Obituary: Matt Keough (1955-2020)

RIP to Matt Keough, a pitcher who was a part of Oakland’s “Five Aces” pitching staff in the early ’80s. He died on May 1 at the age of 64. Keough was part of a baseball family that included his father Marty Keough, his uncle Joe Keough, and his son Shane, who played in the A’s minor leagues from 2007-2010. Matt Keough played for the Oakland Athletics (1977-83), New York Yankees (1983), St. Louis Cardinals (1985), Chicago Cubs (1986) and Houston Astros (1986).

UPDATE MAY 9: Jeana Keough, Matt Keough’s ex-wife, revealed the cause of death on Hollywood Life. She said that Keough died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism while watching television with his girlfriend. He was in otherwise excellent health, though the Coronavirus quarantine had limited his normal outdoors exercise routine.

Keough in his post-playing career had served as a special assistant on several teams, including the A’s. “Matt was a great baseball man and a proud Oakland A,” said A’s Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane. “He had an incredible passion for the game and we were lucky to have him and his wealth of knowledge alongside us for the years he worked as a Special Assistant. He left an unforgettable impression on everyone he touched in baseball. Our sincere condolences are with the entire Keough family tonight.”

The Keough family has been hit hard by tragedy recently. Kara Keough Bosworth, Matt’s daughter, lost her newborn child about three weeks ago. She posted a message on Instagram that read in part, “Daddy, please take care of my son. Teach him the circle changeup and how to find forever friends. You’re on Grandpa duty in heaven now.”

Source: The Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1973.

Matt Keough was born on July 3, 1955 in Pomona, Calif. At the time, his father Marty Keough was a year away from starting an 11-year big league career as an outfielder. Keough saw his first major-league game when he was two months old and spent his childhood hanging around with the likes of Ted Williams.

“I was pretty little,” Keough recalled years later. “But I do recall that Ted Williams used to say he wanted to adopt me. Guess he might change his mind if he saw me today as a pitcher.”

He didn’t exactly follow in his father’s footsteps; Matt was a good hitter in high school but found more success on the pitching mound. He attended Pomona High School like his father before transferring to Corona del Mar in his junior year. By his senior year, he was considered to be a top prospect by a San Diego Padres scout — Marty Keough.

“If I had to pin my job on one player I saw this spring making the major leagues, it would be Matt,” he said. “He’s disciplined, determined, he has concentration and he’s talented.”

A little biased? Possibly, but the elder Keough was hardly the only person who saw potential in his son. The University of Arizona offered him a scholarship, and the Athletics drafted him in the 7th Round of the 1973 June Amateur Draft. They just weren’t quite sure what to do with him.

“Oakland likes him as a third baseman but I think he’s going to become a pitcher,” Marty said. The A’s probably should have listened to him, but they started him off in 1974 as a shortstop for the Burlington Bees of the Class-A Midwest League. He failed to hit .200. Keough raised his batting average by more than 100 points in 1975 in Modesto, where he hit .303 with 13 homers. He was promoted to AA Chattanooga in 1976, but he batted just .210 for the Lookouts. He also made a couple of appearances as a pitcher and threw 2 scoreless innings, striking out 2 hitters.

Keough explained that he gave up pitching after hurting his arm in high school. It was A’s owner Charlie Finley who suggested that he switch back to pitcher. Starting in 1977, Keough went back to the mound full time. He was in the major leagues later that year.

“This spring I worked with Lee Stange [the A’s pitching coach],” Keough said. “He thought I had the right motion. He told me never to change it.”

Keough went 9-12 for the Lookouts with a 3.81 ERA, and he led the Southern League with 153 strikeouts in 175 innings. it was a successful enough season that he was brought to the major leagues on September 1. He made his debut on September 3 with a 3-inning relief outing against Detroit. He gave up 2 runs on a home run to Rusty Staub. Manager Bobby Winkles gave Keough a start against the White Sox on September 7, and he went 7 strong innings in a losing effort. He stayed in the starting rotation for the remainder of the season. He went 1-3 with a 4.85 ERA, striking out 32 batters.

The “Five Aces” Sports Illustrated cover from 1981.

Keough won 8 games and lost 15 in 1978, but win-loss records can be deceiving. His 3.24 ERA was best among all A’s starters, and he had a 6-4 record and 2.16 ERA at the All-Star Break. He was named an All-Star for the only time in his career, and he faced two batters in the Midsummer Classic in relief of Jim Palmer in the 3rd inning. He gave up a single to Ted Simmons to load the bases before retiring Rick Monday on a flyball to left.

Keough struggled at times in the second half of the season, thanks to a knee injury. losing his last four starts in September. He then lost his first 14 decisions in 1979, including six straight starts from April 15 to May 16. Although he threw four complete games during that span, he was not pitching well at all and had an ERA near 6 by the time he was yanked from the rotation in August. While he was supposedly sent to the bullpen, A’s manager Jim Marshall just benched him for a month until a September 5 start against Milwaukee. Keough threw a complete game 5-hitter for a 6-1 win and the end to his 18-game losing streak.

Keough thanked the Oakland fans who rallied around him and mailed him all manner of good luck charms. He never quit, and he never lashed out at his teammates, though he would admit several years later that some of the other players had given up. “I talked to my father, and he helped me a lot. He told me to just keep plugging and, no matter what happened, not to make any excuses. Whether you’re 2-17 or 17-2, you’ve gotta remember you’re a professional.”

The ’79 A’s lost 108 games, and Keough ended the year with a 2-17 record and 5.04 ERA. Both of their fortunes would turn around soon. The A’s hired Billy Martin as their new manager, and he guided the team to an 83-79 record, finishing in second place in the AL West. Keough won 16 games against 13 losses, had a 2.92 ERA and completed 20 of his 32 starts. That was good for 3rd-best in the AL that year, behind teammates Rick Langford and Mike Norris. His turnaround won him the 1980 Comeback Player of the Year Award. Keough said that he eliminated the slider from his repertoire in Winter Ball, and as a result, his arm didn’t tire as quickly. He attributed the team’s turnaround, and his own, to Martin.

