The Rookie Revisited: TAM High baseball coach signs pro contract

by Dave Albee, Marin Independent Journal

How’s this for a Hollywood script: An aging high school baseball coach finds out his pitching arm is better than expected then realizes his quest to play professional baseball still might be within his grasp.

Sound familiar?

It is Stan Switala’s story and he’s sticking to it. Switala, who lives in Tiburon, is Marin’s version of Disney’s movie “The Rookie,” which was released in 2002. The movie starred Dennis Quaid as Jim Morris, a Texas high school baseball coach who re-discovers his fastball and returns to the minor leagues in pursuit of a lifelong dream to play in the major leagues.

“It’s my favorite movie,” Switala said. “Now I’ve got to watch the movie every single day because I’m kind of living it.”

Even though Switala, a volunteer pitching coach at Tam High, hasn’t pitched in a game since his father died suddenly in 1999, the 30-year-old pitcher was willing to sacrifice a $6,700-a-month job as a San Rafael Police Department officer to eventually begin training for an $800-a-month job with the Calgary Vipers of the independent Northern League. It wasn’t an easy sell to Switala’s mother, sister or girlfriend, Jamie Gonzales.

Gonzales was particularly apprehensive of her boyfriend leaving her for three months just for the chance to play a kids’ game like baseball. Then, one night, Switala popped in his personal copy of the “The Rookie” and asked Gonzales to watch it.

“Oh my God! That’s you to a tee,” Gonzales said. “It actually made me cry. I said, ‘That’s you and that’s what you want to do. I understand.'”

Thus, Switala is prepared to go north to Alberta, Canada, on his comeback trail, which has had many twists, turns, trials and tribulations. He was a star pitcher in high school in West Islip, N.Y., who earned a full-ride scholarship to play at Northeastern University in Boston. But he hurt his back, took a medical redshirt season on the sideline at Northeastern before his scholarship was revoked.

Switala then accepted a scholarship to Mercer Community College in New Jersey with the intent of ultimately returning to NCAA Division I baseball, until he learned that his class credits at Northeastern didn’t transfer to Mercer. So Switala switched to Farmingdale College in New York. He got his college credits, stayed on target for graduation and increased the velocity of his fastball in the process. He had a losing record (3-6) on a losing team, but he had a 1.64 earned-run average and 80 strikeouts in 64 innings.

According to Ken Rocco, Switala’s coach at Farmingdale, the right-handed pitcher was the top junior college hurler in the Northeast that year and was one of the most-recruited JC pitchers in the country, receiving more than 30 scholarship offers from Division I and II schools.

Switala chose Eastern Michigan. He pitched two seasons and was so impressive that his coach, on the eve of the 1999 June amateur draft, told Switala that the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers had expressed an interest in drafting him. They didn’t. No team did. So Switala decided to go play with the Massachusetts Mad Dogs of the independent Northeast League. His manager in Lynn, Mass., was George “Boomer” Scott, slugging first baseman for the American League champion Boston Red Sox in 1967 who, last October, was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

Scott, Switala said, “really jeopardized my career.”

One game, the Mad Dog’s starting pitcher was knocked out of the game in the first inning after allowing five runs. Scott called on Switala to relieve him and Switala responded by throwing shutout ball the rest of the game while accumulating 115 pitches. He topped out at 93 mph.

However, less than 48 hours later on a Sunday, Scott called on Switala to pitch again, this time as the team’s closer. Switala hadn’t recovered from Friday’s long outing.

“I can’t get the ball over 86 mph,” Switala said.

Switala blew the save and Scott stuck him on the bench for two weeks before telling him he could start another game. But Switala felt a tightness in his pitching elbow and had to leave his start early.

The next week, the Mad Dogs released him. Switala, however, wasn’t too mad. The team was near the bottom of the league standings and last in attendance and he didn’t have to fret anymore about how Scott was utilizing him. Switala, instead, called Don Cooper, then a minor-league pitching coordinator with the Chicago White Sox. Switala had worked with Copper in the offseason in New York.

According to Switala, Cooper thought he could find Switala a spot on a roster of a White Sox minor-league team by the time spring training rolled around in 2000. Cooper told Switala to keep in touch. But, in October of 1999, Switala’s father died, possibly from heart disease, at the age of 54. Switala, disheartened by his experience with the Mad Dogs and devastated by his dad’s death, never bothered to call Cooper.

“I just hung it up. That was it,” Switala said.

He quit playing baseball. He even stopped going to professional baseball games just to watch. His father, Stan, had wanted to play pro ball, too. He was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals out of Princeton University.

