Monday, January 6, 2014

Foreign Player Spotlight: Kevin Beirne

KEVIN BEIRNE - Buffaloes 2003-2005 & Marines 2006

It was a brutal campaign for the Oilers. December of 1973 ended with the franchise in a familiar basement crawling with scorpions and rattlers. The team finished with a dismal 1-13 record for the second consecutive season. Houston was once the toast of football, but the glory days of the AFL were a distant memory. Wide receiver Jim Beirne endured the worst year of his career, but there was still a reason to smile. Before everyone could hang a new calendar on the wall, he had a new baby in the family.

Kevin Beirne was born in Houston on January 1, 1974. His father joined the San Diego Chargers for the next season, but roots in Texas had grown deep. After returning to the Oilers for the 1975 & 1976 campaigns, Jim ended his career having played in 94 games with 142 receptions for 2,011 yards. In nine years of NFL service, he had never lost a football. Along the way, Jim had taken it to the house 11 times. The family business continued that tradition when James Beirne Custom Homes was founded in 1984.

The Beirne family settled in The Woodlands, an upscale community in suburban Houston developed by an energy company and dedicated the year Kevin was born. Like his father, Kevin was at home on the field of play. It didn't take long for baseball scouts to notice. By the time Kevin graduated from McCullough High School in 1992, he had developed into an athlete skilled enough to be drafted in the 43rd round by the Cincinnati Reds. An all-state wideout, that fall he began a two sport career at Texas A&M on a football scholarship. After collegiate success on both the gridiron and diamond, he was picked again in the 11th round of the 1995 draft and signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox.

In his debut season as a professional baseball player, Kevin Beirne faced 66 batters in 1995. He never gave up a dinger and didn't lose a game against opponents in the Appy, Gulf & Sally leagues. While the next two years weren't quite that easy, he kept on climbing the rungs of the ladder. After finishing the 1998 season with the Calgary Cannons of the Pacific Coast League, he was ranked by Baseball America as the #6 prospect in the Chicago White Sox system.

Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune described the challenges Kevin Beirne faced on his way to the major leagues in an article published February 24, 1999:
"First it was Jim Parque, then John Snyder, then Bryan Ward, then Chad Bradford and finally Mike Heathcott. Sox rookies accounted for 369 innings last season, more than 25 percent of the team's total. But despite going 13-9 with a 3.44 ERA at Birmingham, Beirne had to settle for a late-season promotion to Class AAA Calgary.

'Seeing all those guys come up, it makes you realize how close you are,' Beirne said."
Beirne was close. Tantalizingly close. Greenstein described just how close in the May 27, 1999 issue of the Tribune:
"The most impressive minor-league starter has been 25-year-old right-hander Kevin Beirne. Sox manager Jerry Manuel indicated at the end of spring training that Beirne would get the first crack at the rotation if a spot opened. Beirne, 3-2 with a 2.57 ERA, has done nothing to shake the Sox's confidence."
Unfortunately, recovering from an oblique strain was just the sort of thing to put those dreams on hold for the rest of 1999.

In 2000, Beirne pitched only 11 innings in Spring Training before being optioned to AAA. Instead, the White Sox began the year with Tanyon Sturtze. It wouldn't take long to regret that decision. In just 15 2/3 innings on the hill, Sturtze gave up 25 hits, allowed 23 runs, served up a quartet of taters, walked 15 guys and plunked 2 more for good measure. At the end of May, the Sox somehow managed to ship Sturtze south to Tampa Bay for a functional Tony Graffanino.

In the meantime, patience was finally paying off for Kevin Beirne. Even though he had not pitched above AAA, Sports Illustrated listed him 171st among fantasy starters to begin the 2000 season. Finally, Beirne got the call in early May. On the 17th, Kevin made his major league debut at historic Yankee Stadium. Starter Jim Parque had given up 5 runs on 7 hits in 4 innings of work. Tanyon Sturtze had been torched for 4 runs on 5 hits in just a single frame. After waiting behind Parque and Sturtze in the minors, they had given up a 9 spot with the big club. Opportunity knocked with an ironic set of knuckles.

