Gronkiewicz enjoying time in the dugout
Former South Carolina pitcher Lee Gronkiewicz may be recovering from arm surgery but that doesn't mean the former All-American closer is taking it easy at home during his recovery process. Gronkiewicz recently accepted the job as head coach of the Columbia Blowfish for the second half of the season, and though the coaching role may be a new one to him, it is a job he hopes will give him a chance to pass on some of what he has learned during his career.
Ask anyone who knows Lee Gronkiewicz how they'd best describe him and there is one word that reoccurs most often – perseverance. So it comes as no surprise that the former All-American closer for South Carolina is planning to take another shot at professional baseball once he's fully recovered from Tommy John Surgery. But in the meantime, the Lancaster High graduate isn't sitting around waiting for the call back to a roster. Instead he has taken over as head coach for the Columbia Blowfish for the second half of the 2009 season and is relishing the opportunity.
"It's been great. The kids have been really receptive," Gronkiewicz said. "They're starving for knowledge, and our kids are just going to get better from here on out. We've got a positive attitude on the team, and it's been great working with them."
Just three games into his coaching career, Gronkiewicz has found some of the success that surrounded his career with the Gamecocks. After dropping a 3-2 heartbreaker to Florence in his coaching debut against the Redwolves, the Blowfish upended a team of former South Carolina baseball players in an exhibition game by a score of 5-0. The team followed that up with a 6-4 loss in twelve innings against the Asheboro Cooperheads on the Fourth of July.
For team president Bill Shanahan, the move to hire Gronkiewicz was almost a no-brainer.
"I'm just so excited to have him now at the helm of the Columbia Blowfish as we enter the second half of the 2009 season," Shanahan said. "Just his spunk, his perseverance. Nine years in the minor leagues, he made it to the show, this kid is good. He's the right leader at the right time at Capital City Stadium."
Gronkiewicz wasn't so sure.
With his recovery from surgery almost complete, Gronkiewicz debated just waiting out the last two weeks before he would be ready to retake the mound and work on getting tryouts from prospective teams. Instead he accepted Shanahan's offer based almost solely on a gut feeling.
"I wasn't quite sure if it was the right time or not. I'm two weeks away from what I would call being back 100-percent from Tommy John Surgery. This is definitely going to set me back two weeks of going out there and playing and trying to find a job so I don't know if this was the right time but it felt right," Gronkiewicz said. "I was approached by Bill, and he had great trust in what I was about to do with his team and I made a commitment over here. I'm going to go forward with it."
Shanahan cited Gronkiewicz's ability to connect with the team as the reason the organization tapped him as the new coach. After transferring from Spartanburg Methodist, Gronkiewicz found great success in a closer role for the Gamecocks. His 19 saves in 2001 earned him All-SEC and first team All-American honors and is still the third best single season total in school history. His 22 career saves are tied for third most in the program's history.
Over the course of eight minor league seasons, Gronkiewicz recorded 160 saves and a 20-19 overall record. Along the way he notched 432 strikeouts to just 113 walks. In 2007, he made his major league debut with the Toronto Blue Jays, going four innings in one game with one run on two hits, two walks and two strikeouts against the Dodgers. His work in the minors earned him Rolaids Relief Man of the Year honors twice, and though he is currently a free-agent, Gronkiewicz is expected to sign with a team once he is recovered.
Though he is removed from his time at USC by almost 10 years, Shanahan feels that Gronkiewicz can connect to the younger players and offer them insight on what it takes to get to the next level in not only baseball but life.
"He's young enough to relate to young kids, but at the same time he's paid his dues. He can show these kids that he's done it and they can do it, and you know what, come out and play the game you love and have fun at it," Shanahan said.
While winning is important to both men, each recognize the sacrifice summer league players make by continuing to play baseball and not take the summer off. Though learning is important, the memories made are something of much significance – for both the coach and the players.
"I think everybody is here to have fun. They're here to play baseball, they're not getting paid to play baseball right now. They're here because they want to be here. Luckily we have two great coaches working with me, and they can get all the knowledge they need right here from my staff," Gronkiewicz said. "Hopefully when this season is over I'm going to have a job ready to go. Hopefully everybody here, all my players, have learned something and can go home and say they had a great time playing baseball in Columbia, South Carolina."
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