“He gave me confidence,” Keough said. “I was never geared to complete baseball games. But he said, when you go out there, the ballgame’s yours.”

Keough may have a little extra help as well. A poll in The Boston Globe in September of 1980 rated Keough as having the second-best spitter in the American League, behind only Bob Stanley of the Red Sox. It was taught to him by A’s pitching coach Art Fowler, if you believe such things.

The A’s took the complete game emphasis to the next level in 1981. The team won their first 11 games and 20 of their first 23, and it was largely done on the arms of their “Five Aces” pitching staff — so named because of a Sports Illustrated cover story. Keough, Norris, Langford, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman completed 17 of those first 23 games. Keough got off to a 6-0 start and 2.14 ERA with 4 CG’s and 2 shutouts. The season was disrupted with the player’s strike, so he had only 19 starts. But Keough had a 10-6 record, 3.40 ERA and 10 complete games in those starts. The A’s made it to the postseason by winning the first half of the year. Keough did not appear in the Division Series over the Royals but made a start in the AL Championship Series against the Yankees. In 8-1/3 innings, he walked 6 but allowed just 1 earned run — a homer by Willie Randolph. Unfortunately, the A’s could do nothing against the Yankees and lost 4-0, ending the series after three games.

After those two good seasons, the bottom dropped out in 1982. All of the Five Aces struggled, as the A’s lost 94 games. Keough led the majors with 18 losses, 133 earned runs allowed and 38 home runs allowed, and his ERA ballooned up to 5.72. His troubles started back in 1981 after his 6-0 start. He slipped while delivering a pitch during a rainy game in Baltimore and felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. He pitched through it in 1981, but the injury caught up with him in ’82.

By 1983, the rotation had been broken up for good, thanks to injuries and trades. Keough was sent to the New York Yankees for a couple of minor-leaguers, and he was reunited with manager Martin. He didn’t pitch any better for his new team, however. He was 2-3 with a 5.52 for Oakland and 3-4 with a 5.17 for New York. Keough didn’t return to the majors at all in 1984. Originally sent to AA Nashville to learn the knuckleball from pitching instructor Hoyt Wilhelm, he pitched in just 7 minor-league games before shoulder injuries ended his season.

Keough returned to the major leagues in 1985, this time wearing a Cardinals uniform. He’d signed with the team after being released by the Yankees. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his rotator cuff in the offseason and spent most of the season in AAA Louisville recovering his form. He made 4 appearances for St. Louis in September and gave up 5 runs in his only start. He also had three scoreless relief outings for a 4.50 ERA in 10 innings.

Source: Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1986.

Again a free agent, Keough signed with the Cubs in 1986 and went into training camp in a bid to make the team as a middle reliever. “The important thing is I have my health now, and I can throw every day. The only thing I want to do is (prove) my arm is sound,” he said. He impressed Cubs manager Jim Frey and made the team. He pitched in 19 games for the Cubs, including 2 starts, ending up with a 2-2 record and 4.97 ERA. He was released and signed with the Astros, where he was better — a 3-2 record and 3.09 ERA in 10 games. The former infielder also got to show off his hitting skills with the Cubs and Astros. He hit a combined .375 in 16 at-bats and even stole a base.

Keough pitched in Japan for the next four seasons, spending 1987 through 1990 for the Hanshin Tigers. He was part of the first father-son duo to play in both the major leagues and in Japan, as Marty Keough spent a season with the Nankai Hawks. He had a 45-44 record during that time.

“I was right in the middle of the owners-players collusion on free agency and salaries,” Keough explained about the circumstances that brought him to Japan. “I went to the winter meetings [in 1986], and no one would talk to me. I was throwing well then, my fastball was in the high 80s, low 90s. And not one club would talk to me.”

Keough went to spring training with the California Angels in 1991 but failed to make the team. He underwent rotator cuff surgery for the second time in the offseason and tried out again in 1992. On March 16, Keough was struck above the right ear by a foul ball at Scottsdale Stadium. His father was at the game as a Cardinals scout and spoke with his son briefly before he lost consciousness. The pitcher was taken to a hospital across the street from the stadium, where a CAT scan showed a blood clot on the right side of his head.

“The doctors told us if we hadn’t been so close (to the hospital), we’d have lost him from the bleeding,” his father said.

Keough underwent brain surgery and was sent home to recover. He said he tried to get his hands up to deflect the line drive, but the dugout positioning of the stadium left him too close to the action and unable to react in time. He’d pitched well before the injury, too. “Now I have to live with lines like, ‘You’re lucky to be alive,’ and I know it’s true, but it doesn’t relieve the frustration of the fact you’ve taken a year out of your life to get back to what you love to do, and you have it all taken away in an instant,” he said.

Keough never pitched in professional ball again. In 9 seasons in the major leagues, he had a 58-84 record, 4.17 ERA and 590 strikeouts in 215 games (175 starts). He had a 1.429 WHIP and was worth 5.9 Wins Above Replacement in his career.

Keough became a special assistant and scout for the Angels and later worked for the A’s as a special assistant and pitching advisor for the Athletics. He was also a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays. He filed a lawsuit against the city of Scottsdale for injuries suffered as a result of the foul ball, claiming that the design of the stadium was too dangerous for ballplayers in the dugouts. The lawsuit was settled in 1996. Outside of baseball, he made an occasional appearance on “Real Housewives of Orange County,” which featured his estranged wife and children in the cast.

For more information: Mercury News

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