Happy trails, Ryan Keefer

Posted: June 27, 2009 in Odds and Sods

keefA friend of mine found out recently that his long baseball journey may be over, at least on the playing end.
Ryan Keefer, a fellow Southern Columbia (Pa.) High School graduate, was released by the Baltimore Orioles last week.
Many of you out there may not know Ryan, but he’s a gem of a human being – the type of guy you really root for to succeed.
I covered Ryan when my sports journalism career was just starting. He was a stellar high school pitcher/first baseman, and I saw it all as he began to draw the attention of MLB scouts with his low 90’s heater, tough biting slider and excellent command.
He was chosen by the Baltimore Orioles in the 13th round of the 2000 MLB draft, and began his rise through the O’s minor-league system that summer with a stint in the Gulf Coast League.
It was the next season where I drew the assignment which to this day I regard my favorite. Ryan was assigned to the Orioles’ Rookie League affiliate in Bluefield, W. Va. and he had an outstanding season there. My sports editor Hank Domin and I thought it would be a great idea if we followed Ryan for a few days to get several stories on what a day-in-the-life of a low-level minors prospect was like. Press-Enterprise staff photographer Jimmy May and I made the long jaunt to West Virginia, where we learned that life in the Bluefield, W. Va. area was even more slow-paced than my hometown area of Catawissa and Bloomsburg, Pa. (Hard to believe, I know). As we got closer to Bluefield, Jimmy and I stopped at a gas station to ask how far we were from our destination. A backcountry gas station attendant told us “Depends on how fast you’re goin'”. True story. So I asked, “give us a rough estimate” and he told us 45 minutes. As we got back on the road, we soon saw a sign that read “Bluefield, 8 miles”. So either that guy was pulling our chain or he had never been past his front yard. I’m not sure which is more likely.
But anyway, I’m off track. Ryan, as always, was very accomodating and genuinely happy to see familiar faces from Pennsylvania. We stayed there for three days, saw Ryan pitch a couple times (he picked up the saves in two of the games we saw), got to hang out with Ryan and his roommate Michael Russell, who showed us just how unglamorous the low-level minor-league life could be (sleeping on air mattresses, living on cereal and lunchmeat, dealing with crazy Confederate-flag waving neighbors). Yet I could tell he was happy. The whole journey was ahead and things looked good.
Ryan seemed to rise a level every year from 2002 to 2004, earning his first trip to Double-A Bowie in 2004. For awhile, it didn’t seem like the Orioles knew exactly where they wanted Ryan to fit in. They started him out as a reliever, where he excelled as a closer. They moved him to a starter before he finally found his groove as a setup man. After the 2005 season, the Orioles liked his progress so much they added him to the 40-man roster. A bigger payday to be sure, but more importantly, he was on the cusp of living out the dream. He was invited to the major-league spring training camp for the first time in 2006, where trouble set in – the kind of trouble every pitcher dreads, the arm woes. He missed most of the 2006 season with elbow problems, a sign of things to come. He had surgery to shave bone spurs on his elbow early that season, and came back to pitch effectively at Class A Aberdeen and Class AA Bowie. But following that year, he underwent the dreaded Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2007. Things were never quite the same for Ryan as he struggled to regain his old form. He was invited to spring training with the Orioles each of the last two seasons, though, and he maintained his good nature and upbeat attitude throughout. My wife Tina and I even got to see an Orioles spring training game for free, as we were guests of the esteemed Mr. Keefer. This year was a struggle for Ryan. Back at Double-A Bowie again, his command was off as he was walking an uncharacteristic amount of hitters. I feared the worst for my friend and last week that word came. I texted him this week asking him what the next step was and it looks like he’s going to hang up his spikes, at least as a player.
If this is indeed the end of Ryan’s career, I’m sure it’s bittersweet for him. He came so close to realizing his dream of being a major-league ballplayer, closer than most of us will ever come to attaining our dream job. But even though he fell a little short, he’ll always be remembered because he was the type of guy that took the time to interact with fans. Always there to sign an autograph for a young kid. Always very friendly with the media. That type of character makes more of an impression than any pitching statistic does. He’s what my friend Jimmy Emiliani would call a ‘good egg.’
Here’s to you, Ryan. It’s been a pleasure following your career. If this is indeed the end, I think you’ll make one fine coach someday.

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Comments
  1. Jason says:

    Great article,

    I grew up with Ryan. Visited him in Bluefield, Lakewood, Bowie, Sarasota… you name it. Quite a ride. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to write about Keef. He deserves any praise anyone has the time to give.

    All the best to him and yourself,

  2. xep44 says:

    Every baseball season I wonder how Keefer’s doing.
    I covered him during Legion ball for a couple years and he was easily one of the most dominant athletes I’ve seen play in person.
    Sorry to hear his run is over.

    • Andrew Sodergren says:

      The thing I enjoyed about covering Ryan in high school was his true big-game ability. He put that Southern team on his back and carried them to a state title in 2000, capping it off with a two-hit shutout in the championship game. I covered that game, and I remembered he got into some trouble one inning (I think there was an error in there) where he had runners at second and third and no outs, Southern up 2-0. In typical Keefer fashion, he bore down and got the outs when he needed them without a run scoring. It was this coolheadedness that served him well in the pros and I honestly believe he would have made the majors if the elbow didn’t betray him….

      • Kyle says:

        Just found this on google. Amazing write up. Wish i wouldve found this earlier. Great times were had following my brother.

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