There is magic in Jack Taschner’s left arm.
The former UW-Oshkosh and current San Francisco Giants pitcher can make a baseball do all sorts of marvelous things. Want to see a baseball vanish? Poof. At 97 mph, Taschner’s fastball disappears like vapor in a catcher’s mitt. Toss in a nasty slider and a mesmerizing changeup to the bag of tricks and Taschner’s left arm can perform wonders.
And in 2005 that’s just what the arm did for Taschner who, after toiling six years in the minors, made his Major League debut with the Giants. Why, that left arm did everything but pull a rabbit out of Barry Bonds’ hat.
“He’s some kind of impressive,” says Giants manager Felipe Alou of the 27-year-old Taschner, who had a 2-0 record and 1.59 ERA in 24 relief appearances last season. “Jack’s stuff is legitimate and I don’t have any doubt about that.”
Yes, there is magic in that left arm all right. Still, if you look closely you’ll see something more. It starts with a scar on the inside of the arm near the elbow. The scar is a permanent reminder of Tommy John surgery. The operation required removing a tendon from Taschner’s right wrist and attaching it to his left arm to repair a blown out ligament.
The injury cost Taschner the entire 2002 season. It almost cost him his career. Taschner, a second-round pick by the Giants in 1999, endured two earlier injuries to his pitching arm: a torn labrum in 1999 and ulnar nerve damage in 2001. The Tommy John surgery and the grueling recovery process put everything in doubt.
The magic? It disappeared under the surgeon’s knife. Taschner didn’t have the blazing fastball or the slider, but he knew how to work and he was determined. Sometimes that’s all you need.
In almost a surreal development last season, Taschner pushed past the injuries, developing from a non-roster invitee at the Giants’ spring training, to a dominant reliever with AAA Fresno, to one of San Francisco’s best bullpen arms all in a matter of months.
“My arm finally caught up after all the injuries. That was the biggest factor to my success,” says the soft-spoken Taschner, who became the eighth Titan to appear in a Major League baseball game when he made his debut against the Cleveland Indians last season. “I ironed out some mechanical things and learned to pitch a little better, but mostly it was my body deciding it was going to recover from all the surgeries, all the rehab and all the hard work.”
For all the unsavory things you may hear about professional athletes, it’s difficult to imagine a more likeable person than Jack Taschner. A native of Racine, Wis., Taschner now lives in Oshkosh in the off-season to be close to his 2-year-old son, Gradin. After going through a divorce, Taschner admits that one of the motivating factors to making it to the Majors was – and remains – his son. “The big thing is I knew if I made it to the big leagues, I would be able to afford to have Gradin come out and see me,” Taschner says.
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Taschner is supremely gifted, confident, yet unassuming. He exudes a refreshing, matter-of-fact view of life. If it’s possible to be both confident and humble at the same time, Taschner pulls it off. It’s easy to see why so many people are pulling for him.
“He’s a favorite of the training staff,” says Giants head trainer Stan Conte, regarded as one of the top experts in physical therapy and conditioning in professional sports. “It’s great to see him up here. This guy picked himself off the floor a number of times.”
For Taschner, failure wasn’t an option. To him, it’s simple. If you want something bad enough you work for it. There is no big mystery, no excuses, and most definitely no self-pity.
“There’s a lot of frustration with any injury, but no one wants to hear about that,” Taschner says. “I’m not the kind of person to complain. It’s just not worth it. If you do that you start thinking about it too much and it just takes over. Honestly, the arm injuries had taken a toll on me. I had made up my mind that last year was going to be a make or break year for me depending on how the numbers panned out.”
That mental toughness is no surprise to Titans Coach Tom Lechnir who saw a raw, wild-throwing freshman develop into a brilliant college pitcher at Oshkosh. Taschner is the kind of kid coming out of high school that Lechnir loves: Tough, competitive and just bull-headed enough to improve no matter what.
“Medically, they can usually repair just about anything,” Lechnir says when talking about Taschner’s arm problems. “That’s not the biggest concern. The biggest thing is mental. Do you have the toughness and mental desire to make it? There is no question that Jack has that.”
In that respect, Taschner reminds Lechnir of former Titans star and current Seattle Mariners left-hander, Jarrod Washburn. That’s some compliment considering that Washburn has a career Major League record of 75-57 with a 3.93 ERA. Those numbers earned the Webster, Wis., native a four-year, $37.5 million free agent contract from Seattle.
“Both Jack and Jarrod come from humble beginnings. Neither of them had much growing up,” Lechnir says. “But what they did have, and what they still have, is a hunger and desire that really defines them as people. They constantly want to get better.”
That drive to be the best is what brought Taschner to Oshkosh in the first place. Selected out of high school by the Anaheim Angels in the 37th round of the 1996 draft, Taschner bypassed the pros because he knew he wasn’t ready. He chose Oshkosh because Lechnir told him the same thing.
