Once acquired for bats and balls, Ligtenberg looks to fit like a glove

O's reliever engineered unusual journey to majors

March 13, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Twelve dozen baseballs and two dozen bats.

Orioles reliever Kerry Ligtenberg thought about it for a second, smiled and shook his head, with his shaggy mop of hair bouncing from side to side.

He has a surgical scar on his right elbow and faint memories from his time as a major-league replacement player in 1995. He has a father who wanted him to forget baseball and follow in the family footsteps as an engineer.

He has an entry in the Baseball Register that lists time in the independent leagues and nearly six years in the major leagues. He has a new role as a right-handed setup man for the Orioles. He has a story he could probably sell to Disney.

Twelve dozen baseballs and two dozen bats.

"I still feel lucky," Ligtenberg said. "It's hard for me to imagine."

The year was 1996. Ligtenberg was one class away from graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Minnesota. He had played baseball there and so had former Atlanta Braves catcher Greg Olson.

When Olson started managing the Minneapolis Loons of the independent North Central League, he persuaded Ligtenberg to keep pitching for $650 a month.

Ligtenberg had spent about five days as a replacement player for the Seattle Mariners during the work stoppage in spring training of 1995. After returning to the Loons for a second season - this time in the independent Prairie League - his velocity had increased from 87 mph to 90 mph.

Olson called his old team and the Braves sent two scouts to watch Ligtenberg pitch. Atlanta signed Ligtenberg that June. The Braves assistant general manager at the time, Dean Taylor, called Olson to say thanks, offering to compensate the Loons for the find.

"I didn't need money," Olson said. "In reality, as an independent league manager, the thing you need is equipment. Dean said, `What do you need?' and I said, `How about 12 dozen baseballs and two cases [24] of bats?' "

Deal.

Ligtenberg, older and wiser than most of his competition in the Carolina League, posted a 2.41 ERA that first season for Single-A Durham.

"Sometimes, my dad wondered what the hell I was doing," Ligtenberg said.

"He's like, `You're making $1,000 a month to play baseball, and you're paying rent. You're not making any money. If you get a good job, and make some money, you can get started with your life.'

"At the same time, I still wanted to play, and I didn't want to look back someday and say, `I really wish I would have gotten to see how far I could go.' I was going to keep playing until they said I couldn't."

By the end of 1997, he was in the big leagues.

In 1998, he was the Braves' closer, converting 30 of 34 save opportunities.

He occupied the same clubhouse as Tom Glavine, a staunch member of the players union, which still held strong feelings against the replacement players.

"I'm the type of guy who's real quiet. I'm not yapping all the time in the clubhouse, and I fit in real well in Atlanta. They didn't have any problems with me. With my situation, they knew exactly where I was coming from and why I did what I did."

At spring training in 1999, just when it looked as if Ligtenberg finally had it all, he tore a ligament in his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery.

Last year, he made $1.7 million, and instead of offering him arbitration, the Braves cut him loose as a free agent. The Orioles swooped in and signed him to a one-year, $1.2 million contract with an option for 2004.

If the pay cut wasn't humbling enough, Ligtenberg, 31, also went from a team that has won 11 consecutive division titles to a club riding five consecutive fourth-place finishes.

"I didn't really know a whole lot about this team," Ligtenberg said. "I was a little worried about where we might end up, but this spring, we've been playing well. We definitely have solid pitching, which is what you need to make a run."

Even if it all ended today, Ligtenberg would still have his story. Three years ago, he finished his college education and was presented with his engineering degree in a ceremony at Atlanta's Turner Field.

Twelve dozen baseballs and two dozen bats.

"You've got to give Kerry all the credit in the world," Olson said.

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