Jack Suwinski Gave Us One of Those Moments
There is a rhythm that comes with rooting for bad teams.
It is a rhythm that, by now, comes second nature to Pittsburgh Pirates fans. You start the season with irrational hope. Miracles happen, right? The Pirates have some exciting young players! Bryan Reynolds broke out in 2021! Ke’Bryan Hayes looks like Brooks Robinson out there! Oneil Cruz is a 6-foot-7 shortstop with massive power potential!
And as for pitching, well, I mean, you never know, right? One or two of the kids could emerge. Jose Quintana could find his younger self. The bullpen could … OK, this is why it’s called “irrational hope.” But the point is, you feel it in spring training, feel it on Opening Day, because what’s the point otherwise?'
Then, as reality sets in — when Reynolds gets off to a cold start, when Oneil Cruz struggles in the minors and gets moved to the outfield, when none of the young pitchers can get anybody out — you adjust as a fan. Anyway, that’s how I always did it. You still root for the wins, naturally, but as those mean less and less, you focus instead on moments. A Ke’Bryan Hayes defensive gem makes your heart sing. A local kid, David Bednar, blows a 98-mph fastball by a hitter.
Daniel Vogelach hits the first triple of his career — watching him lumber around the bases is pure joy.
It isn’t just good moments you embrace — alas, there aren’t enough of those. No, you also try to enjoy the gruesomeness. A classic followed Vogelach’s legendary moment. As he huffed and puffed on third base, the Pirates’ next hitter, Yoshi Tsutsugo, lofted a medium fly ball to rightfielder Seiya Suzuki, who came to America armed with a bazooka for a right arm. I cannot think of a single reason why Pirates’ third base coach Mike Rabelo would send Vogelach home, other than he thought it would be very funny.
And, I have to say, it was very funny. Vogelbach got about as close to home plate as Columbus got to North America.
In so many ways, the only thing that makes a bad season bearable for fans are moments like these. Funny moments basically got Kansas City Royals fans through the entire 2000-2009 decade.
And then, every now and again, there’s a touching story, too.
Jack Suwinski was an afterthought when the season began.
He’s 23 years old, and he began the season in Class AA and was not listed anywhere among the Pirates prospects. Then again, he’s never really been a top prospect, not at any point in his young life. When he was a senior in high school, he wasn’t even among the top 10 prospects in Chicago. The Padres took him in the 15th round out of high school based on some tools — Suwinski was a pretty big kid with a sweet (if too long) left-handed swing and a strong arm.
Hey, sometimes players like that turn out.
He moved slowly — very slowly — through the Padres system. He flashed a little power, showed a little athleticism. but he simply didn’t make enough contact to move up. He stayed in Class A ball for three years and in 2019 seemed to be bottoming out — he hit .208/.303/.351 in Lake Elsinore and there didn’t seem anyplace left to go.
Then, like all minor leaguers, he missed the 2020 COVID season. And it turned out, that was the year that changed the trajectory of his career. He spent that year doing what felt right — he went back home to Chicago, back to Taft High School, and began rebuilding his game. He reset his hitting approach, reworked his mechanics, and maybe just being home refocused his baseball hopes. Suwinski is pure Northside Chicago, from his name down. He and his Dad, Tim, spent some of their happiest afternoons in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. He once even got to play a high school game there.
For Jack Suwinski, sure, the dream has always led to Wrigley.
In 2021, he played with a different purpose. He still struck out a lot, but he hit enough home runs and played good enough outfield defense that he caught the eye of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who asked for him to be included in the trade that sent Adam Frazier to San Diego. I suspect the Padres didn’t put up much of a fight on that. And even with the improvement, it’s not like Suwinski impressed that many scouts. Even after the trade, he was not anywhere on any of the Pirates’ prospect lists.
But sometimes, if you just keep hammering away, doors open you never see coming. Suwinski got off to a hot start in Altoona this year — he was hitting .353 through 13 games. And then the Pirates had to put a couple of outfielders on the COVID-19 injury list. So, what the heck, they called up Jack Suwinski.
This is part of the rhythm of rooting for a losing team; players you have never heard of sometimes just show up. It can be a bit disorienting, like seeing a new character pop up on your favorite television story without warning or explanation. But Suwinski cracked a hit and scored a run in his first game, and he impressed the team with his work ethic, his defense, his calm demeanor. The results weren’t there — he did hit into some bad luck — but he just looked like he belonged in the big leagues. Sometimes, that’s enough.
All of which leads to Wednesday night’s game at — yes — Wrigley Field. Half the crowd, I suspect, were Suwinskis. Jack had played the first two games at Wrigley and had managed a hard-hit single in the Pirates’ 7-0 loss on Tuesday, but you can imagine that he and his Dad and everyone else wanted just a little bit more.
He led off the fifth inning with the score tied at 2. Drew Smyly was pitching for the Cubs, so this was a lefty-lefty matchup, not the most comfortable thing in the world for Suwinski (he’d gone 1 for 16 against lefties in his short big-league career, and didn’t hit them all that much better in the minors).
And then the two battled for a glorious eight-pitch at-bat. Smyly tried to get Suwinski to chase a high fastball; Jack held back. Then he fouled off a cutter. Smyly threw a pitch down in the dirt; Jack held back. Suwinski swung through the next cutter that dropped below the zone, and then he fouled off two knuckle curves to stay alive. Smyly then went upstairs with pitch 7, a high fastball that was too high to tempt Suwinski.
Full count. Tie game. Wrigley Field. Dad and everybody you know in the stands.
I don’t know how athletes do it. I really don’t. If I was in that moment, in that position, I’d almost literally melt with fear and anxiety. Imagine all those daydreams, all those fantasies, all those pretend games that Jack Suwinski played with this moment in mind.
Drew Smyly threw a middle-middle 87-mph cutter that did not cut.
And Jack Suwinski knocked the kielbasa out of the baseball. Exit velocity 105.3. Distance, 410 feet to straightaway center. The crowd of Suwinskis cheered like mad. I’m sure a few Chicagoland fans joined in.
Hey, look, it’s a challenge being a Cincinnati Reds fan. A Baltimore Orioles fan. A Kansas City Royals fan. A Pittsburgh Pirates fan. You have to hold on to moments like these, cherish them, feel them deeply. As Jack ran around the bases, the camera cut to his father, Tim, who stylishly doffed his Pirates cap to his son. Ah, yes, there were tears in Tim Suwinski’s eyes.
“Nah,” Tim would later say, like a good Chicagoland father. “It was sweat.”
A pet peeve. When watching that video of the play at the plate, I know the runner was out. But do they not teach the outfielders to catch the ball close to the right shoulder to decrease the distance they have to move the ball before the throw? We were taught that in high school. And I was a catcher, but I remember being taught the same thing – keep your glove back, let the ball get to you because the ball travels faster than your hand can travel to get the ball into a throwing position. I guess I should just be grateful that I had excellent high school coaches that taught us those fundamentals…
I just about spit my coffee out at "And Jack Suwinski knocked the kielbasa out of the ball." hahaha well done, Joe!