Greatest Athlete #2: A storybook journey to the major leagues for Osik

08/17/2011 7:57 AM |

A sparse crowd of 16,088 filtered into the big ballpark in Queens on a cool Friday night in early April of 1996. Having won two of their first three games against the St. Louis Cardinals, the New York Mets had already reached the zenith of their season going into the series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The visitors wouldn’t fare much better over 162 games, meandering to 73 victories and a last-place finish.

GETTY IMAGES PHOTO | Former Shoreham-Wading River standout Keith Osik spent seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates as the backup catcher behind Jason Kendall.

Two years removed from the strike, optimism for both teams was in short supply. Neither team would average 20,000 fans per game and the Mets would fire manager Dallas Green late in the season. Todd Hundley’s steroid-fueled pursuit of the single-season home run record for a catcher, held by Roy Campanella, proved to be one of the few pleasant storylines for New York.

There wouldn’t be much for the home fans to cheer about on that particular night. In their best Keystone Kops impersonation, the bumbling Mets committed five errors, including a pair by third baseman Jeff Kent, whose migration from second was already proving to be a failed experiment. The Pirates went on to win 7-5.

For as poorly as the home team played, a distinctly audible and odd roar would rise up from the crowd throughout the game at the most peculiar times. Such as the top of the third inning, when the No. 8 hitter for the Pirates, a 27-year-old rookie catcher, stepped to the plate to make his Major League debut.

Keith Osik always had a flair for the dramatic. It didn’t matter what sport, didn’t matter how meaningless the game. Put Osik on an athletic field and he promised to deliver a jaw-dropping move. He made playing sports look so frustratingly easy, like a tightrope walker breezing across a thin wire high above the ground.

Shoreham-Wading River baseball coach Sal Mignano saw Osik for one of the first times in middle school. In a softball game during gym class, Osik blasted a ball deep into the outfield. As he rounded third base, he broke into a trot of cartwheels and backflips all the way down the line.

“His two feet landed on home plate,” Mignano said.

His friends called him Ozzie.

The baseball program Mignano started at Shoreham was still in its early years, but he could already tell the young kid was soon to be one of the best athletes to ever come through the school.

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Bob Strovink, Osik’s guardian during his high school years, once told the story of the time he was watching a Russian ballet on channel 13 with his wife, Sheila-Ann. Strovink called over to Osik and said, “Hey, Keith, take a look at this. This guy is one of the best athletes in the world.”

Osik offered a quick glance, unimpressed.

As he walked by the television, the dancer leaped into the air to perform a ballet move. Osik saw it, turned, leaped, and perfectly imitated it.

“I looked at my wife in amazement,” Strovink told the Sun in 2006.

In high school, Osik played three sports: soccer, basketball and baseball. He excelled in all three.

Jeff Reh, a standout soccer and lacrosse player for Rocky Point, was close friends with Osik during their youth.

“He was at our house a lot growing up and whether it was whiffle ball, hockey or whatever, you could tell he was a great athlete,” Reh said.

Along with Reh’s older brother Scott, another dominant soccer and lacrosse player, the three formed an unstoppable trio on the playgrounds in whatever sport they tried.

“We always had to be split up, basically,” Jeff Reh said.

The three spent one magical fall together in 1984 at Rocky Point, where they teamed up on the soccer field to lead the Eagles to their first and only state championship. Jeff Reh was the lethal forward who tallied 27 goals. Scott Reh controlled the midfield and assisted on most of his younger brother’s goals. As for Osik, he was the fullback, the defensive stalwart who kept the ball out of the Eagles’ end and up where the Reh brothers could orchestrate the offense.

“We took him under our wings,” said Scott Reh, who was a senior during the fall of ’84.

Osik spent only a half-year at Rocky Point High School at the beginning of 10th grade. He grew up in Wading River and attended schools in the Shoreham district before his brief stint at Rocky Point. He faced a difficult childhood, coming from a broken home that provided little stability. Around sixth grade, he played for the first time on a baseball team with Eric Strovink. Before then, they had always been in opposing Little Leagues. They became close friends right from the start. Osik would eat dinner at the Strovinks and soon after begin sleeping over.

“Then he just stayed here,” Bob Strovink later recalled.

