BEST OF ASN | Romanian orphanage had major impact on Astros' minor-leaguer

Originally published on June 16

[caption id="attachment_3237" align="alignright" width="150"] BEST OF ASN: With a new year approaching, we thought this would be a great time to look back on the stories that touched us in 2015. Some made us laugh, some cry. But all of them showcase what makes ASN your home for your teams, your passion.[/caption]

Nearly 15 years later, what Asher Wojciechowski remembers most vividly about his family’s mission in Romania is the lice. And the filth. And the hopelessness.

“The kids were just left (behind); their parents didn’t want them,” he said. “It hurt them. Being with them, it helped them, and it helps me, too.”

When Wojciechowski was 9, his family — parents Randy and Carol and older sister, Haleigh, then 11 — left a comfortable life in Michigan to move to Bucharest and work in local orphanages. The family brought supplies and, maybe more importantly, spent time with the children living there.

Now a graduate of The Citadel and a pitcher in the Houston Astros organization, Wojciechowski understands how that experience changed his life, and gave him a greater a perspective on being a professional athlete.

“I would go there and play with them, because we were all kids,” he said. “I remember how dirty the living conditions were. The lice, the dirty clothes, the dirty toys.

“I am playing a game for a living (now). The experiences I’ve been through, I feel extremely blessed and humbled by everything I have.”

The move to Romania wasn’t the family’s first visit to the country or first mission abroad. The Wojciechowskis spent three months in the Dominican Republic, where Asher and local kids played baseball with broomsticks and a bottle cap) when Asher was 5 and had done several short-term missions in Romania.

Carol believes the mission in the Dominican was a critical turning point for her children.

“We’d go and pray with the families, and one day we went to one shack on the beach and they had newspaper on the walls for insulation,” she said. “I remember the kids saying, ‘Mommy, we’re rich, aren’t we?’ I think that really imprinted on their hearts and minds.”

When the Wojciechowskis left for Bucharest, Asher gave up two things he loved — baseball and his dog —  according to his father, Randy. The decision to go was one that Asher and Haleigh helped make.

“What affected me most concerning Asher was that he’d have to give up baseball,” said Randy. “He was only 9, but he was pretty good and he wanted to be a professional baseball player. Of course, we never knew he would be.”

Said Carol: “He said, ‘Well, Momma, if that’s what God said we need to do, then we need to do it.’ It’s always yes or no, never a maybe. That’s what I love about him.”

In preparation for the move, the family left Michigan and drove cross country, staying with church families while Carol home-schooled the kids in a Volkswagen van. They then spent several months in Bakersfield, Calif., in training for their mission with the organization Children to Love. While in Bakersfield, Asher played Little League.

Though he brought his bat, ball and glove across the ocean, it got little use during the family’s first couple of years in Bucharest. There was no organized baseball, and as is the case in Eastern Europe and many poorer nations, soccer is the youth sport of choice.

But by the time Asher turned 11, Little League had found its way to Romania, and Asher found his way back to the diamond, playing ball for Europe’s newest team. The experience was anything but traditional — Asher was one of four Americans (the other three were the children of embassy employees), the ball field was an hour across town via public transit, Asher provided the team’s two bats and most of the team had never played before.

But Randy is convinced that a higher power brought Asher’s favorite game to their new doorstep.

“Asher was the best player and the captain. He helped teach the other kids to play,” Randy said. “He was willing to give up (baseball) for me and lo and behold, God brought baseball to us.”

The team represented Romania in Europe’s Little League Championships in Kutno, Poland, an 18-hour bus ride from Bucharest. The inexperienced team didn’t win but the competition only further expanded Asher’s view of the world.

[caption id="attachment_2045" align="alignleft" width="300"] The Wojciechowski family in the Dominican Republic. (Courtesy of Randy and Carol Wojciechowski.)[/caption]

In retrospect, Romania wasn’t really about baseball for Wojciechowski, it was about personal growth.

“It just gave me a different perspective on things, getting to see other cultures and travel in Europe,” Wojciechowski said. “It made me more open-minded because everyone is different. And it showed me the power of love and the power of Christ.

