MINOR LEAGUE NOTEBOOK : Kiefer Heard Trouble Coming, but Elbow Surgery Kept It Away
They kept telling him it was only tendinitis, but Mark Kiefer, a pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization, wasn’t convinced. He heard six different doctors deliver the same diagnosis, but he was listening to his body.
“I’d throw certain pitches and my elbow would pop so loud you could hear it out on the mound,” he said. “Then sometimes it would like lock in a bent position in between innings. I’d never had any arm problems in my life, so I didn’t really know what was going on, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t just tendinitis.”
Kiefer, a right-hander who played at Fullerton College and Garden Grove High School, first encountered the elbow problem in the last few weeks of the 1989 season while pitching for the Beloit Brewers in the Class-A Midwest League.
It was a depressing ending to what had been a fun season. Kiefer had compiled a 9-6 record and a 2.32 earned-run average with seven complete games, two shutouts and a save. But a Beloit doctor assured him it was only tendinitis and Kiefer returned home to Garden Grove for the off-season.
His arm felt better after the rest, but the problem quickly resurfaced when he began to throw off a mound in the Brewers’ Peoria, Ariz., spring training facility. The Brewers sent Kiefer to five Arizona doctors before team physician Dr. Paul Jacobs arrived in camp.
“He moved my arm around a little bit and said, ‘Bone chips,’ ” Kiefer said.
Kiefer flew to Milwaukee where Jacobs performed arthroscopic surgery to remove two chips of bone from his elbow. Four months later, Kiefer was back on the mound, slinging full-speed sliders for Class-A Stockton.
“There was some tenderness for a while,” he said. “I wondered if I had come back too fast. At first, I was tentative and I didn’t know if I’d be able to throw as hard, but by the end of the season, I realized I was ready to go again.”
So did the Brewers, who were impressed enough with Kiefer’s 5-2 record and 3.30 ERA at Stockton to elevate him a notch to double-A El Paso to start this year.
Kiefer’s elbow is sound and, it turns out, so was Milwaukee’s judgment. Kiefer went 7-1 with a 3.33 ERA and 72 strikeouts for the Diablos. He was called up to the Brewers’ triple-A team in Denver this week and won his first start, allowing two runs in seven innings.
Nick Fuscardo, the Fullerton College coach, isn’t surprised. He says Kiefer has made a habit of living up to expectations.
“He’s always been a guy with a future,” Fuscardo said. “You saw him in high school and you saw tremendous potential. The future was the thing you looked at.”
The Brewers drafted Kiefer after his freshman year at Fullerton. He was 4-5 with a 3.50 ERA, but Milwaukee scouts saw that same potential. (They also saw him strike out 15 batters during a seven-inning stint at an Arizona tournament.)
Kiefer didn’t sign, however, and returned to tie the Hornets’ single-season victory record with an 11-1 mark as a sophomore.
After the season, the Brewers made sure they didn’t let him get away, signing him to a contract before the 1988 free-agent draft in June.
So far, both parties are satisfied with the results. The Brewers have a promising 22-year-old, 6-foot-3, 185-pound pitcher progressing through their minor league system. And Kiefer is happy with the way the organization has mapped out his route to the majors.
“They’ve kept moving me up,” Kiefer said. “I went from Beloit to Stockton and they’re both A-ball teams, but they consider the California League a step up. Then, after the arm surgery, they still moved me up from Stockton to double A because of the way I pitched this spring.
“They’re giving me the chance and that’s all you can ask.”
Kiefer has the advantage of having an older brother, Steve, who has been through the trials and tribulations of minor league baseball. Steve Kiefer also played briefly in the majors, with Milwaukee and Oakland, and now is playing professional baseball in Italy.
“We used to talk a lot and he’s really helped me know what to expect,” Mark said. “I miss not talking to him as much now, but he’s doing great. He makes more money in a month than I do in a year. And it’s not just how much you make, it’s how much you save.
“They give you a car, a place to live, free food. I talked to him after he had been there three weeks and he said he’d spent five dollars since he got there.”
Mike Schooler of the Seattle Mariners, who is coming off shoulder and arm problems, began pitching in the minors last week. Schooler, from Cal State Fullerton, is with the Mariners’ double-A team in Jacksonville, Fla., where he has yet to allow a run, and has struck out five in three innings.
Schooler has 78 career saves, which is the Mariners’ career record. He had 33 in 1989 and 30 last season, despite going on the disabled list Aug. 29 with an inflamed tendon in his right shoulder. He recorded saves in 30 of 34 opportunities last season.
Schooler missed the first two months of this season because of a biceps problem in his right arm.