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Dundalk's Bielecki found pitch he could handle
As a chunky 8-year-old youngster in the Dundalk Little League, Mike Bielecki was once exiled to right field because he couldn't catch the ball or hit.
However, a tip from opposing coach Sonny Yeager rescued Bielecki.
"He suggested that I should pitch, because every time I threw the ball, it was dead on," Bielecki said. "If it hadn't been for him, I might be down at the [steel] plant working today. He was just a father who had time to help out."
All Yeager did was touch off a 14-year major league pitching career that followed some sweet moments of Little League revenge.
"Once they put me on the mound, I felt like I could reach out and touch the hitter," said Bielecki, who headlines six inductees tonight into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame during ceremonies at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie.
"I started throwing, and they had no chance. I got revenge on all the kids who had made fun of me, and I couldn't wait to play. I started loving it because I was finally good at something."
What happened next is kind of Hollywood-like.
"I grew a couple inches and gained a yard on my fastball," said Bielecki of his young teen days when he pitched for Eastfield and Dundalk American Legion.
Bielecki would grow into a 6-foot-3, 195-pound pitcher who could throw his fastball in the mid-90s and would later "basically teach myself" to pitch during five years in the Pittsburgh Pirates' farm system.
"They didn't have a lot of money for pitching coaches," he said.
Bielecki taught himself enough to win 19 games at the Triple-A level in 1984, being named the Minor League Player of the Year and being called up to the Pirates for his major league debut.
What followed was a roller-coaster career for five clubs, including four stints with the Atlanta Braves. Bielecki would compile a 70-73 record with a 4.18 ERA, striking out 783, walking 496 and allowing 1,236 hits in 1,231 innings.
"Every time it seemed like I was ready to accomplish something, I would get hurt," said Bielecki, who had a ruptured disk in 1984, elbow surgery in 1992 and a torn rotator cuff in 1996.
There were two stops in Chicago for the Cubs, where he peaked in 1989 with an 18-7 record and 3.14 ERA. He also pitched in the 1996 World Series and the 1989 National League Championship Series.
Not to mention a special thrill in 1995, when the hometown boy from Dundalk was given the chance to pitch one inning for the Angels in Cal Ripken's record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game.
"That meant a lot to me," said Bielecki who ended his career in 1997, when the pain in his shoulder wouldn't allow him a comeback attempt with the Orioles.
Other members of 2004 class
Hotsy Alperstein (boxing): Alperstein lost only one dual match in four years of intercollegiate boxing, never dropping a bout at the University of Maryland, which was perennially among the top boxing schools in the nation. He was a finalist for the Southern Conference welterweight championship in 1941, following that effort the next year by being a finalist in the Eastern Collegiate Conference championships when Maryland captured the team title.
Earl Brannan (baseball): A beaning and a shoulder injury caused by a fence collision slowed Brannan's early advance in the Pirates' organization. But he bounced back to hit .341 in the Tri-State playoffs for Cal Ermer's Charlotte team. Brannan spent six seasons in the minor leagues before deciding that Double-A would be his zenith on the field, prompting him to become a high school coach at Glen Burnie for seven years. He then spent 25 years working for the Baltimore County Bureau of Recreation and Parks, attracting special attention and admiration for his work with the disabled.
Marty Lyons (football): Lyons accomplished his many pro football feats as a member of the New York Jets' defensive front four, the Sack Exchange, which also included Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko. He was also a top defensive player for the University of Alabama when it won the national championship in 1978. His connection to Maryland? Lyons was born in 1957 in Takoma Park and went on to become seventh in both sacks (43) and tackles (901) in Jets history.
Chuck Thompson (radio/TV): His phrases "Ain't the beer cold" and "Go to war, Miss Agnes" became part of Baltimore's sports culture, while Thompson was headed for baseball broadcasting's highest honor, the Ford Frick Award, in 1993. Thompson's familiar baritone voice became as famous and recognizable as the players he talked about. The 2004 season marks his 54th season as part of the Baltimore sports scene.
Edmund Thompson (speedboat racing): Operating a Class C runabout in the late 1940s and 1950s, Thompson won national championships, set world records and hauled home trophies from the East Coast's biggest regattas. At one point, he won 27 straight races and first established in June 1948 a world speed record of 53.255 mph in his class at Wilson's Point in Middle River. Thompson, son of the founder of Baltimore's Thompson Automotive, went on to set numerous higher world records, culminating with a speed of 64.057 mph at Bush River in 1954.