Osik once described himself as a “wild stallion” as a kid. Living with the Strovink’s gave him the discipline he needed in life, which helped him grow as a baseball player.

When he made his debut on the Shoreham-Wading River baseball team in 1984, his brother Steve was a senior who was about to complete his second straight All-County season. Keith had spent so much time trailing alongside his brother over the years, Mignano knew him well by the time he came out for the team as a freshman.

Still, he figured Keith would start on the junior varsity. At that point the program had been established enough where there was a deep enough pool of juniors and seniors to field a competitive team.

COURTESY PHOTO | At Shoreham-Wading River Osik was the team's No. 1 pitcher for three straight seasons.

One of the first days of practice in the spring of ’84, the team had two sessions, one for varsity and one for the JV. Mignano told the JV coach at the time, Ray Maccagli, to let him have Osik for the varsity practice, just to get a look at how good he could be.

It didn’t take long before Osik was batting leadoff on varsity and playing second base. His brother started at shortstop and when he would pitch, Keith slid over to short.

In his first season, Osik hit .441 and earned All-League honors.

The following season Eric Strovink, who was a year younger than Osik, joined the varsity as a freshman. They remained the only two players to make the varsity as freshmen for the Wildcats until 2009 when Nick Bottari made the squad as an eighth-grader.

They were different styles of hitters. Strovink was more of a long ball threat, while Osik was a line drive hitter who had the versatility to play anywhere on the diamond.

“They were extremely, extremely close,” Mignano said. “You could say they were kind of like brothers.”

Strovink called Osik the best teammate with whom he ever played.

“He was completely unselfish,” he said in a 2006 interview. “He was in a position where he could literally steal bases at will. He wouldn’t, just to get me at-bats.”

In the fall of his junior year, Osik was the starting goalkeeper for the Wildcats in soccer. In the playoffs Osik found himself pitted against the team that he had helped lead to a state championship a year earlier. Jeff Reh, then a senior, had developed into the top scorer in Suffolk County. He netted 35 goals on the season, tied for the fourth most in county history for a single season.
But when he needed one most against the Wildcats, his old buddy Osik was there to deny him.

In a scoreless game Osik leaped and blocked a direct kick from Reh late in the second half, according to a Newsday recap. Then in overtime he made a diving save on a 20-foot attempt from Reh.

“I just shook his hand and told him, ‘Nice game. Give me a call sometime,’” Reh told Newsday after the game.

The Wildcats won 1-0 and advanced to the Class B county championship where they lost to John Glenn.

Osik had no undying love for soccer or basketball, he just sought competition in any form.

“I never did anything for fun,” he said. “I always did it because I wanted to compete.”

That burning desire to compete and never lose is where his charisma on the field came from, he said. If he was pitching he never wanted to give up a hit. On first base he never wanted to get thrown out at second. He never wanted to make an out at the plate.

Mignano said Osik always loved to put on a show.

“He would always add a little bit of juice to a play with a back-hand run or a driving shot to the basket,” he said. “That’s his most comfortable place in the world, on an athletic field.”

As a senior in basketball Osik led Suffolk County in scoring at 26.9 points per game. For all his success in soccer and basketball, it was never much of a decision as to which sport he wanted to pursue after high school.

“I felt like the other two sports were a little bit easier for me and I liked the challenge of baseball,” he said. “I just loved the game of baseball from such a young age.”

In his final three years playing baseball at Shoreham, Osik was the starting shortstop and ace of the pitching staff. Over his career on the mound he threw 244 1/3 innings and struck out 336 batters with a 1.43 ERA. He won 26 games and is still the school’s all-time leader in all four categories. He also holds school records for total at-bats, walks, runs and stolen bases. And he’s the only player in school history to win the Carl Yastzemski Award as the top player in Suffolk County.

Keith Osik already had two no-hitters and a perfect game on his résumé when he stepped onto the mound his final day as a high school baseball pitcher. On the morning of June 11, 1987, Osik took the ball to start the Wildcats’ state semifinal game against Port Chester.

He pitched a near flawless game, coming within two outs of a no-hitter as the Wildcats won 2-0. The state championship game against Chenango Forks came a few hours later.

