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Everyone knows his name

Kurt Shafer was a relatively unknown pitcher at Land O'Lakes until he displayed a 90 mph fastball to scouts and made himself a hot prospect.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


The moment that defines Kurt Shafer's baseball career is a moment that was not supposed to be his.

It was Derek Thompson's. The Gator southpaw has just finished the fourth inning of his first start of the season, and the mass of scouts squeezed between the backstop and the cold brick front wall of the press box began to stir. Would he pitch the fifth? Was he done for the night?

Can we go home now?

When the fifth inning came, Thompson did not. Instead, a tall, rangy, red-headed right-hander came out to pitch, and the scouts, one by one, put their speed guns away and zipped up their bags.

Then it happened: Pop!

Pop! Pop!

Shafer's fastball smacked against catcher Brian Baisley's glove, followed by the sound of bags being unzipped.

With the guns and eyes now trained on him, ringing up 90 mph fastballs and opening wide at a nasty split-fingered pitch respectively, Shafer had stolen the spotlight from Thompson, a known commodity. That night, Shafer became a professional baseball prospect and a Division I recruit.

"Coming into that game, I had been throwing about 87, which is decent but not what the scouts are looking for," said Shafer, a senior. "Then the guns were on me, and then they were on me the next inning too and I figured I must have been doing something right."

He was. Afterwards, a handful of scouts expressed their interest to Shafer's parents, Paul and Marilyn, telling them: "Before the game no one knew who he is. Now, everybody knows who he is."

"All last year, by the time Kurt came in, the scouts had always put their equipment away," Paul said. "They'd leave after Derek pitched. For some reason that night, they just stayed around. After seeing Kurt, they were all kind of scrambling. They wanted to know where he was going to college, if he had signed, and they started handing out information cards and medical forms."

Paul estimates that scouts from at least 20 major-league teams have expressed interest in his son. St. Petersburg and Manatee Junior Colleges are chasing Shafer, as is Division I South Florida, where buddy Thompson could be headed.

For Kurt Shafer, 18, it is his just due for hard work. The closer in 1999, Shafer had seven saves but did so with arguably the county's best out pitch: a split-fingered fastball with a secret grip he refuses to reveal to a newspaper photographer.

His fastball, though, was only 83 or 84 mph. If he wanted to be a starter, Gator coach Cal Baisley told him, he needed to add some speed.

"He got by last year with his curveball and split finger, and I told him his arm was too good for that," Baisley said. "So he threw a lot of fastballs over the summer. He, more than anybody else, prepared himself for the season."

The credit for Shafer's success can be divided between working out with brother Erik, a catcher at Saint Leo, his work throwing a football -- he led Land O'Lakes to a 10-1 record as the starting quarterback in the fall -- and the transfer of Cory Doyne to Land O'Lakes, who was expected to eat up a lot of those starts Shafer coveted.

"I think that was his biggest motivation," Paul said. "He knew he had to do something."

Because he has been so effective -- a 6-2 record and 0.66 ERA -- Shafer has not had to worry about getting his innings in. In fact, he leads the team with 42 2/3 and has struck out 63. Wednesday against Springstead, the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder tossed a complete-game two-hitter, striking out a career-high 14. Not bad for a coverted -- and as far as the scouts were concerned covert -- closer.

"He is bigger and stronger and really worked on throwing that fastball," Baisley said. "And what separates him is he spots his fastball better than anyone on the team. He's also got that split-fingered fastball, and that's the best I've seen, period."

There are some scouts who apparently agree.

* * *

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