On Tuesday night, Oak Forest Shooters starting pitcher Chris Chojnowski was in a groove. As he whisked the ball through the air on a hot summer evening in Crestwood, his surgically repaired shoulder felt the best it had in two years.
Chojnowski, who plays for St. Joseph’s (Ind.) during the school year, had labrum surgery on his right shoulder in April of 2009. Last year, the right-handed pitcher recovered, but tweaked the same shoulder.
Now, he’s 100 percent again and is feeling better than ever.
“It feels pretty good, the best it’s felt in a long time,” Chojnowski said following the 13-1 victory over Vee-Pak in which he threw six innings of one-run ball. “I think it was just the weather and throwing a night game. It was the first night game I’ve thrown in a long time.”
The St. Rita graduate is using this summer as an opportunity to maintain fitness on his shoulder and get in a groove for his last go-around at St. Joseph's, where he will be a fifth-year senior.
This summer, he’s playing baseball and working at Giordano’s: It’s all pizza and baseball.
Playing For the Love of the Game
Chojnowski's story with the Shooters isn’t too far off from the other players on the team. Most are from the southwest Chicago area, and all are trying to improve their games before heading back to their college teams in the fall. For team manager Tim Wilson, this is why he runs the summer league team.
He wants his players to get better so they can do even more at the college level and keep their scholarships so they can achieve their dreams down the road, whether they’re baseball-related or not.
“There’s very, very limited scholarship money in baseball,” Wilson said. “You have to be competitive, or that man who’s getting paid to win games might not want you. And if he doesn’t want you, he’s not going to entice you with whatever financial benefits he can provide.”
Right now, the Shooters are 15-8 overall and 8-6 in the Chicago Suburban Baseball League. While it’s hard to not quantify success in terms of wins and losses, Wilson knows whether or not his players improve during the year is the real way to gauge if the Shooters were successful.
The players pay their own fees for games, uniforms and everything else. They work when they’re not playing baseball. While the games aren’t glamorous, the players love baseball and are working hard to get better, so they don’t mind.
The Shooters play their home games at Shooters Field next to the Oak Forest Park District on Central Avenue. There’s no scoreboard or PA announcer, and the team draws limited crowds. On Tuesday at Standard Bank Stadium against Vee-Pak, there were around 50 in attendance.
A Future Coaching Great
The Shooters are a training ground not only for players, but for coaches in-the-making.
While many of the players on the Shooters only have been with the team for a year or two, designated hitter and assistant coach Billy Brannigan has been playing for the team since 2003.
Brannigan went to Marist High School before playing baseball at Hillsdale College (Mich.), where he graduated in 2005.
He’s stuck with the team to keep living the dream and to learn from Wilson to be a coach himself. “I like it, I have fun. I’m not ready to go to softball leagues yet,” Brannigan said.
Right now, Brannigan is a kindergarten through fourth grade P.E. teacher in the Riverdale-Dolton School District. He hopes one day to coach high school or college baseball.
“(Wilson’s) kind of grooming me to coach later on in life, which is something I want to do,” Brannigan said.
Whether it’s working on individual skills or training to be a coach, the players are keeping the summer in perspective.
“(My goals are to) stay healthy, win a few games and help these guys out a little bit,” Chojnowski said. “Just to get a consistent groove going heading into school. This is basically a tuneup for the fall season to go into the spring season.”