The Quisenberry Tree

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I know this will sound preposterously weird and insensitive and utterly non-green… but I’m glad this Dan Quisenberry tree thing happened. Ecstatic, really. I know. It surprises me, too. But you have to give me a moment to explain.

First, you probably need to hear the story. Dan Quisenberry was one of my favorite people. We met late in his life, when he was more poet than pitcher. I suppose in many ways, Dan was always more poet than pitcher. The first time I ever really talked to him was at a poetry reading he was giving in a small library in Overland Park — a suburb of Kansas City. And you know how sometimes you meet someone and you are just struck by how wonderful it is to talk with them, how awesome it is to be around them, how good they make you feel not only about them but about yourself? Yeah. it was like that with Dan. It was like that with Buck O’Neil. It is like that with my father. Dan was this gentle man who wanted to know, really wanted to know, how you were doing, how your family was doing, how you were handling life. There are people who ask those questions. There are people who really and truly care. It’s a gift, caring, and Dan Quisenberry had that gift.

He was also one helluva pitcher. Baseball fans as a whole will never appreciate just how good Dan Quisenberry was. When Bruce Sutter went into the Hall of Fame, I went a bit crazy comparing their careers — and after spending too much time working on it I have little doubt that Quiz was every bit as good a pitcher as Sutter, and perhaps better. They pitched almost exactly the same number of innings (1043.1 for Quiz, 1042 for Sutter) and Quisenberry gave up fewer runs (earned and unearned) in the designated hitter league. Quiz had a better ERA in their prime years (2.48 to 2.54). Quiz finished second in the Cy Young balloting twice, third twice more, led the league in saves five times (same as Sutter), won five Rolaids Relief awards (one more than Sutter), threw 30 to 40 more innings per year than Sutter did, and as I broke it down was much better than Sutter in the heat of pennant races. I have pages and pages and pages of statistics, and I wouldn’t tell you that Dan was better than Sutter, but I will tell you that no matter how you break it down it is at best a wash, and if Sutter was a Hall of Famer then, in my mind, so was Quiz.

Quiz was competitive — no question he wanted to be the best in the game. There’s no way you can be that brilliant without striving for it. Greatness doesn’t happen by accident. But he achieved so softly, with that funny little submarine-style delivery and very few strikeouts and a sinking fastball that probably did not qualify for the second-half of the title.

I’m sure that’s why he has been so overlooked. He never seemed great. That’s how it goes for the quietly efficient. You know what made Quisenberry such a fabulous pitcher? He rarely made a mistake. If you put a team together of players who came closest to their potential, who best resembled their perfect baseball selves, Dan Quisenberry would be on the mound. He almost never walked a batter — he unintentionally walked just 92 batters in more than 1,000 innings. Absurd. In 1980 he intentionally walked more batters than he unintentionally walked. He threw four wild pitches in his career. Four. He gave up very few home runs.

See, Quiz just didn’t get the ball up and he didn’t find the middle of the plate. He fielded his position, he threw strikes, and he relied on the grass (or turf) and his defense and the karma he had built up through the years. It’s like I said: Dan was probably always more poet than pitcher. Sutter’s greatness was bright and bold and apparent — his a Vegas magic show with lights and props and mirrors, his split-fingered fastball would disappear before your very eyes. Quiz was more of a close-up magician. You never knew how he did it.

It wasn’t long after that poetry reading that we all heard that Dan had a brain tumor. He was a thoughtful man, Quiz — deeply religious, dedicated to his family, powerfully connected to what is important in life. He offered many wonderful quotes in his life — “I’ve seen the future and it’s much like the present, only longer” is probably the most famous* — but it was his heartfelt words as he held his wife Janie’s hands weeks before he died, that I will never ever forget.

He said, “I never ask, ‘Why me.’ Why not me?’”

*The thing that strikes me about Dan’s quotes, even now, is that they’re so perfectly worded. He was an artist. Take a simple quote like this one, from his acceptance speech at one of the Rolaids Relief functions: “I want to thank all the pitchers who couldn’t go nine innings, and manager Dick Howser for not letting them.” I mean, that’s just a little quote, mostly in fun, but read it again — it’s perfect, not a wasted word, Gettysburg Address concise.

Or this: “I found a delivery in my flaw.”

Or this: “Natural grass is a wonderful thing for little bugs and sinkerball pitchers.”

Not a wasted word. I don’t believe I’ve ever written this before — for obvious reasons — but almost at the end of his life, Dan told me that he loved the way I wrote because it’s the way he tries to write. It’s one of the three greatest compliments of my life.

So that’s the background. When Dan died in September of 1998, his memorial service was one of those impossibly sad and impossibly beautiful things — he was only 45, way too young to die. But you saw all the people he touched, the two beautiful children he and Janie had raised, the many friends who all had a story to tell, and you understood what a good life he had lived.

And Dan has been remembered. Kansas City is the sort of town that remembers — I suppose like most other good-hearted places. His name would come up in conversation. People would stop and point at his photo at the Royals Hall of Fame. When you saw adults playing ball, you would inevitably see one throw submarine-style and shout “Quisenberry!” Yes, he has been remembered.

But, memory fades, too. There’s simply no way around it. Dan stopped pitching baseballs in Kansas City in 1988. Children have been born, raised, learned to ride bicycles, fallen in and out of love, graduated high school and college since then. Dan’s two children, Alysia and David, have grown up. I have watched Alysia’s child run around. Time goes on.

And so… now I can tell you about that tree. In 1999, a tree was planted along the highway across from Kauffman Stadium in the honor of Dan Quisenberry. Kids came and shoveled in the dirt, there was a little memorial plaque put next to it — it was a sweet and thoughtful thing, a tree for Quisenberry overlooking the stadium across the road. And you probably heard what happened this week: A highway crew, by mistake, tore down that tree while widening the highway. The Missouri Department of Transportation people sound mortified by this blunder, beyond mortified, and they promise to plant another tree and hold another ceremony for Dan Quisenberry. This was clearly an honest mistake, though it is so weird and so emotionally-bracing that it has created national headlines.

And this is why I’m oddly thrilled that the tree thing happened. Of course I’m not happy when any tree — especially memorial trees — gets torn down. I’d rather it hadn’t happened and embarrassed people and all that. But, overall, the destruction of this tree has put Dan Quisenberry back in the memory. Let’s face it: Almost nobody knew about that tree. That should be obvious, since the highway people didn’t know about it. A tree that was put up to help people remember was lost in the forest. Time goes on.

But NOW people do remember. Now, there will be another tree and people will know about it. Now, I have an excuse to write about Dan again. Now, after this, people can take a moment and think again about Dan Quisenberry, his wonderful pitching style, his eloquence (“I don’t miss the cheers. I just go to the ballpark, sit in the stands, and pretend they’re cheering for me”), his character. He never claimed to be a role model, he just was one. And that tree, in its own quirky way, did exactly what it had been planted to do. It did get people to remember Dan Quisenberry. And that’s why I’m happy.


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