“Unfortunately the next draft got him. The Vietnam War draft,” Switala said.

So Switala, having given up on baseball as an occupation, followed his academic goal. He entered law enforcement though, in 2002 while a cop in Michigan, Switala dabbled with the idea of making a comeback. He recruited a fireman friend, who had been a catcher in high school, to start catching him. Switala borrowed a police radar gun and discovered he was still throwing as hard as 93 mph. But while using his connections and angling for a possible tryout with the Florida Marlins, Switala broke his buddy’s thumb on a hard-thrown pitch.

“I have no one else to catch me,” Switala said. “And then (the baseball dream) just went away.”

Switala landed a job with San Rafael PD, but he also interviewed with Sausalito Police Department and captain Don MacQuarrie. MacQuarrie became head baseball coach at Tam this year. MacQuarrie recruited Jason Nancarrow, who once led the MCAL in hitting as a senior at Redwood High, to be an assistant coach. They both started searching independently for a pitching coach and both found one – the same one, Switala.

Nancarrow and Switala began throwing to each other at Tam in January and one day Switala decided to toss batting practice to him.

“At this time, both of us had no plans of doing anything (in pro baseball),” Switala said. “I’m throwing the ball by him and I feel like I’m throwing the ball pretty good. I hadn’t thrown a baseball in five years. This is kind of weird. He’s not touching me. I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on?'”

Again Switala arranged to borrow a radar gun. He figured, at age 30, he might be throwing as high as 87 mph. The radar gun had him clocked consistently between 90-93 mph.

This revelation prompted Switala to suddenly resurrect his pro baseball dream and make some phone calls to his connections. Apparently there is a need for anyone who can throw that hard and soon offers started pouring in from overseas. The Gauting Indians, outside of Munich, wanted to sign Switala to play in Germany and Switala encouraged them to sign Nancarrow, too.

Nancarrow went there to play, but Switala stayed. He called the Vipers. Their manager, Mike Busch, who played two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, used his baseball connections to check out Switala.

“I didn’t know much about him,” said Busch, who signed Switala to a contract Feb. 21. “I’m going to see him person. I guaranteed him that. He’s going to show me what he’s got.”

Switala was planning to fly to Calgary on May 1 for the start of the Vipers training camp on May 3. But he has a mild triceps muscle strain in his pitching arm. He met with Dr. Ken Akizuki, the team orthopedist for the San Francisco Giants, who gave Switala a cortisone injection. An MRI revealed no internal damage so Switala is going to rest and rehab in Marin until his arm allows him to start pitching full strength for the Vipers, hopefully by the end of May, beginning of June.

That means Switala will remain pitching coach at Tam for the time being and the Red-tailed Hawks are happy about that.

“Him being a former pro is really cool. … It just offers a whole new dimension to the sport,” said Tam 17-year-old senior pitcher Spencer Kennedy. “But then when we learned he was leaving, everyone was kind of bummed. He’s a really cool guy, he’s loose and he knows what he’s talking about. I think it’s good for him to get out and he still kind of has that dream to play and it would be good for him to go fulfill that. He’s definitely capable of doing it. He works just as hard as we do.”

Switala, for his part, encourages Tam players to play the game as if it’s their last game. Indeed he knows what he’s talking about.

“Sometimes it takes you a little while to put things in perspective,” Switala said. “Unfortunately it took me until now.”

It’s a one-shot deal for Switala. Go to the Northern League and pitch well enough to be picked up by a farm-system affiliate of the major-league team. Switala recently re-connected with Cooper, now the pitching coach for the White Sox, to gauge his chances and let Cooper know of his intentions. They are good intentions.

“I think everybody probably looks back in their life and had made a decision not to pursue something and they keep coming back to that later on in life,” MacQuarrie said. “At least he (Switala) can say that he gave it another try. He won’t go back and say ‘God, I wish I would have.’ If it works out for him, then great. We’ll all enjoy watching him on TV. If it doesn’t work out, he can least say he gave it his best shot.”

It’s “The Rookie” on a smaller scale with potentially the same result.

“If this story ends up the way the movie did, everybody’s going to be happy,” Busch said. “Him. Me. Everybody.”

Presumably, Switala’s dad would have been happy, too.

“He feels like he cut his baseball career short because of (his father’s death),” Gonzales said of her boyfriend pitcher. “He didn’t intend to do that.”

Now Switala is doing what he originally set out to do. He’s so proud of his favorite pitch and its top speed that he made an e-mail address out of it. Yet he’s had more than his share of setbacks and bad luck with a singular dream that have never been realized.

“I live with regret,” Switala said. “I feel lucky I got another chance.”

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