The news of Jack Zduriencik's hiring in Seattle last week caused a frenzy of excitement in New Castle, Pa., where "Jackie" is still remembered reverentially.
In New Castle, Pa., a hardscrabble town 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, the Mariners’ new general manager is still called “Jackie.”
Except for those who call him “Ucket,” a grade-school nickname of unknown origin but eternal staying power.
“When you’re a kid and your last name is ‘Zduriencik,’ well, we’ll just call you ‘Ucket.’ We’ll shorten it,’ ” laughed Mark Elisco, principal of New Castle Junior High and a lifelong friend of the 57-year-old first-time GM.
The news of Zduriencik’s hiring in Seattle last week caused a frenzy of excitement in New Castle, where “Jackie” is still remembered reverentially.
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“Everyone here looks up to him,” said Elisco. “Jackie’s the kind of guy who never forgot where he came from.”
New Castle is a city of 28,000, its economy no longer dominated by the steel and tin-plate mills that used to employ most people in the area — including Jack’s father, John. The mills have all closed down.
As Bernice Zduriencik, Jack’s 88-year-old mother, noted in a phone conversation, “All the young people are leaving because the jobs are somewhere else.”
But people like Jack Zduriencik, a backup quarterback and baseball star at New Castle High School, Class of ’69, are drawn back like a magnet.
Chuck Tanner, who managed the Pirates to their last World Series title in 1979, is another New Castle product and a longtime advocate of Zduriencik. A couple of years ago, a field was dedicated in Tanner’s honor at his alma mater, Shenango High School.
“Darned if Jack wasn’t there, sitting in the stands,” Tanner said this week. “He took time off work, said he had to be there. I was really pleased. But that’s Jackie.”
Last June, the town held a parade honoring Zduriencik and another famous native son of New Castle, Kansas football coach Mark Mangino.
On Friday, “Bear” Mangino, as Zduriencik calls him, was busy preparing for the Jayhawks’ homecoming game against Texas Tech. But he took time to respond to a reporter seeking a comment on Zduriencik.
“Jack is defined by his work ethic, superb knowledge of the game, and his ability to communicate with people,” Mangino said.
“He is a great guy and a great friend. I can assure you the Mariners will soon be contenders under his leadership.”
Bernice Zduriencik puts it slightly differently.
“We’re all thrilled to pieces,” she said. “This is what Jackie has always wanted. I hope he really goes to the high heavens with it all.”
Big John’s legacy
Like virtually everyone who knew the Zdurienciks, Bernice couldn’t help but wish that her husband — Big John, as he was known in New Castle — was still alive to witness the pinnacle of Jack’s career. John died in 1993.
“He was all ball, ball, ball,” Bernice said. “That’s all my husband knew. He coached Little League, Pony, Legion. All our summer vacations were always on the ballfield. We lived near a ballfield, and that’s where Jackie spent all his time.”
John Zduriencik worked much of his adult life in a steel mill in nearby Youngstown, Ohio, just across the state line. He also operated a barber shop, which became his primary occupation after he was slowed by heart surgery.
“If you had a quarter, Mr. Zduriencik gave you a haircut,” Elisco said. “If you didn’t have a quarter, he still gave you a haircut. That’s the truth.”
Carmen Fusco, yet another New Castle native who went on to sports prominence as a longtime scout and assistant GM with the New York Mets, got a call Wednesday from Zduriencik, who had just been hired by Seattle.
“You’re talking to the general manager of the Mariners,” an excited Zduriencik told him.
Said Fusco: “The first thing I said to him, after congratulations, was, ‘I wish your dad was here to witness this.’ John was a great man, like a second father to me. Thinking back, he respected me as much as any adult ever did. I think about him often.”
Jack spent his high-school summers working in the steel mill, long enough to realize he didn’t want to do that for a living. He also cut hair with his dad at the barber shop, another career that didn’t beckon.
“He wanted to play ball,” his mom said.
Signed after graduating from California University of Pennsylvania with a degree in education, Zduriencik played 53 games as an infielder in the low minors, mostly Appleton, Wis., in 1973-74. His combined batting average: .140 (20 for 143) with no homers.
