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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Interview: Mike Birkbeck got noticed, then made bigs in awe

Mike Birkbeck at Schoonover Field in Kent, Ohio. Birkbeck has been a coach at Kent State University since 1997, associate head coach since 2004. (G21D Photo)

KENT, OH - Mike Birkbeck looked up. This wasn't like anything he'd seen before. But then again, the majors wasn't any place he had been before.

What he was looking at was his team's hotel in Chicago. It was August 1986 and he'd just been called up for the first time. His Brewers were playing the White Sox.

"It probably could have held my whole hometown," Birkbeck recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days of his first impression of the hotel. "It was the biggest thing I'd ever seen in my life. And I was there."

A native of tiny Orrville, Ohio, Birkbeck made the majors, for the first time that August in 1986, in just his fourth season as a pro. He went on to a career that touched on six big league seasons and two in Japan.

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 touched on his early time in the game, his run in the majors, working through time away from the bigs and his decision to go to Japan. He also talked about his years at Kent State, sending such players to the pros as Andy Sonnanstine.

Birkbeck joined the Brewers system in 1983, taken by Milwaukee in the fourth round out of the University of Akron.

Kent State starter Ryan Bores prepares his delivery as a Buffalo Bull leads off first April 7, 2012 at Kent State's Schoonover Field.

It was at Akron that Birkbeck started gaining notice of scouts, he recalled. In high school, at Orrville, Birkbeck recalled not being big enough to get real professional looks. In college, though, his velocity increased and the scouts started coming around, watching him pitch.

Birkbeck recalled never knowing who was there. "I just tried to go out and have a lot of good days," Birkbeck said.

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

By 1982, the Cubs came calling, taking Birkbeck in the 11th round. He ended up staying at Akron and, in 1983, the Brewers selected him in the fourth. He was signed by scout Gerry Craft. Craft had seen Birkbeck pitch and liked what he saw, Birkbeck recalled.

"I think it was always a dream, just like it's a dream for all these guys,".Birkbeck said in the Kent State bullpen, as his team warmed up in the outfield.

"I was just fortunate," Birkbeck added a short time later, "that somebody believed in me and the Brewers took me."

Kent State's Ryan Bores pitches at Schoonover Field in Kent, Ohio. Bores' associate head coach at Kent State is Mike Birkbeck.

With the Brewers, Birkbeck played his first season between rookie Paintsville and single-A Beloit. At rookie Paintsville, Birkbeck went 3-1 in five starts. He posted a 1.88 ERA.

Aside from the good start, Paintsville provided Birkbeck with one of his early professional memories. Or, at least, the park did. Paintsville's field was oriented in such a way as to require a sun delay, with the sun coming right at batters as it set.

"You just made the best of it," Birkbeck said of the sun delays. "You tried to get your release point coming right out of the sun for as long as you could."

Aside from the field, there was also the adjustment to professional life. And the doubts about whether he could actually make it as a pro.

Birkbeck listed off all the talent his mid-1980s Brewers system rosters, including guys like Dan Plesac and Joey Meyer.

"It was just unbelievable how good these guys were and, coming from a tad smaller school, I always had questions, especially those first couple years, was I going to cut this?" Birkbeck said. "But then once the games started and we started playing, it really wasn't any different."

Birkbeck stayed at single-A Beloit for 1984. There, he went 14-3, with a 2.18 ERA. He made AA El Paso in 1985, then AAA Vancouver in 1986.

Then, in August 1986, Birkbeck got his call to the majors. The call came early in the morning from his manager at Vancouver, Terry Bevington. Vancouver was playing at Phoenix, Birkbeck recalled. He was flying out for Chicago later that day.

"I was shocked, excited, thrilled," Birkbeck said of the call, "a little nervous."

Birkbeck arrived in Chicago, checked into his major league hotel and made his way to Comiskey Park.

Go to Part 2: Mike Birkbeck, Any Other Thing
Part 1: Always a Dream | Part 2: Any Other Thing | Part 3: Their Ability

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