Interview Date: June 30, 2014
1881. Hagen-Hohenlimburg, Germany. A man hunches over a microscope and discovers something fantastic. Inclusion-bearing cells. Hugo Ribbert had discovered a virus that seemed to be present in almost half of the samples he examined. It could not possibly be true. Could half of the population of the world be infected? And what were the implications?
He had just taken the first glimpses of Cytomegalovirus. It sounds ominous and you probably have it. Over half of the population of the world has it. For almost all of those cases, there are never any symptoms. You might get a fever if you are unlucky. Or you might be Mark Knudson, who lost the macrobiotic lottery.
1986. Houston, Texas. A worried owner hunches over his team’s financial profile and thumps his pen across the top of the page. He would have to sell the team. Or just move the team. Florida needed a team, after all. Yes, he would just move the team. A group of amazing pitchers would change his mind. Nolan Ryan. Mike Scott. Jim Deshaies. Bob Knepper. Charlie Kerfeld. Dave Smith. These are names of legend in Houston because they pumped life back into a dying team. But there were other men helping drive a giant leap in attendance that would save baseball in Houston. The best of those unsung 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.”
The team did so well that they were being touted as playoff-bound by midseason. Knudson had pitched really well, but he disappeared among the giants of 1986 and management wanted to hedge their bets. Knudson had a lot of trade value and the Astros were not convinced he was the man they needed to make a World Series run.
“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. 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.”
1991. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A pitcher shunned by his former team and embraced by his new team races along a track, getting his daily run over with. Opening Day he had faced off against his former teammate, Nolan Ryan, and outpitched him. His career was ready to take off. But something happened on that run. Weakness. Something was wrong. “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.”
Cytomegalovirus. Half of the world’s population has it. Mark Knudson has it. For most people with the virus, they will never experience a single symptom. It will just thrive in their system and never make a peep. For Mark Knudson, it would essentially end his career. In one year, he would go from opening the season by defeating one of the greatest pitchers of all time to hoping he might make a major league roster.
1993. Denver, Colorado. Legendary coach Bus Campbell is convincing the Rockies to bring home a native son. “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.” Campbell would tell the Rockies that Knudson was the best pitcher he had ever worked with. This man was working with Roy Halladay and Jamie Moyer, but Knudson was the only name coming out of his mouth. “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.” While Knudson’s disease would prevent him from achieving that greatness, he became the first hometown player for the Colorado Rockies.
2014. Denver, Colorado. A former major league pitcher puts on his headsets and verifies his volume levels with the engineer. “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.” Knudson can be heard spreading his views on sports for Mile High Sports, but you will not hear him complain. He loves that people still care about his career and his thoughts about the sport. “It is a great organization that gives me a lot of opportunities to do what I like, creating sports radio programming and writing. I’m thrilled to be working for honest people.”
Cytomegalovirus. Half of the world has it. One man got knocked down by it and stood right back up. Scathed, at times defeated, but ready for whatever comes next.