By JOHN GORALSKI
Mark Sobolewski didn’t look like much of a threat when he stepped to the plate at Henley Field Ball Park in Lakeland, Florida during a game in the early 1990s. But a big cry went up from a small band of Southington High School players that were taking a break from spring practice to root for their former teammate.
Sobolewski just dug in and waited. He wasn’t tall enough to scare any pitcher. He wasn’t big enough to scare opposing coaches, but when the pitch came, Sobolewski delivered. That was sort of his calling card.
“I can’t remember what inning it was, but Sobolewski got ahold of it,” said his former high school coach John Fontana. “He hit that ball over the top of the light tower in left center field. I’m going to tell you, it was a shot. It looked like it was still climbing when it went over.”
That’s the way Fontana remembers his former third baseman. Even when Sobolewski first arrived at Southington High School at 5-foot-6 and just over 160 pounds, he wasn’t much to look at. But he was just as hard to forget.
“The kid wasn’t a really big, tall kid,” said Fontana. “But I’ll tell you. He could hit.”
That’s what first got him discovered when he arrived at the high school as an undersized catcher behind a couple of veteran giants. With an experienced six-footer behind the plate, Sobolewski had no hope of getting a varsity spot. The junior varsity team was just as big behind the plate, so the undersized freshman tried out for an infield position just to get on the field.
It didn’t take long to get noticed by varsity coaches.
“I came up to get some ground balls one day. I came up to take some batting practice and things, but what really changed was when we went to play Dartmouth College—their B team,” he said. “I think I had four or five hits, and when I came back I was the third baseman.”
Sobolewski seemed to be built for the infield corner, playing third base as if he was protecting the plate. If an opposing player hit a hard ball down the line, there was no way that he was making it safely to first. Sobolewski would take it off the chest. He’d block it into the dirt. Then, he’d scoop it up and fire it to first base as if someone was trying to steal second on a catcher.
“He played third base, but you could have flipped him over to short or second. He was so quick, he could do anything,” Fontana said. “But you didn’t need to drive him to get better. He was determined.”
Sobolewski said that it didn’t matter where he played. Third base suited him just fine.
“I had the abilities from being a catcher, where you block the ball and it sort of stays in the general area,” he said. “That’s the way that I saw third base. The transition really wasn’t that difficult.”
But it was at the plate that he really made an impact. Southington was a three-year program at the time, and by his second season he was leading the Knights with a .388 batting average. For his career, Sobolewski averaged .395. At the time of his graduation, he held the Blue Knight record for single season RBI (38) and was ranked second in career RBI (63).
“In 1988, he had one of those incredible years that really carried that team,” said Fontana. “He had leadership. He had defense. He could hit. He could hit in the clutch. He was good.”
So it was no surprise that Florida Southern College offered the Southington star a full scholarship to play at the top division two program. After all, coaches had seen his work ethic every spring when the Knights made their annual trip south, and another former Knight, Cris Allen, was tearing it up as an all-American on the Moccasin roster.
“It certainly helped to have Cris down there being a star,” said Sobolewski. “His dad took me to batting cages and gave me the same thoughts and philosophies. Then, I had my dad throwing me batting practice. I had other players throwing me batting practice.”
So when he arrived as a freshman, Sobolewski was ready to play and determined to make the squad. When Allen shifted to first base as a senior, the Sobolewski battled for the opening at third. It didn’t take long before the college boasted Blue Knights on both corners of the infield. By mid-season, the Southington rookie outlasted all of his veteran competition.
For the next three years, third base was Sobolewski’s. Coaches loved him, and so did his teammates.
“He was a good leader,” said Fontana. “When he was on a baseball field, it was just his home. He loved being there, and he didn’t want anybody to dishonor that field during the game.”
Once again, he was a natural, playing 23 games as a freshman and breaking out as a sophomore with a .367 batting average and a .533 slugging percentage. As a junior, he led the Moccassins to the NCAA World Series, and he began his senior year as a pre-season all-American.
It was no surprise at the end of his senior season when Sobolewski was named team MVP. After all, he was a four-letter man with a .919 fielding percentage. At graduation, Sobolewski held the Moccasin record for assists (402) and was ranked in the top 5 in single season at bats (242), career at bats (650), single season triples (9), career HBP (16); games played (177), career doubles (42), career triples (17); and hits (209).
“I never hit too many homeruns,” he said. “I was more of a doubles guy, a gap kind of hitter, but our stadium in college was down the lines about 340 or 350 feet. The alleys were 385 or 395, and center field was 420 because it was the same field—Henley Field—where Babe Ruth and those boys played in Lakeland. It was a monster park compared to what they play in today.”
Of course, nothing seemed to faze Sobolewski, and he developed a reputation for being able to rise to any competition. Before his junior and senior seasons, major league scouts tried to sign him while he was playing in the elite Cape Cod Baseball League. After his senior college season, he was invited to Olympic tryouts where he held his own against blue chip players, clawing his way into the top 90.
“That, to me, was one of the best accomplishments, to be from a division two school and get compared to all the division two schools as well as all the big division one schools across the country,” he said about the Olympic tryout. “You get that realization that you belong. Once that happens, it doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter what division you play in or where you are.”
It’s what you can do on the field that counts, and major league scouts took notice. Sobolewski was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers before his senior season, but when the Oakland A’s drafted him the following year, Sobolewski finally accepted.
Once again, he was asked to shift positions. Once again, he rose to the challenge. When the professional rookie arrived in Phoenix for spring training, he was shifted to shortstop to make room for fellow rookie Jason Giambi.
For the next four years, the two were inseparable as they moved up through the minor leagues.
“He was sort of struggling a bit, and we worked together,” said the former Knight. “We became best buddies, and we were actually roommates for four years in the minor leagues. In the fall league, we went to instructional league together. We both went from low-A to high-A.”
Medford Oregon was Sobolewski’s introduction to the “bus leagues,” and he made it onto the all-star roster by the end of his first season. He moved to Modesto the following year. Once again, team officials asked him to shift positions. This time, they shifted him to second base.
“It doesn’t sound like a big change, but everything is the opposite on that side of the field,” he said. Now, the catcher-turned-third baseman had to learn the opposite flow for double plays, different throws to first base, and different movement in the infield. “My fielding got a little bit better, but my hitting struggled a little bit.”
Still, he did well enough to keep moving up. For the next two years, he moved up to Oakland’s AA affiliate in Huntsville before his advancement began to stall against top draft picks and future major leaguers. When he could no longer see a path for an undersized underdog, Sobolewski finally decided to step away from the game. He still says that he has no regrets.
“I wasn’t going to get any taller. I wasn’t going to get any faster, and I wasn’t going to throw the ball any harder,” he said. “I’m not bitter by any stretch.”
And why should he be? Few players have been as dominant at as many levels as Sobolewski. He was a high school and college standout. He reached the College World Series. He went toe-to-toe against Olympians, professional baseball players, and future MLB all-stars.
So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Sobolewski as a member of the Class of 2017. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. It will be the third hall of fame for the Southington star.
“This is exciting. To get recognized with a lot of those athletes—some that you played with and others that you recognize?” he said. “To be put in that class is an honor. It truly is.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.