For months, there’s been uncertainty about the status of professional baseball both at the major league and independent levels due to the coronavirus.
But La Salle-Peru graduate Karch Kowalczyk was certain if the chance to play this summer arose, he’d take it.
The American Association of Professional Independent Baseball decided to hold a 60-game season with six teams playing at three different hubs beginning July 3, and Kowalczyk had his opportunity.
“I kept at it, working out and throwing,” said Kowalczyk, whose rights were traded from the St. Paul Saints to the Milwaukee Milkmen after last season. “I was really itching to play this year because I ended on a good note last year, so if I had the opportunity, I was pretty much all in on going no matter what.”
Kowalcyk kept in shape awaiting word by working out at his home in Peru and working with other area baseball players Cam McDonald, a Hall graduate and University of Illinois junior, and Jake Sale, a Putnam County graduate who played at Illinois State University.
“We had some stuff laying around the house, so I made a makeshift gym in the garage I could take down every day,” Kowalczyk said. “I was doing home workouts and a little yoga.
“I was throwing in my backyard. I bought a big net, and that was my throwing partner. I had a cooler full of baseballs, and was just launching them. Since Baker Lake never closed, I’d go up there and throw.
"Once everyone finally started to get a sense of how to deal with it, I would throw with Jake Sale and Cam McDonald. I built a mound, so we started throwing live. Once fields started to open up, we went and threw live on fields all over the Illinois Valley. Wherever there was open space, we got our work in.”
Last season, Kowalczyk went 3-1 with two saves, a 3.21 ERA, 25 strikeouts and 17 walks in 42 innings pitched over 29 appearances with the Saints, who went 64-36 and won the American Association championship.
Kowalczyk, who will stay with a host family, expects to be in a similar role this season with the Milkmen.
“I feel really good,” Kowalczyk said. “We embraced long toss (during workouts in the Illinois Valley). I feel pretty strong. I’m in about as good of shape as I can be with the circumstances. We’ve had a couple unofficial workouts (with the Milkmen), and I’ve seen other people throw. It sounds like I’m a little ahead of the curve with how much throwing I’ve gotten in, so that’s good.
“The head coach told me I’ll be toward the back end (of the bullpen), either in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning depending on who’s thrown in recent days and the situation. That’s where I thrive and what I enjoy. I’m looking forward to those short stints toward the end of the game and getting back in my groove.”
Kowalczyk, who spent six seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, said this could be his professional swan song.
“I’m going to go out there and lay it out,” Kowalczyk said. “I’m going to train to throw as hard as possible. That’s the goal is to have a lot of success while keeping my velocity up.
“It’s such a weird year. I don't know if teams are going to be scouting players for those taxi squads in MLB, but I’m going to try to parlay it into an opportunity. If not, it might be kind of a final ride deal. I haven’t fully decided yet. I’m waiting to see how the games are going and how sharp I am before I can really decide what I’m going to do.
“I’m looking for either closure or a good opportunity moving forward.”