Ode to Quiz

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Dan Quisenberry. September 2010.

This is going to be an essay about Dan Quisenberry. It is something I plan to read at the last Quisenberry Golf Tournament for the Harvesters food bank, which will take place Monday at the Shadow Glen Golf Club in Olathe, Kansas.

The tournament has been going on for 17 years, which is pretty remarkable stuff for a charity golf tournament in today’s world. It’s even more remarkable because Quiz did not start the tournament until he had been retired from baseball for three years. And it’s even MORE remarkable because Dan passed away a dozen years ago (has it really been 12 years?), and the tournament has continued all this years thanks almost entirely to the heroic efforts of Janie Quisenberry Stone, who has worked so hard to keep it going.

The tournament has raised almost $900,000 through the years — enough, the Harvester people calculate, to provide 4.5 million meals to those who desperately needed them.

Every community, of course, has its own charities, its own challenges, its own daily heroes who try in big ways and small to make things better. Dan and Janie have been a couple of those daily heroes. If you have a moment and a few extra dollars, I would ask you to consider helping out Harvesters. OK. Now the essay, which is about baseball.

* * *

“There has never been a pitcher who made fewer mistakes than Dan Quisenberry.”

– Bill James in the New Historical Baseball Abstract.

Dan Quisenberry threw the first career wild pitch on a Saturday night in 1979. It was his 10th big league game. Kansas City was playing Baltimore, and the Royals were leading by four runs, and Quiz entered the game with the Orioles’ star Eddie Murray on second base. Quisenberry’s wild pitch moved Murray to third base. A single by Lee May scored Murray. Quiz finished the game without much more trouble. In the ninth inning, he coaxed Terry Crowley into hitting a double play grounder. It was already the fifth double play ground ball he persuaded a batter to hit. When it was all said and done, Quiz would persuade 130 batters to hit into double plays. And he would throw four wild pitches. Four.

Dan Quisenberry hit the first batter of his career on a Friday night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1980. Quiz was, by then, 27 years old and fully formed as a submarine-style pitcher. It had not been an easy transition. He had gone undrafted after a fine but not especially noticeable career at the University of La Verne. Something turbulent bubbles inside people like Dan Quisenberry, something that tells them they are destined to do something high above their most obvious talents. Dan was a pitcher who could not throw hard. He knew this better than anyone else. He called his fastball Peggy Lee after her song “Is That All There Is?” But he also once told the writer Roger Angell: “I’ve always felt that when I throw it something wonderful is going to happen.”

His college coach recommended him to Kansas City, and Quiz signed with the Royals for — he always said — $500 and a bag of chewing tobacco. He then proceeded to pitch unbelievably well in the minor league, and I used the word “unbelievably” literally here. Nobody believed it. He pitched in Class AA Jacksonville, Fla. four years in a row, though his ERA there was 1.88. The numbers did not match the eyes. They never did in Quiz’s baseball life.

He was a sidearm pitcher then and also when he finally got the call to the big leagues in 1979. His manager, Jim Frey, famously took him out to a bullpen session and asked him to throw fastballs and curves. Frey’s decidedly profane scouting report after that disastrous tryout was that Quiz could throw neither. But Frey then did one of the great favors of Dan’s life — he got Quiz together with a submarine pitcher named Kent Tekulve during spring training. Tekulve taught Quiz how to throw submarine style. Quiz took the style, added a couple of wrinkles, and in 1980, Quiz had a great season. He won 12 games, led the league in 33 saves, helped pitch the Royals to their first World Series appearance. He hit his first batter on August 1 — he came into the game with the Royals winning 4-3, and he plunked a White Sox hitter named Jim Morrison. He stranded Morrison though and in the ninth, despite giving up a triple, he held the White Sox scoreless and the Royals won. Quiz would hit only six more batters the rest of his career.

Quiz gave up his first home run on a Monday in August of 1979. It was in Milwaukee. He gave up that first home run to a man who would become a nemesis, Ben Oglivie. Many years later, when Quiz had stopped pitching and started writing poetry, he took some time to write what he called “An Ode to Ben Oglivie.”

i heard you were a quiet man

could do a times crossword in 15 minutes

yet you seemed nervous at the plate

waving, wiggling that bat

a puppy’s tail

held high by sinew-strong arms

Quiz gave up that first home run in 1979, and he would give up others, like the one he gave up to Reggie Jackson that, he said after the game, was “still burrowing its way to Los Angeles.” But here again, he did not give up many home runs. Quiz gave up just 59 home runs in more than 1,000 innings pitched. He kept the ball low, and made the ball sink lower. In the checkered history of closers — among the 40 men who saved 200 games or more — only Mariano Rivera allowed fewer home runs per nine innings.

