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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Interview: Mike Birkbeck saw Japan then coached in college

Kent State associate head coach Mike Birkbeck with his son, Kent State pitcher John Birkbeck. (G21D Photo)

By the time 1995 came around, Mike Birkbeck had played in five major league seasons. But, since 1989, his major league time had been limited to just one appearance.

With the Mets in 1995, though, Birkbeck made the team. He also made strides. He started four games, without getting a win. But his ERA in those 27.2 innings of work was a paltry 1.63.

"It was one of those, if I had to do it all over right now, I don't know if I would have done it," Birkbeck recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days, "because I was pitching so very good.

"But, being in the twilight of your career, you just don't know what management is going to do, especially when you're loaded one level below you."

The decision Birkbeck was referring to was his decision to go to Japan. The Mets, he recalled, left the decision up to him. After some soul searching, considering his career and his family, Birkbeck accepted.

The decision meant Birkbeck had pitched his final game in the majors. It also meant his post-playing career as a coach in college was nearing.

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.

He's also been with Kent State almost since his career ended in Japan.

Signing with the Yokohama BayStars, Birkbeck started well. He recalled shutting out Hiroshima. Soon after, though, in a game against the Tokyo Giants, Birkbeck took a line drive from Shane Mack off his right leg, breaking it.

Kent State associate head coach Mike Birkbeck, right, in the dugout before an April 2012 game at Kent State. (G21D Photo)

Just like that, he was out the rest of the year. He made it back for a second season, but that was it.

"At that advanced age, it was really hard to come back from that type of injury," Birkbeck said.
"I loved my time over there. I loved the Japanese people, the culture and the baseball. I just wish that line drive would have missed me."

By the time the end to his pitching career did come, Birkbeck said it wasn't that hard of a decision. His desire to prepare to pitch had left him, he recalled.

He still wanted to pitch. But he just didn't want to get ready to pitch.

There were also his family considerations. His wife Suzanne and son John had accompanied him to Japan. But his other stops had been more difficult.

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

Then, in January of 1997, he got the offer to coach at Kent State, in his home state of Ohio. And he accepted.

"I don't regret not playing anymore," Birkbeck said. "I missed playing. I missed the clubhouse. I missed being around it. But, for 15 years, I've been doing the exact same thing at a pretty special place, Kent State."

His son John Birkbeck now pitches for his father at Kent State. The recruiting of John to Kent State, though, came through head coach Scott Stricklin, John recalled.

Growing up, John Birkbeck recalled thinking it was cool that his father was a baseball coach. He also got pointers over the years on pitching from his father. He's now getting many of those pointers again.

"Some of it's redundant stuff I've heard all my life," John Birkbeck told The Greatest 21 Days before the Buffalo game. "But when it was at home, he was my dad. When it's here, now he's my coach."

The Kent State dugout at Schoonover Field in Kent, Ohio (G21D Photo)
That game against Buffalo took place the day after another Kent State pitcher, senior David Starn, broke the Kent State career strikeout record.

Starn called coach Birkbeck the best. "All the guys love him and respect him," Starn said at the Kent State bullpen. "And he knows exactly what to do in all situations. He knows when to put in guys. He knows what to do with them when something's wrong."

"He knows what we're all going through," Starn said a short time later, "that helps. He's there for guidance. He's the best around."

Of his own coaching style, Birkbeck said it's really the result of all the great coaches that coached him. Birkbeck named a long list, including Leo Mazzone, Bob Apodaca and Chuck Hartenstein.

"I'm one whole of a lot of different people," Birkbeck said. "Really, what I want the guys here to do is to believe in themselves and trust their ability and good things will happen."

Regarding his career in baseball as a whole, Birkbeck said he just feels blessed.

"The good lord has smiled on me and given me a lot of opportunities," Birkbeck said. "He's put me in a lot of good situations and surround me with a lot of good mentors and a lot of good young men.

"It's been 30 years of nothing but good, awesome memories."

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

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