So I’m kicking back on my iMac the other day, exploring a treasure trove of old MLB playoff games recently uploaded to YouTube. Game One of the 1990 ALCS between Oakland and the Red Sox looks intriguing, with Dave Stewart facing off at Fenway against Roger Clemens. It turns out to be a great pitching duel, the Sox with a 1-0 lead through six, with Dick Stockton doing the play-by-play for CBS.
The hitters are going down pretty effortlessly on both sides, and I’m actually beginning to drowse a little in the middle innings. There’s a pause between batters, and Stockton fills it by announcing the starting pitchers for Game Two: Bob Welch for the A’s, and Dana Kiecker for Boston.
I sit up in my chair, instantly befuddled. Dana who? I’ve been a Sox fan for over fifty years, and certainly kept rooting for them after I moved out west in ’82, but in that moment I had no memory of any player named Dana Kiecker. I even remember watching this entire playoff series a decade and a half ago. Obviously, my relocation caused me to lose track of some of the short-lived names on their roster.
But this is what they invented Retrosheet and Baseball Reference for. In minutes, I’ve looked Kiecker up: minor leaguer for seven years, made his rookie debut with the Sox early in ’90 and finished a respectable 8-9 for the AL East champs, with a 3.97 ERA in 25 starts. Then was out of the majors after an injury-plagued 1991. What happened to him?
Hello Wikipedia. Born in Sleepy Eye, MN, Kiecker is now living back in his small hometown of Fairfax, just southwest of the Twin Cities, where he’s also been a color analyst for the St. Paul Saints. I contact the Saints, who pass my email on to Kiecker, who emails me within a day to say he’d be happy to talk.
I’ve always been curious about Moonlight Graham-ish careers, stories of players who were up all-too-briefly and became quirky legends. Kiecker seemed like the polar opposite: a guy who struggled to finally make it to the bigs, had a very decent rookie season at age 29, and started an actual League Championship game before quickly hitting the skids. Call it a very large cup of coffee if you want, but the aroma was still nutty and alluring…
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“For a flash in the pan player,” says Kiecker, “it’s amazing how many people have been interested in my story.” While attending St. Cloud State University, he was taken by Boston in the eighth round of the 1983 amateur draft. Beginning his minor league career that same year in the New York-Penn League at Elmira, he was 11-5 with a 2.74 ERA. He took a step back at Winston-Salem in ’84 (6-11, 4.38), but rebounded in ’85 at Winter Haven in the Florida State League, dropping his ERA to 2.60 in 29 starts. His “go-to” pitch was a slider, but he also had a fine sinker, but his climb to the majors was agonizingly slow, spending two years at New Britain and two at Pawtucket.
Finally, in the spring of 1990, he “got lucky.” Major league owners had locked the players out of camp, and with a shorter spring training, teams were allowed to carry two extra pitchers on their rosters for the first thirty days of the season. Manager Joe Morgan chose Kiecker and Mike Rochford to be those guys, and they both made their debuts on a frigid Tiger Stadium afternoon, Thursday, April 12.
Rochford started and lasted just one and two-thirds. Wes Gardner was the next victim, giving up a wild pitch and getting out of the 2nd , but allowing a Lloyd Moseby single and Gary Ward walk to start the Tiger 3rd when he suddenly hurt his elbow. Morgan turned to Kiecker in the dugout and asked, “You want your debut?”
“It was 30 degrees, and snowing, and I was wearing long johns,” says Kiecker. “There was a ten-minute delay before I could get my spikes on and take the mound.” The first man he faced was Chet Lemon, who flied to center. Mike Heath hit a sac fly, and then Kiecker lost his grip on the ball and hit Ken Williams in the head with a pitch, knocking him out of the game. After singles to Tony Phillips and Alan Trammell, four more Tiger runs were across and it was 10-1.
Kiecker retired the side in order in the 4th and gutted out two more innings, while his teammates came back a little and ended up losing 11-7. He stayed in middle relief the first month, remained on the club and got his first start on April 27, against the defending World Champion Oakland A’s at Fenway Park. He wore wool sleeves under his jersey despite an unusual 85-degree spring evening, and ran some extra wind sprints in the outfield before the game “to make sure I was loose”, until coach Bill Fischer told him to take a breath. Still, when he took the mound he felt like he was “pitching in a sauna.”
