I walked into my sixth grade math teacher’s house Tuesday afternoon, early on Day 2 of the 2019 MLB draft, right around the time Colin Czajkowski started getting his hopes up.
It was the fifth round and his grandparents had just stopped by. There was a laptop streaming the draft onto a plasma television, even as his little brother spoiled the picks 30 seconds early from his iPhone.
Czajkowski has been ready since last year, when he established himself as arguably the top high school pitcher in Michigan, leading Woodhaven to the Division 1 state championship game. This year, he was the Gatorade Michigan High School Baseball Player of the Year and won the Free Press Sports Awards Best Baseball Player Award.
At 6 feet 4, the lefty throws in the upper 80s, has room to improve and is committed to Michigan. He is self-assured but new to this process: Pulling up on the couch next to me, he gets a little more antsy with every pick:
I had been following Czajkowski — pronounced Cha-kow-ski — for a decade, since Little League. Back then, his dad, Matt — the middle school math teacher known as “Mr. C” — started posting videos of his son’s athletic endeavors on Facebook.
We got a kick out of it then — there’s no way Mr. C’s kid is that good — but now those posts have become articles and prospect rankings and a video of Colin throwing a baseball over the left field fence from home plate.
And as the fifth round passed, then the sixth, his expectations dropped from high to “I’m headed outside to shoot hoops.” The rough part of the draft — a two-day roller coaster of waiting and expecting — was just getting started.
[ State of Michigan products taken in the 2019 MLB draft ]
All about the Benjamins
A few days before the draft, Colin had sat with his parents at the kitchen table on a conference call with his advisor.
His parents, Mr. C and Heather, said he couldn’t sign — giving up a scholarship to U-M — without a signing bonus of at least $400,000. The Phillies were rumored to be interested — The fifth round? The sixth? The seventh? For $500,000? — and the Angels and Braves were in the mix.
Now, the seventh round is here and he just lost in one-on-one basketball to Ethan, his much shorter younger brother.
“It’s been on my mind for like so long that it doesn’t really bother me,” Colin says. “So I don’t really care. This morning, it did, but now that I’m out of the house, I’m fine.”
He wants to go pro. He thinks he can get his parents to lower the threshold, to say, $360,000. Playing at U-M would be awesome but playing pro ball is his dream.
He has been texting with his advisor, but nothing is new. Teams drafting college players early to save for over-slot signing bonuses for high school kids late offers some optimism.
“Only bright side is, I can get just as much money tomorrow as I can get today,” Colin says. “That’s the only reason I’m not as frustrated right now.”
He heads back inside, where a few of his teammates have arrived. It is the eighth round.
He has been texting with Jase Bowen, a buddy who plays on his travel team, who is committed to play both baseball and football at Michigan State, and also a draft hopeful.
As the draft has worn on, they have been wondering what they “hired” their advisors for.
Advisors are not technically hired; they get paid only when the player signs a contract. Before then, it is commonplace for advisors to communicate with front offices and scouts. By nature, an advisor’s reputation in the game can affect a player’s draft standing.
Colin found an advisor last summer, shortly after he was invited by the Angels to an amateur workout in Chicago. After checking in with the advisor, Colin is sprawled on the floor, practicing contract negotiations with his dad. It is the ninth round.
“If they’re doing 285. …” he says.
“Alright, 300. 300. Dad, if the Tigers take me for 300. …”
“Just go watch soccer.”
“I’m just telling you. Right now, at this point, I’ll sign for a penny. I’m tired of sitting here waiting. I’ll go.”
Soon, Colin is headed with his friends to the girls soccer game, where he will be asked if he has been drafted yet and if not, why not.
The wait weighs on the parents in a different way, watching their son — who worked so hard for this big moment — disappointed.
“We heard maybe middle of today, then we heard maybe early tomorrow,” Mr. C says. “And if not, he’s probably going to get the Tigers’ 35th-round pick, is my guess.”
Those picks are sometimes spent on players with ties to an organization and a local kid with room to grow like Colin has could be worth making contact with, three years before his next window of eligibility as a college junior.
The Tigers had a scout at every one of Colin’s starts this season, but that scout believes he is a $300,000 player. The presence is not coincidental: Traditionally, teams cover their territory with extra importance, fearful of a local kid making it big somewhere else.
The 10th round of the draft — the last of the day — is background noise at this point.
At the soccer game, Colin texts his advisor and a couple of the area scouts he has gotten to know — some showed up for bullpen sessions — and lets them know he’s willing to be signed.
