Back in 2006, pitcher Steve Karsay called it a career and retired after 16 years in baseball. He left a long career behind, including stints with six different organizations. His tenure was often interrupted by injuries, but he was one of the best relievers in the game when healthy.
After time away from the everyday grind of the game, Karsay developed an itch to get back into baseball. After the 2011 season, he reached out to all of his former teams to inquire about becoming a minor-league pitching coach.
“After 2006 when I retired and had my second shoulder surgery I kind of stepped away from the game to decompress a little bit,” Karsay said. “I wanted to try and get an understanding of things after being in the game for 16 years and take a step back. Two or three years later I was starting to get the itch so I helped a friend of mine with a travel team in Texas as the pitching coach, and from there it got the juices flowing.”
In the fall of 2011 the Cleveland Indians needed a pitching coach for their player development staff. After a few interviews, it was apparent to the Indians and Karsay that Cleveland was a perfect fit.
“I really wanted to go to the next level and work with some of the guys that were being drafted and some higher level guys,” Karsay said. “I made some phone calls to the three or four organizations that I played for where I knew the front office, they knew me, and they knew what kind of dynamic I could bring. Ultimately, Cleveland’s front office called, gave me an interview, and I got the job. It has been great for me and really a blessing to have an opportunity the second time around not only to play for the Tribe but now being part of the staff.”
Karsay, 41, was a first round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1990, and later traded to Oakland as part of a package for outfielder Rickey Henderson. But his career did not really blossom until the Athletics traded him to the Indians in 1997 for reliever Mike Fetters.
Karsay enjoyed the best years of his career as a member of the Indians. From 1998-2001 he was a rock at the backend of the bullpen, appearing in 164 games and compiling a 15-14 record with 22 saves and a 3.23 ERA. He was later traded to Atlanta in a deal that brought reliever John Rocker to the Indians.
But Cleveland was the place he had the most success, and he has returned to help the young pitchers in the system develop.
Karsay’s first stop was with the rookie level Arizona Summer League team in Goodyear, Arizona. The environment of coaching in a low-pressure environment helped.
“At times last year it was challenging,” Karsay recalled. “That’s why I wanted to start at the rookie league level and learn the ins and outs of the other side of the game being on the player development side and being a coach. I felt for me it was a wonderful thing to learn the system, to learn the guys, and to grow as a coach along with the players to get me here today.”
Today, Karsay is the pitching coach for the Low-A Lake County Captains. He has been given the task of developing some of the Indians best young pitching prospects.
“You are happy to get out of [the game] as the grind can take its toll,” Karsay said. “But after having those two years off it really got me intrigued to being a coach and trying to help these kids develop and get to the big leagues. That is ultimately everybody’s goal here, is to get to the big leagues and have a long and fruitful career. If there is anything I can do to help some of these young guys get to the spot I was once at, that would be great.”
Having pitched for so many organizations – and successful ones at that – he has had the opportunity to pitch on some great staffs and for some great coaches. It is through that experience that he hopes he can make an impact on the Captains roster.
“There are quite a few guys that I have pulled knowledge from in all different directions,” Karsay noted. “Not just coaches, but players I played with. Dave Duncan was one. Phil Regan when I was here [in Cleveland] was one. Mark Wiley, Mel Stottlemyre, and Leo Mazzone were others. I can go on and on. Being traded to Atlanta I had the opportunity for four months to pick the brain of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz on a daily basis every day in the outfield while we shagged. Learning from them and the knowledge that they gave me from those four months was priceless.”
Karsay already notices many different things since ’90-’93, when he played in the minors. Not only is the development process different, but the ballparks newer, the training staffs larger, and the nutrition aspect vastly improved.
“It is actually quite a bit different now [than when I played in the minors],” Karsay said. “The ballparks are a lot newer and a lot different and the strength and conditioning has changed. The health is different as, you know, we don’t stop at McDonald’s or Wendy’s as much anymore. The dynamic of the game has completely changed since the early 90s, but you have to grow with the game.”
This is not Karsay’s first rodeo – he has been through the rigors of a long season before. But for his young pitching staff, many are still learning what it means to develop a routine. That is the biggest challenge that he has to work through this season.
“This process here for me and for the organization is a developmental process,” Karsay said. “Obviously, we want to win, we want to compete, and we want to do well, but we need to develop these young guys to learn how to command their fastball and learn how to use their breaking pitches in certain situations and in different sequences. That is the major part of it. What they learn here in a long season will be difficult for them, especially the guys here for the first time. They have the bus travel, games on a daily basis, and the starters have bullpens between their starts. We will see how it plays out after 100 games or so because a lot of these kids have only played a 50 or 60 game season in the Arizona League. It will be an interesting progression as we get through the season to see how these young men react to it.”
The goal for Karsay and the rest of the Captains staff is to steer players up to High-A Carolina and all the way up to the big leagues. For a lot of Captains players, Lake County is that first true step.
“For me, to call it a successful year, it is to see each and every one of these guys get better in any aspect of pitching, whether it be strike throwing, or repeating their delivery, or whatever it may be,” Karsay remarked. “If they finish the season better than when they started the season, then I feel like that is an accomplishment because I will think it was a productive five months.”