March 29, 2006 - In the world of sports today, having an older mentor is common. Punters have kicking coaches, golfers have swing coaches; no matter the sport or the position, there's a coach.
Erik Barnes, a cog in the starting rotation for the Marana High School baseball team, has a hockey coach as his pitching guru. He's not just any rink rat; Barnes' pitching coach is University of Arizona men's club ice hockey coach, Leo Golembiewski, the father of Tucson Icecats hockey.
The unlikely duo first met when Barnes, a junior, was 13 and trying out for the Tucson Tigers, a traveling club baseball team. Up to that point, Barnes had led a nomadic life with his mother with stops in Minnesota, Colorado, San Manuel and Oracle before finally settling in Marana. Golembiewski, who founded the UA Icecats in 1979, was an assistant for the Tigers and saw the potential in Barnes, even if his talent didn't involving strapping on skates.
"He has kind of been my mentor ever since," said the right-handed starting pitcher.
With the hockey season on ice, Golembiewski (pronounced Go-lem-bee-eski) focuses on his other passion, baseball. The hockey coach trades his skates for cleats and becomes the pitching coach for Sabino High School. That doesn't prevent the two from talking every day, whether it's about adjusting his mechanics or keeping up and improving his 3.0 grade point average. When time permits - usually about once or twice a week, when Golembiewski can find time away from Sabino - the two will meet.
"I just want to try to matter," said Golembiewski, quoting Johnny Cash's wife June Carter Cash, two influential people he once met in Tucson through his charity work.
"He's absolutely been a part of the family," added Golembiewski of Barnes.
Among those that Golembiewski has met and worked with over the course of his career on the ice and the diamond, is a slew of past and present Chicago White Sox, including Ozzie Guillen, Harold Baines and current ChiSox pitching coach Don Cooper.
The advice he's accrued from those players is passed along to Barnes, who has developed a fastball, curveball and circle change, a pitch that can be devastating to high school hitters. Barnes has topped out around 89 mph on the radar gun, consistently hitting the low-to-mid-80s on the gun.
Through extensive leg work, Golembiewski is trying to strengthen Barnes' arm. By his senior year, Barnes would like to his fastball to clock in around 90 to 92 mph.
"He's really big on the mental aspect of the game, being focused and staying dedicated," said Barnes of Golembiewski. "He's really about long toss and strengthening the legs. For a hockey coach, he definitely knows what he's talking about in baseball."
This season has been a tough one for Barnes and Marana. The breaks and the bounces haven't quite bounded in the Tigers' (2-11) favor this season, said head coach Matt Brady. Finding run support for its pitchers also has plagued Marana's pitching staff. The Tigers have been outscored by opponents 106-49 in 13 games.
For Barnes, 0-3, his struggles often stem from trying to do too much and carry the team by himself, said the Tiger's third-year coach. Barnes serves as the team's starting center fielder on days when he doesn't pitch.
No matter where his prodigy is pitching - whether it's for Marana or for a U.S. Junior Olympic team - Golembiewski has been there with advice and support.
"He's a great kid; he's got a great work ethic, good speed and control," said Golembiewski who proudly states that he learned his pitching from the White Sox and his hockey from legendary former Detroit Red Wing head Scotty Bowman. "I think as he becomes more mechanically sound, he's a prospect."
Since founding the Icecats, the Chicago native Golembiewski has amassed more than 550 wins and has had just one losing season in 27 years. This year's Icecat squad finished 12th in the nation with a young lineup featuring nine freshman.
While many classmates his age work menial, low-paying jobs, Barnes was serving as the Icecats' equipment manager. The job basically keeps him busy on game days and more importantly keeps him out of trouble during the baseball off-season, said Golembiewski.
Golembiewski has tried but has yet to convince Barnes to try hockey but still may do so on one of their many stops to Luke's Italian Beef on Thornydale Road for authentic Chicago cuisine.
On April 18, Marana will travel to the east side of town to face Sabino (10-3). With a little run support and maybe a bounce or two here and there, it's possible the student could finally take down his mentor.