Others' pitch adds to stuff of Shepherd

March 26, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- His career has spanned 13 states, 11 seasons and nine organizations. Only in baseball could such a star-crossed pitcher be rescued by, well, two of the game's biggest stars.

Keith Shepherd, 28, has been traded twice, released three times and selected in three separate drafts. Now, he's the leading candidate for the final spot in the Orioles' bullpen, all because of Bobby Bonilla and Roberto Alomar.

Bonilla told manager Davey Johnson that the Orioles should scout Shepherd when the two were teammates last winter in Puerto Rico. Alomar also recommended Shepherd, and club officials moved quickly to sign him.

"When Alomar came to Baltimore, he said, 'There was this guy last night who threw the ball 95 mph right by me,' " farm director Syd Thrift recalled. "I asked him what his name was. He said, 'Shepherd.' "

The name rang a bell. Thrift had been the general manager in Pittsburgh when the Pirates took Shepherd out of Wabash (Ind.) High School in the 11th round of the 1986 draft.

Who would have guessed that nearly a decade later, the two would cross paths again?

"I went back and looked his records up," Thrift said. "I knew it was the same guy."

The same guy, with the same arm, but only 28 major-league appearances. Shepherd has gone from Watertown, N.Y., to Augusta, Ga.; Kinston, Tenn., to Reno, Nev.; Birmingham, Ala., to Reading, Pa.

And yet, he's convinced he'll be on the Orioles' Opening Day roster.

"I should be," he said yesterday before pitching a scoreless inning in the Orioles' 4-3 loss to Cleveland. "I don't see why not."

Heck, to this day, Shepherd believes that his career would have turned out differently if Thrift hadn't been fired in Pittsburgh. Pirates pitching coach Ray Miller told him: "I expect to see you in the big leagues by the time you're 21." But the new regime in Pittsburgh didn't know him, and left him unprotected in a minor-league draft.

Kansas City took him.

And Shepherd's troubles began.

"That screwed my whole career up," Shepherd said. "I started bouncing around. Nobody had any money invested in me. They didn't care."

He asked the Royals to release him when they wouldn't promote him to Double-A. He signed with Cleveland and pitched well at Single-A Kinston. But rather than advance him, the Indians sent him to a co-op team in Reno.

Shepherd went home for a week.

Almost quit.

"They said I was just a fill-in guy, wasn't a prospect," Shepherd said. "It was ridiculous. Half the players weren't even professionals. We started off 3-29, something like that."

To escape, Shepherd accepted an assignment to Watertown -- a lower Single-A club than where he had started. Again, he asked for his release. This time, he signed with the Chicago White Sox.

It was the same, old story.

Shepherd allowed two earned runs in 35 1/3 innings at Single-A South Bend in 1991, and still couldn't get promoted to Double-A. Only in '92 -- his seventh pro season -- did it finally happen.

Everything was coming together -- Shepherd even pitched in the Southern League All-Star Game. But then a White Sox official stopped in Birmingham for a visit, and encouraged players to ask him about their futures.

"Will you call me up?" Shepherd asked.

"Why would we?" the club official said.

"Will you protect me on the 40-man roster?"

"No," the club official said. "Definitely not."

At that point, Shepherd asked for a trade, and even considered becoming a professional boxer. But when the White Sox sent him to Philadelphia for infielder Dale Sveum, it appeared he finally had caught a break.

Not so fast.

Shepherd joined the Phillies in September and posted a 3.27 ERA in 12 relief appearances. Naturally, it did him no good. The Phillies left him unprotected in the expansion draft, and he wound up in pitcher's hell -- Colorado.

"That killed me," Shepherd said. "My breaking ball wouldn't move. My fastball wouldn't move. When I was on the road, everything was good. But when I was at home . . ."

No need to complete the thought -- the Rockies traded Shepherd to Boston in June '94. He opened with the Red Sox last season, injured his shoulder, got released, signed with Florida, then became a free agent again.

Got all that? Good.

Now back to Puerto Rico.

Shepherd went 1-5 with six saves for Caguas, finishing with a league-leading 63 strikeouts in 48 innings. Bonilla noticed. Alomar noticed. Everyone did.

"He throws hard," Alomar said. "He's a competitor. He pitched about every day over there. He likes to take charge on the mound."

Shepherd said he had offers from "everywhere," and took less money to sign with the Orioles, believing the club had a chance to reach the World Series. Funny, Thrift feared he would sign with another such team -- Atlanta.

And now?

Shepherd, married with two young sons, knows the Orioles might acquire another right-handed reliever and send him to Triple-A, but he seems unfazed. One day, he'll go home to Wabash, open a baseball school, or maybe become a state trooper.

But not yet.

"I don't worry," Shepherd said. "If I make the team, great. If they send me down, they send me down. If they release me, they release me.

"I've been through it all," he said. "I don't pay much attention."

Travelin' man

Keith Shepherd's career transactions: June 1986: Drafted by Pittsburgh, 11th round.

Dec. 5, 1988: Selected by Kansas City, minor-league Rule 5 draft.

L July 24, 1989: Released by Kansas City, signed by Cleveland.

Oct. 22, 1990: Released by Cleveland.

March 12, 1991: Signed by Chicago White Sox.

Aug. 10, 1992: Traded to Philadelphia for IF Dale Sveum.

Nov. 17, 1992: Selected by Colorado in expansion draft.

June 3, 1994: Traded to Boston for RHP Brian Conroy.

June 5, 1995: Released by Boston, signed by Florida.

Nov. 7, 1995: Signed by Orioles.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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