There were no headlines, and no formal announcement. With pennant races and wild card races raging, few, if any, in the baseball world even noticed. But my favorite major league baseball player is hanging 'em up.
The call came on a steamy Friday night in late August. It was the first night of high school football, and one of the last nights of the minor league baseball season. On my TV, the Braves were locked in another pennant race.
Kevin Ohme told me that he thought it was time for a change of dreams. He's 34, with a wonderful wife, two terrific kids and a third on the way. He'd been offered a good non-baseball job at his church. During a long injury rehab, he's gotten a taste of normal family life, without bush league bus rides and living on the road with a bunch of guys.
But the main reason was that after three elbow surgeries, thousands of fastballs, curve balls and changeups, 9 seasons and more than 300 appearances in the minor leagues, two seasons in Japan, years of winter ball and spring training — and two glorious weeks of perfection in the major leagues — his left arm was done.
We all figured that the Tommy John surgery would have Kevin back in the majors this season; after all, doctors say it works about 85 percent of the time. Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, or Tommy John surgery, is a miracle of modern sports medicine, in which surgeons bore holes in the ends of your arm bones and then transplant spare parts - in this case a tendon — from a good right wrist into a bad left elbow.
So you have a new, stronger elbow ligament to replace the one that stretched, frayed and ultimately snapped — in Kevin's case, during a 2004 Los Angeles Angels' spring training game. Tommy John's namesake surgery saved his own career and then countless other pitching careers. We hear every day about major league pitchers who resume their careers stronger and better than before. We don't hear about the months of tedious rehab. And we don't hear about the 15 percent of Tommy John surgeries that don't work out.
Unless you are a devoted St. Louis Cardinals fan or live in one of the far-flung minor league outposts where he played, you've probably never heard of Kevin Ohme. But check out the Baseball Almanac and prepare to win a trivia contest. Look up "Ohme, Kevin" and you'll find perhaps the only major leaguer who achieved absolute career perfection — a 0.00 career earned run average and a 1.000 career batting average.
The statistics won't tell you the rest. They just tell you about you the results. But they don't tell you about the ride. And what a ride it was.
Kevin has been a Wizard, a Rock Cat, a Buzz, a Redbird, a Cardinal, an Angel, an Estraella and a Nippon Ham Fighter. He has pitched against: Giants and Dragons; Lions, Tigers and Cougars; Trappers, Beavers and Foxes; Cubs and Grizzlies, Swallows, Orioles, Hawks, Ravens and Silver Hawks, and an odd collection of Hatters, Brewers, Royals, Bees and Zephyrs. He's pitched under the bright lights of Ft. Wayne, Peoria, Reading, Trenton, Appleton, the Dominican Republic and Chiba, Japan. And he has pitched under the dim lights of Nashville, where some pitchers love night games in the crumbling, decrepit minor league stadium there because they think the hitters don't see the ball as well.
Kevin didn't write the book on Perseverance. He wrote a 7-volume boxed set. He was cut from his 6th grade team. He pitched more than 11 years before appearing on his first major league baseball card as an "Ultimate Rookie Prospect" as he closed in on age 33. His wife, Teri, watched the movie, "The Rookie", and liked it. But as they compared Jim Morris' story to their own, she and Kevin wondered what all the fuss was about.
In addition to fighting back from the three elbow surgeries, he once ruptured his spleen, possibly while batting in a Japanese minor league game. In this era of the designated hitter, it was the first time he had batted since high school. The result was a ground ball to the shortstop — plus internal bleeding.
When he returned home to Tampa from two seasons in Japan, he couldn't get any serious interest from a major league team. He started checking out colleges to finish his degree and started thinking about what he'd like to do when he grew up.
His agent discovered a hometown tryout at the Tampa Bay Devil Rays minor league complex. Supposedly, the audition was exclusive, by invitation only. Kevin arrived to find a publicity stunt — about 400 high school kids, softball players and TV cameras surrounding a girl softball pitcher who was being given a well-publicized "tryout." "It was an absolute joke," he recalled. "To me, that was the low point."