Quiz allowed only 65 stolen bases in his career — and 17 of those came in his final year, 1989, when he had run out of tricks and no long had the same good feelings when he threw the ball to the plate. He fielded his position well — he had 245 assists in his career, which, by comparison, is 100 more assists than Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter had in his career. Of course, Sutter was a strikeout pitcher and Quiz was not. You made do with what you have.

Quiz walked his first batter on a July day in Comiskey Park in 1979. The batter he walked was Claudell Washington. And it was an intentional walk. His second walk came four days later, at home, against Baltimore’s Ken Singleton. That too was intentional. His third walk was his first unintentional one — against Toronto pinch hitter Tony Solaita.

And over a long career, 1,043 innings worth, Quiz walked just 162 men. You have to go back more than 80 years to find a pitcher who walked so few per nine innings, but even this is deceiving because Quiz walked 70 of his batters intentionally. We don’t have intentional walk numbers of Cy Young or Deacon Phillipe or Babe Adams — the only three men who walked fewer per nine innings than Quiz. But it’s fair to assume that they did not intentionally walk many. And it’s fair to assume that Quiz’s one unintentional walk per 11 innings is, by far, the best walk ratio in the history of baseball. Quiz was, I believe, the greatest control pitcher of all time.

Which brings us to the point: So Quiz didn’t walk people. He didn’t hit batters. He didn’t give up home runs. He was never slow off the mound covering first base, and he hit the catcher’s mitt where it was held, and when he gave up his inevitable hits (after all, he did not have a fastball or curveball) he held those inevitable runners close at first base. What does it add up to mean? Well, it will sound hopelessly corny, but I believe it: Inside all of us is something possible. It isn’t something easy to see — and you can be sure most people won’t see it. There’s a good chance nobody will see it. People do not, cannot, often see much beyond what’s obvious, I think. That’s baseball. That’s life. If you are a pitcher who throws 99 mph, people can see that. If you are a pitcher who throws Peggy Lee fastballs, no, it’s asking too much for them to see the possibilities. It isn’t that they’re rooting against you. They simply cannot see. Maybe, if you are lucky, someone who loves you will see what you see.

Dan Quisenberry saw the possibilities. For Quiz to become a good big league pitcher without a fastball — and a good big league pitcher is all he ever really wanted to be — it was not enough for him to be good at what other people would call “little things.” He had to be better at those little things than anyone. He could not walk anyone. He could not give up home runs. He could not hit batters or allow runners to advance on wild pitches or give away stolen bases. Batters hit his pitches and often hit them hard, there was nothing he could do about that. He did not have anything more to give away. “Have I told you about my agreement with the ball?” he asked Roger Angell. “Our deal is that I’m not going to throw you very hard as long as you promise to move around when you get near the plate. Because … I want you back.”

I believe Dan Quisenberry was as good as some pitchers in the Hall of Fame, better than some too.

Five times he led the league in saves. Four times he finished Top 3 in the Cy Young balloting. His 2.76 ERA, compared to the pitchers’ ERA of his time, is one of the best totals in baseball history. Whether this makes him a Hall of Famer is the decision of many other people. Quiz was on the Hall of Fame ballot for only one year, though his near-perfect performance comparable Bruce Sutter would get voted into the Hall of Fame. People still have a hard time seeing.

You know, Bob Uecker had a funny line about how anybody with ability can play in the big leagues … but to last as long as he did with his lack of skills was a triumph of the human spirit. It’s a funny line, but it’s true too. For Sandy Koufax, for Johnny Bench, for Willie Mays, for players like them to become great meant fulfilling the potential that everyone saw in them. Sure, it took hard work, dedication, strength of mind, all those things. But Dan Quisenberry found a ballplayer inside himself that others could not see no matter hard hard they glared. It may or may not make him a Hall of Famer, but it makes him one of the great ones. No player in baseball history got more out of his own talents.

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