Matt Keough

April 3, 2012



Breathe in. You’re a teenager, a talented infielder drafted early right out of high school by the World Series champions, a son of a major leaguer. Breathe out. You stumble your first pro season, hitting .198 as an 18-year-old in the single A Midwest League. Breathe in. You move to another A’s single A affiliate in the California League and blossom, batting .303 with 13 home runs and 81 RBI. Breathe out. At double A the next season, you can’t hit at all, the once-wide path to the majors narrowing to no path. Truth is a pathless land. Breathe in. You start pitching and within two seasons you’re in the majors; within three you’re the A’s representative at the 1978 major league all-star game. Breathe out. In 1979 you do nothing but lose, starting 0 and 14 and finishing 2 and 17, the worst major league pitching record in decades.


In all the Zen stories, life seems as uncluttered with the actual concrete pull of life as it is in jokes. Two monks are walking along. One says one thing, the other says another thing, neither thing makes any sense, and that’s that. You’re supposed to ponder the meaning of the inscrutable exchange incessantly until your mind breaks. Thusly shattered, you see the light, I guess. I don’t know. None of those Zen stories—koans—have ever made the slightest impact on me except to produce a mild increase in my general feeling of inadequacy. I am bound to a life of threadbare rationality and disillusionment, a life of suffering.


This is how it goes for Matt Keough. Suffering life. Breathe in, breathe out, fall, rise. Fall. Here he is, on his 1980 card, the 2 and 17 record the freshest line of stats on the back, yet he looks straight into the camera. His face is young enough to show signs of pubescent acne, yet his eyes are confident. He’s been down before. He’ll rise.


Life is suffering. That’s one of the Billboard Top Four Truths. It’s one I’ve more or less accepted in my own life (though I still reserve the right to complain constantly), but now that I have a kid I am feeling the sting of it for real. I don’t care if I suffer, but now my baby has to suffer? What the fuck is that? He is suffering right now—wailing. My writing desk is in the basement. He’s right above me. I can’t concentrate. To write these words is a supreme act of self-indulgence, really. I should go up there. But no, I have to sit here and ponder enlightenment. Good lord. Okay, fuck it, I’ll go up.


And that’s how it goes. You go down, you go up. In 1980 the A’s hire a new manager, Billy Martin, and the haunted Yankee exile, arguably the most desperate man in baseball history, rides the A’s rotation of young starting pitchers as if his life depended on it. The short-term results are good, the A’s climbing from putrid to pretty good, and Matt Keough wins 16 games and the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year award. Soon enough, however, all the arms of the A’s overtaxed hurlers begin falling off, so to speak. Keough is the first to suffer, feeling pain in his shoulder in early 1981, but he pitches through the pain throughout that season and the next as it worsens and the losses again start to mount.


I’m back down. Got the baby to go to sleep. Where was I? Oh yeah, suffering. All weekend long my wife and I tried to deal with the baby’s wailing—he has a cold—and he, or rather, his suffering, has been thrashing us like it is Andre the Giant and we’re a couple of regular-sized tag-team foils. One of us tags in, gets beaten to a pulp, and tags out, and in goes the other one to take a turn getting thrown over the ropes. Our eyes are bloodshot, his cold is our cold, snot streams everywhere, both of our backs are wrenched so badly we grimace if we try to pick up so much as the toothbrush he gnaws on as a chew-toy, and still his suffering rages, huge and undefeated. Two monks walking down the road trying to one-up the other with irrational non sequiturs, what does that do for me? Satori? Who gives a fuck.


Battling persisting arm pain through the early to mid-1980s, Matt Keough’s numbers dwindle. Soon, it seems, he will disappear. People disappear all the time. That’s the game. Matt Keough fights this by going east, to Japan. Though American position players by that time have begun to find success in Japan, American pitchers haven’t. It’s a different game, a different culture, a different world altogether, and perhaps the more complex cluster of skills needed to be an effective pitcher make it more difficult to weather all that disorientation and still thrive. Keough proves the exception to that rule. He has the advantage of once being there before, as an adolescent, when his own father capped his major league career with a stint in Japan. The father only lasted one year. The son lasts four. He wins in Japan. He’s big in Japan.


Oh, if only I had lived a life of utter seclusion, staring at the wall. If only I’d shipped myself off years ago to a life of privation and koans overseas. I have been to Japan, actually, twice, once for a few hours as a 21-year-old on my way to China, and once for a few hours a few months later on my back. On the way back, I had just said goodbye to a woman I was in love with. I planned to return to her in a few months, but before I could she wrote me a letter on rice paper telling me she’d met someone else. It was another foreign student, a Japanese guy with money. Maybe they’re still together, living in Japan. There’s a certain weight to life, a pull of desire that links you to others inextricably. The root of suffering is desire. I was suffering in Japan, suffering again some months later while reading words on a piece of rice paper, suffering the removal of that pull, that thing that ties one to another, suffering the removal of the insane hope that desire might lead to peace.


