July 14, 2009
By David Driver
Used with permission
The Howard County chapter of the Jason Berken fan club had a strong enrollment long before he made his major league debut with the Baltimore Orioles May 26. That’s because Berken, 25, who lives in Ellicott City with his wife, Emily, has made quite an impression on the high school players and coaches around the county through his pitching lessons and camp appearances.
“He’s funny,” Hammond rising senior Danny Wissmann said. Even though he is a big leaguer “he doesn’t make it seem like that. He has fun; he just seems like one of the kids.”
Berken grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and played college ball for Clemson. He was drafted by the Orioles in 2006 and moved to Howard County because he felt it would be close to the minor league stops he would be making.
“We would love to stay here as long as we can,” Berken said.
He began the season as the 17th-best prospect in the Oriole system, according to Baseball America, with 10 pitchers listed in front of him.
He is used to facing long odds. He is listed, generously, at 6-foot and had ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, more commonly known as Tommy John surgery, in college. It is a surgical procedure in which a ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body, often from the forearm, hamstring, knee or foot of the patient.
“That is how it is always been with my career. Coming out of Wisconsin, it was tough,” Berken said. Landing a spot at Clemson was key to his career since he was in a warmer climate, he said.
Perhaps because of his humble rise through the baseball ranks, Berken is more willing than most to shun his Big League status and share the game with others.
Working once a week with Berken this past winter at one of the local high schools, Wissman said he has learned a lot — such as how to add velocity to his fastball and “how to stay back and not rush toward the plate.”
Wissmann, a lefty, was named pitcher of the year by country coaches after leading Hammond to a county championship with his 0.65 ERA.
For the past two years, Berken and Oriole minor leaguer Brandon Erbe, who grew up in the Baltimore area and graduated from McDonogh School, have conducted clinics for young baseball players in Howard County and beyond.
“He is a ball of energy. That is the best way to put it,” said Erbe, who began this season with the Bowie Baysox, the Orioles Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League. “For me (the clinics) are pretty easy. Jason does all of the work. His wife, she does all of the behind-the-scenes work.”
Berken and Erbe became friends as starting pitchers for the Class A Frederick Keys of the Carolina League in 2007 and have worked out in the off-season at Camden Yards.
Several other players from Hammond, including twins Travis and Tyler Clark, as well as a group of pitchers from Reservoir, have benefited from Berken’s local presence.
“Basically, any of my pitchers who want to work with him, work with him,” said Reservoir coach Adam Leader, who considers Berken to be a close friend.
Leader first met Berken when the pitcher was working with some of his players at the Extra Innings training center in Laurel. Their wives became friends and Leader has gone to all of Berken’s starts this season. Leader said that Berken recently attended a show at Reservoir that his 4-year-old daughter was performing in, and he presented her with flowers afterward.
“He is amazing with kids. If you want your kid to learn baseball, he’s the guy you want your kid to be around,” Leader said.
Clearly, Berken has a career in coaching after his playing days are over. And with a bevy of highly touted prospects pushing their way into the big leagues over the next season or two, Berken’s days in the big leagues could be numbered.
“With Jason, it’s his delivery,” Orioles’ manager Dave Trembley said before a recent start. “Don’t try to throw your breaking ball so hard. I would like to see him pitch well.”
Berken does not throw exceptionally hard, but he does throw strikes and that has aided his development. Of his 88 pitches against Toronto July 10, 51 were strikes, although the loss in a 2-0 defeat to the Blue Jays.
Berken has at least one fan who thinks that he has a long major league career ahead of him.
“He’s doing pretty well. He’s a great guy and I think he can make it,” Wissmann said.
Berken, who has a 1-6 record, will pitch against the Chicago White Sox July 17, the Orioles’ first game after the All-Star break.
Andrew Conrad contributed to this story.