This article was written by Joel Rippel
Ryan Klesko caught the attention of scouts early in his high-school baseball career. Scouts clamored for the prime spots behind home plate to watch Klesko, a freshman on the Westminster (California) High School varsity.
Klesko hit 278 home runs and batted .279 in a 16-year major-league career. But the scouts weren’t there to watch him hit. They were there to watch him pitch.
“I went to Ron LeFebvre’s pitching school eight years,” Klesko said. “At first I was going for fun. But after a certain point I was good enough that I knew I would do something in baseball after high school. I thought it would be pitching.”1
Klesko, a hard-throwing left-hander, struck out 138 in 96⅔ innings as a sophomore and junior and compiled a 13-6 won-lost record in his first three seasons on the Westminster varsity. After his junior season (in 1988) he was a member of the US Junior Olympic Team. But an elbow injury limited him to playing first base as a high-school senior.
“I was always a pretty good hitter, too,” Klesko said. “When I was a freshman and sophomore at Ron’s school, I started batting against college pitchers and I did fine. I knew I could make it as a hitter, too.”2
Klesko credited his mother, Lorene, with helping him reach the major leagues. Klesko’s parents, Howard and Lorene, divorced while he was in high school. Before the divorce, Howard Klesko was frequently gone for work in Southern California oil fields, so Lorene, who worked packing aerospace parts, took on a second job cleaning houses on weekends to pay for Ryan’s pitching lessons, built a pitching mound in the backyard of their home and took on the role of catcher for him (something she also did for his two sisters, who were good softball players).
“When I was a kid, my mom would watch baseball on TV and say to me, ‘See those guys? You’re going to be one of them someday,’” said Klesko. “I never thought it was possible, but she always believed in me.”3
During his senior year, Klesko hit .347 with 5 home runs and 18 RBIs and earned All-Sunset League honors for the fourth consecutive season. In early May of 1989, he signed a letter of intent to play baseball for Arizona State. In early June, Klesko was selected in the fifth round of the amateur draft. Eleven days after the draft, the Braves opened a three-game series at Dodger Stadium and invited Klesko to take batting practice.
“A lot of teams came to see me when I was in high school,” said Klesko. “They thought only of me as a pitcher. It had everything to do with how hard I threw. That is what they wanted. I was a good hitter in high school but they weren’t focused on anything else and I played in an awful big park so it was hard to hit it out. It all worked out after hitting with the Braves at Dodger Stadium. I think they really realized then just how good I could hit and the power I had.”4
Several days later, the Braves signed Klesko and assigned him to their farm team in the rookie Gulf Coast League. Florida was an adjustment for Klesko.
“I remember getting to Bradenton and it was hot as crap and hot and rainy at the same time,” he said. “There were also these big mosquitoes. I went in and told the coach I hated it, was depressed and wanted to go home. I said how do I get out of here? He said hit. So I did, and I was gone very quickly.”5
Klesko responded by hitting .404 with one home run and 16 RBIs in 17 games with the GCL Braves and was promoted to Sumter (South Carolina) of the Class-A South Atlantic League. In 25 games with Sumter, he hit .289 with one home run and 12 RBIs.
Klesko returned to Sumter in 1990 and hit .368 with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs in 63 games. He was named a South Atlantic League All-Star and was named the league’s top prospect. At midseason he was promoted to Durham of the high Class-A Carolina League and hit .274 with 7 home runs and 47 RBIs in 77 games.
