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Pair of local prep products sign with Twins organization

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published August 23, 2017

 Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers pitcher Kevin Marnon delivers during an USPBL game earlier this season. Before the USPBL, Marnon starred at Sterling Heights Stevenson.

Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers pitcher Kevin Marnon delivers during an USPBL game earlier this season. Before the USPBL, Marnon starred at Sterling Heights Stevenson.

Photo provided by Dave Cohen

UTICA — Two local prep products are one step closer to fulfilling their dreams of becoming Major League ballplayers, utilizing the United Shore Professional Baseball League as the vehicle to do so.

Kevin Marnon, a Sterling Heights Stevenson graduate, and Taylor Grzelakowski, a product of Fraser High, both signed with the Minnesota Twins organization Aug. 1. The pair reported to Minnesota’s Gulf Coast League affiliate, also named the Twins.

A relief pitcher for the Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, Marnon appeared in 16 USPBL games, notching 29 strikeouts and posting an ERA of 1.50. A catcher with the Utica Unicorns, Grzelakowski had 108 at-bats at Jimmy John’s Field hitting .306, seven doubles, 23 RBIs and led the league with nine home runs.

“Both of these guys are great players who were perfect for our league,” Beavers manager Chris Newell said. “Thank God our league exists because without it, these two wouldn’t have had the opportunity they’re about to embark on. It’s a total win-win for everyone involved.”

Both 23, the pair are now roommates down in Fort Meyers, Florida. While in high school, both earned All-Macomb Area Conference honors and were teammates with the Michigan Jets 18U AAU team.

“I was only in the USPBL for two months, but it obviously helped a ton,” Marnon said. “It was a great experience coming right out of college. Playing against other professional players, it was the steppingstone I wanted it to be. Newell made a huge impact on me, he’s a great coach and is like a second father to me now.”

The former Titan worked with USPBL staff on improving the finish on his pitches. He came in with a top speed of 91 mph on his fastball. Now, he can top out at 95.

Marnon played baseball, basketball and football at Stevenson, suiting up for the squad that reached the Division 1 state final on the gridiron in 2009. During his senior season on the mound, he led the Titans to a 31-7 record, earning a MAC title and a trip to the state semifinals.

“My time at Stevenson was big to prepare me for college,” Marnon said. “Obviously at Stevenson we have a lot of talent every year, so when you’re practicing against those kids it gets you ready to compete.”

At press time, Marnon had pitched 10.1 innings with the Twins, posting a 0.87 ERA with 10 strikeouts. Grzelakowski had collected 28 at-bats in nine games, notching five hits and two RBIs.

“Things are going really well down here, I’m finally starting to fit in with the team,” Grzelakowski said. “I’m just trying to pick up and learn anything and everything possible. I’d have to thank everyone at the USPBL for getting me here.”

Grzelakowski singled out the USPBL’s owner Andy Appleby, the league’s Executive Director of Baseball Operations Justin Orenduff, Utica’s manager Jim Essian and assistant Cedrick Landrum, and Birmingham Bloomfield assistant coach Ray Ortega as those who played a role in his success.

“We’re very proud of him, he earned it,” Essian said. “Hopefully he’ll do real well with the Twins and move up the ladder there. He’s a great hitter, he can hit to the opposite field which is important in today’s game. I’m very confident in him.”

Orenduff called Grzelakowski an instinctive hitter who was willing to put in the work. Orenduff recalled that at early-morning league practices, Grzelakowski would show up a hour early to get in extra reps.

“From the beginning, he was our best overall position player, he’s just a stud,” Orenduff said. “I think he’ll be around this game a long time. He has fun every single day and always wants to get better. He’s only 23 and you look at the level he’s reached already, he only has room to grow.”

Newell said he disliked seeing him come up to the plate as an opponent, but he couldn’t help but appreciate his swing.

“He was the best pure hitter we’ve had in this league,” Newell said. “His swing is absolutely pro ready. He’s a gap-to-gap hitter and he’s trying to drive the baseball every time, which is always what you teach.”

While he was known by USPBL fans for his hits over the fence, Grzelakowski has a simple mindset at the plate.

“To me, a home run is a mistake,” Grzelakowski said. “I try to go gap to gap and hit line drives. If it goes out, I’ll obviously take it, but I aim for the top of the wall. I’m trying to stay consistent and hit for average.”

Grzelakowski also lettered in football, basketball and swimming at Fraser. He was a standout catcher for the Ramblers on the diamond where he hit .484 as a senior. That led to a collegiate career in Livonia at Madonna University. However, while there he only caught one inning, transitioning to a corner outfielder and infielder.

When he signed with the Unicorns, Grzelakowski initially played first base. Orenduff and his staff determined that the best way to make Grzelakowski into a prospect was to put him back behind the plate, offering MLB organizations a chance to sign a rare power-hitting catcher.

“It’s a process from start to finish,” Grzelakowski said. “I started to develop at Fraser, I honed my skills and focus on hitting at Madonna. At the USPBL, they determined by best possible way up was a catcher. I love it because when I’m at first or in the outfield, you may only be in on every third play. I’m in for every single pitch as a catcher.”

When the USPBL honored Grzelakowski with a formal on-field announcement of his signing with the Twins July 29, the former Rambler brought out several friends and family members to join in the occasion. After putting on a Twins cap handed to him by Appleby and posing for pictures, Grzelakowski focused on another Fraser High graduate.

Grzelakowski began dating Sarah Kijek during their freshman year at Fraser. Out on Jimmy John’s Field he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.

“I actually had it planned for Aug. 11 because that would’ve been our eight-year anniversary,” Grzelakowski said. “This popped up and I thought it was the perfect moment. That was just a crazy few days, honestly it’s been the best few weeks of my life. I wouldn’t be here still playing baseball if not for the USPBL, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without Sarah.”