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Monday, July 1, 2013

Interview Part 2: Steve Culkar, Best Part

Reading's FirstEnergy Stadium in 2010. Steve Culkar pitched at FirstEnergy in 1989 with the Hagerstown Suns. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: Focused On | Part 2: Best Part

Steve Culkar delivered the pitch, the ball sailing up and a little in.

The batter for opposing Pawtucket in this 1989 AAA contest, Culkar recalled, was veteran hitter Rick Lancellotti.

"I just remember getting  the ball back and him looking at me and he said 'Keep it down, Rook,'" Culkar recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days. "And I'm thinking, 'You know what? That's actually pretty cool that he said that.'

"There's a lot to the game of baseball that fans don't see," Culkar continued, "the intercommunication between the players. And it's not always verbal like that. But to me, that's the best part of the game."

Culkar was in his third professional season that year, his first with time at AAA. And in that due with Lancellotti, he showed why he was there, ultimately inducing the veteran into a double play.

For Culkar, though, that would be the highest he would get. Derailing his progression to the bigs was a shoulder injury. It was an injury, and circumstances surrounding it, that would ultimately lead to the end of his career.

Culkar spoke with The Greatest 21 Days recently about that career, his time playing the game growing up, playing under a "coach to men" at Kentucky and a professional career that spanned five seasons, taking him to AAA.
Rick Lancellotti with the Pawtucket Red Sox, from Lancellotti's Buffalo School of Baseball. Rochester Red Wing Steve Culkar faced Lancelotti in 1989. (G21D Photo)
Culkar has since gone on to use that degree he earned at Kentucky, a degree he focused on getting, to a post-playing career in sports communications and marketing.

Culkar debuted as a pro in 1987, a season limited by tendonitis. In his second season, Culkar made it all the way up to AA, at Charlotte.

Before he made Charlotte, though, he started at a coop single-A team in Virginia. He played briefly there, before moving to the Orioles' single-A team in Hagerstown.

Culkar recalled learning of the move to Hagerstown maybe 10 minutes before his Virginia team hopped in the bus headed to Hagerstown for a series. His travel and living arrangements, though, remained the same.

"That series was really odd," Culkar recalled. "in that I would pitch against them, yet I'd have to go back to the hotel and have dinner with them and hang out with them."

He also didn't have time to get any of his belongings. The Hagerstown fan club stepped up in that respect, giving him $100 and collecting other items to help him through.

Culkar got into 31 games with single-A Hagerstown, posting a 3.22 ERA. He also served as the  team's closer for a time, saving eight games. By the end of the year, he was with AA Charlotte, getting 15 outings there.

Culkar called that year's progression fun and exciting. He also soon found himself looking ahead, but also keeping focused on the task at hand.

"While you're playing as a team, you're also kind starting to learn who your competition ahead of you is. You start to pay attention to your surroundings a little bit more, but all the time thinking 'play well keep yourself out of trouble and things will take care of itself."
Richmond's Diamond in 2011. Steve Culkar's Rochester Red Wings played at The Diamond in 1989. (G21D Photo)

For 1989, it was back to AA, and back to Hagerstown as the Orioles AA team moved there.And, for Culkar, something clicked. In 26 outings, he posted a miniscule 1.34 ERA, with a lengthy scoreless streak.

Soon, he found himself in Rochester, one step away from the bigs.

"You don't start expecting the call," Culkar said of the move to AAA, "but when you do get it, you're like, 'OK, let's go. Let's go on to the next step."

His manager at Rochester was Greg Biagini, whom Culkar had the year before, at Charlotte. Culkar recalled Biagini reassuring him after a slow stretch, Biagini relaying the he knew Culkar was capable of pitching better and that Culkar belonged at AAA.

"Having that is huge," Culkar recalled of Biagini's support. The pitching coach at Rochester, too, Culkar said, was "one of the best."

At Rochester, Culkar ended up getting into 23 games, posting a 3.99 ERA. Going into 1990, Culkar felt confident. He knew he could better his ERA. After that, maybe Baltimore.

That spring, though, nothing seemed right. There was the lockout. Then there was his shoulder. It was tender. After a battery of tests, X-rays  and scans, the situation turned out to be more serious: His labrum in his shoulder was torn.

"We did everything we could to avoid surgery," Culkar said, "strengthening, rest, ice, everything. Surgery was the last result of it."

Players can and do come back from that, Culkar said. But it takes patience on the part of both the player, and the organization. As far as the second part, Culkar said, "I felt that they didn't have that with me."

With the injury and surgery, Culkar's 1990 season was limited to just two outings. Then came the off season and, with his arm the way it was, there was little Culkar could do in the way of work. So, he filed for worker's compensation, and was denied. He then challenged the ruling and won.

After the challenge, though, the organization didn't seem to view him the same. Culkar was ready that spring, ahead of schedule. And he pitched well enough. His speed wasn't all the way back, but his location was there.
The former Heritage Park in 2008. Steve Culkar played at Heritage Park in 1989 with the Hagerstown Suns. (G21D Photo)
He still started back at AA Hagerstown, but played in just three games. Then he was sent down, to single-A Frederick, two seasons after he'd been on the doorstep of the majors at AAA.

"Going through that experience, there's very few things more challenging that I could envision going through the rest of my life," Culkar said. "It was tough. But the good thing was, I had baseball to focus on - go out there and pitch and play."

"You can control how you perform, you can control how you pitch," Culker continued. "When the game's over you can't control what other people do. You have come to a realization of that, and also realize the game is a business."

Soon, though, he was released. And nobody else seemed to want him either.

"After a few days, it was pretty evident that I wasn't getting called back, to even have a shot," Culkar said. "And so, there were bigger things at play, I think."

That's when Culkar realized his baseball career was over. It was time for him to go out and use his degree, and start a new chapter in his life. He then packed up everything he owned and went to Orlando to start his career in broadcasting.

He eventually settled on the sales side. He currently works for Fox Sports Net in Atlanta, serving as a senior account executive creating custom sponsorships for television and online.

First, though, Culkar recalled having to take about six months off, to get himself in the right state of mind.

"Once I did," Culkar said, "you don't look back as often as you used to, and every day gets better."

Go to Part 1: Steve Culkar, Focused On

Part 1: Focused On | Part 2: Best Part

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