The Ballad of C. J. Nitkowski

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C. J. Nitkowski pitched for parts of ten seasons in the Majors, the first of which were in Cincinnati as a major left-handed starting pitching prospect and the last of which was in Washington, back in 2005, when he allowed seven baserunners and three earned runs in 3.1 innings. He was 22 when he debuted and 32 on the day of his last big league appearance, when he allowed a hit and a walk without retiring a batter in the eighth inning of a Nationals win. The Nats were the last of eight big league teams to employ Nitkowski; he was, over the course of his career, traded twice alongside Brad Ausmus.

It was, all told, a successful enough career, even if Nitkowski was really only an effective big league pitcher in maybe two of those seasons. It was inarguably successful, though, in that Nitkowski spent his 20's making really good money, starting a family, finding God, and playing a sport he enjoys. It was probably not successful enough for C. J. Nitkowski, because professional athletes are wired like that. That wiring, or that and the fact that it costs money to live, helps explain why Nitkowski has continued to play baseball, in Japan and then Korea. 

If Nitkowski has one signal achievement in his career, besides the traded-twice-with-Brad-Ausmus thing, it's CJBaseball.com, the website he started in his early days in the Majors. The archives for that old site, which as I remember it had all the .gif-fy Angelfire vibes that defined the homemade websites of the Bill Clinton years, are gone; the new CJBaseball's archives go back only as far as 2011, with the sole exception being Nitkowski's testimony of being born again, which he wrote in 2002 and brought from the old site to the new.

I'm relying on memories that I submerged in disinfectant-grade scotch, and which were never quite save-until-I-delete significant in the first place, but that archive expungement is probably just as well. The old CJBaseball.com offered the promised "player's perspective" in the most literal and basic sense, which is to say that it was exactly as interesting as a website written by a baseball player in his early 20's would have been. It could have been called Steakhouses of the American League Central, is what I'm saying. [UPDATE: Super-reader @PunkOnDeck fired up the (literal) Internet Wayback Machine and confirmed my memories with regards to d. original CJBaseball] The new CJBaseball isn't like that.

Nitkowski is writing more now, and he writes well. It helps, too, that his life seems pretty interesting at the moment—he just landed a speaking part in a movie about Jackie Robinson, for instance, and contributes to the Associated Press; he's pretty decent at Twitter. In the end, the value of providing a player's perspective on baseball is pegged more or less entirely to the depth of that particular player's perspective, and Nitkowski's perspective has increased in value in recent years. Which, sadly, happens to the period of time in which his value as a player has entered what may or may not be its final descent. He's 38, and earlier this spring, with a new sidearm delivery and fortified by the same sort of stem-cell treatment that gave Bartolo Colon his current second career—Nitkowski wrote about the treatment for Sports Illustrated last year—Nitkowski had a tryout with the Mets. Despite what was by all accounts an impressive workout, the Mets opted not to sign him. No other team has, either.

Nitkowski wrote a post about this a couple weeks ago, and I've gone back to it several times since. It's gripping, and more than a little sad, for reasons related to baseball and not. Here's a bit of it in awkward screengrab form, because his site doesn't allow for cutting and pasting.

This is, finally, the sort of sadness that comes with the territory. Not just or necessarily the territory that is having a pitching mound as an office, although there is of course that, and there are of course the inevitable miniature low-stakes tragedies that everyone with that workplace suffers right before they get their gold watch, or whatever it is that contemporary employers give to freshly ex'ed employees, besides a security escort from the premises. But there's something different about both Nitkowski's frankness about confronting the end—a player's perspective, as promised, on the bleak and stubborn prospect of no longer being a player—and the fact that it's the webmaster of CJBaseball telling this story.

Nitkowski is not done in the game, most likely—he has pitched well in Asia, other similarly skilled lefties have managed this sort of mid-thirties encore in the past. He's certainly not done with it—at the very least Nitkowski understands and explains baseball well enough that he won't have to sell cars or condominiums unless he'd rather do that than talk or write about baseball for a living. But there's something sad here all the same, springing in part from the unavoidable cruelty of an inexorable sports cycle completing itself—all fans are familiar with the market realities that lead to veteran players being Sent To Live On A Nice Farm Upstate, although we're seldom asked to feel much about it. We don't really know these people well enough to feel much about them, anyway.

More than that, maybe, there's the simple melancholy of getting older, and in this particular case of seeing the first Major League player who endeavored to give us a player's perspective online facing down the possibility of no longer being a player. The good news, for Nitkowski and everyone else, is that his perspective is intact, and in fact sharper than ever. This is how we age, or grow up, if you rather: two lines moving in opposite directions that run parallel for who knows how long. It's nothing to be sad about, really, although it's easy to see why it might make someone feel sad. Anyway, Nitkowski's perspective will surely do him more good in more ways over the rest of his life than his left arm ever could, or ever did.

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