Catching Up With Steve Karsay
Steve Eby | On 18, Dec 2013
The path of former Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Steve Karsay’s career didn’t quite go as originally planned.
Drafted as a front-line starting pitcher by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round of the 1990 Draft, Karsay was traded midsummer of 1993 during the Blue Jays run toward their second consecutive World Series championship. The young right handed phenom was dealt to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for future Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson and Oakland looked like it was getting its future ace for what turned out to be a three month rental.
Karsay debuted with the A’s two weeks later and won his Major League debut. He started eight games for Oakland down the stretch and compiled a 3-3 record with a respectable 4.04 ERA. Things were looking really bright until elbow injuries over the next couple of seasons took their toll. By 1995, Karsay went under the knife and had the dreaded Tommy John Surgery that year. Things seemed less optimistic for the young ace at that point.
“Tommy John Surgery in 1995 wasn’t as advanced as it is today,” Karsay recalls. “It took me a little longer than anticipated to come back from Tommy John. It took 18 months and nowadays it’s about 12. Having that surgery and being able to come back made me a better pitcher and it made me a stronger pitcher.”
The results weren’t immediate, as Karsay did not pitch a Major League game for all of 1995 or ’96. He returned in 1997 and struggled to a 3-12 record, then appeared in only 11 games during the ’98 campaign. Of those 11 games, only one was as a starting pitcher and the switch was initially a little disappointing for Karsay.
“Obviously, there were times where I wanted to be a starter,” Karsay said. “Coming to the ballpark, I had a job to do no matter what role I was in.”
The Athletics had seen enough of their former star and the Indians saw something in him after 1998. In the offseason, the Tribe traded relief pitcher Mike Fetters—who never appeared in a game for the Indians—to the A’s in exchange for Karsay, but made it perfectly clear to Karsay that his role was in the bullpen.
“When I was traded over here they felt my best position was in the bullpen and obviously they were right. It really helped my career thrive and get to the next level.”
The 26 year old Karsay struggled in his small sample with the 1998 Tribe, but he turned a definite corner in 1999 and became an important cog in the Indians awesome bullpen. He worked as a middle reliever in front of setup men Ricardo Rincon and Paul Shuey as well as closer Mike Jackson.
“Getting moved to the bullpen really made my career thrive,” Karsay said. “I added a split fingered fastball when I got to the bullpen and I was able to come out in the middle innings and just let it go for the 12-15 pitches that I was in the game. I believe that it helped my career and ultimately be successful in the role that I played in the bullpen.”
Karsay won 10 games in 78.2 innings primarily out of the ‘pen in ’99 and sported a 2.97 ERA and a 1.284 WHIP. He continued to roll in 2000, opening the season as the closer after Jackson departed via free agency. Karsay saved 20 games during the first portion of the year, but a midseason trade for Brewers closer Bob Wickman put Karsay into the primary setup role. Bouncing from the rotation to the middle of the bullpen and then to the back end could have taken its toll on any pitcher, but Karsay took the moves in stride.
“They were all great. Each individual role has its plusses and minuses,” Karsay said. “As a starter, obviously, you pitch every five days and try to go deep into ballgames, but you have the four day lapse time in between. If you have a bad start, you’ve got time to think about it. In the bullpen, it’s an everyday thing. You may have a bad outing and then the next day you get an opportunity to redeem yourself. Ultimately, pitching in those roles in the back end of the bullpen with the game on the line, I enjoyed them very much. The intensity level, the concentration and the success rate that I had at the back end of the bullpen made me enjoy it that much more.”
Karsay flourished in his new role as a setup man for Wickman and was having the best season of his career in 2001 when he got surprising news in the middle of June. Karsay was informed mid-game on June 22 that he had been traded to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for closer John Rocker. Rocker was perhaps baseball’s most controversial figure at the time, only a year and a half removed from the homophobic and racist remarks that he made in a Sports Illustrated article in December of 1999.
