If there is anybody who had a more exciting prep career in West County over the last quarter of a century than Bobby Keppel, I would like to meet him. In 1999, Keppel was a star 6-foot-5-inch junior point guard for the De Smet Spartans. In the state championship game, De Smet squared off against the big, bad Vashon Wolverines, who had beaten them badly the year before. Keppel exploded for 19 points in the first half, and De Smet went on to win the state title, 70 to 64. Then in his senior year, Keppel won another state championship—this one was in baseball. Keppel was a flame-throwing righthander who threw 94 on the radar gun and hit homeruns with regularity. When he was on the mound, major league scouts always were behind the plate, all holding up radar guns.
The Mets selected Keppel with the 36th pick in the draft. They gave him $1 million. But he had some arm injuries. He then pitched for the Royals, Rockies and Twins. He was the winning pitcher for the Twins in that thrilling Game 163 against the Tigers.
Keppel has just left our town for Japan, as he is now a well-paid and productive pitcher for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. The 30-year-old husband and father of three also recently got into the magazine business. Keppel and his wife, Suzanne, have just come out with their first issue of The 9s, a men's health and fitness magazine. We talked just before he left St. Louis:
Best thrill ever on a baseball field?
The state title was pretty good, but game 163 with the Twins was epic. I warmed up in the fourth inning of that game, then I sat down. I thought I was done. Then I came back, and I was the winning pitcher. The odds of me ending up the winning pitcher were awfully slim.
Most embarrassing moment?
The homer I gave up to Matt Holliday. We were up 8-0 in Oakland. He tied the game with a shot to the deepest part of the ballpark. I told him later my fastball provided all the power on that hit. (Matt and Bobby are good friends and work out together.)
Most intriguing item about playing in Japan?
It's interesting. When I am not pitching, I am not in the dugout. I workout, go home early and spend time with the family. I watch the game on TV at home. If you are a starting pitcher, you travel ahead of the team to the next city.
Describe pitching a high school game with the scouts watching?
There would be 30 to 40 teams represented. All they cared about is how hard you threw. There was just this rush. I can remember the guns pointed down; then I would start my windup and the guns would be pointing right at me.
How did you balance your education with a professional baseball career?
In the minor leagues, I would play from early summer ‘til August. I would then drive to Notre Dame for the fall semester. I would leave for a stint in the instructional league and then come back and take my finals. It was hectic.
5 Things I Think
1. Stan Musial's best line: "How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business? You start with a large fortune!"
2. I love covering all the professional sports, but being in a high school gym for a heated rivalry match-up on a Friday night is awfully fun.
3. I love all the talk about hockey fans showing the league how they feel and not showing up early. Try finding a ticket to a Blues game. Hockey fans are like closers in major league baseball: They have short memories.
4. Former Pro-Bowl linebacker Bill Romanowski recently told me on KFNS that he had more than 400 concussions in his career. Do you think we will get to the point where parents say, "Nope, Johnny, you are not playing football. Try tennis."
5. St. Louisan (and Chaminade alum) David Lee of the Golden State Warriors is the most unsung accomplished professional athlete our town has ever known. As of this writing, he has 17 games with 20 or more points, and 10 or more rebounds—that is the most in the NBA. Take that, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Lee is a stud!