Long before Mark Rzepcynski, Octavio Dotel and Jason Motte, the St. Louis Cardinals had Jeff Keener in their bullpen.
Drafted in the seventh round out of the University of Kentucky in the 1981 amateur draft, the current Murphysboro High School assistant principal and former right-handed pitcher earned himself a ring with the 1982 World Series champions.
"The thing I really remember the most is that there were a lot of guys who were not big-name players, but they all did their jobs when they were asked to do it," Keener said of his teammates, who brought the title back to St. Louis for the first time since 1967. "All those guys knew what they were supposed to do and when to do it and that's what made that team good in my opinion."
Initially assigned to the Double-A Arkansas Travelers in the Texas League, the 23-year-old Keener worked his way up to The Show in June of 1982. He got called up on June 7, which was a nationally televised Monday game against the Montreal Expos.
"I flew to Montreal and I didn't know a soul on the team other than the guys I'd watched on TV," Keener said.
Keener's chance came the following day, with the score tied at 2 and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning. He had been told by manager Whitey Herzog to get warmed up twice before the call came to bring him in.
"I went to the bullpen to warm up (the first time) and I could actually see my heart beating through my uniform I was so nervous," Keener said. "By the third time (I warmed up), I wasn't nervous anymore."
Keener struck out Tim Wallach to get out of the jam and then tossed a 1-2-3 ninth inning with a strike-out, a pop fly to second base and a groundout to second to end his first professional appearance.
St. Louis went on to win the game, 5-4, in 12 innings.
"I didn't throw very hard; I threw mid-80s at best," Keener said. "I had a really good curveball. My dad would catch for me and I would throw various ways.
"It was hard to hit when I threw it right."
Known for his sidearm/underarm delivery, Keener appeared in 19 games as a reliever for the Cardinals in 1982, finishing with a 1-1 record, a 1.61 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings pitched. He didn't appear for St. Louis in the postseason.
"I had pitched well in Little Rock the year before and they were having relief problems in St. Louis," Keener said. "It was just one of those deals where I got the right break at the right time."
While 1982 was a highlight for the right-hander, 1983 wasn't. He appeared in just four games with the Cardinals, allowing four earned runs in 4 1/3 innings of work to finish with a 8.31 ERA. His final game was September 27 against the team he debuted against, the Expos.
Keener allowed two runs on two hits with one strikeout in one relief inning as the Cardinals lost 10-4. It turned out to be his last appearance in the Major Leagues and he returned to the University of Kentucky to pursue a master's degree in education.
"I played five and a half years in the Cardinals organization," Keener said. "I was actually a little bit bitter when I was released. I watched guys on TV that I got out in Triple-A, and that was tough."
Keener went on to coach baseball at Murphysboro from 2001 to 2010, compiling a record of 130-106-2. His teams in 2004 and 2010 won regional titles, each finishing with 24 wins.
Keener remains a Cardinals fan and attended Game 3 of the team's series with Milwaukee at Busch Stadium with his daughter, Karli.
"What I see now is that you've got a really good mix of competitive, older players and a good younger group that's playing harder," Keener said of the current St. Louis team. "Their manager knows how to get the best out of them."
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