He got off to a slow start in 1991 with Greenville of the Double-A Southern League. As the youngest everyday player in the Southern League (he turned 20 in June), he hit just .190 in April. But he regrouped to hit .347 with 9 home runs and 38 RBIs in May and June. For the season, he hit .291 with 14 home runs and 67 RBIs in 126 games. He walked 75 times and had a .404 on-base percentage as he earned the league’s MVP honor and was named the number-2 prospect (behind Royce Clayton) in minor-league baseball by Howe Sportsdata.6
In his fourth professional season, Klesko made his Triple-A and major-league debuts. In 123 games with Richmond of the International League, he batted .251 with 17 home runs and 59 RBIs. He was called up by the Braves on September 11 and made his big-league debut the next day in Houston. Facing veteran reliever Doug Jones as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning, he struck out in the Braves’ 9-3 victory. Over the next three weeks, Klesko saw pinch-hitting duty and made one start at first base. On October 1, against San Francisco in Atlanta, he went 0-for-4 with his first major-league RBI (on an infield grounder) in the Braves’ 6-5 victory in 10 innings. In 13 games, he was hitless in 14 at-bats.
Klesko opened the 1993 season in Richmond but was recalled by the Braves on April 19. Three days later, in Miami, he got his first major-league hit —a pinch-single in the ninth inning off the Marlins’ Bryan Harvey. On April 27, in Atlanta, he hit his first major-league home run —a pinch-hit, two-run home run in the ninth inning off Pittsburgh’s Tim Wakefield. The home run tied the game and forced extra innings before the Pirates won 6-2 in 11 innings. Klesko hit .273 in 14 games but was returned to Richmond on May 18.
Back at Richmond, Klesko batted .274 with 22 home runs and 74 RBIs in 98 games. A highlight came when he was named the most valuable player representing the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game after going 4-for-4 with two home runs and three RBIs in the National League’s 14-3 victory over the AL.7
On September 10 Klesko rejoined the Braves. On September 15 in Atlanta, he hit a two-run home run as a pinch-hitter to start the Braves’ five-run rally in the bottom of the ninth in a 7-6 victory over Cincinnati. In his two stints with the Braves, Klesko was 6-for-17 with two home runs and five RBIs in 22 games.
Klesko made Atlanta’s Opening Day roster in 1994. Other than brief minor-league rehab stints in 1995 and 2006, he spent the rest of his 19-year professional career in the major leagues. His opportunity to make the Opening Day roster involved a move from first base to the outfield. Ron Gant, a mainstay in Atlanta’s outfield the previous four seasons, suffered a broken leg in a dirt-bike accident just before the start of spring training. The injury forced Gant to miss the entire season and Braves manager Bobby Cox used a platoon of Klesko and Dave Gallagher in left field. Klesko batted .278 with 17 homers in 245 at-bats and 92 games before the season ended when the players strike began on August 12. Klesko finished third (behind the Dodgers’ Raul Mondesi and Houston’s John Hudek) in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
In the abbreviated spring training of 1995, Klesko had the best batting average (.370) of Braves regulars, but he again opened the season in a platoon with Mike Kelly. In the Braves’ sixth game of the season (May 2 at Florida), Klesko suffered a thumb injury and he was placed on the 15-day disabled list. He returned to the lineup on May 18.
Klesko struggled at the plate in his return (with no home runs in his first 57 at-bats of the season), but in early June he started hitting. He broke out on June 6 with his first two home runs of the season (including the first grand slam of his career) and a career-high six RBIs in Atlanta’s 17-3 victory over the visiting Chicago Cubs. One other noteworthy home run came on July 24, when he homered off Pirates reliever Dan Plesac in Pittsburgh. It was the first home run of his career off a left-hander.
For the season, Klesko hit .310 with 23 home runs and 70 RBIs in 107 games and 329 at-bats. The Braves made the 1995 postseason, and in the Division Series against Colorado, he went 7-for-15 with an RBI. Klesko went hitless in the Braves’ four-game sweep of Cincinnati in the Championship Series, but he took center stage in the World Series.
After the Braves defeated Cleveland in the first two games in Atlanta, Klesko hit home runs in all three games at Jacobs Field in Cleveland to become the first player to homer in three consecutive World Series road games. His home run in the sixth inning of the Braves’ 5-2 victory in Game Four landed near where his mother, Lorene, was sitting in the bleachers.
