Feb. 18, 2010
Pitcher gets his chance to fly with Cardinals
By Michael Rand
Ben Jukich has dreamed about this all his life, but last week it
started to feel more real.
Jukich is a Duluth native and pitcher who has
a good shot to make the St. Louis Cardinals' Opening Day roster.
And Wednesday was the official spring training reporting day for
pitchers and catchers with the Cardinals, who are among a handful
of teams to begin that early.
"You smell the grass," Jukich said by phone Wednesday,
"and it feels like baseball season."
Thursday marks the first official workout. The next six weeks will
influence how the rest of the season goes. Jukich, who spent last
year with the Reds' Class AAA affiliate in Louisville, was chosen
in the Rule 5 draft this past offseason by the Cardinals.
The terms of that draft essentially dictate the Cardinals must keep
him on their major league roster for the entire season or offer
him back to the Reds. So if Jukich -- a 6-4 lefthander with a live
arm -- shows enough this spring, he could be in the major leagues
all season as a reliever or spot starter. That prospect is exciting
and nerve-racking all at once, he said.
"If you want to be literal about the situation, right now I'm
a big leaguer," Jukich said. "I can say at 27 years old,
I've attained my lifelong goal. But saying that, I haven't pitched
in a game yet. You get nervous, but you get past it. Everything
you do is being critiqued. You don't want to screw it up, but you
don't want to think about it so much that you bury yourself."
Even making it this far is a major accomplishment for Jukich, a
2001 Duluth Denfeld graduate who didn't take his big league dreams
too seriously until scouts started showing up in bunches to see
him throw at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota.
He was drafted in the 13th round by Oakland in 2006 and has moved
up the levels of minor league ball since then.
"It's a pipe dream," Jukich said. "Every kid growing
up dreams of this."
Jukich arrived at the Cardinals' facility in Florida last week to
get acclimated. He met pitching coach Dave Duncan and has been throwing
off a mound for the past few days to get "locked in."
If everything falls into place, Jukich will be with the Cardinals
when they christen Target Field with a pair of exhibition games
April 2-3 -- against Jukich's favorite team growing up. His dad,
Mark, has already reserved two buses from Duluth and a bunch of
hotel rooms for the occasion.
"I don't doubt that he's going to make the team and stay there,"
Mark said. "All he has to do is keep doing what he's been doing."