Nearly 18 years ago, a young Nick Keener stood on the practice baseball field next to Original Field on West 4th St., dreaming of becoming a big league pitcher. That dream took a step toward reality last June when Keener was drafted in the 10th round with the 304th pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The long journey of becoming a major-league pitcher has begun as Keener is pitching with the Arizona League Dodgers in extended spring training. Keener has been with Arizona League Dodgers since March 1 and he hopes not to be there long, as he dreams of getting that call into the manager's office telling him that he is moving up to the next level of the organization.
Being a professional athlete is a dream profession for millions of people, but the athletes put in long hours every day to improve their physical skills as well as their mental toughness. When Keener arrived to spring training on March 1, his days began at 6:30 a.m. and went straight until 5 p.m. The days were filled with meetings, strength training, conditioning workouts and work on the mound. Those days became longer when extended spring training started on April 1 and the player's days begun at 5:30 a.m. Despite the long days, Keener is enjoying every minute of it.
Last season Keener, a former Williamsport High School and Mansfield University pitcher, went 2-0 with the Arizona Dodgers with a 6.17 ERA in 11 2/3 innings over 10 games in relief.
"I'm living my dream," Keener said. "I couldn't be happier with what I am doing right now. Ever since being drafted last year, this is the most fun I've ever had playing ball, I mean no class. Playing ball is the most fun I've ever had."
Keener has to put in so much work because he is being taught how to throw the tricky knuckleball. He is trying to learn a pitch that only about 70 major league pitchers have used regularly and only a few have had success with it, such as Phil Niekro and R.A. Dickey. Keener received some tips from a career knuckleball thrower in former Dodger and Rangers pitcher Charlie Hough, who won 216 games from 1970-1994.
"The knuckleball is called a trick pitch, you can't really teach it mechanically. It's more about the feel of the ball," Keener said. "I'm starting to pick it up, it takes a long process. It takes time and my coaches and teammates understand that."
In the 10 months that Keener has been a part of the Dodgers organization he has learned so much, not just about the knuckleball but about being a professional athlete and knowing what it takes to be a Dodger.
"When you become a Dodger, they teach you about the Dodger Way," said Keener. "It's how you carry yourself on and off the field, how you dress on the way to the park, how you look, keeping equipment right, it's a business. The biggest thing is professionalism and how to be a mature adult."
Keener has had a good start on being a mature adult as he has received much support from his parents, his grandfather, Paul Missingman who was his pitching coach growing up and his fiance Kyleigh Garbrick.
"My support is unbelievable," said Keener. "Loving parents, grandparents and my fiance has been my No. 1 supporter, she is all the way across the country but she still keeps me going."