Four locals make Opening Day rosters in major leagues
Last Monday represented a lot more than just April Fools Day. There were things happening in New York, Chicago, Anaheim and Boston that weren't practical jokes. They spread pure joy, pure excitement, and pure exhilaration.
You see, in those major league baseball cities, Hudson County baseball products were enjoying perhaps the best Opening Days of their baseball lives.
There hadn't been a better start to a professional baseball season than the one enjoyed last week for the four products, who strolled out of their respective dugouts on Monday, jogged to the foul line and were introduced as part of their teams' Opening Day roster.
Incredibly, all four local products headed to spring training six weeks ago with no guarantee of making their respective major league teams. They headed south with a minor league contract in hand and the dream of being a major leaguer pounding away in their chest and brain. The paths they took to reach the pinnacle are way beyond belief.
Yet, when the 2002 Major League Baseball season began last week, Jersey City's John Valentin was with the New York Mets, Secaucus' Mark Lukasiewicz was with the Anaheim Angels, Jersey City's Willie Banks made the final cut for the Boston Red Sox and Bayonne's Joe Borowski is pitching for the Chicago Cubs.
None of the four local products (Valentin and Banks from St. Anthony, Lukasiewicz from Secaucus High and Borowski of Marist) had any concrete promise of making their respective Opening Day roster. They had battle for their respective spots, taking on the challenge of kids 10 to 15 years younger.
There was a time when Valentin didn't have to worry about his position on Opening Day. For years, he was the long established slugging shortstop of the Red Sox. But two full years of injuries left Valentin's career in question. He had to earn his spot on a roster, albeit with the Mets.
Fifteen years ago, it seemed as if Banks was headed for baseball superstardom. He was drafted out of St. Anthony by the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the 1987 draft, the third pick overall, just two selections after the Seattle Mariners took some kid from Cincinnati named Ken Griffey, Jr. as the No. 1 pick overall.
But the baseball gods weren't overly kind to Banks. He had to endure a rocky road that took him all over the globe, including Japan. Major league stops included Minnesota, Chicago, Florida, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Arizona, even the Yankees. He had shoulder surgery. He was even once left for the scrap heap, away from the game for more than an entire year.
Willie Banks' dedication and devotion to the game is totally unparalleled. The road he has traveled to become a part of the Boston Red Sox today is beyond fairy tale. So when he was told by new Boston manager Grady Little that he had secured a spot on the Red Sox's Opening Day roster, it must have been the same as if a 7-year-old was told that Santa Claus left a new shiny bike on Christmas morn.
Mark Lukasiewicz was also destined for stardom. The big strapping lefty was taken by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round of the draft a decade ago and was ticketed to become a flame throwing starter for the defending World Champions at the time.
But the Blue Jays were never really enthralled with "Big Luke" and he languished in the Blue Jays' minor league organization for what must have seemed a lifetime, never really getting the chance to prove what he could do on the grand stage.
It was only after he was exiled to Anaheim that Lukasiewicz got the chance to pitch in the major leagues - last year, for the first time, as a 28-year-old rookie.
And although Lukasiewicz pitched well for the Angels last year, he did not receive a guaranteed contract for this season. So the lefty had to go to spring training and prove himself all over again.
Sure enough, much like Banks, his status was unknown until the day before the Angels broke training camp in Arizona. He was notified that he was also the last player to survive the cut.
Talk about that irony. Two different major league teams go down to the wire with their last roster moves and both involve guys from Hudson County.
In Borowski's case, it goes even one step beyond.
Borowski was already informed by Cubs manager Don Baylor that he was not going to make the Cubs' roster and that he was being sent down to Class AAA Iowa, where Borowski spent most of last season. He pitched one game for the Cubs, lasting no more than an inning against the Giants in the middle of the summer.
But before the Cubs left Arizona, Baylor was not pleased with the work of two young relievers, so Baylor sent them to the minors instead and brought Borowski up to the major leagues.
Here's another guy who has paid his dues to get a chance back in the majors. Borowski went from the Orioles to the Braves, then to the Yankees. His career then hit the crossroads, when he ended up pitching for the Newark Bears in the independent Northern League and even went to the Mexican League for a stint two years ago.
All four local guys had to show resilience for not giving up on their dream. All four had to endure incredible obstacles and keep their composure when times got beyond tough.
Now, all four are living proof that if you really want something so bad that you can taste it, you have to work hard to get it.
What shining examples, role models, these four Hudson County products are to the current youth of Hudson County.
There are so many kids out there right now who think that it's their right to wear a baseball uniform, that everything should be simply handed to them because they are who they are.
It doesn't work that way. You have to earn things in life. Good things, like success on a baseball diamond, don't come easy.
These four guys should be held up as beacons, shining lights, for the rest of the county to see. None of these guys are on major league rosters this week because someone handed the roster spot to them. They had to earn it.
And earn it the hard way.