Of the few acquisitions the Yankees have made this off-season through either trades or free agency, I’m most intrigued by the prospects and potential of Jonathan Albaladejo. With or without Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees’ bullpen needs help, both in terms of quality and depth. If Albaladejo can pitch anywhere near as effectively as he did last September for the Nationals, he will certainly aid the Yankee cause. His mid-nineties fastball and superb control, if given the proper chance to shine, will be a welcome addition to Joe Girardi’s revamped bullpen.
Then there’s Albaladejo’s size. At six feet, five inches and 250-260 pounds, the right-hander commands a hulking presence on the pitcher's mound. Whenever I hear those kinds of dimensions, the name of Charlie Kerfeld comes to mind. As seen in his 1986 Score rookie card, Kerfeld looked a little bit like a truck driver on the mound, though I have to confess that he looks a little slimmer than usual in this photograph. Hey, perhaps the camera subtracts ten pounds.
In actuality, Albaladejo doesn’t really look like Kerfeld; he’s Latino (born in Puerto Rico), has a more angular face, doesn’t wear glasses, and sports an earring (which he’ll have to ditch in Yankeeland). But he does fall into that same general category as Kerfeld—talented but overweight reliever, with a little eccentricity thrown in for good measure. (Like Kerfeld, Albaladejo is considered a little bit light above the shoulders, an airhead, if you will.) Those kinds of pitchers have a tendency of flaming out over the long haul—think Dick "The Monster" Radatz or Brad "The Animal" Lesley—but for awhile, they can create a stir with their mix of stuff, antics, intimidation, and imposing monstrosity.
Fitted with oversized glasses and carrying anywhere from 230 to 250 pounds on his 6-foot, 6-inch frame, Charlie Kerfeld looked like few other major-league players of his era—or any other, for that matter. On the mound, the native of Knob Noster, Missouri, was as boisterous as he was overweight, often engaging in a series of awkward gyrations while pitching in short and set-up relief for the Houston Astros. Unlike the staid Mariano Rivera, Kerfeld showed his emotions as they changed, often coinciding with strikeouts of opposing batters in key situations.
Away from the mound, Kerfeld was just as entertaining. As he sat in the bullpen, he sometimes donned a large conehead, a practice shared by fellow Astros relievers Larry Anderson and Dave Smith. He wore outrageous clothes to the ballpark, ranging from Rambo-style military fatigues to pink high-tops. (It’s not clear if he wore the fatigues and the high-tops at the same time.) A superstitious sort, Kerfeld wore what he considered his lucky "Jetson" T-shirt under his uniform. With the Astros, he wore No. 37 and once negotiated a contract that included an annual payout of 37 boxes of orange-flavored Jell-O. I assume that it took Kerfeld less than a full year to finish off those boxes.
With his odd quirks, robust personality, and general good nature, many fans and writers considered Kerfeld a refreshing 1980s version of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. Like Fidrych, Kerfeld forged one dominant season; in 1986, he posted a 2.76 ERA and won 11 of 13 decisions while setting up Dave Smith in the Houston bullpen. With a riding fastball and a convenient touch of wildness, Kerfeld alarmed and overpowered most National League hitters. And like Fidrych, he lacked staying power. After his meteoric 1986 season, Kerfeld flopped so badly that he never again fashioned an effective season. In fact, he never managed to keep his ERA under 5.58 the rest of his career. Kerfeld saw his major league days end after a failed 1990 stint with the Atlanta Braves because of continuing issues with his weight and an injury to his right elbow.
The Yankees hope that Albaladejo, whose weight remains a colossal concern, will have more long-term success than Kerfeld. Then again, if he can help the Yankees reach the League Championship Series in 2008, the way that Big Charlie did with the Astros in 1986, perhaps the Yankees will be happy with just that.
Bruce Markusen, the author of seven books on baseball, writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and weighs less than both Charlie Kerfeld and Jonathan Albaladejo.