younger, I would pretty much do whatever; play some first base, pitcher, any position,” said Wawrzasek. “I would play any position because it doesn’t really matter, I just want to play. I hit a lot when I was younger, but as I grew up, when I was around 16, my coach told me ‘you have a thing for pitching, you can go places with pitching but you need to make a decision…either play a position or go pitch.’ I was like, yeah, I want to pitch because I can see a future in it, and so could he.”
After graduating from Walnut Grove Secondary School in Canada, Wawrzasek culled his craft with the hometown Langley Blaze of the British Columbia Premier Baseball League. More than just his consonant crammed last name drew the attention of baseball higher-ups.
“At that age, I was a dominating pitcher and dominated my league, and it kind of came easy,” said Wawrzasek. “You had your select few players that were good, you had your average players which were easier to get out because they were not used to facing hard throwers, so I dominated that league. And as I grew up, I started hitting less and pitching more…I kind of forgot how to hit a ball, you might say.”
One of those select players was former Brewers 2008 first round draft pick Brett Lawrie. A star in the making during his Canadian youth, Lawrie, now in the Toronto system as compensation for Brewers Pitcher Shawn Marcum, went face to face and stood side by side in the elite league with Wawrzasek.
“I faced him when I was 14 and grew up playing against him when I was 11 years old,” recalled Wawrzasek. “When I was 12 years old, he ended up going up a level because he had that early birthday and I had the late one. When we were 15, we ended up on the same team on the senior level and I was on the junior level. The following year is when I played with him for two years before I got drafted by the Brewers.”
Wawrzasek was committed to play at Florida International on scholarship, but decided his seasoning in British Columbia was enough of a testing ground to prepare his arm for the next level. Thus began the professional journey of a pitcher who didn’t have a defined role at the outset.
“The whole decision is with the Brewers,” said Wawrzasek. “I don’t have a say in it, and in the end it’s up to them to say what they see what is best for me. When I first got drafted, I went down to Arizona and I was a starter, then the following year I was in the bullpen the whole time. Last year, I was in Helena and was a starter there and then they switched me back to relief here.”
Here, is Appleton, where Stosh has set up shop as a late inning setup man with the Class A Timber Rattlers. The ping-ponging between starting pitcher and bullpen guy can rattle the brain as well as the arm.
“It can, but you just have to get used to it and deal with it,” said Wawrzasek. “The biggest adjustment for me going from starter to reliever is as a starter you have your set day and five days to prepare for that one outing. As a relief pitcher, you’ve got to be prepared every day. So if I throw an inning today, I’ve got to keep my arm ready and be able to go tomorrow.”
Mental preparation has kept Wawrzasek focused on the task at hand. Stosh admits that turning his brain off is the best way to keep his arm locked and loaded.
“It can cause problems too much if you start thinking too much,” said Wawrzasek. “Obviously you have to go over certain situations but if you think about it too much it can just turn to chaos.
“It’s natural now. As soon as I’m on the mound, I see the sign, and if I don’t want to throw the pitch I’ll shake but I rarely do that. It’s kind of a thing where I’m locked in on getting a ground ball. And the only thing I do try to think about is trying to pound the bottom of the zone to get ground balls. You’re going to stay in the game longer.”
Wawrzasek has even toyed around with throwing a knuckleball, but his assignment is to perfect his arsenal of legit pitches first and foremost. When Timber Rattlers Manager Matt Erickson calls his number from the bullpen, Stosh sets a personal goal that will best suit the team effort.
“Three pitches or less to each batter,” said Wawrzasek. “I want to really attack the strike zone because I don’t want to be on a mound throwing a bunch of pitches in an inning, I want to be out of there as fast as possible. That was the biggest thing (Timber Rattlers Pitching Coach) Chris Hook told me…pound the zone, three pitches or less.”
It’s all still work in progress for Wawrzasek, who wants to be stingy on the bump, but also strives to have better fastball command.
“That’s a big thing going to the next level, and if you can command your fastball, get in and out, side to side, you’ll be fine,” said Wawrzasek. “Because if you can hit the outside on the right-handed batters, you’re going to be fine.”
Hockey’s loss is baseball’s gain, because Stosh Wawrzasek plays with passion and childhood delight. It’s no wonder that his baseball dream has been a rerun that first aired back in the early 90’s.
“I’ve had that dream since I was four-years-old,” said Wawrzasek. “I got into Tee Ball when I was four and I had a blast. My dad was coaching and I had so much fun playing I never wanted to stop. I watched guys playing on TV and it made me go ‘I want to do that.’
“All my life I’ve wanted to play in the Major Leagues and have my parents be there at the game or at home watching on TV. It’s unbelievable and the best dream I’ve ever had in my life. And I have it continuously…not just when I was four-years-old but I have it all the time.”
PHOTOS BY BRAD KRAUSE