Highland pitcher climbs pro ranks

September 02, 1992|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,Staff Writer

Making it all the way to the major leagues is like climbing a mountain.

It takes unbounded confidence from the climber, because it is such a capricious journey. And each minor crisis along the way must be dealt with successfully, while the climber maintains his focus on the peak.

But nothing short of the top will satisfy 23-year-old Mark Carper, the Highland pitcher now making his ascent through the pro baseball ranks.

Carper, plagued by knee and arm injuries since ending his phenomenal three-sport high school athletic career at Atholton in 1986, has had the kind of healthy and successful summer that's sure to boost his confidence and his career.

"This was the first year I've been healthy since high school," said Carper, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound right-hander.

In a season split between Hagerstown and Albany-Colonie, N.Y., in Class AA, Carper has posted a 9-6 record and an ERA of 2.83, fifth-best in the Eastern League.

A midseason trade from the Orioles organization to the New York Yankees was a small rock slide from which he not only survived but flourished.

He's pitched better at Albany-Colonie than at Hagerstown, where he was 4-3 with a 3.12 ERA in 22 games. For the Yanks 5-3 with a 2.37 ERA.

Carper said he heard rumors in spring training that he was one of eight pitchers the Yankees were looking at as compensation from the Orioles in a 2-for-1 trade for Alan Mills. Francisco De La Rosa was the other player taken by the Yankees. Mills has had an outstanding 8-3 season for Baltimore.

Pundits had a field day over the apparent lopsidedness of the trade.

The Orioles' Rick Dempsey marveled to the press at how Baltimore had gotten Mills for "nothing."

And a Washington Post story said that Mills was traded for "two marginal prospects."

To Carper, those comments are just some extra rope to help him climb the mountain. "My mom just gave me a copy of the Post story, and it's going up on my locker," he said last week.

That sounds like the old Mark Carper of Atholton High -- a super-confident, super-talented performer who posted a 10-1 record with a 1.10 ERA and a then state-record 152 strikeouts in 88 innings his senior year. His two-year high school record was 16-3.

Carper was a standout high school football and basketball player as well. His three-sport efforts earned him The Evening Sun's selection as the 1985-1986 Male Athlete of the Year.

The California Angels selected Carper on the 14th round of the regular phase in the June 1986 pro draft, but Carper accepted a full baseball scholarship to Stanford, which offers one of the nation's best college programs.

Stanford has sent more than 20 players to the major leagues and has been a favorite scouting ground for the Orioles. In addition to former Orioles Jeff Ballard and Pete Stanicek, Baltimore currently has Mike Mussina, who roomed with Carper for three months at Stanford.

Baltimore also has drafted other former Carper teammates at Stanford, including Paul Carey, Doug Robbins and Troy Tallman. And Baltimore's top draft pick this season, Mike Hammond, is from Stanford.

Although he played on two national championship teams at Stanford, Carper's personal college success never materialized due to injuries.

Carper developed a sore arm during the summer of 1986 while pitching at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston. He was playing for Liberty Road in the Baltimore Metro League that summer. And although Liberty Road went on to win the national NABF championship, Carper's sore arm left him unable to pitch in the playoffs.

As a Stanford freshman, he threw 25 innings with a 3.10 ERA, no decisions and three saves, and impressed coaches enough to project him as a starter his sophomore year. But knee surgery in the summer of 1987 shackled his future efforts.

In three Stanford seasons he pitched in 39 games, made five starts and compiled a 4-3 record with a 5.10 ERA. In 90 innings he walked 54, fanned 72 and allowed 94 hits. He had three saves.

Carper didn't play his senior year at Stanford, but graduated with a degree in sociology.

Although his major league baseball prospects seemed dim, Carper persevered. At an Orioles tryout camp in the fall of 1990, his 90-mph fastball earned him some notice.

"They said they'd sign me if my elbow checked out OK, but it didn't. They told me to get surgery," Carper said. Four months later, following surgery on his ulnar nerve, he tried out in California for another Oriole scout, Ed Sprague, who signed him.

Carper's inaugural pro season in 1991 was inauspicious. He went 3-8 with a 4.31 ERA in 26 games for the Class A Frederick Keys. But he moved up to the Class AA Hagerstown Suns to start this season.

Carper's pitching repertoire consists of primarily a fastball and slider, but he also throws a change and a curve.

His signature pitch in high school was the curve. He threw two different curves -- one a paralyzing, sharp-sinking pitch that he lost in college and never has quite regained.

"A coach at Stanford changed my motion and I lost my best

curve. I don't throw a curve much now except as a strikeout pitch," Carper said.

When he first arrived at Albany-Colonie he pitched in relief for a month, but is now a member of a five-man starting rotation.

The Yankee farm team is in fourth place and hoping to make the Eastern League playoffs.

And Carper is taking his career one game at a time, thinking that pro baseball expansion may help his chances of reaching the top. He sees a lot of competition for pitching jobs within in the Yankee organization.

"There are a lot of good pitching prospects just on our team, so it's hard to say what will happen," he said. "I just want to stay healthy and produce."

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