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In the fifth Paciorek singled to left again to drive in another run and increase Houston's lead to 8--4. He scored two batters later. He walked and scored again in the sixth, and when he came to bat in the eighth, the crowd of 3,899 gave him a standing ovation. He singled to left one more time, capping his perfect day: 3 for 3, two walks, three RBIs, four runs scored and two putouts in a 13--4 Colts win.
Later that day Paciorek was watching people talk about him on television. Everybody agreed: Forget Staub. Forget Wynn. Forget Morgan. Paciorek was Houston's star of the future. While he watched, though, he wasn't so sure. His back was beginning to ache again. He thought, I don't know if I'll make it.
Paciorek returned to spring training with the Colt .45s in 1964 and a spot on the major league roster. But persistent back pain landed him in the minors, where he hit .135 in 49 games, until he couldn't bear the pain any longer and underwent spinal fusion surgery. He spent a year in a back brace, missing the rest of the '64 season and all of '65. To fill his days, he put his scholarship money to work and began to take physical education classes at the University of Houston. It was there that he met Linda Cupp, who would become his first wife.
In 1966 Paciorek again attempted to play his way out of the minors and again struggled, batting .193 with six home runs. Now it wasn't just his back that bothered him. There was a recurrence of his shoulder strain, followed by hamstring injuries and, worst of all, the fear that he wasn't as good as he thought.
"I relied just on reflexes," he says. "See ball, hit ball. I didn't have the right idea about how to apply things scientifically. I realized I couldn't rely on strength anymore."
The back pain became so debilitating that Paciorek couldn't react to breaking pitches, so he tried switch-hitting. It didn't work. In 1967 he batted only .104 with one home run in 32 games, and Houston, which had become the Astros, released him. He returned to the University of Houston to continue his studies. His brother Tom was by then a star baseball and football player for the Cougars and would go on to have an 18-year career in the major leagues, as an outfielder and first baseman for the Dodgers, Braves, Mariners, White Sox, Mets and Rangers. (Another brother, Jim, played 48 games for the Brewers in 1987.)
It was while watching Tom play that a scout from the Indians recognized John and offered him one more chance. In 1968 John hit a career-high 20 home runs at two Class A stops to earn his first promotion to Double A. But he got hurt again, this time dislocating two fingers fielding a ball in the outfield. In 1969, he tore his Achilles tendon warming up, and after just 29 games he was released. He finished his minor league career with 44 home runs and a .209 average in 360 games. He was not remorseful. "I was relieved," he says.
That fall Paciorek, by then 24, was back at school in Houston, the can't-miss kid who missed and who realized he wasn't a kid anymore. "I assumed it was over, but I wasn't completely sure," he says of his baseball career. "I was staying in pretty good shape, and my back was solid. I would have wanted to play, but at that point I was realizing that I'd better have something to fall back on. I wasn't upset, because I was enjoying school for the first time in my life."
That Thanksgiving Paciorek headed toward the religious center on campus with his Catholic missal. All the doors were closed except the one with the sign that read, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE ORG. He entered the room and found "such a comforting feeling," he says. He picked up a copy of Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. "Everything I was reading in there reminded me of something I had felt all of my life and I could never express," he says. "When I read in that book, 'Your sins are not forgiven until they are destroyed,' I thought, Wow, that makes sense. I was reading things that made so much practical sense, and that made an impression on me."
Within a year Paciorek had joined the Christian Science church. He eventually graduated from Houston—"Student of the decade," he jokes—with a degree in phys ed. A few years later he was working as a phys ed instructor at a Jewish community center when his wife told him about an ad in the Christian Science Monitor for a PE teacher at a private day school in Southern California. Paciorek applied to Clairbourn School in San Gabriel, got the job and moved his family there in 1976.