“It missed her by about 10 feet,” said Klesko. “She went down and got it, but she had to bribe them for it. It cost her a baseball bat, two balls autographed by our whole team and a couple of pictures. But it was worth it.”8
For the Series, won by the Braves in six games, Klesko was 5-for-16 with three home runs and four RBIs.
Klesko got off to a good start in 1996. He hit 10 home runs —a club record for April —with 20 RBIs and a .337 batting average. In early June he had at least one RBI in seven consecutive games (June 2-9). Healthy all season, he played in 153 games and batted .282 with a career-high 34 home runs and then career-high 93 RBIs. Klesko batted just .176 with two home runs and five RBIs in 14 postseason games as the Braves reached the World Series again (losing to the Yankees).
Klesko’s production declined a little in 1997 as he hit 24 home runs and had 84 RBIs in 143 games, but he finished the regular season strong. From August 28 to September 17, he hit six home runs in 13 games. One of those home runs helped Klesko reach a milestone. On September 17 he slugged his fifth career grand slam in the Braves’ 10-2 victory over the New York Mets. The grand slam —the 100th home run of Klesko’s career —was Atlanta’s 12th of the season, which broke the major-league record of 11 (set in 1996 by Baltimore and Seattle). In the opening game of the NLDS, his solo home run in the second inning gave the Braves a 2-0 lead in their 2-1 victory over Houston. He homered in each of the first two games (against Florida) in the NLCS.
Klesko’s 1998 season was interrupted when he had an appendectomy on June 29. He missed the Braves’ six games before the All-Star break and their first three games after the break before returning to action on July 12. For the season, he batted .274 with 18 home runs and 70 RBIs. But after striking out 129 times in 1996 and 130 times in 1997, he struck out only 66 times.
The 1999 season, which saw Klesko split his time between first base and left field, was his last in Atlanta. In 133 games, he hit .297 with 21 home runs and 80 RBIs. In 12 playoff games, Klesko hit .219 and one home run as the Braves made their third World Series appearance in five seasons.
On December 22 the Braves traded Klesko, second baseman Bret Boone, and pitching prospect Jason Shiell to the San Diego Padres for first baseman Wally Joyner, outfielder Reggie Sanders, and second baseman Quilvio Veras.
“I was upset at first because the Braves were so good. But (Padres manager) Bruce (Bochy) brought me in and said I was going to be an everyday player,” Klesko said. “I remember when (Braves general manager) John (Schuerholz) told me about the trade. He said, ‘Ryan, I think you are going to be happy.’ I knew then that I was going to San Diego, Anaheim, or Los Angeles. It was fun going back home and I had good seasons there. I cut down on my swing and stride and things worked out.’’9
Klesko’s first season in Southern California was one of his best overall. As the Padres’ first baseman, he batted .283 with 26 home runs and 92 RBIs in 145 games. He set career highs in walks (91) and stolen bases (23).
His second season with the Padres saw him record another 20-home run, 20-stolen base season —joining Dave Winfield as the only Padre (at that point) to have accomplished that more than once —and was highlighted by his only All-Star Game appearance. In 84 games before the All-Star break, he hit 17 home runs and had 75 RBIs (a team record for RBIs prior to the All-Star break). On July 10 in Seattle, he drove in the NL’s only run with a sacrifice fly in the AL’s 4-1 victory. In 146 games, Klesko batted .286 with 30 home runs and career highs in RBIs (113) and runs scored (105).
In 2002, Klesko’s regular-season debut was delayed as he sat out the first four games (April 1-5) for his involvement in a bench-clearing brawl between the Padres and the Anaheim Angels in an exhibition game in Tempe, Arizona, on March 9. In the first inning of that game, Klesko had charged the mound after being hit in the lower back by a pitch from Aaron Sele.
After the four-game penalty, Klesko was in the lineup almost every day as he batted .300 —his highest average since he hit.310 for Atlanta in 1995 —with 29 home runs and 95 RBIs in 146 games. The season was highlighted by a career-high 16-game hitting streak (April 9-28) and reaching base safely in 56 consecutive games from April 9 to June 14 (the longest streak in the major leagues that season). After the season, he was named the Padres’ MVP by the San Diego Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
After playing in 145, 146, and 146 games, respectively, in the previous seasons, Klesko was limited to 121 games in 2003 and missed the final month of the season after shoulder surgery. For the season, he hit a then career-low .252 with 21 home runs and 67 RBIs.
