To his next-door neighbor, Johnny Dziomba might as well be a professional baseball player.
"He's 3 or 4 years old, and he comes over every day, asking, 'Hey, come on, will you throw the ball around with me?' " Dziomba said. "He's looking at me like I'm a big leaguer. I've always dreamed of signing that autograph."
The 19-year-old Dziomba is far from the big leagues, but he's part of a road that can get there. Having just finished his freshman year at Gannon University, the graduate of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute plays for the Niagara Power, the newest addition to the New York Collegiate Baseball League. The NYCBL, founded in 1978, is a wooden bat league generally populated by collegiate underclassmen. The team plays its games at Sal Maglie Stadium in Niagara Falls.
Dziomba hoped to play summer ball for some team, any team, in the NYCBL and had no idea that a team was coming to Western New York.
"I was online one day and I was talking to my girlfriend about maybe wanting to play in NYCBL," Dziomba said. "I was looking at the Web site that shows all the teams, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, there's a team in Niagara!' "
Dziomba knew the extra practice couldn't hurt, given that Gannon's baseball team suffered through a 5-43 season, ending on a 23-game losing streak. Dziomba, a middle infielder, is hitting .292 and has started 28 of the Power's 29 games.
The Power started the season 12-7 but has experienced a skid, going 2-8 since June 29 to put the team under .500 for the first time.
"We have to teach a lot of these guys the mental approach to the game," Power manager Sam Kirby said. "These guys haven't come from big programs, or some of our pitchers didn't have pitching coaches in college. They didn't have somebody that worked with them one-on-one.
"I think you need to be able to let something negative go and build off the positives. We struggled a little bit with guys hanging on to bad at-bats or bad defensive games, but they've made a lot of strides."
The addition of the Power bumped the NYCBL to a 14-team league, eight in the West Division and six in the East. The Power is currently sixth in the West.
Kirby affirms that even though the NYCBL may not be as prestigious for collegiate baseball as New England's Cape Cod League, each player hopes his name is the next to register on the NYCBL's list of prestigious alumni.
Those who have made it in the majors include Tim Hudson, a current Atlanta Braves righty in his ninth season; Brad Lidge, an Houston Astros reliever in his sixth season; and Hunter Pence, the Astros outfielder and National League rookie of the year candidate who could be the first NL rookie to win the batting title.
Both hurlers played in 1996, Hudson for the Hornell Dodgers and Lidge for the now-defunct Ithaca Lakers. Pence was with the Schenectady (now Amsterdam) Mohawks in 2002.
Dziomba dreams for himself and his 22-year-old brother, Josh, a NYCBL and Gannon alum.
"My brother's trying to get a workout so he can get with an independent league team for a few years," Dziomba said. "I always dreamed of playing pro ball with him, the two of us playing up the middle."