If you told Joe Borowski 20 years ago that he’d have a life in Major League baseball and then live in Scottsdale, Arizona, with a beautiful wife and two sons, he’d say you’re insane.
A career in the Bayonne Fire Department was more likely, following in the footsteps of his father, retired Bayonne Fire Captain Leon Borowski.
But the Bayonne native stuck with baseball. “It was definitely a roller coaster ride,” he said.
“I remember being about 3 or 4. My older brother, Mike, would go to the park, and I was always following him around. That’s how you learned to play.”
Borowski first lived on 15th Street and Avenue A, so he was a regular at 16th Street Park.
“There was a summer camp there, so we were there from sunrise to sunset,” Borowski said.
He learned to play football, basketball, and baseball. Ironically, baseball was his least favorite.
“Basketball was my best sport,” he said.
But when he enrolled at Marist High School in 1986, he played football. “I think through high school, I was a better football player,” he said. “But I think it helped me that I played more than one sport.”
Borowski caught a huge touchdown pass to defeat arch rival Bayonne High School on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, only the second time that Marist won the Turkey Day showdown.
Borowski earned All-Hudson County and All-State honors in football.
Life after high school
“There were some [scholarship] offers for football, but I wasn’t aggressive about contacting people back,” Borowski said. “Because of it, I had no scholarship offers at the signing deadline.”
But in spring, 1989, he had a baseball season that most kids only dream about.
He led the Royal Knights to the NJSIAA Parochial B state championship, getting the win in both the sectional final and final game, hitting a homer in both games.
“We needed to win three games in a week to even qualify for the states,” Borowski said. “We needed comebacks to win each close game, and we started to play to our potential.”
He credits a local baseball guru, the late Ed “The Faa” Ford, a scout for the Chicago White Sox, for helping him achieve his dream.
“It was good to have the Faa there to teach me the ins and outs,” Borowski said. “He would talk to me about what I needed to do to get drafted.”
Borowski was drafted by the White Sox in the 1989 MLB Draft. At the time, he’d already signed a letter of intent to play at Rutgers.
“But I don’t think I was cut out for college,” Borowski said.
He signed with the White Sox, and his major league career was launched.
Borowski spent the 1990 season with the White Sox affiliate in the Gulf Coast League and was then traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Pete Rose Jr.
He spent five years with the Orioles, finding his niche as a relief pitcher. He made his major league debut with the Orioles in 1995.
During that offseason, Borowski was traded to the Atlanta Braves, spending two years as a middle reliever. He saw action in 42 games, won four, and pitched to an ERA just over 4.00. But late in the 1997 season, he was placed on waivers.
At age 26, he headed home to Bayonne, thinking that the time had come to become a firefighter.
The New York Yankees claimed Borowski off waivers. But he pitched in only nine games over two seasons, spending most of the 1998 season with the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees’ Class AAA franchise.
He spent 1999 with Louisville, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Class AAA franchise, and went to spring training in 2000 with the Cincinnati Reds.
“But they released me,” Borowski said. “I despised baseball at that time.”
Still, back in Bayonne, he signed with the independent Newark Bears.
“I said to myself that if I didn’t sign with a major league team by July, I was going to hang them up for good,” he said.
Borowski spent a few months with the Bears and then took a higher-paying contract with Monterrey in the Mexican League.
In Mexico, Borowski had an epiphany.
“I woke up one morning and realized that I completely changed the way I felt,” he said. “It wasn’t about who was drafted where or who was traded for whom. You either got the job done or you didn’t, and I started enjoying baseball again.”
“The Latin American scout for the Cubs, Oneri Fleita, saw me pitch and said that the Cubs were interested in me,” Borowski said. “I was consistent with my pitch location. I was throwing strikes.”
In 2002, Borowski went to spring training with the Cubs. Fleita told Cubs officials that Borowski would make the final roster.
“Sure enough, I pitched my tail off,” Borowski said. “I had no idea Oneri did that until like two years later, when the Cubs’ general manager Jim Hendry told me that I better make sure I send Oneri a Christmas card.”
Borowski pitched well for the Cubs in 2002. He had a 4-4 record with two saves and a 2.73 ERA. He also struck out 97 in 95 innings as a setup man. A year later, he became the main man in the Cubs’ bullpen.
“Our closer at the time, Antonio Alfonseca, got hurt in spring training,” Borowski said. “For two games in a row, I was the only one left in the bullpen, so I got the saves.”
Dusty Baker, the Cubs’ manager, “was definitely in my corner,” Borowski said, “and if you were a blue-collar guy, you fit in well in Chicago.”
As the Cubs’ regular closer, Borowski posted a 2-2 record with a 2.63 ERA and 33 saves, among the top 10 relievers in baseball.
In the first multi-year contract of his career, he signed for two years and $4.3 million. But soon he suffered a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.
“I spent all of 2004 trying to rehab the shoulder,” Borowski said, “but I never got back to my same velocity. I also tore the meniscus in my knee. I spent the rest of the offseason rehabbing the knee and the shoulder.”
In spring training, 2005, Borowski was hit with a line drive on his left wrist, suffering a hairline fracture.
Borowski saw action in 11 games with the Cubs in 2005, but had a 6.55 ERA. In late June, after five seasons with the club, they released him.
Borowski said, “The Cubs couldn’t put anyone out there who couldn’t get anyone out.”
Two weeks after getting released from the Cubs, he hooked on with the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I pitched 21 2/3 scoreless innings to start off with them,” Borowski said. “My arm felt strong again.”
He posted a 3.82 ERA in 32 games with a 1-5 record, proving that he was healthy enough to secure another contract, this time with the Florida Marlins.
As the Marlins’ closer, Borowski had a 3-3 record with a 3.75 ERA and 36 saves, good for third in the National League.
Jacobs Field/Progressive Field
A year later, after signing a two-year, $8 million contract with the Cleveland Indians, Borowski was set for life.
He led the American League in saves with 46 in 2007, one against the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series, leading the Indians to the AL Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.
In 2008, Borowski got hurt for the last time, again injuring his shoulder.
He retired from baseball after an injury-filled 2008 season.
“I wouldn’t change a thing in my career,” he said. “I have a lot of good stories and memories.”
Borowski returned to Scottsdale with his wife, Tatum, and sons Blaze, 13, and Ty, 8. While rehabbing his shoulder, he met Mike Roth, executive producer for Fox Sports Arizona, who needed someone to work the pre- and post-game shows for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
And the rest is history.
“I’m so thankful to the game of baseball,” Borowski said. “It really was the dream that came true.”
His incredible journey began in Bayonne, a remarkable ride that no one could have predicted when Joe Borowski was a kid, playing on the fields in 16th Street Park.—BLP