Braves gave Bielecki's career a kick-start

March 19, 1997|By John Eisenberg

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The baseball gods reached down, touched him and gave him a chance to be a World Series hero, that rarest and most extraordinary of baseball creatures.

And then Mike Bielecki's chance was swept away in the gathering tide that carried the New York Yankees to a victory over the Atlanta Braves in the World Series last fall.

"But how can I complain?" Bielecki said five months later, sitting in the Braves' spring training dugout the other day.

It's a valid point. Bielecki, a 37-year-old native of Dundalk, now living in Crownsville, thought his major-league career was over a year ago. He grew his hair long, bought a Harley and started thinking about becoming a high school or college coach.

A year later, he has a place on one of baseball's best pitching staffs, and a one-year contract paying him almost $700,000. He drives his motorcycle to work every day.

"It's been a dream," Bielecki said. "I was beginning to think I was done. Signing that contract was like finding money in your grandmother's mattress that you weren't counting on."

That he even had a job last season, much less a chance to become a Series hero, was remarkable. It had seemed that his time was up. He had been released twice and traded twice since 1988, pitched for seven teams, gone through arm problems and started signing minor-league contracts.

A year ago this time, he was sitting at home without a place to go, pitching batting practice at Navy to stay in shape. Then fate intervened -- in the form of Kent Mercker, of all people.

Mercker was the pitcher whom the Orioles obtained in a trade with the Braves before last season. Bielecki knew Mercker and had agreed to rent his house to Mercker once the season began. (Bielecki still expected to pitch somewhere in the minors.) When Mercker visited the Braves' spring training camp in Florida one day, he mentioned to manager Bobby Cox that he had been in contact with Bielecki.

"Is he in shape?" asked Cox, who was displeased with the long relievers in the Braves' camp.

Mercker said that Bielecki was indeed in shape. Cox placed a phone call to Bielecki the next day.

"Just about knocked me off my chair," said Bielecki, who had pitched for the Braves twice before.

Bielecki flew to Florida, threw on the side one day and so impressed Cox that the Braves moved his locker into the big-league clubhouse.

"I had to pitch well in two or three spring appearances, so there was no room for error, but I did well and, presto, I had a job," Bielecki said. "I went from no one wanting me to the defending World Series champions wanting me."

There was a reason: Bielecki had gained upper-body strength, rehabilitated his arm and discovered that he could throw as hard as he did at the peak of his career in the late '80s.

He started the season as the last man on the staff, but he pitched so well that Cox began using him to set up closer Mark Wohlers. He also made five spot starts. In all, he was 4-3 with a 2.63 ERA.

"The whole season was like a dream," he said.

It was a dream that carried Bielecki to the World Series when the Braves won their fourth National League pennant of the '90s. He made his first Series appearance, in his 17th year of pro baseball, as a relief pitcher in Game 3.

The next night, the Braves took a 6-0 lead early in Game 4 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, seemingly on the verge of taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the Series. Then the Yankees scored three runs and Bielecki came in to Bielecki pitch with two runners on base and no outs in the sixth.

The crowd was quiet, fearing a Yankees rally, but Bielecki struck out Mariano Duncan, Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez to end the threat. The crowd stood and roared as Bielecki walked to the dugout, having returned the game's momentum to the Braves.

"My fastball was jumping," Bielecki said. "Every pitch but one was a fastball. I was so pumped up that I pumped my arms as I came off the field, which I never do. But it was a lot of fun."

Bielecki threw another scoreless inning in the seventh and the Braves' lead seemed safe when Wohlers came on in the eighth. But Jim Leyritz hit a three-run homer off Wohlers and the Yankees won the game in extra innings and went on to win the Series.

"People have said to me that we would have won if [Cox] had left me in instead of going with Wohlers," Bielecki said. "It's flattering, but the fact is that Wohlers throws 100 mph and he was the guy to go to. He was the hammer."

Bielecki's relief job in Game 4 probably would have been the key moment if the Braves had won the Series.

"I thought about that a little," Bielecki said. "I've been a working-class player my whole career, so being a [Series hero] would have been amazing. But hey, the Yankees played great and beat us. And you can't ask for too much when you start the season sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. I'm just glad I have a uniform and a contract."

He spent the off-season working out at a gym in Glen Burnie, pitching in the Orioles' indoor facility at Camden Yards and hanging out at a biker bar in Elkridge. He celebrated on the day when the Braves offered him salary arbitration, guaranteeing him a nice salary in 1997. He drove his Harley from Baltimore to Florida for spring training.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, life is very, very good.

"I waited a long time to pitch in the World Series, so long that I really didn't think I'd ever get there," he said. "Now I have a job on a team that has a good chance to go back to the Series. It's like my own fairy tale."

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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