Last Sunday afternoon, the Balloon Man was working his magic. At a birthday party in West Springfield, Mass., Ed Popielarczyk was making a bunch of 6-year-olds absolutely howl as he twisted balloons into horses, into dolphins, into Mickey Mouse.
A 50-year-old man-boy and sole proprietor of Magical Moments, Popielarczyk made silk scarves appear and disappear. He caused a flower to droop every time he turned his back. He brought the house down when he started pulling cookies out of kids' armpits. Mm-mmm.
At the same time, half an hour north in Amherst, Ed's oldest son, Joe, was working his own magic. Taking the mound against Temple University, the UMass senior was writing one of the most unlikely success stories of the year in college sports. Here he was:
-- the civil engineering major with a passion for -- you can't make this stuff up -- wastewater treatment
-- the commuter student who lives at home in Florence, on a street called Burts Pit Road, with three dogs, three cats, a flea circus, a kid brother, his mom and the Balloon Man
-- the walk-on who had been cut from the team his freshman year, then languished in the bullpen with ERAs of 6.16 and 7.86 his sophomore and junior years
And here he was now, a starting pitcher with a 4-0 record and a Bob Gibsonian ERA of 1.12, best in the Atlantic 10, fourth best in the country. Every inning he sprinted out to the mound, eager to climb. Before the inning he took off his hat and stared into it -- perhaps for scrawled scouting reports, perhaps waiting for some rabbit to emerge.
The Balloon Man was bummed. This is, quite possibly, the last season of Joe's baseball career, and it was killing his dad to miss it. But duty was calling. The magic show ended with one of the 6-year-olds hurling a cookie that stuck to the Balloon Man's backside. After the laughter subsided and the attention turned to cake and presents, Popielarczyk called his youngest son, Anthony, a high school junior stationed back home on Burts Pit Road. Anthony was following every pitch on the computer, via Gametracker. He was home, instead of at UMass, for only one reason: "He doesn't want to jinx Joey."
Four innings in, the strategy was looking good. No runs, one hit, the ERA down to 1.03. But the update was not the same as being there. Ed Popielarczyk couldn't see the intense focus on the mound. He couldn't see the slider darting over the outside corner. He couldn't hear the infield chatter: "Here we go, Joe. What do you say now, Joe Pop. All you, Pop."
That's what you get called when your last name is Popielarczyk, when you are, after all, a son of the Balloon Man.
Mike Stone has been the baseball coach at UMass since 1988. Despite his uncanny physical resemblance to Steve Carell, Stone is a no-nonsense guy, all business, well named. But he also has a trick or two up his sleeve.
Take, for instance, Doug Clark. A UMass football player who had never played Little League, let alone high school baseball (playing on the tennis team in the spring), Clark approached Stone during the winter of his sophomore year about trying out for baseball. A couple of years later, Clark was drafted by the Giants in 1998. In 2005, he made it to the big leagues. He is still playing professionally in Mexico.
Stone's sleight of hand on the current team has been with pitcher Dennis Torres. For four straight years in high school in Lawrence, Mass., Torres was cut from the baseball team. One spring he threw the javelin. His success story at UMass was supposed to be entirely an academic tale: all three of his older sisters had dropped out of high school, and here he was, majoring in accounting, not even thinking about playing during his freshman year.
"I didn't play high school ball," he said. "I wasn't recruited. I was a nobody I thought there was no shot."
But spurred on by his father, Denesi -- a third-shift machine operator in North Andover -- Dennis approached Stone during his sophomore year about a tryout as a third baseman.
"We saw him throw the ball across the diamond," Stone recalled. "We saw some life in his arm. A lot of life actually."
Abracadabra. Hocus pocus. Shazam. Presto chango.
A couple of years later, two days before Joe Popielarczyk took the hill against Temple, Dennis Torres was on the mound to open the three-game series, the team's top pro prospect. Every time he cocked his arm, a half-dozen Stalker radar guns pointed at him. In a hooded gray sweatshirt, Denesi Torres eyed the scouts with interest and would light up when asked about his son.
