Denfeld News

Feb. 18, 2010
Minneapolis Star Tribune

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."

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