By Nicholas Diunte
Mike Jerzembeck shared a bullpen with Mariano Rivera and played under Joe Torre as a member of the 1998 New York Yankees World Series championship team, yet he cites his recently deceased high school Coach Jack Curran as the biggest influence in his baseball career. Upon receiving the news of the death of his mentor, Jerzembeck was filled with emotion from his formative years.
“When I heard of his passing, a lot of memories flashed through my mind. My years at Molloy and playing for Coach Curran, I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I don’t think about something of those four years at Molloy,” said Jerzembeck from his home in Charlotte, N.C.
Jerzembeck, a Queens Village native, was a 1991 graduate of Archbishop Molloy, where he played three years of varsity baseball for Curran. He found his coach, who was a former pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies organizations, not only skilled in the technical aspects of the game, but a master at shaping young minds.
“He was the type of guy you admired and you wanted to prove that you were a good player. Part of his whole plan as a coach was to make you not like him too much while you played for him so you could prove to him that you were better than he thought you were,” said Jerzembeck. “I think that was all part of his plan to get the most out of you.”
All of the psychological tactics that Curran had for his players were just further attempts to prepare them for the obstacles they would face both on and off the field. While Jerzembeck didn’t always enjoy Curran’s methods, looking back, he can see how it prepared him as he advanced through the college and professional ranks.
“I tell people all the time, the hardest years of my athletic career were high school,” he said. “I played in college at North Carolina and with the Yankees in the big leagues, and the hardest times physically and mentally were high school.”
After elbow surgery in 1995 left his career in limbo, he found himself struggling in the recovery process. Jerzembeck sought Curran’s council and visited him for advice. His former coach encouraged him to persevere.
“He told me, ‘Do not give up; play as long as you can. You should play until they kick you off the field,’” said Jerzembeck. It was a concept that didn’t sink in for Jerzembeck until his career ended: One can only play the game so long and when it’s done, there’s no coming back.
During our 15-minute conversation, Jerzembeck downplayed his time as a member of the Yankees 1998 World Series championship team to focus on the privilege of playing for Curran. Playing at Molloy was a tremendous source of pride for him, as he knew he was part of a select group that Curran deemed talented and tough enough to wear the uniform.
Curran’s goal was farther reaching than churning out professional athletes. He intended to help his players grow as individuals through the lessons they learned by playing the game. It was a life he devoted to helping these young men succeed that passed through the doors of the Briarwood school.
“When you went to Molloy and you played for Coach Curran, you became a man when you graduated,” said Jerzembeck.