26,887 faithful in the Bronx witnessed the first climb up the slope, first check of the signs and first delivery to the dish. Kevin Beirne worked the sixth inning without giving up a run, got his first big league strikeout against Bernie Williams and gave up his first knock to Scott Brosius. Both Jim Leyritz and Chuck Knoblauch hit harmless flies. If not for a fielding error, the inning might have been even quicker. The White Sox would eventually lose 9-4, but the Yankees didn't score after Beirne came into the game. He was a big league pitcher.

Beirne would appear in 48.2 more innings for the White Sox in 2000. Sometimes it was tidy. Sometimes it wasn't. His first big league win came on June 14th. His next appearance was 4 days later in a 17-4 pummeling of the Yankees in New York. All 29 of his chances to pitch came in relief. Many of those opportunities were blowouts. After working 1 2/3 innings in a sloppy 14-10 White Sox victory at Kansas City on July 3rd, it was a long grind to the AL Central crown. Beirne pitched in 16 more games down the stretch without being part of another White Sox win. All he could do was watch while Chicago experienced the business end of the broomstick in three ALDS games against the Seattle Mariners.

On January 14, 2001 Kevin Beirne was sent to Toronto with Brian Simmons, Mike Williams and Mike Sirotka. In return, the new GM of the White Sox, Ken Williams, acquired David Wells and Matt DeWitt. Unfortunately, Mike Sirotka wasn't healthy. Toronto cried foul. A lengthy report was presented by the office of the commissioner to state one simple thing: Bud Selig had decided in favor of White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Selig even took the time to explain it in Latin, then explain the Latin. Robbed of a long career by a torn labrum, 29 year-old Mike Sirotka never took the hill again.

With the Toronto Blue Jays, Kevin Beirne pitched in three games in April and two games in October with appearances in 20 games of minor league ball in between cups of coffee. His time with the big club did not go very well. Along with 5 easy to like strikeouts, there were the far less charming 13 hits, 10 runs, and 6 walks over the course of 7 innings. He was granted free agency on October 19, 2001.

Kevin Beirne signed with Los Angeles on December 3, 2001. After a single outing for Vero Beach, he racked up 88 strikeouts in 22 starts with the Las Vegas 51s. With Eric Gagne facing suspension after being ejected for hitting Adam Dunn with a pitch in an extra innings marathon, Dodgers GM Dan Evans rushed to a meeting with officials in Philadelphia. Before taking the cross-country flight to advocate for his star closer, Evans made the call to Las Vegas for pitching depth. Beirne headed back to the bigs.

His first outings were all in relief. Beirne held his own with a few bumps along the way. Down the stretch, the Dodgers were still in the hunt for the Wild Card and every game was important. Beirne stepped into a rotation that featured Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii. He debuted as a starter in the famous blue against the Colorado Rockies and gave up two runs in a no decision. His next start against the Giants wasn't very good, but he earned a victory in his last game of the season against the Padres. Sadly, an exciting 92-70 campaign ended with the Dodgers out of playoff contention. His final line was not too shabby. He went 2-0 with 3.41 ERA, 112 ERA+ and 1.483 WHIP, but an equal ratio of 17 walks to 17 strikeouts was troubling. After his best season in the big leagues, Beirne was released on November 25, 2002.

Winter brought a contract with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Japan. Kevin Beirne went to Osaka and joined a rotation that featured an exciting 22 year-old righty named Hisashi Iwakuma. Veteran baseball writer Jim Allen recalled a conversation at the beginning of Spring Training in 2003. Beirne was enthusiastic about the Buffaloes chances and shared that optimism with Allen, Tuffy Rhodes and Jeremy Powell. When he stated that all the club needed to do was win ballgames to fill the bleachers, it was met with a collective eye roll. Allen turned to Rhodes and asked, "Do you want to tell him, or should I?"

In 2001, the Buffaloes put together a 78-60 record. Tuffy Rhodes slugged 55 home runs to tie the all-time mark set by Sadaharu Oh. The club clinched the Pacific League pennant at home in dramatic fashion against a local Blue Wave team. Even though Orix played in nearby Kobe, the stadium was not filled to capacity. Kintetsu had a winning 70-68 record in 2002 without playing for packed houses. After the arrival of Beirne, the team had an even better 74-64 season in 2003, but the turnstiles didn't whir at Osaka Dome. The Herd quietly grazed in the territory of the ferocious Hanshin Tigers.

