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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Interview: Mike Birkbeck made ML debut, then got to work

Kent State associate head baseball coach Mike Birkbeck looks for one of his players in April 2012 at Schoonover Field. (G21D photo)

Mike Birkbeck autographed 1990 Denver Zephyrs cardThe bullpen doors opened at Comiskey Park and Mike Birkbeck started across the outfield.

It was Aug. 17, 1986 and Birkbeck was about to make his major league debut. If he ever got to the mound.

"It felt like 'Chariots of Fire,'" Birkbeck recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days, referring to the iconic slow-motion track. "It felt like I was running really fast, but I wasn't getting any closer to the mound."

Once he did get there, Birkbeck recalled hearing the chants from the Chicago crowd for the first batter he faced: Harold Baines.

Baines welcomed Birkbeck to the majors with a laser down the left field line, just foul, Birkbeck recalled. "I was like 'oh, my God," Birkbeck recalled of his reaction.

"Like any other thing," Birkbeck added, "once you're out there and you get going, you lose sight of where you are and the magnitude of it."

Birkbeck responded to Baines' welcome by getting him to ground out to second.

Birkbeck spoke to The Greatest 21 Days before a recent game at Kent State's Schoonover Field in Kent, Ohio, before Birkbeck's Kent State Golden Flashes played the University of Buffalo. Birkbeck has been a coach at Kent State since 1997, associate head coach since 2004.

The Kent State bullpen at Schoonover Field during warmups in April 2012. (G21D Photo)
Birkbeck got through that debut, going 2.2 innings, while giving up one earned run. He finished the year with seven big league outings, four starts. His ERA was 4.50.

Then, Birkbeck recalled, injuries started. He frayed the labrum in his shoulder near the end of 1986. He got into 10 games the next April and May, but Birkbeck had surgery to correct his shoulder problem in June.

Shut down for the rest of the year, Birkbeck worked to get back. "I just worked hard to get my arm as healthy as possible, as soon as possible," Birkbeck recalled.

And it worked. Coming out of spring training 1988, Birkbeck was named the Brewers' fifth starter. But the schedule and weather conspired to limit Birkbeck's outings. By April 23, he'd only gotten into one game.

Part 1: Always a Dream | Part 2: Any Other Thing | Part 3: Their Ability

Birkbeck said he didn't blame the Brewers for not pitching him. He'd choose Teddy Higuera over himself any time, as well.

But he was also doing a lot of sitting.

"Being a touch and feel kind of guy, it was challenging," Birkbeck recalled. "I could have handled it better, there's no question. But once I got out there and they finally sent me down to AAA to get regular work, that really helped me. And I think that's part of the reason why once I got back to Milwaukee, I had such a good second half."
Kent State's Chuck Seacrist gets in some throws before a recent game. The years mark Kent State's conference championships. With Mike Birkbeck as a coach, they've won in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2011. (G21D Photo)
Birkbeck's good second half included six-straight decisions where he picked up the win. He also beat the Yankees twice in a five-day period.

"I think I pitched more like I was capable of at that point in time than at other time in my career," Birkbeck said.
Birkbeck ended up starting 23 total games for the Brewers in 1988, going 10-8 overall. He returned for nine more starts in 1989, but he didn't get a win.

Birkbeck only started five more games in the majors. He started one with the Mets in 1992, then four final games with the Mets in 1995.

In the meantime, Birkbeck pitched in the minors, mostly at AAA.

"It's very frustrating," Birkbeck recalled of that time back in the minors after his success with the Brewers. "You do a lot of searching. You work on what you feel like you need to get better at. In some cases you do get better, and in some cases, you don't.

"Then you start to put pressure on yourself and lose sight of who you really are."

But, he said, it was all a learning process.

"A lot of stuff I learned in rough stretches didn't show up until later, when I was older, wiser and figured some things out."

By 1995, Birkbeck started to pitch better, and get back to the majors. But he also had a decision to make. Whether to go to Japan.

Go to the final part: Mike Birkbeck, Their Ability

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