"I feel proud," he said. "I just want to give him a good life, you know?"
Stone believes that baseball transformations like these aren't really about magic. "It's character and makeup that give a kid a chance to reach his potential," he said. "More so than talent."
Still, Stone acknowledged that with Joe Pop, he misread the crystal ball when he cut him during his freshman year. "It appeared as if he would not progress at that point like we thought other people would," Stone said. "It was the wrong decision."
There were no scouts in the stands on Sunday to see Joe Popielarczyk -- his mid-80s gas apparently not considered to be high-enough octane. Instead, the stands filled with various tribes of Pop Nation.
There was a group of old high school buddies: Mike O'Brien, Adam Greenburg, Joe Theroux, Samuel Caruso, and Katie Shea.
"Me and Joey Pop were gym class heroes."
"The kid took all the hardest AP classes possible."
"He's not that smart -- he just gets passed by because of his baseball: Put that in your article."
The second group consisted of former coaches: three from Mickey Mantle days (John Lenkowski, David Hoose and Bob Bak), his American Legion coach Carl Clapp and the self-described "general manager" of the Legion team, Mike Noonan.
"When we first saw him, he already knew how to pitch he had a presence on the mound, even at 15 years old."
"Just the nicest guy we ever coached."
Clapp spooled out a story of Popielarczyk's competitive fire. Once he took a line drive right off the bill of the cap, splitting the visor and leaving him with a hematoma "a good inch and a half off his head."
"Joey, I think I'm gonna take you out."
"I don't want to come out, Clapper. I'm good. I'm good."
"He then struck out the next two guys to get out of the inning."
Group 3 was family. Huddled in a blue sweatshirt was Joe's grandfather, Ed Popielarczyk Sr., a retired military man who, years ago, chose the service over a possible baseball career. Beneath a Cooperstown cap loomed the soft-spoken David Popielarczyk, Joe's uncle, who has been his role model for engineering. And perched in a blue Eddie Bauer lawn chair was Adele Popielarczyk. Joe's mom was here to watch the game, and to replenish the water dish for Chase, their 9-year-old border collie/St. Bernard mix. ("She has gone to baseball since she was 3 months old.")
Back home, of course, Anthony was on the Gametracker, updating the Balloon Man whenever possible.
When the wind is blowing out at UMass, it doesn't just stink for the pitchers. The town of Amherst wastewater-treatment facility, gray concrete structures bordered by high fences topped with razor wire, sits just a quarter-mile away.
This is a world Joe Popielarczyk finds almost as intriguing as the pitching mound. Already taking some graduate courses and accepted for the master's degree program next year, he is particularly drawn to certain aspects of civil engineering: "Hydraulics, water treatment, wastewater treatment," he said.
This summer, Popielarczyk will intern with his Uncle David at Tighe & Bond in Westfield. According to Joe, Uncle Dave's big project is down in Connecticut working on a "sewer overflow system."
Granted, Joe admits, it's not the most glamorous gig in the world, but it's for opportunities like this that he's been sacrificing for years. This is why he's out the door on Burts Pit Road by 6:30 every morning. He gets in his old black Rav 4 -- the one with the Red Sox decal on the back and more than 100,000 miles on the odometer -- and heads over the Coolidge Bridge into Hadley. He drives past the mall sprawl and the roadside stands that sell corn at the beginning of the school year and asparagus at the end. He arrives at UMass to work on engineering projects, liberating him for baseball in the afternoon.
Engineering -- that's why he's here.
But the big reward of working on sewage overflow this summer could, conceivably, be put off, at least according to the Balloon Man.
"If he gets drafted, he's going to go," said Ed Popielarczyk on Wednesday, fresh off a couple of magic shows in preschools in East Longmeadow.
When Joe asked his dad if that would be all right with him, the Balloon Man responded, "You'll be kicking yourself in the butt the rest of your life if you don't take a shot, saying, 'What if?'"
Ed knows a thing or two about following your heart. He had started out working at the physical plant at UMass years ago, but he just wasn't happy. Back in high school, he had taught himself to juggle. Then there were books and kits and videos about various tricks. "I was always fascinated with magic," Ed says.