Same teams, he’s told: The Angels are down to three high schoolers, and they’ll take the cheapest. The Braves are down to two high school guys, but he’s the second option. Tigers and Phillies might be an option, but maybe not.
Colin tries to sleep. He has a game tomorrow.
On Day 3 , a dozen picks into the 11th round, things at the Czajkowski house started to tense up.
Ethan was on the recliner, spoiling the picks again, and Colin was sick of it.
“Ethan, turn that thing off!” he said, and Mr. C told him to quit it.
His teammates were there, in uniform, watching the biggest few rounds of the draft — the 11th through 14th rounds seemed to be Czajkowski’s best chance — before they headed to their regional semifinal game against Allen Park.
The draft was still streaming, a pick every 30 seconds, described only by a pair of voices on a conference call: First, the selection was made by someone in a team’s draft room, then it was verified by someone in the commissioner’s office.
A lot of waiting, not much talking, E occasionally calling out picks. Late in the 11th, he screamed: Bowen is drafted by the Pirates.
Colin receives a text from someone: “The Rangers are in play, we’ll keep you posted.”
Three picks later, Atlanta takes their high schooler, a shortstop who played with Tigers top pick Riley Greene.
Early in the 12th round, another familiar name: The Marlins take Holland Christian senior righty Chris Mokma, the first Michigan high schooler off the board.
“No way,” someone says.
Four picks after Mokma is taken, the Rangers take a high school player. Colin goes upstairs. So far Wednesday, his buddy has been taken and another Michigan high schooler has been picked, and two teams he heard were interested took other players.
“Maybe the Angels,” Mr. C says.
Upstairs, Colin lies on his bed. He needs a minute. He lays there for a few more before his phone rings. The Angels want him. Colin comes out of the room and says the number: $300,000.
His friends gasp; this could really be happening. But deep down, Colin doesn’t have his hopes up.
It is the 13th round when he talks to his advisor on speaker phone at the top of the stairs, Mr. C meeting him near the top. His parents wanted $400,000. The Angels are offering $300,000. Colin wants to get drafted, and his dad is sick of seeing the disappointment in his son.
“350 or more, pull the trigger,” he says to the advisor. “He wants to go.”
“350 or more, pull the trigger?”
Mr. C walks down the stairs, then says to his son: “Right, that’s what you want to do? We’ll see.”
At the moment, it’s what Colin wants to do. He wants to play baseball. Chase his dream.
“Mom says she thinks you should say no,” Mr. C says.
“To what?” Colin asks.
“325,” Mr. C says. “She says you’re worth more.”
With the Angels at $300,000 and the family at $350,000, a middle ground of $325,000 appears. But the advisor thinks the Tigers could offer more.
“That’s three years to develop in pro ball,” Colin murmurs, worried he is passing on his dream over $25,000.
It is silent until pick No. 391, when the Angels take a high school righty from Puerto Rico and someone slams something. Soon, his teammates head for the high school. The Tigers are picking in three spots, Ethan says.
“If they take a high schooler, I’m walking out of this house,” Colin says.
They take a college player.
“I’ve told him if it doesn’t happen before Round 15. …” Colin says.
“You won’t sign after that?” Mr. C asks.
“No, the money won’t be there.”
“They could be saving money to —”
Colin has heard it all by this point.
“It’s not going to be there,” he says. “No rounds. I’m telling you. Zero.”
Michigan’s second high school player goes in the 15th — Zeeland East righty and MSU football signee Adam Berghorst to the Rangers. The Angels take a college pitcher, the Braves a high school pitcher and now, Colin is driving in his car listening to sad music.
At school, he takes a minute to gather himself before walking into the gym. When he meets his teammates in the gym, they don’t say much, knowing the situation. When he sees Woodhaven head coach Corey Farner, he breaks down.
Back at the house, Mr. C is as frustrated as his son, second-guessing the decision, a math whiz doing the math out loud, trying to balance thousands of dollars, taxes, advisor fees, an education at U-M, his son’s dream and what it all means.
“By the time you pay the taxes and advisor fee, it’s 15%, that’s what I told Heather, I’m like, ‘We said four, if we can get 350 or 375, stop him from chasing his dream for whatever, $50,000?’ After that, 40% is gone, so it’s really $300,000.
“We’ll believe things happen for a reason and if he ends up at Michigan, it’s really good, I think,” he says.
But still, he’s hoping his son hears his name called.
“He said it would be cool to get drafted on the bus with his buddies, anyways.”
On the bus, Czajkowski slips into a seat and puts his advisor on speaker.
