It seemed crazy, but, what the heck, a promise is a promise.
George Lopata was at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park last week when he learned that his buddy, Roger Salkeld, was to make his major league debut in about 21 hours.
In Baltimore, 3,000 miles away.
Lopata and Chad Keene, two of Salkeld’s former teammates at Saugus High, promised him the day he was selected third in the 1989 draft that when he made his major league debut, they would be there.
“Me and George told him we didn’t care where it was, we would make it somehow,” Keene said.
Salkeld joined the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 3, but was not scheduled to make a start. When Erik Hanson, last Wednesday’s scheduled starter, experienced stiffness in his arm, the Mariners decided to give the ball to Salkeld.
Salkeld informed his parents and his wife, Wendy, who told Keene, a senior at Cal State Long Beach. Then the wheels started turning.
Lopata learned of Salkeld’s start Sept. 6 at about 7:30 p.m. Two hours later, he was on the road, driving to Los Angeles from Rohnert Park, where he is a senior first baseman at Sonoma State. The key for him, he said, was Keene’s father, Dennis, agreeing to arrange and finance the trip.
“He really took care of us,” Lopata said.
Lopata arrived at his home in the Santa Clarita Valley on Wednesday at about 3:30 a.m. He drove to the Keenes’ house and he, Dennis and Chad grabbed a 7 a.m. flight from Los Angeles International Airport.
They landed in Baltimore about 4:30 p.m. EDT, where they met Keene’s older sister, Bobbi, who had taken a train from her home in New York. The four arrived at Camden Yards about 5 p.m., 2 1/2 hours before the game. Salkeld, who the night before the game was pleased to learn his friends were coming, left them tickets, good seats behind home plate.
The quartet watched Salkeld strike out Brady Anderson and Mark McLemore, the first two batters he faced.
“He struck out Anderson on an incredible slider and McLemore on the same thing,” Lopata said. “We were the only four people standing in the whole joint.”
Salkeld lasted 4 2/3 innings, coming out with the score tied, 2-2. He allowed six hits, walked two and struck out four. He also left an impression.
“Of all the young kids we’ve had pitch for us, he’s the one who’s shown us he can get a breaking ball over, can get a changeup over,” said Sammy Ellis, the Mariner pitching coach. “If he has any kind of spring, I’d say he’s a guy who can help us.”
Salkeld, who has surprised everyone by returning from reconstructive shoulder surgery months ahead of schedule, was mildly critical of his first start.
“I thought it could have been a little better,” he said this week at Anaheim Stadium. “I could have located my fastball a little better.”
Salkeld’s father, Bill, had to work, so Salkeld’s family watched the game on television via satellite.
Some of his relatives were in Anaheim Tuesday night, however, and received an unexpected treat. Salkeld pitched 3 1/3 innings of relief during the Angels’ 9-2 victory, allowing one run and three hits. He struck out three, walked two and lowered his major league earned-run average to 3.38.
Salkeld is not scheduled to start again this season, but Ellis said he might get another shot once the team has clinched a spot in the standings.
Lopata and the Keenes spoke to Salkeld briefly after the game in Baltimore, before the Mariners boarded a plane to Milwaukee.
Lopata is back at Sonoma State, going to class and working in a pizza place. “I took a lot of chances (going to Baltimore),” he said. “Luckily, I still have my job.”