He asked to take extra warmup pitches before facing his first batter—Rickey Henderson—and tossed as many as 20. He began by retiring Henderson and Carney Lansford on grounders, then had to throw to Jose Canseco. Sox catcher Tony Pena had taken Kiecker aside before the game to tell him to brush Canseco back a little because he liked to crowd the plate. Sure enough, on a 1-1 count, Kiecker “smoked Jose right in the belly button.” Canseco doubled over for a moment, then made a warning gesture at the mound. Kiecker calmed himself, walked Mark McGuire and faced ex-Boston hero Dave Henderson with two aboard. He whiffed Henderson with a slider away, the Fenway crowd roared, and even though McGuire homered off him three innings later and he left trailing 4-3 (the Sox would eventually win 7-6), it was an encouraging start.
In late May, he had a quality start at the Metrodome against the Twins, then won his first game at home June 9 vs. Cleveland. A good outing at Yankee Stadium followed, then a great one and second win at the Toronto Skydome (three hits and only two walks in eight and a third innings) on June 19.
He finished 1990 with eleven strong starts, and was named Red Sox Rookie of the Year by the Boston baseball writers. Joe Morgan’s complete faith in him was completely intact when he was picked to start Game Two of the ALCS, and Kiecker did not disappoint. It was a tough assignment, because the Sox bullpen had imploded when Clemens left Game One after six scoreless frames, the muscular A’s scoring seven times in the 9th inning.
Oakland had given the ball to Bob Welch, he of the baseball-leading 27 wins and soon-to-be Cy Young recipient. The locals weren’t thrilled about losing the opener with their ace on the mound, so even more pressure was dumped on Kiecker’s shoulders.
He responded beautifully, retiring Rickey Henderson, Willie McGee and Canseco in order in the 1st, giving up a lone Lansford single in the 2nd, and getting the A’s in order in the 3rd. Meanwhile, the Sox plated a run for him in the 3rd on a Carlos Quintana sac fly. This was an 88-win Boston squad, with an offensive nucleus of Boggs, Burks, Greenwell, Burks and Tom Brunansky. They owned a +35 run differential, which was adequate but nowhere the +163 Oakland had posted, and it soon showed.
The A’s tied the game off Kiecker in the 4th on a leadoff McGee double and Harold Baines single, and in the 6th, wrapped three more singles around a thankful double play, before Kiecker was lifted for Greg Harris. Boston escaped the inning, but a single run in the 7th and two more in the 9th finished off the Sox for the night. Oakland would go on to sweep the four games three days later, in a hideous finale lowlighted by Clemens being thrown out of the game by ump Terry Cooney for complaining about ball/strike calls in the second inning. What would have been Kiecker’s second postseason start just never happened.
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After spending seven years in the minor leagues, Kiecker had no desire to return to them, and pushed himself like never before to make the Red Sox in ‘91. Adding to his inspiration was the addition of two high-priced free agent pitchers to the staff, Danny Darwin and Matt Young. Kiecker knew he would need a very good spring, and pulled off a remarkable one: 20 Ks and one walk in 16 innings of work.
“Then I woke one morning, and couldn’t straighten my right arm.” It was locked up at a 90 degree angle with severe pain in the elbow. Later, it would be shown he pushed himself a bit too hard and had developed bone chips and calcium deposits. Still, Kiecker was desperate to make the team, and chose to pitch rather than go on the disabled list. It didn’t work out too well. On and off the DL and spending some rehab time in Pawtucket, he pitched in just 18 big league games that year and started five of them, compiling a 7.36 ERA.
He was the last player released by the Red Sox the following spring. The Indians showed some interest in signing him to a minor league contract, but when he reported to their extended spring training team in Florida, his arm still didn’t feel right. Kiecker called it quits, and had arthroscopic surgery later that summer. “I was a realist,” he says, “and didn’t regret the decision one bit.”
He returned to his home state, raised a family, took a job with UPS (where he’s currently Enterprise Accounts Sales Manager) and has been with the company over twenty years. Nineteen of those were also spent doing TV color commentating for the Saints, which helped him stay connected with the game he loves. In 1991 he established the Kiecker Scholarship Fund to benefit high school grads. There is even a street named after him, leading to the Memorial Park Baseball grandstand complex.
The more recent good news is that his arm is feeling better, and he’s seriously committed to playing some Minnesota amateur baseball, likely in the small town of New Market, when he retires soon from UPS. “When you’ve been sitting a while, the legs, the butt, the back, all the other muscles need work. Not my arm, though.”
It’s an ordeal trying to make the major leagues. So many promising young players never do, and twenty-two years after leaving the majors, Kiecker admits he’s thankful for every minute of his time there. Soon, he will be facing friends and neighbors on quiet country ball fields, not Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire in front of packed houses and national TV audiences. Still, his brief, dreamlike, and enthralling memories of 1990 won’t be going away anytime soon.