Before this conversation, Mr. C relinquished the final decision to his son: If you want to do a deal at $325,000, call him and get advice from him.
“350 for the Angels, 325 for the Tigers,” Colin tells the advisor.
The Tigers are taking college players the next three rounds, his advisor says.
They talk once more, 10 minutes before game time, down the left field line.
It’s the 22nd round, and Colin is asked if he wants his name called. At this point, he knows the money is not there.
“Listen,. No. Because it doesn’t do me any good. Unless the Tigers or Angels give me the money I need, I don’t really care. It’s not that big of a deal to me, I’m kind of done with it.”
In the top of the first inning, he hits an RBI single up the middle on the first pitch.
“My first at-bat, I knew, ‘OK, I’m playing baseball, this is what I love to do, and then I kind of flushed it from there,’” he said. “I’m playing the game that I love, I can’t really ask for much more.”
Czajkowski goes 2-for-5 with a pair of line outs — he looked at his dad and said, “I just can’t catch a break today” after the second — and Woodhaven dominates Allen Park, 11-0, heading to the regional semifinals.
When he checks his phone after the game, there’s a missed call and text message. It is the 34th round.
For the better?
The missed call was from Michigan head coach Erik Bakich.
The text message was from U-M pitching coach Chris Fetter, who said he can’t wait to see what Czajkowski looks like in three years, on Day 1 of the draft.
Fetter, considered one of the up-and-coming college coaches in the country, has lefty Tommy Henry and righty Karl Kauffmann to point to: Henry and Kauffmann went to the Diamondbacks and Rockies, respectively, in the second competitive balance round on Day 1.
“It meant a lot,” Colin says. “He texted me, he sees a future and he sees a plan and he’s going to put me in that right step and the right direction. And they’ve said that all along and I believe in it.”
There are dozens — maybe as many as 100 — kids around the country like Colin, one scouting director noted. Kids with limited interest — only a handful of teams scouted Colin heavily — whose signing bonus requests need to be met to pass on three years of athletic, academic and personal development in college.
Years ago, the Tigers’ current top prospect, Casey Mize, was one of those kids, turning down a contract in the 15th round. He went to Auburn instead, and three years later, he sat in a packed campus auditorium as he was selected No. 1.
Asked if he had a message to kids in similar situations, Mize said, “To learn as much as you can, get bigger, and get better. Be open to change and develop your routine.”
One day, perhaps that will be Colin. For now, he reflects on the past two days, the surprise of not getting drafted and the whirlwind of the wait.
“It’s definitely overwhelming because the amount of information that you’re not given,” he says. “It’s a lot of the unknowns. Like one of my friends’ dads said yesterday, ‘Are you enjoying the mystery?’ Yeah, it was a mystery, because you’re literally sitting there for hours on end thinking, ‘Is it about to happen today, tomorrow or the next day?’ ”
In hindsight, he could see it coming.
“I envisioned it different to where I would have more phone calls than I really thought,” he says. “The one thing I took away from it was, like, I knew it was a little different when my phone didn’t ring enough.
“It wasn’t the fact enough scouts were calling me, but me and my advisor aren’t talking enough, that’s when I kind of knew, ‘Hey, I might really not get drafted.’”
Colin was surprised, sure, but mostly disappointed.
The biggest frustration?
“That I had that chance and I didn’t jump on it. But the more I talk to people, talk with my parents, it wasn’t the best decision and I could be mad at them for telling me to listen — that the bonus was too low — but they’re looking out for me in the best way possible, so I understand what they’re coming from.
“I get it, it’s a business.”
Sitting on a bench outside the Woodhaven gym, still in his dirty uniform, Colin sounds more OK with it than he has been at any point in the past two days.
College will do him well. He can put the business on hold for a few years, get bigger, add some velocity and maybe refine his still-raw slider — Mr. C wouldn’t let him throw a breaking ball until he was 16 years old.
He’s going into sports management at U-M and he’s going to bug Fetter all summer. U-M football plays at home against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State next year, he points out.
“I wouldn’t really trade this experience for anything,” he says. “A lot of kids don’t get to experience this, so either way, I’m in a blessed situation.”
With that, Colin pulls out the U-M baseball lanyard from his back pocket and heads to his car. It might not be the path he expected, it might take a little bit longer and he’s probably going to answer some questions about it.
But he’s not thinking of any of that as he pulls out of the parking lot: His friends are already at the sushi place, and he’s late.
Contact Anthony Fenech at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.
Published at Sun, 09 Jun 2019 14:51:52 +0000