The 1991 Milwaukee Brewers spring training camp was memorable for a rash of injuries to the team’s top three starting pitchers. Ace Teddy Higuera didn’t get far into camp when it was discovered he had a rotator cuff tear. What was first described as a “slight” or “minor” tear turned into a number of surgeries and extensive rehab for Higuera.
The No. 2 starter, Ron Robinson, was suffering from bone chips in his elbow. The Brewers didn’t want to push him to start on Opening Day, yet he did pitch on the third game of the season, and suffered a serious elbow injury. Like Higuera, he was lost for the season and would never be the same pitcher after attempting a comeback the following season.
Chris Bosio was third in the rotation, but he wasn’t doing much better than Robinson or Higuera. Bosio had a knee injury and would not be ready to go on the opener. The Brewers were down to either Jamie Navarro or Mark Knudson. Both Navarro and Knudson had been bouncing between starting and relieving in their careers to that point, but were finally penciled in as starters for the 1991 season.
Manager Tom Trebelhorn announced that Knudson would get the nod as Opening Day starter against the Rangers in Texas. Pitching Coach Larry Haney remarked, “We have to make plans…and the way things are going we better have a backup too.”
Knudson was well aware that he wasn’t the team’s top starter, yet he did have a good spring. He had the best earned run average in camp and showed good control with his walk to strikeout ratio. Haney commented favorably on Knudson’s pitching to the media, plus mentioned that Navarro might be better suited to pitch out of the bullpen in the first series. Of right-hander Knudson’s efforts, Haney said, “He won 10 games for us last year.”
The 1991 Texas Rangers featured Nolan Ryan at the top of their rotation. Ryan had already won his 300th career game the previous July against the Brewers. It was a foregone conclusion that he would be in the baseball Hall of Fame. When it settled in that Knudson would square off against Ryan on Opening Day, it made the assignment even more extraordinary.
Knudson stated, “He (Ryan) has been a very important person in my career. When I was with Houston, I learned a lot about pitching from him. I saw what a work ethic was all about. He’s a special person.”
Ryan and Knudson had played together for Houston in the mid-1980’s. The Astros sent Knudson and fellow pitcher Don August to Milwaukee in August of 1986 in exchange for veteran pitcher Danny Darwin. Knudson had only ever played for Houston, having been drafted by the Astros in 1982 out of Colorado State University. He went on to five years of being shuttled between the Brewers minors and big league team before getting the call to pitch on opening day. The Brewers nearly sold him to the Japanese League in 1988 after he lost his first four starts for their Denver club. Knudson turned down the sale, telling the Brewers he was too young to give up on the majors. He said, “I made some mechanical adjustments and got things turned around.”
The Brewers were not expected to be a part of the American league East pennant chase in 1991. While they still had Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, plus sluggers Dante Bichette and Greg Vaughn, the team did have some question marks, particularly in the pitching department. They also had question marks at third base with young Gary Sheffield, who was often injured and critical of the team and management. It didn’t help matters for the Brewers that Toronto was already building a powerhouse franchise that would lead to World Series wins in 1992-93.
But on Opening Day all that didn’t matter to Mark Knudson and the Brew Crew as they knocked off Nolan Ryan by a score of 5-4. Ryan lasted longer than Knudson – 7 innings to 5.1, yet Knudson picked up the victory and Ryan the loss. Knudson also beat two other members of the 4000 strikeout club in his career – Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. Texas managed a couple home runs off Knudson and Robin Yount responded with hitting one of his own off Ryan in the fifth inning. The Brewers had all 5 of their runs on the board after Yount’s homer and hung on for the win.
The opener was also notable because President George H.W. Bush continued the tradition of a sitting president throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Umpire Durwood Merrill has stated that Bush borrowed his umpiring windbreaker for the occasion as he was a fan of Merrill’s. Bush also brought his old Yale college mitt to the mound and tossed a one hopper to the plate. Photos of his efforts were plastered in newspapers the following day – with a number of unfavorable comments relating to his “technique.”
It also wasn’t a smooth year for Knudson in terms of technique, although a lot of that stemmed from poor health. Like the other Brewers starters, he also nursed injuries. His issues were viral, as he got sick in April with a high fever and lost about 10 pounds. He wound up on the disabled list in early May with rotator cuff weakness. As a result, Knudson lost his spot in the rotation and came back to a bullpen assignment.
By July he was back to starting games in place of the injured Bosio who was nursing a hamstring injury. Knudson was rocked in three starts for 23 hits and 9 earned runs in just 11 1/3 innings. Treblehorn insisted the best way for Knudson to get squared away was to go to the minors and start games. He said, “He’s not pitching like a big league pitcher…he has to pitch on a regular basis to regain command.”
Knudson was sent to AAA Denver, and he accepted that assignment rather than being released. He was realistic about the possibility of not being picked up by another team. He said, “I’m not going to lie about it – I want to keep getting my salary. There are five or six weeks left at Denver. If I pitch well, I’ll be a free agent at the end of the year. I think it’s a safe assumption to say I’ve pitched my last game at Milwaukee.”
It was a correct assumption. The Brewers decided to stick with a couple of 27 year old rookies with high ERA’s – James Austin and Jim Hunter. Treblehorn said he wanted to see what each could do in the big leagues as they had pitched well in the minors. Knudson would not be recalled when the rosters expanded in September, even though the Brew Crew weren’t in the pennant race. They would finish with an 83-79 record, good enough for fourth place, 8 games behind AL East champion Toronto.
Knudson was again designated for assignment after the season. This time he refused and was released. The San Diego Padres then signed him, but he didn’t get a chance to pitch for them in 1992, and remained in the minors. Next up was a four game stint with the Colorado Rockies. He pitched in just four games to a 22.24 ERA and then called it a career. Knudson had come full circle as he was born in Denver. He’s called his time with the Rockies as a career highlight – especially because he was the first local player to wear the Rockies uniform.
For his career, Knudson had a 24-29 record with a 4.72 ERA over 482 innings pitched. He became the father of triplets right after hanging up his spikes and has four children total with his wife Allison. Since retiring, Knudson has remained in Colorado and has covered local sports on radio and television. He has also contributed to Mile High Sports Magazine.
Mark Knudson will always have a place in Milwaukee Brewers history as an Opening Day starter – and for winning over Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan on April 8, 1991. Of that game and the other starter’s that led him to the assignment, he said, “No matter the circumstances or situation, it’s still something special.”
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