RIP Paul Splittorff

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Splitt. May 25, 2010.

ou will hear people say all the time that they don’t want to live in the past. But I think that, more often than not, is a half-truth. Don’t we all want to live at least a little bit in the past? Don’t we all want to remember those moments when the sun was brightest, when the children were little, when the hole-in-one dropped, when we were the ninth caller to the radio station? Don’t we all save the scribblings and trophies and photographs that remind us? I once made a volley in tennis between the legs, a winner that scraped the line, a shot so perfect that Federer could not have done it better. I think about it often.

Paul Splittorff, more than anybody I have ever known, refused to live in the past. He had a wonderful past to live in. He won 166 games as a pitcher in the big leagues, all of them for Kansas City — he still holds the Royals record for most pitching victories, and will own it for years to come. He twice beat the Yankees in the playoffs, enough to be called a “Yankee Killer” for a time (though, as he would say, he had a losing record against the Yankees). He pitched in the World Series. He struck out Reggie Jackson 23 times. Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, Henry Aaron, Billy Williams and Frank Robinson hit a combined .146 against him. He never said much about any of that. He did mention, now and again, that Dick Allen owned him. But only if you asked.

The point is that he had a full life to relive … if that was my life, I would bore people to tears with the stories. Here’s what Paul Splittorff did in the second part of his life: He broadcast sports. He called high school sports. He called college sports. And he called the Kansas City Royals. He worked on his rhythms. He worked on the silences, too. He eliminated the stutters, the hesitations, the ums and ers that clutter speech for the rest of us. He became exactly what he was as a pitcher: A professional. That was important to him. Splitt never wanted anything given to him. He could not tolerate the thought that he was an ex-ballplayer in the booth. That word, “ex,” was an abomination to him. He never wanted to be seen as an “ex” anything. If you were living as an ex, you were not living in real time.

And so, Paul Splittorff would not pepper his broadcasts with stories about his playing days. He went the other way. He would spend three innings of every game on television doing the play-by-play, turning play-by-play man Ryan Lefebvre into the color commentator. I always loved listening to those three innings, when Splitt would ask Ryan what he thought about this batter’s swing or the path that outfielder took to the fly ball. In all moments, but in those moments especially, his past as a ballplayer was beside the point. That’s the way he wanted it. Splitt was an announcer. That was his life. History was history. Today was all that mattered.

This is not to say that Splitt was blind to his past — he was fiercely proud of what he accomplished as a player. He was not blessed with overwhelming talent. He was a 25th-round draft pick by a new team called the Kansas City Royals in 1968. He was drafted out of Morningside College, in Sioux City, Iowa — the only pitcher from Morningside to ever reach the big leagues. His fastball did not go very fast. He struck out only 3.7 batters per nine innings over his career. Since World War II, only Lew Burdette and Bob Forsch won more games than Splittorff while striking out so few.

The funny thing, though, is that Splittorff did not let his lack of stuff change his approach. He attacked. Four years ago, for reasons that are no longer relevant or memorable, I asked Bill James to describe Splitt as a pitcher. Here is what he wrote:

“Splittorff had a reasonable fastball. When he first came to the majors, when he was a 20-game winner in … was it ’73? … at that time I would guess that he threw 88-90. The thing was, he didn’t throw a lot of fastballs. He changed speeds a lot. After his fastball slowed down he was about the same pitcher, spotting an 86 mph fastball rather than spotting a 90 mph fastball.

Well, he didn’t throw his Grade-A fastball a lot. He threw a lot of ‘fastballs’ that were well-located but not all that fast, and he changed speeds all the time … not just using a changeup, but varying the speed constantly so that the batter was always [or often] just a little bit off.”

That is to say that Splitt, though he didn’t throw hard — especially as the years passed — did not back down. He averaged 33 starts and 14 wins a year from 1972 through 1980. He threw 14 shutouts. He coaxed or induced or forced hitters into 276 double plays. He picked off 37 runners. He rarely gave up home runs. He carefully scouted batters long before video sessions became the vogue. He did whatever he could do. He was always there, a workhorse, a Clydesdale (as he called himself). He gave everything, and he played his whole career for one team, and he loved it, he loved the Royals, he would not have traded any of it in.

But when it ended, it ended. He did not long for the cheers again. He did not see current moments as an opportunity to tell stories from the past. He just didn’t see any need to relive it. “I lived it once,” he told me, “that was good enough.” He meant it. The thing that mattered to Paul Splittorff was excellence, striving for it, being good at what he was doing. He once laid into me when I wrote that baseball on the radio was better in many ways than baseball on television. In his mind, the medium didn’t matter. Baseball on television was as good as you made it. And he worked as hard as anyone in the business to make baseball on television informative and entertaining and an experience.

A couple of years ago, on Opening Day 2009, Splittorff was broadcasting the Royals game and it was clear that something wasn’t right. His smooth voice, the one he had worked so hard to perfect, sounded off. He slurred some of his words. He explained that he was fine, that his voice was off because of a virus and a bad reaction to medicine. He said the voice would come back strong. Maybe he believed that, too … Splitt was one of those people who just believed that you make your own destiny. He worked awfully hard to get his voice back. Less than a month ago, he called a game on television with Ryan Lefebvre. Barely two weeks ago, he did the Royals postgame show. My mother-in-law called me to ask if he was all right.

He did not talk about his declining health. He did not talk about the cancer that was ravaging his body. People will say that is because Splitt was an intensely private man, and that is so. But I think there was something else. Paul did not want any favors, and he did not want special treatment, and he did not want to live anywhere but in the moment. He kept studying the players, kept going on the air, kept trying to make baseball a little more enjoyable for people he would never meet.

Not too long ago, I spent a day with Splitt in Fort Myers, Fla., where he lived during the winter. The Minnesota Twins were playing, and he loved watching them. We watched the game together and just talked about some things — fatherhood, baseball statistics, the Hall of Fame, the weather. He did slur a few of his words, though he spoke unabashedly. He told me then that he did not expect his voice to get too much better. But, he said, he could still make his voice a little better. And he was going to work on that.

He did not say anything more about his health, and I did not ask. It came out a short while ago that Paul Splittorff had oral cancer and melanoma. He died on Wednesday. He was 64.

There’s something about an athlete dying that hits us in a slightly different way. I think it’s because athletes, at their best, embody youth and energy and enthusiasm — those things that are the very opposite of death. The people who watched Splitt pitch will remember that today. The people who listened to Splitt call games all those years will remember the sports moments. Beyond that, maybe we will remember being younger ourselves. And though Splitt did not often look back, I think he would like that.

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