After car crash leaves Hilbert team leaderless, 2 are stepping up
Coach’s dad, pal fill a baseball void
It’s hard not to root for the Hilbert College baseball team as it opens the season Sunday without its leader.
Coach Jonathan Musialowski — Jay, as he’s known — suffered a severe head injury in a car crash almost two weeks ago, and he remains in a coma at Erie County Medical Center.
Musialowski, 28, has a long road to recovery.
But his Hilbert Hawks will push ahead with their season, which begins in Florida with eight games in six days under the guidance of Musialowski’s baseball mentor and assistant coach: his father, Chet.
In a way, it’s like having their coach on the bench with them.
“This is your team,” Chet Musialowski reminds the players. “He wants you to be as good as you can be.”
The story unfolding at this small liberal arts college in Hamburg is, on the one hand, about a team of 19 guys rallying together around tragedy. But it’s also about a father’s love for his son and the bond they share for baseball.
“No one knows how to bunt anymore,” Jay would tell his father. “I want to get the guys out bunting. What do you think?”
“He used me as a sounding board,” Chet Musialowski said as he took a break from team practice this week. “He and I would commiserate a lot.”
After playing baseball for Canisius High School, Jay Musialowski continued his career at Rochester Institute of Technology. He transferred after two years to Virginia Tech in Division I, where he pitched and played outfield.
He had stints in the minor leagues, pitching in independent leagues in Michigan and New Jersey, and was an assistant coach at Canisius High before landing a job two years ago as an assistant at Hilbert.
When the head coach stepped down last year, Jay was given the job. A Canisius College graduate student, he took over the team in January.
“Jay, God bless him, was so gung-ho about this,” said Hilbert Athletic Director Richard Walsh. “He was just extremely anxious to put his stamp on the program, and he had very strong convictions on how to do that. When you’re looking for a coach, that’s the kind of leadership you need.”
Jay also brought an approach to that team that baseball was meant to be fun.
“In practice, he’d work us hard on getting down to fundamentals,” said Matt Begeal, a senior pitcher and outfielder, “but toward the end of practice, we’d lighten up and have fun — get back to what baseball used to be like when you were a kid.”
For help, Jay looked to a baseball buddy, Steve Spillman, who was hired as his assistant. And, naturally, he recruited his father as a volunteer coach.
His dad played baseball in high school and college. He coached Jay since he was a boy, watched his games, offered tips on his pitching. A few years back, father and son drove to minor league tryouts across the country in hopes that Jay could latch on with a team.
“He just loves the game and wanted to make a difference in this team,” said Chet Musialowski, 68. “He wanted to feel like they were gaining something by having him as their coach.”
On Feb. 27, Jay was on his way to Hilbert for a youth baseball clinic — a team fundraiser — when he lost control of his car on a slushy Route 5.
His car spun into oncoming traffic, and a vehicle plowed into him from behind.
Jay was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent surgery to remove excess fluid and relieve the pressure on his brain.
While he has made progress, he remains in a coma. Doctors told his family he could regain consciousness within three months, but because of the severity of the brain injury, it could take much longer for him to come out of it.
The Hilbert community prays that he will.
“He’s stable, but he’s still in grave danger,” his father said. “How much will he come back? I don’t know. I hope for the best.”
It’s a harsh lesson about life for a group of students, but one that has motivated the players.
“It’s tough,” said Jacob Simonick, a pitcher and infielder from Blasdell, “but at the same time, out of all the years playing college baseball, this is the one I’m looking most forward to.”
“We play for ourselves,” said David Cunningham, a pitcher and infielder from Cheektowaga, “but we play for him now, too.”
Spillman was elevated to interim head coach, and while no one expects a complete turnaround from a team that finished at the bottom of the Division III Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference, it can become a team that Jay has wanted it to be.
“Just seeing what the family is going through, what Jay is going through, you really feel a sense of duty to match that strength and courage and take it into the season,” Spillman said.
In his son’s absence, Chet Musialowski is taking on a larger role. Spillman can’t make the trip to Florida, so Jay’s dad will coach the team there. They leave for Cocoa Beach today.
“If you listen to what coach’s dad has to say, you’ll be much better for it,” Spillman said. “He’s best when he’s one-on-one with a guy. It’s fun to watch. He’s like a baseball Yoda, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible.”
The team has been good for Chet Musialowski, an owner of a window business who raised five kids with his wife, Ralfa.
At practice this week, he was running drills and throwing batting practice and taking guys aside to give them a little advice on their game.
It has been a needed diversion from the pain he feels for his son. And the players are happy to have him.
“His dad has been great,” Begeal said. “He could be with his son, but he’s stepping in to help us out. I can’t say enough about him.
“It’s like having coach here.”