Interview Date: June 30, 2014
1986 saved baseball in Houston. The team was on the verge of being sold and the only thing that could save it would be a giant leap in attendance. Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, Jim Deshaies, Bob Knepper, and Charlie Kerfeld would make up an incredible set of starters backed up by the near invincible Dave Smith to close games out. The unsung heroes of that team were the pitchers brought in during tough situations to try and keep the Astros alive. The best of those pitchers was a highly touted draft pick named Mark Knudson.
“At the time, the big league club had Nolan Ryan, etc. We all saw this as a reason to be glad we were drafted by a pitching oriented club. I got to be teammates with JR Richard in Daytona Beach in the summer of 1982. That was an experience I will never forget. We had a fantastic rotation, and I felt pressure to measure up, although I never did. I did not have that level of ability. But it was a rotation to marvel at, learn from, and looking back, I was very fortunate to be around those guys. It took me years to truly be able to pitch at that level, even for a few games. I was on the big club for four days before I saw Nolan Ryan strike out Danny Heap for his 4,000th strikeout. It was an amazing moment to be involved in, even from the dugout.”
But as much work as Knudson had done for the Astros, by mid-1986 the team was on the verge of making the playoffs and had to make some tough decisions. “Back then there were only two divisions, and we were in the NL West. We were cruising to the division title. Scotty would win the Cy Young that year, and the playoff series with the Mets was epic.” But the playoff run was bittersweet for Knudson. The Astros decided to go with another pitcher and sent Knudson to Milwaukee.
“Unfortunately for me, I was traded to Milwaukee for Danny Darwin in early August. Here’s my rub: We were nine games in front of San Francisco when I was traded. Houston won the division by ten games. I got to watch Mike Scott’s no-no and the locker room celebration with my former teammates from a hotel room in Milwaukee. That stung. Darwin was fantastic down the stretch, but I’ve always felt like they panicked when they made that trade. We would have won the division regardless. The rotation as it stood was more than good enough to win the NL West, and remember, Darwin did not set foot on the field in the playoffs. I know I could have done that. I don’t think Dick Wagner was a great GM. I know Nolan didn’t like him much. And while he was rightfully voted Manager of the Year that season, I think Hal Lanier would have had a better career if he was not would quite so tight. He let his emotions get the best of him several times. Not a great trait for a manager.”
Knudson would find his role as a player in Milwaukee. He was positioned to do amazing things. “I started on Opening Day in 1991 in Texas against Nolan. He wasn’t great that day, and we won. It is still a highlight of my career.” But something completely out of his control would change everything. He would contract a virus called Cytomegalovirus (CMV) that is believed to exist in over 50% of the world population. For most people, it has no symptoms at all. In very rare cases, it can cause an array of symptoms that range from as minor as fever to as serious as seizures or coma. “It hit me when I was running. I couldn’t do much of anything for more than two weeks. It took me the better part of the first half of the season to get my strength back. Only when I was in Triple A did I finally throw a complete game. I was told that only time and exercise would allow me to get back to full strength, and that proved correct. I lost my spot in the rotation and ultimately the roster. So it was truly a lowlight of my career.”
Knudson grew up in Colorado and trained with legendary coach Bus Campbell. For his final year in the majors, the Rockies would give him one last chance. It was his training with Campbell that taught him how to be an effective teacher. Campbell once named Knudson as one of his favorite pitchers to work with, placing him among greats as Roy Halladay and Jamie Moyer. “There will never be another man like Bus Campbell. I sat with Halladay at Bus’ funeral in 2008 and when I got up to speak, I asked the large audience if they knew anyone else who had dedicated their entire life to helping other people without getting anything in return? I don’t know anyone else like that. He argued with Halladay when Roy bought him a satellite dish for his house. Bus was going to go up on the roof and tear it down until Roy convinced him to keep it so he could watch Blue Jays games. I wish Bus had gotten more recognition when he was alive and working with more than one hundred pitchers who made the big leagues. He loathed attention, though. His work started with Steve Busby and Burt Hooten and just kept going. I never would have thrown a pitch without that man.”
After baseball, Knudson became involved in media. “I got a degree in Journalism from Colorado State. I grew up reading the sports page every day and my passions were not just for baseball. Looking back, if I knew then what I know now, I would have stayed involved in the game and not gone the media route after I retired. I think I’d have a nice front office job today if I had stayed in the game.” But he did not stay in the game and found himself putting together the programming for a sports news network. He would become entangled in a local controversy that had a corrupt radio station owner firing anyone he could manage to rid himself of. More information can be found about this situation on Mark Knudson’s website located at http://www.theinsidepitch.net/page-2-1-2/. “I’ve gone back to work with Mile High Sports, a place I worked for almost five years before I left in 2007. It is a great organization that gives me a lot of opportunity to do what I like, creating sports radio programming and writing. I’m thrilled to be working for honest people again.”
Finally, he loves that people still care about his career. He is incredibly friendly to his fans and signs for anyone that asks. “I don’t see it as a chore. I see it as a compliment, actually. It’s not that difficult to accommodate requests. Most people have good intentions, and those who don’t, those who think they need to lie to me and promise not to sell on eBay, are just fooling themselves. They are not going to get rich selling cards of me, that is for sure. I’ll keep signing as long as they keep asking.”