Kevin Cooney is
in his 17th season as head coach at Florida Atlantic University
and 21st overall. Each week, he’ll share some of the highs and lows
of running a college baseball program - one that continues to grow as a national
power. Cooney, who starred as a pitcher before taking Montclair State to a
Division III national title, has guided the Blue Wave to a 226-89 record and four NCAA Regionals the past five years. His 1999 squad won 34 straight games, tying
the NCAA mark set by Texas in 1977.
April 21, 2004
The Promised Land
The Promised Land.
That's the title of a great Springsteen song. It's also a lyric that he's used
in more than one song, the one place that we all have in our hearts and do our
best to try and reach.
Bruce didn't coin the phrase. I think it was the product of some other writer
from a long time ago who knew a guy named Moses leading his people in search of
a better life.
In my world, The Promised Land is usually thought of as three places - Omaha,
the minor leagues and the big leagues. As I have gotten older and hopefully
wiser, things that have happened in my life showed me that there are
destinations far more important. But as the coach of young college baseball
players, I understand what drives them.
Yesterday, two former Florida Atlantic pitchers from the same 1992 team pitched
an inning each in a big league game. Tim Harikkala pitched a scoreless eighth
for the Rockies, and CJ Nitkowski tossed a goose egg in the ninth for the
Braves. The road back to The Promised Land has been a long and arduous one for
each. But I would be hard-pressed to find two young men who better exemplify all
that is good in the people playing this game.
Tim came to FAU in the fall of 1991 as a pitcher who had never played college
baseball in his two years at community college. He had tried out as an
outfielder his first year and was cut. A broken leg his sophomore year prevented
him from playing. That summer, I got a call from my former student assistant
Kyle Forbes, who said he had this tall kid from Lake Worth pitching for him on
his Big League team. Kyle said that Tim was very raw but had a great arm.
That fall, I had another student assistant named Rich Freebourne working with
the program. Freebie was a pitcher for us the two previous seasons and had
ambitions to be a coach. I gave him Harikkala as his project with instructions
to iron out his mechanics and see what develops. Tim had a good year for us and
was drafted and signed by Seattle.
In 1995, he was called up and debuted against the Orioles. Cal Ripken took him
deep, but it made SportsCenter that night, so we all got to see Tim on TV. An
ironic side to that game is that I sat with Tim at the first major league game
he ever attended. It was at Camden Yards, and our seats were in center with
Griffey playing in front of us. We were on a road trip to the D.C. area. Three
years later, Tim was Junior's teammate pitching against the Orioles.
Tim's career sputtered from that point. He went back to the minors, was called
back up with the Mariners the next year for a spell, later was in Boston
pitching for the Red Sox. He went to AAA with the Brewers where he had some real
good years. Each off-season, Tim and his wife Jill would come to our Alumni Game
and dinner. He would stop by to throw in preparation for winter ball in
Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or wherever a paycheck called
Last year, the Orioles brought him to their minor league complex for spring
They liked what they saw, but had younger arms. No problem, Tim packed his bags
and went to play in the Mexican League. Late in the summer, the Orioles called
and signed him to their AAA team in Ottawa. He had a great run and hoped for a
call-up in September, but the O's brass felt it wouldn't be fair to the pitchers
who had been in their system all season.
Tim signed in the off-season with the Rockies. He had a great spring training,
giving up one run in 13.2 innings, and was rewarded with a ticket back to AAA.
He spoke last week with assistant coach John McCormack and was pretty down. He
said it looked bleak.
Sunday his contract was purchased by Colorado, and the rest you know.
Tim now has two beautiful kids, a strong, supportive and beautiful wife and
another chance in The Promised Land.
CJ Nitkowski was a tall, lanky, lefty from Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey. He
arrived at Florida Atlantic that same fall and quickly won a spot in our
rotation. We had an OK team that year, but CJ pitched with nothing but bad luck.
We rarely scored for him, and he ended up 1-9. Halfway through the spring he
came in and told me that he wanted to return to the Northeast and be closer to
his home. I tried to have a scout talk him out of it, but he needed to be happy
and it wasn't happening for CJ at FAU.
He enrolled at St. John's, picked up a different curveball over the summer from
a teammate and then blossomed into the eighth pick in the 1994 draft. In 1995,
he was called up and pitched in the big leagues for the Reds.
CJ stayed in the major leagues until 2001. He was always in demand by someone as
his record indicates:
94 Drafted Reds
95 Called up Reds
95 traded to Detroit for David Wells
01 Minors Houston
02 Released by Houston
02 Re-signed by Houston to minors
02 Cardinals 02
02 Released then signed by Texas to minors
02 Called up by Texas
03 Minors Texas
04 Big Leagues Atlanta
But all those dates don't tell CJ's story. You can go to www.CJBaseball.com and
get it firsthand, but I'll try to recount it here. It's a great story.
I stumbled upon his Web site and was intrigued with a journal that he kept of
his season with Detroit. As I headed into the 2002 FAU season, I thought some of
our parents and fans might find a similar journal, done by a college coach, to
be of some interest. Thanks to CJ my Diamond Diary was started that year. We had
a storybook season with a great bunch of seniors and won a regional.. My son was
a pitcher on that club, so some of it became more personal than planned, but
people seemed to enjoy reading the stories.
I checked back to CJ's Web site, and it had drastically changed. His journal was
gone and nothing was updated. A link provided the answer.
On March 25, 2002 CJ was released by the Astros. To say the least, he was
shocked and disappointed. CJ left the park and went to his rented house in
Kissimmee. He was eating lunch in the TV room when he heard a sound like water
running. After a couple of minutes he noticed it again. Getting up to look, he
saw the sliding glass door to the pool deck was open. The sound he had heard was
the pool filter. That door was always locked because his 2-year-old couldn't
swim. Panicked, he rushed outside and looked for his son. He found him submerged
at the bottom of the pool. CJ jumped in and pulled him to the surface. There was
no sign of breathing for what seemed an eternity, when suddenly the little boy
started to breath. He was fine.
That event changed CJ Nitkowski forever. Why had his son picked the only day CJ
was home to figure out the lock on the door? Why was it that the adult in the
house with the worst hearing was able to hear the filter over the TV? Why had he
been released that morning?
CJ began reexamining his life, and over the course of the next few months, had
some long talks with some fellow players who had strong religious beliefs. He
has rededicated his life to Christ and uses his Web site to share his feelings.
I am sure The Promised Land holds several meanings for CJ. I am happy for him in
all its variations.
I am happy for two good men who never gave up searching for The Promised Land.
A Little Rusty (4/17/04)
Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Heaven's Door (4/15/04)
OB Gets CG for FAU vs. UCF (4/13/04)
The Present and the Past (4/8/04)
Held Up Without a Gun (4/5/04)
Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword (3/27/04)
Bye Bye Buckeyes...Hello Dolphins (3/26/04)
A Festive Week Ends in a Wreck (3/22/04)
Break No Day at the Beach (3/16/04)
Baseball is Boring? What are They Smoking? (3/9/04)
Hanging with LaRussa was in the Cards (3/6/04)
Winds of Change (3/1/04)
Washington's Birthday (2/23/04)
Dugout Talks and Scouting Reports (2/21/04)
Not a Happy Valentine's Day (2/16/04)
Opening Weekend (2/9/04)
Almost FAMUs (2/2/04)
FAU Living in Land of Hope and Dreams (1/28/04)
(photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations Office)