Roger Salkeld left Saugus High in 1989 with a professional baseball contract in one pocket, a $225,000 bonus check in the other, and utopian visions of major league stardom.
His valiant stride was the product of a paralyzing, 90 m.p.h. fastball that was to Salkeld what the Apollo must have been to Neil Armstrong.
Six years later, Salkeld is back in the pilot’s seat after a long period of being somewhat lost in space.
A shoulder injury in 1992 took the bite out of his once-ferocious fastball and ultimately led to his trade for Tim Belcher, a 33-year-old veteran with a career record just better than .500. Salkeld, who once cradled the aspirations of the Seattle Mariner baseball club in his right arm, now finds himself toiling in his sixth season in the minor leagues.
“I have a whole new respect for the game,” said Salkeld, who pitches for the Cincinnati Reds’ triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis. “I’ve learned that nothing’s gonna be handed to you in this game. You have to earn every last bit of it.”
Salkeld’s learning curve was established after he was selected third overall in the 1989 draft and headed to Class-A Bellingham, Wash. Within two years, he was pitching for triple-A Calgary. Salkeld had produced impressive numbers in three seasons, amassing a 23-16 record with a 3.11 earned-run average and 402 strikeouts in 368 innings.
However, in making a run at Seattle’s starting rotation during spring training the following season, a sore shoulder turned Salkeld’s 95 m.p.h. fastball to a meaty 83 m.p.h. After six months of a fruitless rehabilitation effort, he underwent arthroscopic surgery and missed the entire season.
“They just wanted me to go through rehab, but I knew it was more serious than that,” Salkeld said. “I mean, when a guy who throws 95 is only throwing 83, something’s wrong. Finally, I couldn’t throw the ball 10 feet and I convinced them to let me have surgery. They went in with the scope and found that it wasn’t something that was going to heal over time, that it needed to be fixed.”
Projected to undergo an 18-month recovery period, Salkeld returned to the mound in only eight. He began the 1993 season in June in Jacksonville (4-3, 3.27 ERA) and earned two starts with Seattle (0-0, 2.51). Last season, Salkeld split time in Calgary (3-7, 6.15) and Seattle (2-5, 7.17).
Although he was off to a 1-0 start with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings with triple-A Tacoma this season, the Mariners fostered doubts about his ability that were rooted in his 6.64 ERA last season and a fastball that has dipped to 86 m.p.h. Add Seattle’s seemingly relentless need for help with its starting rotation, and Salkeld’s travel itinerary changed almost immediately.
“We were getting on the bus in Vancouver and they tell me I’ve been traded,” said Salkeld, who was dealt to Cincinnati on May 15. “I was shocked. I never expected it because I was putting together good starts and I figured they’d give me another chance in Seattle.”
Instead, Salkeld sent his wife, Wendy, and daughter, Ashton, (now 7 months) back to Saugus and headed to Omaha to meet his Indianapolis teammates. He pondered the fate of a career in which he spent five years on the list of Seattle’s top 10 minor league prospects yet only had 73 major league innings to his credit.
“The overall view from our organization was that we needed somebody who could help us right away, and we just didn’t think Roger was ready,” said a Mariner official. “We felt he needed another year in the minors to build some confidence, and we just didn’t have that kind of time. It was a long-term versus short-term thing, plus there was a question about whether he was going to be as good as we had projected.”
Salkeld reluctantly swallowed the bitter thought that Seattle, an organization that once held such high hopes for him, was quick to dump him in favor of a pitcher whose best years are but memories.
“I think they had a lot of expectations of me after I was hurt,” Salkeld said. “But I think it was more doubt than expectation. Obviously, they felt I couldn’t cut it in the big leagues with their team or whatever. That’s the way it goes. It’s a business to them and they made a business decision and that’s just fine with me.”
With that, Salkeld moved into the starting rotation at Indianapolis and has helped the Indians to a 13-1 tear that moved them into first place in the American Assn. He is 6-1 with a 4.68 ERA and opponents are batting .218 against him.
His velocity has not returned, but Salkeld has made the most of a fastball that tops out at 88 m.p.h. by learning the finer aspects of pitching.
“Nobody wants to get hurt, but I think the injury helped Roger in that he no longer could just rear back and fire fastball after fastball,” Indianapolis pitching coach Mike Griffin said. “I saw him in ’91 when he was with Jacksonville, and he threw hard. But now he’s had to develop four pitches and rely on the location of that fastball. He had to become a pitcher and not just a thrower.”
And that can be a difficult pattern to break for a habitual flame-thrower.
“Sure, rearing back and throwing it, 96, 97, miles an hour works sometimes, but sometimes it doesn’t,” Griffin said. “Roger understands that. Now he knows that with the 2-2 counts, the 2-1 counts, he can throw his curveball and his slider for strikes, and that’s made him successful. It’s the little aspects of pitching that separate the guys in the bigs from everybody else, and Roger has become a better pitcher by understanding that.”
Salkeld chuckles at the thought that his shoulder injury might actually earn him another trip to the majors.
“In my case, my surgery might have been a blessing,” he said. “It just seems weird to me that it took me three years of throwing hard before I made it to the big leagues, but I’m up there only eight months after surgery, when I don’t throw as hard. Sometimes I wonder if my fastball never returns to what it was, if I won’t do better without it.”
Griffin says it’s only a matter of giving Salkeld the work. Griffin has no problem clearing a spot in his rotation for a young right-hander whose fastball is still above average.
“Roger has a good future in this organization,” Griffin said. “He’s only 24 years old, he works hard, he has a great attitude, and he has four pitches to get the job done at the major league level. He’s a pretty complete pitcher right now.”
For Salkeld, who will be a free agent after this season, it’s a fresh start to a career full of high expectations and sharp twists of fate.
“I don’t think I’ve done all I can do in this game,” he said. “But I also don’t think I have much else to prove. If anything, it’s to prove that I can pitch after surgery, and that’s going pretty well so far.”