Keith Osik Trading Card

As the legend goes, Osik practically begged Mignano to allow him to start the next game. Wary of his pitcher starting consecutive games on the same day, Mignano told him if the team got into trouble, he’d call on him.

“You don’t often get a chance to be in a state final game, and I told him I wanted the ball,” Osik recalled in a 2007 interview. “I pitched in the semifinals and emotions were running high with a chance to win the state title. We argued a little and I told him I’d be fine. I got all summer to rest.”

Trouble came brewing in the fourth inning with the Wildcats down 5-4 after Chris Maccaro started. In came Osik to throw another four innings, shutting down Chenango Forks as the Wildcats rallied for a 6-5 victory to clinch the only state championship in program history.

To cap off the whirlwind day, he later learned he had been drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 47th round of the amateur draft.

Osik had committed to playing baseball at Louisiana State University and faced a choice. Forgo college and go right into pro ball or play college and hope to be drafted again a few years later as a more seasoned ballplayer.

“It’s a difficult choice for a 16, 17-year-old,” Osik said. “There’s really not a bad choice you can make. I think I made the right one.”

He chose LSU, where his versatility to play multiple positions was put on full display. He bounced around the diamond, playing shortstop and third base before ultimately settling in at the position he’d be best known for: catcher. He had quick hands, a great arm and good speed. Catcher figured to be the position he had the best chance to reach the majors.

Osik struggled his freshman year, batting just .186 in 145 at-bats. But by his sophomore season he found his stroke. He hit .298 and scored 58 runs in 262 at-bats. He only got better the next season, batting .340 with 65 RBIs and 60 runs and 268 at-bats.

In one game during his college career as part of a promotion to attract fans, Osik played all nine positions.

It was “Keith Osik Night.”

He started at catcher before moving to first, short, second, third, right field, left field, center field and finally, pitcher.

The game went to extra innings and Osik came back out to pitch the 10th inning. With runners at the corners, he attempted a pick-off move and had the runner hung up between first and second. But in the rundown, the runner from third scrambled home. LSU lost by a run.

After his junior season, Osik was drafted in the 24th round of the 1990 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. With one year of eligibility left at LSU, he packed his bags, signed with the Pirates and headed for the big leagues.

The road to the majors wouldn’t be so simple.

He joined the Welland Pirates in the summer he was drafted and played in 29 games. In his first full year as a minor leaguer in 1991, Osik, then 22, had an impressive start with the Salem Buccaneers in Class A, batting .274 through 87 games. He received a promotion to the Carolina Mudcats of Double A where in 17 games he batted .302.

Still, he needed more grooming. In 1992 he played a full season with Carolina where he batted .259. The next season, instead of a promotion to Triple A, Osik found himself back in Carolina. He knew it wasn’t a good sign, and if he was going to make it any further, he needed to rededicate himself to the sport.

“People don’t realize how difficult it is when you’re in a minor league setting,” he said. “You’re somewhat of a number. It’s really a business for them. There’s 120 more kids coming the next year for your job or there’s somebody underneath you looking to compete and take your job at whatever position you’re playing.”

In his second full season at Carolina, Osik hit .280 with 10 home runs in 103 games. It was enough to bring him to Triple-A Buffalo for the start of the ’94 season and to the cusp of the major leagues with a spot on the Pirates’ 40-man roster. A September call-up when rosters expanded seemed like a real possibility.

Before any of that could happen, the players strike in August of ’94 put baseball on hold. Osik had been struggling to start Triple A. And it didn’t get easier when the Pirates signed a veteran catcher to serve as their backup. Jerry Goff received a demotion to Triple A and was splitting time with Osik. In the fall, Osik was bumped off the 40-man roster and his future appeared in limbo.

As the strike wore on, Osik received an offer to be a replacement player with the Pirates, which put him in a precarious position of crossing over the picket line. He knew he needed to put his future above all else, and accepted the offer.

When the strike was settled just in time to start the ’95 season, Osik made his way to the Calgary Cannons in Triple A. The make or break point of his career, Osik put together his best season in the minors, posting a .336 average with 10 home runs and 59 RBIs.

He was one year away from the majors.

In seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates beginning in 1996, Osik served as the backup catcher behind All-Star Jason Kendall. They reached the majors in the same year, Kendall as a highly-rated former first-round pick of the Pirates. Kendall stepped right in to hit .300 his first season as the everyday catcher. Still with the Kansas City Royals today, his career average in 15 seasons is .288, a superb figure for a catcher over that length of time.

The two became good friends and Osik once called Kendall “the toughest ballplayer I’ve ever seen play the game.”

JOSEPH D. SULLIVAN/FARMINGDALE ATHLETICS PHOTO  |  Keith Osik has spent five seasons as the skipper of the Farmingdale State baseball team.

JOSEPH D. SULLIVAN/FARMINGDALE ATHLETICS PHOTO | Keith Osik has spent five seasons as the skipper of the Farmingdale State baseball team.

His toughness, however, meant little playing time for Osik.

In his first season, Osik played in 48 games and batted .293. He matched that average in 2000 when he played in 46 games.

The versatility that was so evident during high school and college made him more valuable in the big leagues than just a backup catcher. He played every position in the major leagues at some point except shortstop and center field. He pitched in two games, giving up a total of nine runs for a career ERA of 40.50.

He spent one season with Milwaukee in 2003 where he got the most playing time of his career. He played in 80 games and batted .249.

He closed out his career with brief stints in Baltimore and Washington before retiring in 2005.

As one chapter in baseball closed, another immediately opened.

Osik became head coach of the baseball team at Farmingdale State in July 2005. Since then his team’s have made one national championship appearance (2009) and four NCAA Tournament appearances. He was the 2009 ECAC Division III Metro Coach of the Year and in 2010 was honored as the Skyline Conference Coach of the Year.

He still lives in Shoreham with his wife Sherry and three kids, Tyler, Kayley and Kamryn.

One of his first projects after his big league career ended was opening a local baseball facility. In 2006, Keith Osik’s Major League Instruction opened its doors in Middle Island. Osik spoke at the time of how he didn’t want to be just a name on the building. It’s a promise he’s more than fulfilled five years later, as they prepare to move into a new building in a more prominent location in Rocky Point near the North Shore Little League complex.

“When MLI is at full action, which I’d say is probably November through the spring time, he’s in there giving lessons non-stop every day,” Mignano said. “You walk in there and he’s giving a lesson to a 5-year-old or a 17-year-old. That takes a lot of time and a lot of dedication.”

He comes across as proud of his players’ accomplishments as anything he did in the big leagues. Since MLI opened, 40 kids who used the facility have received college scholarships for baseball, Osik said. His team of 17-year-olds just placed fifth out of 240 teams in a tournament in Georgia.

He’s often asked if he misses the big leagues.

“I’m so involved, I’ve got so much baseball through the course of the whole entire year that it hasn’t made me miss it,” he said. “Teaching kids, it’s been a blast.”

Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland appreciated Osik’s winding journey to the big leagues. When Osik made the opening day roster in 1996, Leyland made sure to pencil his first start for New York at Shea Stadium. It just so happened the Pirates’ second series of the year was in New York.

Osik left around 50 or 60 tickets for family and friends on the afternoon of April 5, 1996. Many more from the community bought tickets on their own to see the hometown kid fulfill his lifelong dream.

On the field before the game, Osik could feel the support.

“You couldn’t help but hear people in the stands,” he said. “Normally you don’t hear anybody. There was probably two to three hundred people from this area that came into Shea that night.”

In his first career at-bat against Dave Mlicki, he lined a ball to center field that Lance Johnson mishandled. Osik sprinted around to third on a three-base error. Soon after he came around to score his first career run. He finished the game 2-for-4 with an RBI, a perfect finish to his long-awaited debut.

Among the fans in attendance that night was Sal Mignano, who had become a father-like figure to Osik over the years. To see his former student and player in his first major league game was the biggest thrill for Mignano.

Every year after Osik graduated high school, Mignano made sure to see one of his games in person.

“Some family vacations revolved around where Keith was that year,” Mignano said. “Through him and because of him my family has gotten a chance to see a lot of the country and a lot of different ballparks.”

Among other memorabilia from his career, the ball of Osik’s first career hit will go up on display in the new MLI facility, forever a reminder of what can be accomplished through perseverance and hard work.

joew@northshoresun.com