“That’s why I’m in the business end of the game,” Zduriencik said at his introductory news conference Friday.
“I was a fill-in player. I had a lot of heart, a lot of desire. I gave it everything I had. I got a break and played in the minors,” he said. “Eventually, someone called me in and said, ‘Jack, we’re releasing you.’ I just had to take another avenue in life.”
That avenue presented itself in 1975 in the form of a phone call from Jack Bushofsky, his high-school football coach at New Castle who had just gotten the head-coaching job at Austin Peay State in Clarksville, Tenn.
Bushofsky, now retired in Florida, quickly identified Zduriencik as someone he wanted on his staff. He had seen something in Ucket, who was on the sophomore team during Bushofsky’s last season coaching New Castle High before leaving for the college ranks.
“Guys like him always catch your eye as far as being aggressive,” he said. “He always wanted to hold the bags or do something extra.”
Zduriencik remembered the call from Bushofsky this way:
“Hey, Zduriencik, I want you to coach football.”
“Coach, I didn’t play college football.”
“I don’t care. Get down here.”
Said Bushofsky: “He was worried because he didn’t have a background in football, but I told him to forget about that; I said, you have the intangibles, and tangibles, necessary to be a good coach.”
Zduriencik coached the receivers, and eventually he completed a master’s degree in physical education at Austin Peay. But baseball was still in his blood, as a fellow grad assistant on Bushofsky’s staff recalls.
“It was obvious he was a passionate baseball man,” said Rick Reiprish, who is college scouting director for the New Orleans Saints. “Even coaching football, that’s all we talked about.”
“We talked hours about the game,” said Fusco, who was a graduate assistant in Austin Peay’s baseball program, a position in which he was eventually joined by Zduriencik. “Jackie was a consummate consumer of learning.”
Baseball in his blood
Zduriencik eventually became football and baseball coach at Clairton High School near Pittsburgh in 1977, where he first dabbled in scouting in an entry-level position with the Pirates.
“His job was to make sure the old-time scouts with the Pirates got to and from the airport,” said Tom Allison, scouting director of the Diamondbacks after mentoring under Zduriencik with the Brewers.
Zduriencik had moved to a high-school coaching job in Tarpon Springs, Fla., when a Mets scout in 1983 recommended him to Joe McIlvaine, then general manager of the Mets. McIlvaine was impressed in an interview and put Zduriencik in charge of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Colorado.
Zduriencik and his wife, Debbie, moved to Broken Arrow, Okla., and thus was launched a baseball career that over the next 25 years would take him to virtually every front-office position short of GM — national cross-checker, scouting director, farm director, director of international operations — for the Mets, Pirates, Dodgers and Brewers.
McIlvaine, now working for the Twins, raves about Zduriencik’s dedication and work ethic, as does everyone who has known him.
But for all his memorable draft picks, including those that have helped turn the Brewers from also-rans to a playoff team, McIlvaine remembers one most vividly: a pitcher named Archie Corbin from Beaumont, Texas.
“No one else had seen him but Jack,” McIlvaine recalled. “He called me and said, ‘Joe, Joe, Joe’ — he always says your name three times — ‘I’m going to send you the size of his hand.’
“The next thing I know, I’m getting a fax, and it’s a picture of his hand. I’m 6 foot 6 and I have pretty big hands, but I put my hand on the print, and it dwarfed mine. He said, ‘We’ve got to draft this kid.’ “
The Mets selected Archie Corbin in the 16th round of the 1986 draft — and he made it briefly to the major leagues for parts of three seasons.
“It was one of the most innovative and persuasive methods I’ve ever seen from a scout,” McIlvaine said.
San Diego GM Kevin Towers, a scout under Zduriencik in Pittsburgh, recalls his boss’ exhaustive preparation for the draft.
“He’s a grinder,” Towers said. “I remember staying up till 2 a.m. with Jack and a couple of other cross-checkers. Then we’d go to Primanti Brothers at the loading docks and eat a greasy pastrami sandwich with French fries in the middle. Then we’d go back to the draft room. If it was up to Jack, he’d sleep in the draft room, staring at magnets.”
That’s just the New Castle in Jackie Zduriencik coming out.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org