In 1992, Matt Keough returns from Japan and attempts to find work in the majors again. Who better to carry out an improbable comeback? In the first inning of a preseason game, a foul ball shears off from the bat of leadoff hitter John Patterson. What are you thinking this moment? What will you be thinking when you are struck by the terrible blow of satori? When the world opens up to infinity or ends or who knows? Matt Keough is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to relieve the pressure of a blood clot caused by the impact of the errant line drive. Keough survives, but that’ll do it for the comeback. The ball is taken from his hands, replaced with something lighter, more painful. We all get a rice paper note placed in our hands one way or another, telling us the version of life we had welded to our heart is over.

“He lost all self-respect, his self-esteem,” a man named Rob Harley will say many years later, referring to Keough’s horrific satori, that screaming line drive to the head. “And now,” Harley, an attorney for Matt Keough, will continue, “he’s an alcoholic, a caged animal.” These words will come the day Matt Keough is sent to prison. Because his life at that point will have become ensnared in televised samsara, the mug shot of the suffering reality show personality attracts much more attention than any earlier images of Keough ever had. Breathe in. You are young and pimply-faced and pocked with losses but strong, unbowed, poised to rise. Breathe out. You are chained to the world.


  1. On that 1980 A’s team it was not uncommon for Martin to leave starters in for entire extra inning games (Keough, Langford, McCatty and Norris eached pitched a 14 inning game). On that same team, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman had almost identical numbers, but McCatty was 14-14 and Kingman was 8-20.

  2. “The ball is taken from his hands, replaced with something lighter, more painful. We all get a rice paper note placed in our hands one way or another, telling us the version of life we had welded to our heart is over.” – Brilliant.

  3. Interesting bit about Billy Martin’s pitcher usage. Those 1980 A’s had three pitchers with 250 innings and used a five-man rotation. I don’t know what this signifies, though I think it’s worth noting that the two other most recent teams with three 250-inning hurlers, the ’80 Orioles and ’87 Dodgers went with four man staffs.

  4. Fall, rise, fall…sometimes simultaneously.

    “As we go up, we go down….”

    I couldn’t help thinking of those great lyrics. There’s a koan we can live with; enlightenment – or something kinda close – courtesy of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices, though at a-minute-thirty-seven it goes on for what seems like an eternity by their standards: 49 days under a Dayton Ohio fig tree, or some harmonic equivalent.

    Google “Satori” nowadays and we’re confronted with Satori business consulting, Satori day spa, Satori laser hair removal, Satori pharmaceuticals… And that’s just the first page and a half…

    Something noisome from the material world has obviously slipped in a side door somewhere along the line and bespoilt the concept…Zen corporate-buyout meditiation/mediation?? It’s already there, buddy(“bodhi?”), and it ain’t going away any time soon. The spiritual center has become the far edge of reason.

    And of course, even after everything else settles, the root of suffering is still desire. It’s a lesson we can be made aware of, over and over, but perhaps never learn. Desire is just too human. And so, then is suffering. And so is a search for relief from it. And for enlightenment. And so we continue circling, rising, falling… Up. Down. Seperately. Then together… Together…

    At least Matt Keough’s descent into mug-shot valley hasn’t as yet concluded with a tragic and depressing final chapter ala the Aults and Flanagans who once upon a time shared American League diamonds with him. There is always hope for redemption. America loves a redemptive third (or fourth, or fifth) act. Especially, I would think, for “a caged animal.” Sometimes “going up” is relative, and sometimes it might be practically the only way left.

  5. Well said, Ramblin’. Now I’ll have that Guided By Voices song in my head all day–not a bad thing at all, especially since it’ll knock the “now I know my ABCs” song out of the permanent loop.

  6. Matt Keough is the only player ever to throw me a baseball. Back at a game in the summer of ’79, when I was a 15 yr old, the players began walking in towards the dugout after their pre-game warm-ups. A group of kids further down the railing were all shouting for him to throw them the ball in his hand. I cupped my hands to my mouth and yelled as loud as I could “HEY, MATT!” He looked over and threw a perfect strike to me, chest high. He was already my favorite player that year, and that just cemented it. He was a tremendous competitor. When Tim Hudson came along years later, he reminded me of Keough.
    -Chris (aka cmcfood on the old Cardboard Gods site)

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