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Baseball Hall of Fame: Interview with Don Czyz

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Since fielding its first baseball team in 1880 well over a thousand players have represented the University of Kansas on the baseball field.  A strong argument can be made that Don Czyz was the best of the lot.  In 2006 Czyz was included on all four All-American teams and named the National College Baseball Writers of America Stopper of the Year awarded each year to the best NCAA reliever.

   

All photos courtisy of KUathletics.com

In 2006 Czyz dominated the competition.  His 19 saves led the NCAA.  In 37 games and 63.1 Innings he compiled an ERA of 1.56, a 6-0 record, struck out 60 batters balanced against 15 walks.

Two other measurements may illuminate the type of year Czyz gave Kansas fans.  KU was a perfect 35-0 when leading after seven innings.  With Czyz, KU late leads never turned into losses.  Czyz effectively shortened opponents efforts  against KU to seven inning affairs.  A second measure of Czyz impact is the fact that the Jayhawks were still playing in June.  The Jayhawks had not made the post-season NCAA tournament since 1993.  Going into the Big-12 tournament KU was considered a bubble team to make the field as an at-large.  Although the debate became an academic one when the Jayhawks won the tournament and earned the automatic bid, clearly if even one or two wins had been turned into losses KU would not have factored into the field of 64 minus their late miracle run.  In 2006 Czyz' presence transformed a pretty good KU team into a national power.

Given what I know about Don Czyz I expect he values last year's team accomplishments as highly as he values the individual awards that piled up in his living room later that month.

Even though Don might emphasis team accomplishments, here is a list of some of his records:
1st in all time Big-12 career pitching appearances (128)
1st in all time KU saves (30)
1st in single season KU saves (19)
1st in all time (128) and single season (37) KU pitching appearances.
11th in all time single season NCAA saves (19)

The Jayhawks celebrate their Big-12 tournament title in 2006. Czyz, who earned his 18th save seconds earlier, can probably be found at the bottom of the pile.

Don was selected in the 6th round of last June's MLB draft by the Florida Marlins.  Working out of the low-A level Jamestown Jammers bullpen Czyz went 3-1 with six saves in 22 appearances.  Czyz took some time out of his first spring training experience for an on-line interview with Rock Chalk Talk.

Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
Thanks a lot for giving me the opportunity.  I truly have a lot of passion for the University of Kansas and particularly the baseball program there.  Your website is very informative and I feel that you do a great job accurately covering the team and their season.

You developed quite a bit as a pitcher while at KU. You went from a little noticed recruit out of high-school to an All-American closer in four years. What helped you grow into the pitcher you became?
I'd have to say that the Coach Steve Abney and Coach Graves taught me a lot about pitching in general.  I learned how to mentally prepare for every game and how to better repeat my mechanics in order to be more accurate and to be consistent every time I went out on the mound.  I also looked up to a lot of the older guys on our team and I wanted to be a guy that could be counted upon just as they were.  I had never really been a closer at any point in my career so when I kind of fell into that role, I felt there wasn't anything I would rather be.  I also got a lot stronger through the strength and conditioning program that we had at KU and that attributed to adding some velocity on my pitches over the years.    

Do you have any particular memories that stick out from your years at KU?  Both special public moments on the field and/or moments that fans might not have been aware of but which stick with you?
I think that my sophomore year when I saved my first game against Missouri at home to seal the Border War and saving 2 games against National Champion Texas my junior year were very memorable.  The best experience I have ever had out on a field was last year at the Big 12 Tournament being able to seal the Championship for my brother and for the team was the pinnacle of our success last season.  One memory that a lot of people don't know is that when I was a freshman, I started a game against an NAIA team and got hit really hard.  The pitching coach was very disappointed with my performance so he literally kicked me out of the stadium and told me to go home.  That is something I'll never forget, no matter how much success I have.

Do you think your time at KU prepared you well for professional baseball?
Absolutely.  When you play in the Big 12 Conference, the level of talent you play on a consistent basis is incredible.  Coach Price and his staff do a great job of teaching you "the game within the game" and that becomes very important the higher you go.  I was fortunate to play in some of the toughest parks in the college ranks and I never feel intimidated when I walk out on the mound in front of a large crowd.