His 2004 season got off to a slow start and included a stint on the 15-day disabled list (May 28-June 16) because of a right oblique strain. But he batted .310 after the All-Star break to finish with a .291 average in 127 games. He hit 32 doubles but only nine home runs to go with 66 RBIs. He reached a milestone when he hit his 250th career home run in the Padres’ 14-5 victory over the Reds in Cincinnati on August 13.
The 2005 season saw Klesko lead the Padres in home runs (18) for the third time and the Padres’ return to the postseason for the first time since 1998. Klesko was 2-for-10 in the Cardinals’ three-game sweep of the Padres in the NLDS.
Klesko missed all but the final two weeks of the 2006 season. Bothered by soreness in his throwing shoulder in spring training, he started the season on the disabled list. After receiving two cortisone shots, he considered trying to play through the pain. But after having an MRI, Klesko underwent surgery on April 10.
“It’s probably best to go ahead and do it instead of having a roller-coaster all year,” said Klesko. “The MRI did not show very good news.”10
Klesko hoped he would be able to return around the All-Star break but wasn’t activated until late September after an eight-game rehab assignment with Lake Elsinore (California League). Over the final two weeks of the season with the Padres, he was 3-for-4 with two walks and two RBIs as a pinch-hitter. He was on the Padres’ postseason roster and went 2-for-3 as a pinch-hitter in their loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. After the season the Padres declined the option of Klesko’s 2007 contract.
On December 19, 2006, Klesko agreed to a one-year, $1.75 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, where he was reunited with Bruce Bochy, who left the Padres after the 2006 season to become the Giants manager. In 116 games in 2007, he batted .260 with six home runs and 44 RBIs in 362 at-bats. After the season Klesko filed for free agency. In April of 2008, he announced his retirement. For his 16-season major-league career, he batted .279 with 278 home runs and 987 RBIs in 1,736 regular-season games. In 62 postseason games —in seven seasons —he batted .236 with 10 home runs and 22 RBIs.
Klesko was asked about spending the early portion of his big-league career being platooned by Braves manager Bobby Cox.
“Bobby and I were always good,” said Klesko, “but I wanted to play every game. I think he would want any player to want to be out there every day. What it came down to is, I played for two of the best managers in the game in Bobby Cox and Bruce Bochy. I did get to hit a lot more against lefties under Bruce but the Braves gave me my chance and we won big there.’’11
After retiring, Klesko made his home near Macon, Georgia, with his wife and son. He has invested in real estate (more than 7,000 acres in several states) and he owns 17 rental homes. He has hosted an outdoor television program called Campfire Stories on the Pursuit channel on Direct TV.
1 Mike Eisenbath, “Minor League Report: Making His Big Pitch at the Plate,” The Sporting News, September 2, 1991: 33.
3 Gerry Callahan, “Baseball. Sultan of Swat,” Sports Illustrated, April 8, 1996: 66.
4 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to Ryan Klesko,” myajc.com, August 6, 2015.
6 Jim Keller, “Top 10 for the Future,” The Sporting News, September 2, 1991: 33.
7 The Triple-A All-Star Game featured players from each of the three Triple-A leagues (American Association, International League, and Pacific Coast League). An MVP from each league was designated after the game.
8 I.J. Rosenberg, “Klesko Will Start in Left Despite Pain in Thumb,” Atlanta Journal/Constitution, October 28, 1995: D5.
9 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to Ryan Klesko,” myajc.com, August 6, 2015.
10 “Around The Majors: Padres’ Klesko Out Two to Four Months,” Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2006: D10.
11 I.J. Rosenberg, “Whatever Happened to Ryan Klesko,” myajc.com, August 6, 2015.