What started off as a 30-hour road trip from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis through the heart of the Midwest and finally to Santa Fe became a transformative roadie that has given T.J. Zarewicz a new direction in life.
A pitcher by trade, the 26-year-old native of western Pennsylvania has assumed the dual role of player/coach for the Santa Fe Fuego this season. It’s one he didn’t know he was getting into just two months ago, but it’s one he now embraces.
Taken with the first pick following the Pecos League’s spring season in Houston, Zarewicz admits he never imagined spending most of his days doing what his current post requires: Putting out fires behind the scenes, managing the personalities of more than two dozen players, often lining the basepaths as the impromptu groundskeeper, handing out lineup cards before games and, as he did the other day, helping organize the bat boy situation.
“I’ve been exposed to more stressful situations the last few weeks than I have in my entire life, I think,” he said. “But it’s an amazing experience for someone in my position. The lessons I’ve learned have been so valuable.”
Often lost in the mix is his responsibility as a player. A lot of days when most of the team is loosening up during the pregame routine, Zarewicz is upholding the managerial role before the team’s interim skipper, Rodney Tafoya, shows up just before the first pitch.
A player/coach himself, Tafoya has a full-time career as a banker in Santa Fe and regularly leaves the post of managerial duties to Zarewicz until he arrives.
“I don’t know how he does it, honestly,” said Fuego shortstop Omar Artsen. “T.J.’s amazing. The guy shows up every day ready to work and, really, he’s one of us. He’s a player but he has to do so much more. He’s good at it, too.”
Zarewicz thought he was coming to Santa Fe as a starting pitcher, a potential staff ace for a team that made back-to-back runs to the Pecos League championship series.
When making the drive from Pittsburgh to New Mexico, however, he was asked to swing through Indianapolis and pick up then-Fuego skipper Keith Wood so the pair could carpool to Santa Fe. The two passed the hours talking about the need for an assistant coach, something Wood didn’t have. Zarewicz volunteered and the rest is history.
“There’s times I kind of miss being just a player, yeah, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “For me it’s my first professional experience. I’ve had nothing but fun. Regardless of the wins and losses, the turmoil, the ups and downs of the season — whatever you wanted to call it — I did my research on the league prior to coming here so I know the operations go. For me, it’s all just a learning thing.”
Zarewicz coached for three years at Pittsburgh’s North Hills High School before playing in the Pecos League’s spring league earlier this year.
“That’s part of the reason I stepped up like I have,” he said. “I know I can’t play forever. Part of me wants to be a coach in the future, so what bigger or better way to prove what I can do regardless of whether I have a title or not. Winning means something to me, but what I’m in this for is the experience and the learning. It really is like an audition for something else.”
The Fuego have memorably failed badly on the field this season, although that’s not Zarewicz’s fault. Wood abruptly quit the team back in June, leaving the club without a manager. Zarewicz has filled in nicely since then.
“Those first three weeks were rough, though,” he said. “Trying to balance the pitching with coaching — it was stressful. I’m getting better but it was bad.”
Zarewicz’s numbers aren’t great. He’s 0-4 with a 10.15 earned run average in 16 appearances. He made four starts early on but has become a long reliever out of the bullpen. In truth, he coaches third until the late innings when he’s needed.
“In a sense it’s good to be both a player and coach because you get to see both sides of it,” he said. “I’d love to stay in the professional ranks somewhere, but wherever the road takes me it takes me. Maybe coach somewhere, maybe play. I’m just enjoying this as much as I can while I can.”
The Pecos League announced its all-star rosters this weekend and the Fuego only had two players selected. Pitcher Eric Gleese will be joined by catcher Eric Maria on the 25-man roster.
The All-Star Game will be played July 11 at Fort Marcy Ballpark. It will include a home run derby before the first pitch at 6 p.m.
Gleese is the team’s top pitcher. In eight appearances he is 2-5 with a 5.84 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 521/3 innings. He has one complete game to his credit.
Maria is batting .444 with seven home runs and 33 RBI. He has struck out just 12 times in 151 plate appearances.