“Coach is the only one who told me I wouldn’t play my freshman year,” Taschner says. “Everybody else said I would get a shot or that I would definitely pitch. Some coaches went as far as to tell me they could make me an all-conference player as a freshman. Coach is the only one who told me he didn’t think I would be able to play here but he told me I would get better.
“He was the only one I felt who was honest with me. I knew there was no way I could pitch as a freshman. I was throwing the ball all over the place. I had no clue.
“Now obviously, Coach saw potential in me. Coach knows a ton about mechanics and he probably figured he could help me. But mechanics will only get you so far. I can give you a list of players with great mechanics but they had no heart. They didn’t succeed here. For Coach, it’s a tell all. If he can pull the competitiveness out of you he knows you’ll be fine, no matter what level you play at and no matter what you do in life.
“I liked the challenge of him telling me I wouldn’t play. That’s why I decided to come up here. That’s the only reason I decided to come up here.”
Taschner proved Lechnir wrong: he did pitch as a freshman. Just not very well.
After making the team for the spring trip to Memphis only after a teammate became ineligible, Taschner got to throw one inning, an inning that went by in a blur. Literally. He forgot his glasses.
“I remember sitting next to (teammate) Casey Kopitzke and I turned to him, ‘Casey, I forgot my glasses. I can’t see.’”
“Don’t worry,” Kopitzke replied. “Coach says you’re not pitching until tomorrow.”
But Kopitzke was wrong. Taschner, in mop up duty, got his first action as a Titan. It wasn’t pretty.
“It was a debacle,” Taschner says of the forgettable outing. “We had a shutout going, up 10 to nothing. I walk two guys, give up a base hit and it was 10-1. I blew the shut out. Coach pulls me, but only after lighting me up pretty good.
“There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t see,” Taschner says almost sheepishly. “I was really trying but I could not see. All I could see was this fuzzy spot in front of me. I was all over the place. I was throwing 84 with no changeup, a little bit of a breaking ball, but that’s about it. It’s just not a good situation to be in.”
Taschner made sure that bad outing in Memphis was his last as a Titan. He went 13-0 during the 1997, 1998 and 1999 seasons. In 1999, he earned NCAA Division III All-Midwest Region honors after going 7-0 with a 1.51 earned run average over 53.2 innings. At the end of the season, Taschner signed with the Giants, a contract that included a $500,000 signing bonus.
Despite all of that, Taschner maintains he was only the third best pitcher on those powerhouse Oshkosh teams that went 102-19 and captured three WIAC championships. The 1999 team was loaded, going 34-4. Five players were drafted off that team: Craig Glysch, Kevin Grater, Sean Parnell, Kopitzke and Taschner. To this day, Taschner says Glysch and Grater were better pitchers than him in college.
“I felt that ‘99 team should have won a championship and I was a No. 3 pitcher on that team,” Taschner says. “I’ve obviously gone on to do some good things on the professional level but the top two guys were college studs. Glysch and Grater were outstanding. I can’t even argue about being the third guy on that team because those guys were the horses.
“The thing is we all bought into the system. So many guys bail out early. So many will complain that they don’t feel like they’re being treated right. To me that is just whining. How are you going to succeed in life if you’re whining all the time? Look, life’s not fair. It’s not fair at all. If you can’t handle certain situations in college how are you going to handle them when you’re out of school? The question kids should be asking themselves is this: How bad do I want it?”
Taschner has proven he wants it badly. His professional career is a dream come true.
“Everything I've always been told about the Big Leagues has been surpassed,” Taschner says. “It's an exciting atmosphere, you're playing in the biggest stadiums in the world and it's awesome.”
It can also be intimidating. Like the night last summer when Taschner was called into a game one month into his Major League career to face the St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, who was in the midst of an MVP season. Two outs. Bases loaded. Game on the line.
“That was a gut-check moment,” says Taschner, who immediately threw three balls to Pujols. “Now I’m really in a jam. Nine times out of 10, you're not going to walk away from this situation very happy.
“Facing Pujols, you definitely know who’s up there. You have to watch your pitches. But you still have to believe you can get that guy out or you’re done. You’re dead in the water. To me, the confidence factor is this: Do I think I can’t get anyone out? No chance. I think I can get everyone out.”
On this mid summer’s night dream, that’s exactly what Taschner did. He got Pujols, but only after the Cardinals slugger hit the ball a mile high to the warning track.
Maybe Taschner was lucky that evening in July. Maybe, just maybe, he’s that good. There are plenty of games to be played to find out for sure. Right now, however, the magic is back in Jack Taschner’s left arm. And the scars are always there to remind him of just how great all of this is.
Written By Paul Kennedy (March 1, 2006)