“It was an interesting dynamic at the time,” Karsay said with a smile. “I always give John Hart a little bit of flack every time about that. I tell him that he was the smartest GM in the game when he traded for me and moved me to the bullpen, but on the other hand, you probably weren’t so smart when he made the Rocker trade.”
The reasons for trading Karsay for the controversial figure were twofold. First, the Tribe’s bullpen was completely overworked, as the starting rotation had struggled mightily all season. Second and most importantly, Karsay was a free agent at the season’s end and contract negotiations with the team were going nowhere.
“There are a lot of dynamics within that trade,” Karsay said. “I believe that Rocker only had three years in at the time, so the (Indians) had more control over him, while I was becoming a free agent that year. We kind of scuffled a little bit on getting a contract done. It was one of those things where I wasn’t expecting it at the time, but I knew we were having differences as a player and a club trying to come to a (contract) agreement.”
The move wasn’t a real tough one to swallow for Karsay, as the right hander went from one contender to another.
“Our team was very good in 2001,” Karsay remembers. “Obviously they made the playoffs in the American League and when I was traded to Atlanta we made the playoffs over there. It was one of those things where I had an opportunity after getting traded to really hone in and play with three of the best pitchers in the game—Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz—and my four months in Atlanta were tremendous. Learning from those three guys gave me the information to really be successful. Bobby Cox was just unbelievable as a manager—as good as they say.”
Despite all of the enjoyment of being on his new team, Karsay still reflects fondly on his time in Cleveland.
“I have a whole bunch of memories,” Karsay said. “The guys I played with were tremendous. Pretty good teams, great teammates, great guys. Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar, Travis Fryman, Kenny Lofton…I could go on and on…Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel. It was great. We had winning teams and coming to Jacobs Field at the time that it was—playing in front of a sellout crowd all of the time. I had the opportunity to get to the playoffs and pitch in those situations and to be part of those teams. They really were the three and a half years of my favorite time playing baseball professionally.”
Karsay finished the ’01 season with the NCLS-losing Braves and then signed a lucrative free agent contract in the offseason with the New York Yankees. In 2002, he once again became one of the more dominating relief pitchers in the AL, but then missed all of 2003 to injury. He struggled in his Bronx return to the mound in 2005 and was released, then signed on with the Texas Rangers where he spent the rest of the ’05 season. He resigned with the Indians in December, but did not make the roster on Opening Day of 2006. He pitched in the minors before his contract was purchased by the A’s in May to bring his career full circle. He pitched the final nine games of his career in Oakland before retiring in June.
“After I retired in ’06, I took a couple years to decompress,” Karsay said. “I had my second shoulder surgery after the ’06 season, rehabbed that and got my shoulder healthy again.”
It only took Karsay a few seasons to realize that the baseball stamp does not easily wash off, and he was back in the dugout a couple years later.
“I stepped away from the game to see if there were other interests—obviously there are always other interests besides just baseball—but baseball is my life,” Karsay said. “It’s been something that has been consistent in my life. It’s something that I thrive at. Ultimately, coaching was the thing to do after my playing career was done and I got to really sit back and think about it.”
Karsay started his coaching career in the Indians minor league system in 2012. He was the pitching coach for the Arizona League Indians in 2012 but was then promoted to the class A Lake County Captains for the 2013 season.
As a coach, Karsay gets the opportunity to pass along the knowledge and experiences of a 14-year Major League veteran to the Cleveland Indians farmhands. Perhaps a bit underappreciated as a player, Karsay doesn’t see things that way. He looked at himself as a tough competitor who didn’t let all of the adversity he faced in his career get him down.
“I never felt underappreciated,” Karsay said. “My teammates knew what kind of competitor that I was. I would always go out there every day to try and help my team win. As long as those 25 guys and the people in the front office knew that I was out there every day trying to give everything that I had, that was all that mattered.”
Photo: John Kuntz/The Plain Dealer