“I made some good friends along the way, but I also feel like if we went and changed just one life, it was worth it.”

Said Randy: “I think he learned how to serve. With a lot of American kids, especially with baseball kids, they become very inward and ‘it’s all about me.’ The focus is on serving the kid, but in our case, we gave up the dream in order to serve. That was probably the biggest change for Asher – it’s not all about him.”

For now, though, Wojciechowski is all about baseball. The trajectory of his journey has been filled with curves – he played Little League in Michigan, California and Romania; travel ball in Michigan and South Carolina; and prep baseball at Michigan’s Sturgis High School and South Carolina’s Beaufort High School before committing to The Citadel.

Most of the moves were precipitated by opportunities for Randy and Carol to serve, but in  January 2006, halfway through Asher’s junior year of high school, the family made the decision to move to South Carolina for Asher’s baseball future.

Randy and Carol felt their son would get more exposure in baseball-crazy South Carolina than Michigan. Randy was offered a position as a co-pastor; Carol’s parents were close by; and Haleigh was considering transferring to the nearby Savannah College of Art and Design.

Wojciechowski ultimately chose The Citadel over Winthrop.

From there, Wojciechowski has consistently built on his success, playing for the Team USA that finished fourth at the 2009 World Baseball Classic and being selected the 2010 Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year. The stint with the U.S. team was the first time the family believed that Asher really had a shot at the pros. According to Carol, the number of scouts at The Citadel games shot up from “three or four to 30” at one point.

Originally drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays with the 41st overall pick  in 2010, Wojciechowski, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-handed pitcher, spent two years with the Blue Jays before being traded to the Astros in 2012 as part of the J.A. Happ-Francisco Cordero deal.

Currently playing for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League, the 26-year-old Wojciechowski started the season on the Astros’s big-league roster, his first stint in the majors. He pitched 16 innings, starting three games, and had a 7.31 ERA.

[caption id="attachment_2051" align="alignright" width="300"] Courtesy Houston Astros[/caption]

“He had an exceptional spring,” said Quinton McCracken, Astros director of player development. “He earned the right to be with the big-league club. … He’s a thinker, he has a businessman-like approach to his craft, and that’s why he is excelling.”

Besides a fastball in the mid-90s, Wojciechowski has been perfecting his slider over the last several years and according to McCracken, has been working hard at his cutter. But it is the slider — and his workmanlike approach — that could help to determine Wojciechowski’s future.

“He’s improved his command,” McCracken said, “His slider has been a good pitch for him throughout his career. Once he could tighten up that, he could get back up to the big leagues.”

His pitching coach in Fresno, Ace Adams, couldn’t agree more. The work of perfecting a pitch and improving location — Wojciechowski’s immediate goals — can get monotonous. But hard work doesn’t scare the righty.

“He’s in a great place throwing-wise right now,” said Adams. “He works extremely hard, he’s very methodical, no messing around … I’ve been coaching 40 years and he’s one of the pitchers I really trust on the mound. He wants to get back to the majors and never come back to the minors.”

Wojciechowski rates his fastball and slider as his top two pitches. He also has a changeup and he’s been working on the cutter as well. But his focus is location.

“I need to execute at every level,” he said.

This season will be his first full season in Triple-A, after starting the 2013 season in Double-A and missing the early part of 2014 with a strained lateral muscle.

“I’m working every day to fine tune,” he said. “It’s a tough league to pitch in. I try to execute, if I do that here, it will play in the big leagues.”

And while he refers to his experience with the Astros as “exciting” and somewhat “surreal,” Wojciechowski still has his priorities in line.  He and his wife, Alanna, want to do a mission during the offseason. He, along with his teammates from the Grizzlies, recently worked with a group of children with Down Syndrome.

“It brought back memories,” he said. “It’s such a great feeling to give these kids high-fives and see them smile. It’s more important than baseball.”

Above: Astros minor-leaguer Asher Wojciechowski credits time in Romania for changing his life. (Courtesy Houston Astros)

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