Back in the spotlightNo, it isn’t 1998 and it isn’t the National League Championship Series, but Cottage Grove native and 1989 Park graduate Kerry Ligtenberg is on the hill and closing games again.
By: Patrick Johnson, South Washington County Bulletin
No, it isn’t 1998 and it isn’t the National League Championship Series, but Cottage Grove native and 1989 Park graduate Kerry Ligtenberg is on the hill and closing games again.
Sporting his trademark sideburns and a still-live arm, Ligtenberg, 38, is attempting to work his way back into the major leagues, pitching for the St. Paul Saints.
“I’m kind of just playing it day by day, really,” Ligtenberg said. “I’d like to just get back with an organization, try to get to triple-A and just see how it goes.”
Ligtenberg, who was also a University of Minnesota grad, has arguably had more athletic success than any single Park graduate.
Ligtenberg had his best professional season in 1998, when he saved 30 games for the Atlanta Braves, posting a 2.71 ERA and striking out 79 batters in 73 innings pitched, helping Atlanta reach the NLCS. That year he was fourth in Rookie of the Year voting and finished off games for the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
However, Ligtenberg suffered an elbow injury the following spring training, which led to Tommy John surgery and some tough times on the mound. From 2000 to 2004, he registered a total of 17 saves.
Ligtenberg last pitched in 2006, having success with the Iowa Cubs — the Chicago Cubs triple-A team — where he was 4-4 with 18 saves and a 3.57 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched.
However, after being granted free agency and signing with the Cincinnati Reds, Ligtenberg injured his knee, causing him to sit out the past two seasons and ponder retirement.
“They told me my knee was in pretty rough shape and I should think about shutting it down,” Ligtenberg said. “I was pretty content with it the first year. But, last year I felt pretty good. I just started to think about trying to play. I’m happy to be competing. I feel pretty good about where I’m at. Hopefully, I can get signed and go somewhere before the end of the year.”
Currently, Ligtenberg has seven of the Saints’ nine saves, has an ERA of 2.38 and 10 strikeouts in 11 innings pitched. Opposing batters are hitting only .150 off him.
Saints manager George Tsamis, who is a former Twins pitcher, said he thinks Ligtenberg still has what it takes to pitch in triple-A, at the very least.
“He’s just a guy that knows what he’s doing out there,” Tsamis said. “He’s done a very good job. I don’t think there’s any reason why he can’t get a shot at triple-A. He still wants a shot. That’s why we started this a couple months ago and he’s on the right path.”
Ligtenberg’s main pitches are a fastball, a slider and a splitter. He said his main thing out of the gate was to test his knee. Now, he is hoping to increase the velocity of his fastball. Tsamis said he’s been around 87 or 88 miles an hour consistently.
“He’s done a very good job since he’s been here,” Tsamis said. “He comes in there and he can get guys out. He’s not throwing 90-plus miles an hour, but he comes in and knows what he’s doing. He puts his pitches wherever he wants.”
Ligtenberg said he’s been happy with how he’s thrown so far.
“I’m not, by any means, back to where I was two years ago,” Ligtenberg said. “My velocity is still down. Hopefully, I can get it back. If not, this will probably be it for me.”
Although his comeback could seem like a pipe-dream to some, one man that knows him well, his former coach at Park, Bill Kroschel. said nobody should ever count out Kerry Ligtenberg.
“I’ve always referred to him as Mr. Perseverance,” said Kroschel, who won 404 games in his 24 years as head coach at Park. “There is no way to measure the how much perseverance and drive he has. “There’s been so many times people doubted him and sure enough he goes way beyond what anybody thought. All the way up the ladder he always outdid what everybody thought.”
After high school, Ligtenberg did not get an athletic scholarship. After college, he didn’t get drafted. 1n 1994, he pitched for the Minneapolis Loons of the now-defunct Prairie League, before the Seattle Mariners purchased his contract during the players’ strike the in 1995. However, Seattle released him four days later.
Ligtenberg went back to the Loons and was 11-2 as a starter with a no-hitter, but was ready quit when Atlanta signed him to a minor-league deal in January of 1996.
Less than two years later, he was the Braves closer.
“He’s always been kind of a quiet guy,” Kroschel said. “But, he will surprise you in the fact that he is extremely, extremely competitive. It doesn’t matter what the sport is or what the activity is. You don’t want to play cards with him. He’s unbelievably smart too.”
That competitiveness made it hard on Ligtenberg to sit at home in Eagan, where he lives with his wife Sara and three young children.
“Baseball is definitely not a fun sport for me to watch,” Ligtenberg said. “I’d rather watch the NFL. It’s at a point where I was getting job offers to do something else. It may have been just a matter of getting this out of my system, so when the time comes I can say I did everything I could to try and play. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.”