SCOREBOARD The reluctant homecoming Secaucus' Lukasiewicz never figured he'd be back pitching in Jersey
by Jim Hague
Aug 24, 2004 | 485 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
After receiving his release from the Anaheim Angels last fall, Mark Lukasiewicz had a handful of offers to choose from over the winter. The Yankees called and asked if the Secaucus High School legend would be willing to sign on and pitch for them. So did the Chicago Cubs.

But Lukasiewicz decided to take the offer he was most comfortable with - a Class AAA contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, the team that originally drafted "Big Luke" out of junior college in 1990. He took it with the idea that he could play for the Syracuse SkyChiefs in the general vicinity of the home he made in Clay, N.Y., with his wife Meredith and their soon-to-be born child.

Other than being in the major leagues, being back in Syracuse was the next best thing.

"The Blue Jays gave me a chance to play close to home," said Lukasiewicz, who met his wife while playing in Syracuse in the late 1990s and decided to remain there. "I was happy to come back to Syracuse."

Lukasiewicz thought he had a shot to return to the major leagues with the Blue Jays, back to where he spent most of 2001 and 2002 with the Angels, being a part of the Angels team that won the World Series - although Lukasiewicz was not with the club during the World Series.

"They had me pitch with the Blue Jays for a couple days in spring training," Lukasiewicz said. "But I knew I was going to be assigned to Syracuse. I was throwing the ball real well. In fact, I've thrown the ball well all season."

While Lukasiewicz felt he was throwing well for Syracuse, he did have somewhat of an inflated earned run average, thanks to just two poor outings. The rest of the time, "Big Luke" was sharp, fitting into his role as a situational lefty relief pitcher, much like he did when he climbed to the major leagues with the Angels in 2001.

Lukasiewicz had a 4-2 with a 7.68 ERA and four saves in 32 games with the SkyChiefs this season, when he was called into manager Marty Pevey's office in mid-July, right before the All-Star break. Lukasiewicz had decent numbers in other categories, like 33 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 36 innings, and he held opposing hitters to a .268 batting average.

But that didn't matter. Pevey told "Big Luke" that he was being released by the club.

"They had five guys coming off the disabled list at the same time during the All-Star break," Lukasiewicz said. "The majority of those were under major league contracts. I knew I was part of a numbers game and that I would be the easiest one to get rid of. I was disappointed, but I knew it was part of the game."

At age 31, Mark Lukasiewicz was at the crossroads of his professional career - once again. He had survived many different peaks and valleys in his 11-year pro baseball career, including once being released by the Blue Jays in 2000 before making the big leagues - only to hook on with the Angels and finally make it to the show in 2001.

"I wasn't ready to quit," said Lukasiewicz, who was a standout performer at Secaucus High School during his heyday, earning All-Group I honors for baseball three times during his career. "It was sad for me to get released and it was unfortunate, but I wasn't going to give up yet."

After getting his release, Lukasiewicz remained at home for a week. His agent was sure that another club would call with a contract offer, but the phone never rang.

"I sat around for a full week and didn't get a call," Lukasiewicz said. "My agent then told me that there was a team in an independent league that was interested. He told me that if I went down there, pitched well and stayed in shape, that I could get another chance to make it back."

However, when Lukasiewicz was told where the new team was located, he couldn't believe his ears. He was being an offered a contract to pitch for the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League. Yes, Somerset, as in Somerset County, N.J. Lukasiewicz was going home to New Jersey - as a member of the Patriots once again, no less, just like he was in high school.

"It is a little strange," said Lukasiewicz, who has been with the Somerset Patriots for the last three weeks. "It's almost like being in high school all over again. I'm back in New Jersey, and I'm wearing Patriots on my uniform again. I thought that was pretty coincidental."

Lukasiewicz doesn't look at the move to the Somerset Patriots as a career setback. It's just another stop in the journey. Others, like Jose Lima, have used the Atlantic League as a vehicle to get back to the big leagues. Maybe Lukasiewicz can do the same.

"It's nice to come home and see my family and friends," Lukasiewicz said. "I haven't had many chances since I began my career. But I'm basically using this chance as a way to stay in shape. There are a lot of other guys who played in the big leagues in this league who are doing the same thing. I can get some innings here, show that I can still pitch and maybe someone will give me a shot."

Lukasiewicz has been impressed with the professionalism of the Somerset Patriots, pitching for such proven major league stars like Sparky Lyle, the former Yankee Cy Young Award winning closer who is the team's manager, and John Montefusco, the former National League Rookie of the Year who is the Patriots' pitching coach.

"I've been amazed with the fan support out here," Lukasiewicz said. "It's better than some Triple A clubs. And working with old school guys like Sparky Lyle and John Montefusco has been a thrill for me."

Lukasiewicz has fared well in his limited time with the Patriots, pitching in five games, winning one game and posting a 0.00 ERA and a .158 batting average against in nine innings.

"I know I can still play," Lukasiewicz said. "They didn't waste any time getting me in there. Even though I was in the big leagues, I had no guarantees when I got here. I have to work my butt off with this team to get a role with the team. It's just like any other team you play for. You have to earn everything. This is a way to keep myself in shape and hopefully, I'll get picked up by someone."

But the time for this season is winding down. The minor league season ends during the first week of September.

"Things like this happen," Lukasiewicz said. "It's not exactly what I had hoped for. But instead of sitting home and worrying about what might happen, I'm getting a chance to prove myself. Instead of just waiting for a phone call, I'm playing ball. Then, after this year, if I don't get another shot, then I'll know for sure, one way or another."

For now, he's back home in Jersey, hurling in front of family and friends. People from Secaucus are venturing out to Somerset County, to support their native son. Chances like this don't happen every day, even if it is a reluctant homecoming. Mark Lukasiewicz is going to make the most of it, like he always does.

Lukasiewicz spent three years with the Angels, appearing in 41 major-league games in 2001-02 and earning a World Series championship ring from Anaheim's 2002 title.

Lukasiewicz, 31, spent the first seven years of his professional career with the Blue Jays and appeared in 131 games for the SkyChiefs from 1997-2000. Lukasiewicz had three outings that tainted his statistics. In a combined three innings in those games, he surrendered 13 runs. Without those outings, Lukasiewicz had a more respectable 4.86 ERA.

"There's only a month and a half left in the (minor-league) season, and I'd like to finish up with somebody," Lukasiewicz said. "If I don't sign on, it'll be an early offseason."

The Blue Jays released Lukasiewicz to make room on the SkyChiefs' roster for shortstop Russ Adams, who was activated from the disabled list. Since the all-star break, Syracuse has also activated outfielder Marvin Benard from the DL, received infielder Howie Clark from Toronto, and placed outfielder Jeff Guiel and utility man Stubby Clapp on the DL.
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