SAN FRANCISCO—All things considered, Mark Pawelek would rather be a baseball player.
After all, he’s tried working customer service as a gas station. He’s tried being a door-to-door salesman. And he’s tried baseball player.
The 26-year-old, who was the Cubs’ first-round pick in 2005, likes baseball player best among those occupations, and it’s what he’s done in March for the Netherlands’ World Baseball Classic team.
Who wouldn’t? It’s not just the $1.75 million signing bonus the Cubs gave him when they picked him 20th overall in 2005, making him the highest-drafted prep player in Utah history. But Pawelek’s career never went as planned with the Cubs.
Pawelek was released in spring training in 2009 by the Cubs, pitched in the Reds system for a year and then was released again. In 2010, he walked 15 in 8.2 innings in the independent Frontier League.
The lefthander says his problems throwing strikes, which basically drove him out of the game, were mostly mental, not physical.
“It wasn’t an injury. I was released by the Reds, and I’d been doing this game a long time,” he said. “And I was mentally exhausted. Things didn’t work out the way I had hoped they would.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself, but the mind change that I’ve made over the last few years is, I just want to play the game. Obviously expectations are going to be there when you’re (a first-round pick), but the mindset I have now is much different. I’m not trying to compete against other guys; I’m just trying to play the game and help my team win. It’s just a lot more fun when your team wins.”
Pawelek first got the idea about pitching in the World Baseball Classic in 2006. Pawelek’s mother is Dutch and met his father Dan on his LDS church mission trip, so he knew he easily qualified to get a Dutch passport. He was Cubs teammates with Italian-born Alex Maestri in ’06 and talked to him at the time about how exciting the event was.
“In 2006, I had the idea, so I’ve kind of always had the idea,” he said Saturday during the Netherlands’ pre-semifinal workout. “I had been out of baseball for a little bit but I thought this year that I should go for it. I sent a couple of emails and got an opportunity to try out, and made the most of it.
“Now I’m here in AT&T Park and making the most of it and enjoying life and this team, and smelling the sea breeze.”
The Netherlands has gone 4-3 in the Classic, good enough to earn it a semifinal berth against the Dominican Republic tonight, and Pawelek has contributed, getting the final out in a March 2 opening win against South Korea, then tossing 1.1 scoreless innings of mopup work against Japan in the Pool 1 finale. He’s one of two lefthanders in manager Hensley Meulens’ bullpen and could be called upon in a crucial situation to face one of the world’s top lefthanded hitters, Dominican second baseman Robinson Cano. The Yankees star is 14-for-27 (.519) with four doubles and two homers in the Classic.
Dutch manager Hensley Meulens hesitated a bit Monday when asked if Pawelek or fellow bullpen lefty Jonatan Balentina would face Cano in a crucial situation, saying the Netherlands also has righthanded pitchers who hold their own against lefthanded hitters.
Pawelek said he wasn’t focused on Cano, not yet anyway, or on getting back into Organized Baseball. Two of his Dutch teammates, Curt Smith (Twins) and Dashenko Ricardo (Dodgers), already have signed as free agents during the Classic.
“I had the thought that I would like to play baseball, especially after doing normal jobs and working,” he said. “I got a nice little dose of working. Over the last few years, I’ve reshaped how I think and I’m just grateful for every opportunity I have to play the game.
“As of right now, I’m just worried about my next game. I want to go out there and do my job if they call me. In the grand chess game of baseball, you can’t move yourself. You’ve got to do your job. If I do my job, throw strikes and win my inning, we’ll see what opportunities pop up. But it’s still my dream to play in the major leagues.”
Dutch team national director Robert Eenhoorn and veteran rotation stalwart Rob Cordemans didn’t mention Pawelek, however, when asked who the next generation of national team aces would be, considering Cordemans is 38 and tonight’s starter, lefty Diegomar Markwell, is 32.
Cordemans mentioned Kevin Heijstek, a 24-year-old righty currently on the WBC roster who pitches in the Dutch Major League for Neptunus Rotterdam. Eenhoorn brought up Orioles righthander Wendell Floranus, a 17-year-old who pitched in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League last year.
That’s looking ahead, though. The Dutch can worry about future tournaments later. Right now, like Pawelek, they are focused on the next game against the Dominican. And the Dominican Republic is focused on them, particularly after losing twice to the Dutch in 2009.
“Any team can win,” DR shortstop Jose Reyes said. “Not only the team that has the most talent wins. You have to stay together as a team with good chemistry. I think that this team now, we don’t feel too overconfident. I think then, we had too much confidence. We took the field with too much confidence.”