July 14, 2008
Making a pitch for the majors
By Jon Nowacki
Ben Jukich remembers working all hours at local
bars and gas stations in Duluth about five years ago, making just
enough to get by.
While that may have seemed about as far from Major
League Baseball as one could get, Jukich never lost sight of his
dream of one day playing in the big leagues.
That dream is now closer than ever.
Jukich, 25, will start on the mound today for
the North Division in the Southern League All-Star Game in Zebulon,
N.C. (go to www.southernleague.com for a link to the Webcast). The
6-foot-5 left-hander is 8-4 with a 3.57 ERA for the Chattanooga
Lookouts, the Class AA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
Jukich conceivably could be only an injury or
two away from a call up to the majors.
“I know there are good pitchers for the
Reds at the Triple-A level such as Matt Maloney, but at the same
time, if he moves up, then so do I, or at least I hope I do,”
Jukich said. “I’m just that much closer to where I want
to be, but I try not to think about all the politics and the process
that goes into that, because if you do, it makes it so much harder
to just go out there and pitch.”
Jukich grew up in Morgan Park, where his father,
Mark, set up a rubber baseball set for Ben and his twin brother,
Andy. The game was simple, with no hitting or fielding — just
pitching. The boys would throw while Mark would call balls and strikes.
Jukich went on to become an all-area performer
for Duluth Denfeld before graduating in 2001. He attended Central
Lakes Community College in Brainerd but dropped out after one semester.
He said he drank a little too much and didn’t attend class.
“I was young, and the greatest pressure
is peer pressure, but ultimately, those were my decisions and I’m
the one to blame for them,” Jukich said. “But to a certain
extent, I’m thankful it happened because if things had worked
out in college, I would have gotten my degree and then moved on
to a 9-to-5 job or desk job. No offense to that, but that’s
not what I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to play baseball.
If I hadn’t failed out, who knows what would have happened?”
Jukich was out of school for two years but kept
playing amateur baseball. He enlisted in the Army and was only two
weeks from being sent to Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., when he
received a scholarship to McCook (Neb.) Community College.
“I really believe I’m here to play
baseball,” Jukich said. “It is the one sport that I
have always tried to get better at every time I’ve played.”
Jukich performed better on the field and in the
classroom at McCook before transferring to Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell,
S.D., where he went 9-5 with a 1.62 ERA in 2006 while leading the
NAIA in strikeouts (144) and strikeouts per nine innings (13.7).
That same year he became the first player in Great Plains Athletic
Conference history to be drafted when Oakland took him in the 13th
round and signed him for about $20,000. He was traded to Cincinnati
last summer and went 8-2 with a 3.55 ERA in 14 starts with Class
A Sarasota before being assigned to Chattanooga this season, where
he has impressed coaches with his work ethic.
Jukich said he has been clocked at 91 mph this
season but said he was clocked as high as 94 mph in college. He
leads the Lookouts with 92 strikeouts in 116 innings.
“Believe it or not, I’m not surprised
by how Ben has done this year,” said Mark Jukich, who plans
on attending today’s all-star game. “From Little League
on up, Ben has established himself as his team’s ace at every
level he has played. He always had that fire in him that said, ‘Just
give me the ball, and I can win this game.’ ”
Still, Ben Jukich’s current status as a
top minor league prospect is not as glamorous as it may seem.
Pro baseball can be divided into the haves (major
leaguers) and have nots (everything else). While a major leaguer
makes a minimum of about $400,000 per year, Jukich is making about
$1,500 per month, plus $20 per diem for road games (motels are paid
for on the road, but players have to fend for themselves at home).
“Pennies,” Jukich said of his salary.
“I could probably do better for myself working at McDonald’s.”
Still, Jukich wouldn’t have it any other
way. His family has sent him money to help him get by, and a stint
with the Rochester Honkers of the Northwoods League helped him prepare
for the day-to-day grind of minor league baseball, little social
life and endless bus trips.
Jukich still has days where he gets down, but
he’s certainly not out.
“You can go throw a complete game one-hitter,
but those aren’t the games you learn anything from,’”
Jukich said. “The games you learn the most from are the games
where you give up six or seven runs in three innings, get pulled
and just have a terrible outing. That’s when you find out
the kind of person you really are.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you
I’ve made more mistakes than a lot of people, but in the end
it comes down to whether you learn from those mistakes and try to
make it better. I have a grasp of what I want to do and what I have
to do to accomplish it.”