So eight days before the END of 2002 spring training, when rosters are all but set, he didn't have a job. He fired his agent and started calling former coaches and teams himself. Because of the shortage of left-handed pitchers, professional baseball teams will consider just about any lefthander who is ambulatory. The Cardinals said, "We're set, but we'd like to see you throw sometime." Kevin arrived in Jupiter, Florida the next morning, and seven days later was pitching for the Triple A Memphis Redbirds against the St. Louis Cardinals in the final exhibition game of the spring season.
He became the only player to spend the entire 2002 season with the Cardinals' top minor league team in Memphis and led the team with 56 relief appearances. Ironically, all three of his Memphis roommates - Jason Simontacchi, Kevin Joseph and Ivan Cruz - were called up to the major leagues in 2002 shortly after becoming Kevin's roommate. But Kevin, 31 years old, never got the call from the majors - except to hand the phone to his roomie.
Our family became friends with Kevin in Japan. He's the kind of guy that you would want your son to become or your daughter to marry. He looks more like a grown-up Opie Taylor than the real Opie, Ron Howard, does. He is a devout Christian and family man who quietly spends time with the cancer patients at St. Jude. We spent the first week of the 2003 minor league season with Kevin in Memphis. The last night, instead of dinner, he took four Redbirds teammates and us to a birthday party for the sick kids at the Ronald McDonald House.
But don't get the wrong impression. On the pitching mound, Kevin was a fearless, steely-eyed warrior. Don't dig in or crowd the plate on him. For example, Ichiro, one of the most successful professional hitters of our generation, batted a measly .200 against Kevin in Japan. Kevin Ohme is a big-time, big-league pitcher. It just took the big leagues a few years to figure it out.
When I think of Kevin's career, I'm reminded of a Japanese team motto I once saw: "Never, Never, Never Surrender." And Kevin never surrendered his dream of pitching in the major leagues.
On April 10, the afternoon after the Ronald McDonald House birthday party in Memphis, St. Louis relief pitcher Lance Painter went down with a torn hamstring. St. Louis needed a left-handed replacement. Kevin called us that April 2003 night at 11:11 p.m. to tell us that he had finally gotten a major league phone call that was for him, not his roommate.
He turned 32 sitting in the Cardinals' bullpen in Houston. But still, after three nights in the majors, there was no actual appearance in a major league game. The day after his 32nd birthday, in Milwaukee, Cardinals' manager Tony La Russa, summoned Kevin during the 6th inning against the Brewers with a runner on second and one out.
The distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate is exactly 60 feet, 6 inches. After years and years of dreaming what it would be like, Kevin's first major league pitch was a curve ball that traveled approximately 59 feet, 10 inches. An adrenaline-fueled wild pitch. But in four more pitches, two fly balls and two outs, he was out of the inning ... and into baseball history.
The next night, he threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings. And because this is the National League, they told him to hit. He quickly borrowed a bat from notoriously poor-hitting teammate, Wilson Delgado; after all, Wilson wasn't making much use of it. He then faced Milwaukee's fearsome Ben Sheets, who once struck out 18 of the mighty Atlanta Braves in one game. Kevin calmly lined a clean single into right field. That's how he now holds a perfect 0.00 ERA and a perfect 1.000 batting average, 1.000 OBP and 1.000 slugging percentage.
He spent a few more days and another call up in the majors, but always returned to Memphis when one of the Cardinals' stars returned from the injury list. He was effective in both St. Louis and in Memphis, and I never understood why they didn't keep him in the majors. However, in the off season, the Los Angeles Angels were quick to sign him, which led to the 2004 spring training game (oddly enough, against the Brewers), when his overworked left elbow finally came unhinged. Literally.
So that Friday night retirement phone call left me thinking about my favorite baseball memory from my favorite pro baseball player.
Here it is:
We live in suburban Atlanta. In April 2003 when Kevin became an official major leaguer, my sons and I discovered that if we parked the car at a certain spot in the driveway and pointed it toward the west, we could get KMOX in St. Louis on the car radio at night. We could listen to the Cardinals games and follow our friend and favorite player. So we were there with Kevin for that first pitch and that first hit.
Yeah, I know I could have paid Major League Baseball $10 and gotten the broadcast on the Internet. Or I could have bought a satellite dish or sought out a sports bar. But I wouldn't trade anything for the memory of sitting out in the car with my sons on those chilly nights in April 2003 and listening to those games, through the static, on KMOX.