What do you miss most about your time in Lawrence? What do you miss least? Did you have a favorite class or professor you want to give a shout out to?
The thing I miss the most is the amount of pride that people have for the University.  You don't find the same thing in Minor League baseball because the players change so much.  The pride that people have for the Jayhawks is contagious and very impressive no matter where you go in the country.  I can say that I don't miss the schedule that you have to adhere to while you are there.  I understand that it's there for a reason, but when you can do things on your own at whatever time, I feel that I can get a lot more done in a day.  I think that my favorite class was called Life Skills and was taught by Dr. Lowcock.  It covered a lot of things that college athletes are involved in as far as dealing with the media, health + nutrition, and goal setting.

Who were some of the toughest hitters you faced in college?
I would have to say that Josh Fields, Drew Stubbs, and Alex Gordon were all known to give us headaches when we played them.

Do you have any thoughts about the use of metal bats in NCAA baseball? If it were up to you, would they be retained or replaced by wooden bats?
I'm kind of biased here on this question.  I rule in favor of wood bats in college because I think that bad hitters can get away with flaws in their swings with metal.  Scouts always wonder if a guy can swing with wood and I think if they had wood in college then you wouldn't have that concern.  Also, as a pitcher you don't necessarily learn to pitch inside to hitters with metal and that is something that every pitcher in the minors learns very quickly.

   

Draft day, any stories? Were the Marlins high on your wish list?
I wasn't really familiar with the whole process of how it worked, but it all seemed like it happened so fast.  I was listening to it on the internet when it happened and after that I received a lot of phone calls and text messages.  I was told there were 7 teams that were pretty high on me and the Marlins weren't one of them.  I think that the draft is a funny thing and no matter how many people try to explain it, you have no control of it except for how you perform on the baseball field.  I was happy to be a Marlin with the amount of success that they have had with producing great pitchers at the Major League level.  So you can say that I'm very happy to be where I'm at right now.  

What was the biggest adjustment you had to make after moving into pro baseball?
The hardest thing to get adjusted to was the small seams on the baseballs.  I couldn't find my slider which I rely heavily upon in crucial situations due to the fact that I had been used to seams on a baseball that I could grip very easily.  The seams that are on minor league baseballs are less raised off the ball and has caused me to change my grip on that particular pitch.  While it took a while for my slider to adjust, I wound up developing my two-seam fastball because the small seams give the baseball more movement.  

How would you describe life as a minor-leaguer compared to life as a college player?
In College winning as a team is the most important goal that a team has.  On the other hand in the minor leagues, they want you to win because it makes you a better player, but their ultimate goal is that you progress as an individual player.  Your performance on a daily basis is the only thing that you take with you everyday and home each night.  

Right now you're in your first spring training and fighting to move up as high on the food chain as possible. What is the atmosphere like in camp?  Do you have any slice of life stories to pass on that would give us non-players an idea of what it is like to be part of a major league organization in spring training camp?
The atmosphere at camp is really laid back.  You are there all day so you can't be so intense that you tire yourself out after about 2 hours.  You learn to take everything in and appreciate the knowledge that many of the instructors have.  Everyone is fighting for a limited number of spots and that makes it highly competitive.  I think once you make it to a spring training you realize how close you are to actually making your dream come true of being a Major League ballplayer.  People say that when you reach this level the only thing that separates the Majors from the Minors is the work ethic and mental part of baseball.

Finally, five years from now who is going to be the better pitcher, you or Nick?
I don't know if you will ever be able to answer this question because our numbers are going to be completely different.  That's like asking the question who is better Mariano Rivera or Roger Clemens.  You are comparing two different statistical groups and types of pitchers.  I will say that Nick is more advanced than I was at his age and for that reason I'm going to have to give him the edge.  He's really improved his work ethic and overall knowledge for the game.  He's left-handed which is also an unfair advantage.