In time, the side job of Magical Moments grew to become a full-time gig with more than 400 shows a year.
"He was so much happier doing that," said Joe.
When Ed would take his act on the road, he would typically bring one of his kids, Alyssa, Joe or Anthony. When Joe was about 10, he scored a plum assignment, becoming the Balloon Man's assistant for a few shows on Cape Cod and one on Nantucket. Arriving in the island paradise, he looked out over the yachts in the harbor and, according to Ed, said, "Dad, we've got to buy a house here."
That wasn't quite in the cards. There is a balance to be struck between pursuing your dreams and living in the real world.
That's the balance Joe was going for when he decided on UMass: engineering and baseball. He stuck with the team through fall practices, through winter workouts, into the spring semester. But just before the Minutemen were set to open their season on the spring-break trip to Florida, Stone called Popielarczyk into his office to deliver the bad news. They had to make some cuts and, unfortunately, he was one of them.
"It really hit me," Popielarczyk recalled. "I'd never been unable to play baseball before. It made me want it even more."
During spring break on Burts Pit Road, Popielarczyk couldn't resist the temptation. He fired up the computer, got on Gametracker, followed the action of "little stick figures to show where the ball was going."
That summer, he was pitching in the American Legion playoffs. Discretely watching from behind the backstop, Mike Stone couldn't help being impressed. Joe Pop was throwing harder, commanding his pitches better, focusing intensely on every delivery. The next day Stone made a call, inviting him to try again.
Popielarczyk's sophomore and junior years were hardly lights out, but he had become a Division I varsity pitcher: no small feat.
Last summer, Popielarczyk worked harder than ever. At Look Park in Leeds, he put in long hours making kids smile as the conductor of the train, and the guy who signed out the bumper boats. He ran. He lifted. He pitched for a local team in the Tri-County League that was sponsored by Easthampton Savings Bank (where his mother works as a teller).
Come the fall, he got in that Rav 4 good and early, rolling through Hadley before the corn stands were open for business. In fall ball, Stone saw a new man.
"He was staying back behind the ball," said Stone. "He had great command. There was more of a demeanor where he took charge of every at-bat."
Stone named Popielarczyk one of the three weekend starting pitchers, along with Dennis Torres and Glen Misho.
UMass opened its season during spring break at Central Florida, which was ranked 17th in the country. In 5⅓ innings, Popielarczyk surrendered just one run. He was off to the races on what has been, to this point, a startling season. Joe Pop has helped spur the Minutemen, picked for 12th of 13 teams in the A-10 by the coaches, to a current fifth-place standing at 9-6 (17-16 overall). In 56 innings on the hill, he has surrendered just five extra-base hits -- all doubles.
"I knew that I could do it," Popielarczyk said. "I just needed to trust that I could do it. I really like to be counted on."
While the wind was not blowing out last Sunday, there was one malodorous inning. In the fifth, Popielarczyk lost some command and faced a series of tough breaks: a bad-hop double to right; a hit batter who leaned into a curveball, which just grazed his jersey; a botched throw by the first baseman on a bunt; a single through a drawn-in infield; a potential double-play smash that hit the umpire for a base hit. When all was said and done, it was his worst inning of the year: four runs, three earned.
That was all he allowed on the day, which finished after 7⅔ innings in a no-decision, a game UMass would ultimately win 5-4 in 12 innings. His ERA bulged -- OK, ballooned -- to 1.45. It's still the best in the league, and 12th-best in the country.
Pop Nation absorbed the struggle with as much grace as possible. Anthony sent along the bad news to the Balloon Man.
Might the scouts show up at some point? Might somebody take a chance on a late-round draft pick with a guy whose improvement this year has been remarkable?
"You never know," said Stone. "This is a guy who has done everything the right way."
If Joe Pop is coming to the end of his baseball journey, he's fine with that. "I have something to fall back on," he said. "There's such a small percentage of people who actually make it. Plus, I like engineering."
But maybe, just maybe, there are still some magical moments ahead.