Beirne might have been too optimistic about the draw at the gate, but he did his best to help the club win games. His first season with the Buffs wasn't spectacular, but 8-7 with 2 complete games, a 4.37 ERA and a 1.211 WHIP was bolstered by an improved ratio of 48 walks to 107 strikeouts. Hisashi Iwakuma had a breakout season in his third year and led the club with 11 complete games on his way to a 15-10 record with a 3.45 ERA and 149 strikeouts over 195 2/3 innings. Jeremy Powell pitched 1/3 of an inning more than 'Kuma while putting together a 14-12 mark with 4 complete games and 165 strikeouts. After crushing 51 home runs, Tuffy Rhodes would leave for the Yomiuri Giants. In spite of their best efforts, the Buffaloes finished third place in the Pacific League. 2003 belonged to the Daiei Hawks.

Kevin Beirne worked hard in 2004 for the Buffaloes. He walked 48 just like his debut season, but struck out 154 to lead the club. His 173 2/3 innings pitched was just shy of his career high of 175 1/3 in 1998. He also plunked a dozen guys while only giving up 10 dingers. It was a tough year for the Buffs and things got a bit chippy along the way. In a July game against the Chiba Lotte Marines, Beirne questioned a call on a pitch to Matt Franco. Franco took exception and barked back unsavory things about his pitching. At the end of the frame, Beirne confronted Franco. Benny Agbayani and Dan Serafini came flying out of the dugout, both benches cleared and a melee ensued. It was the second time in the young century that 3 players were ejected from a game in Japan.

One bright spot in an otherwise dismal 61-71 season was the continued maturation of a young ace. Hisashi Iwakuma began the year with 12 straight victories and didn't lose until after the All-Star break. 'Kuma went 15-2 with a 3.01 ERA, racked up 123 strikeouts, and threw complete games in 7 of his 21 starts. It would be his last year in Osaka. The season marked the end of an era in Kansai too. Few eyes were dry when the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix Blue Wave ended their long storied histories with a last game against one another in Kobe. When it was announced that the Buffaloes and Blue Wave would merge, Iwakuma made it clear that he did not want to be with the new club. He also refused after being drafted by Orix from the pool of former Buffs and Blue Wave players. In an extremely rare show of strength, the union backed him up, and Hisashi Iwakuma joined the expansion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

When the dust settled after a contentious off-season, Kevin Beirne was part of the newly formed 2005 Orix Buffaloes. It was not an easy campaign. The club went 62-70. Beirne went 4-13 in 20 starts, his ERA climbed to 4.69, and while he walked one fewer batter than his previous years, it was accompanied by only 70 strikeouts. He had some small sample size success at the dish hitting .333 with 2 runs and a RBI. It would be his last year with the Buffaloes.

For the 2006 season, Kevin Beirne was tapped by skipper Bobby Valentine to join the pitching staff of the defending Japan Series Champion Chiba Lotte Marines. Franco and Agbayani were still with the club, but there wouldn't be another brawl. Beirne made 6 starts, but he was mostly used in relief putting together 65.1 innings over the course of 28 games. He walked 27, struck out 48 and ended the year with a 3-5 record. Finishing with a 65-70 mark, the Marines did not successfully retain their NPB crown.

After 4 seasons in Japan, Kevin Beirne returned to the United States. On January 19, 2007, he signed with the Detroit Tigers. He was released March 9th without finding another suitor. In 2008, he returned for a short stint in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, but after 21 innings with Lehigh Valley, his professional baseball career came to a quiet end. His journey had been remarkable. Like his father who never fumbled in the National Football League, Kevin had never balked in Major League Baseball. Neither had let adversity and change keep them from pursuing their dreams.

In 2009, Kevin Beirne began another chapter as a coach and mentor to new generations of baseball players. To this day, he continues to teach the game and share his experiences. Maybe one day some of those kids will have an international adventure in MLB and NPB too.

[Gratitude to Jim Allen and Baseball Reference.]

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