;FONT COLOR=quot;#000000quot;;Nick Ciola: ;/FONT;;FONT COLOR=quot;#ff0000quot;;Come Backer;/FONT;

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 6, 2000

Before he did so in Marcusen Park at high noon Tuesday, Nick Ciola had not scaled a pitcher’s mound in nine years.

Saturday, May 06, 2000

Before he did so in Marcusen Park at high noon Tuesday, Nick Ciola had not scaled a pitcher’s mound in nine years.

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Perhaps in an effort to soak up every particle of the moment, Ciola wore a sun-gobbling shoeshine sweatshirt.

Yet in 15 minutes worth of tossing, Ciola hardly broke a sweat.

That he lives half his year in searing Austin, Texas must have something to do with the way he shrugs off the hometown heat.

That he happens to be one cool customer helps as well.

As a musician in, first, the Gear Daddies and, now, Martin Zellar and the Hardways, Ciola has found a way to earn a living in a manner that doesn’t appear to be so hard at all.

"The band has been going so well," said Ciola, "that I don’t work."

For the past 21 years, since they two were Austin high schoolers, you could find Ciola and Zellar at each other’s sides.

But before the 36-year-old Ciola ever picked up a bass guitar, he picked up a baseball.

Through all the shows and the last calls, the miles and the radio dials, the pilot light Ciola has for the game of baseball never blew out.

He learned that recently at his winter home in Texas, where he watched his 16-year-old nephew make and pitch for his high school team as a sophomore.

"You want to know why I’m back?" Ciola said. "Because I’ve been watching him play – and because I’ve been dreaming about baseball."

Sometime soon this season, Ciola will return home and pitch for the town team Austin Packers.

He’s treating baseball as a if it were mortar, using it to, as he put it, "fill in the gaps" between a summer of Midwest dates with the band.

Ciola’s also got what he termed "unfinished business" with the game.

His time line in the game is a winding one. If you trace it back before him, you’ll find his father Louis Ciola.

Louis played in the big leagues with the Philadelphia A’s for two seasons, 1942-43.

"He pitched in all the big parks," Ciola said. "He struck out Mickey Mantle."

Sometime in the past nine years, during the time Ciola somehow swore off the mound, he found himself in Boston’s Fenway Park.

"It was funny," Ciola said. "It dawned on me that my dad pitched here."

Ciola was heartbroken when Louis – "my dad and my coach" -died in 1981, during Ciola’s senior season at Austin High.

Ciola went on to play at Labette Community College in Kansas. He went 9-1 in his freshman season and his future in the game appeared bright.

The Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Dodgers professed their interest in drafting or signing Ciola, who also was on a track to pitch for the Wichita State Shockers, annually one of the top major college baseball programs in the country.

But before anything big happened, Ciola blew out his shoulder on a pitch in a game in Mission, Kan.

"I tore it all to pieces," said Ciola, who recovered – "I came back strong" – only to find the scouts no longer in the audience and college no longer an option.

"Had I gotten drafted," Ciola said. "I would have played pro ball."

But life knuckled for Ciola, who just so happens to like to throw a knuckleball – "I always told myself if I had to be a Phil Niekro, I could," Ciola said.

After the Gear Daddies broke onto rock ‘n’ roll radar, baseball took a back seat to Ciola’s career as a musician.

Ciola continued to satisfy his urge for a while, playing for town teams in Minnesota. He last pitched for Joe Serratore’s Austin Greyhounds in the early 1990s.

In each of the last five years, Ciola said, Serratore has called to ask Ciola if he wanted to pitch again.

He declined each time until obliging with the 2000 phone call.

"I’m wanting to finish my business," said Ciola, who won admirers quickly during Tuesday’s pitching session.

"I don’t know if you can play," cracked Packers manager Mike Cummins before he wrapped his arm around Ciola and welcomed him into the fold.

"He’s got good drop on his pitches," catcher Garrett Swank said. "Good movement.

"A real good knuckleball."

But will he throw it?

"He’ll throw it," Swank said. "It’ll be his main pitch."

Ciola, who as a younger man used to approach 90 mph with his fastball, certainly doesn’t care what he has to throw.

To get back on the mound, he’d pitch his bass, the kitchen sink.

Just so long as he gets a chance to finish his business, which may or may not include tipping his cap to his dad in a dream.