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My Hero Duane Kuiper

These last few days before the baseball season actually begins are a bit frustrating. The previews have all been written. All the fan hopes are just out there, waiting, like some banquet table with food already on it, but NOOOOO you’re not allowed to eat just yet, stop nibbling on the bread, stop it.

All of this means: It’s time once again to tell my Duane Kuiper story.

I have written before: My greatest wish for you as a sports fan (or movie fan or Broadway fan or fan of neurosurgeons — whatever) is to luck into a hero like Duane Kuiper. I did. I happened to be born in Cleveland at exactly the right time; I was seven years old when Kuip made his Major League debut. Vern Ruhle was on the mound. Kuip hit a double play grounder. I was 9 years old when he became Cleveland’s everyday second baseman.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to be born in Cleveland at that time. Other things had to fall into place. For one thing, the Tribe happened to be in the midst of a very bland period of time. My buddy Scott Raab, who is a bit older than me, DESPISED those Cleveland teams. That’s because they were not good, but they were not exactly terrible either. They finished with a winning record in Kuiper’s first full year. They then lost exactly 90 games two years in a row, which is obviously not great, but they had another winning record in 1979, when I was 12 and they were right around .500 the next year too.

When your team is truly terrible — as Cleveland would become in the late 1980s and Kansas City was in the years I covered them in the 1990s and 2000s — you don’t really have much of a choice for favorite player. There are likely only two or possibly three players on those teams who can plausibly become your favorite player, unless you’re going for effect. But those Cleveland teams of my childhood had lots of players, all about equally plausible. I could have become a Buddy Bell fan — he was really the team’s best player. I also could have become a Rick Manning fan. Frank Robinson was at the end of his great career, a legend, the first black manager. Rico Carty was absurdly fun. Jim Bibby was a pitching behemoth as was Jim Kern.

Ray Fosse … Charlie Spikes … George Hendrick … Dave LaRoche … Dennis Eckersley … I really loved all these guys, they were all icons and moving statues and stars to a little kid whose mind exploded whenever his Dad took him to Municipal Stadium to watch a game from behind a steel girder. But only one of them could be my hero.

And there was one more lucky break. I was a small kid, smallest by far in my class. Small kids play second base.

Duane Kuiper played second base.

I’ve written many, many, many times about what it was like to have Duane Kuiper as a hero. He was not a great player, if you want to look at things like “offensive production.” Everyone who cares already knows that Kuip hit one home run in his career, a Monday Night Baseball bomb in late April of 1977 that barely cleared the right field wall. Steve Stone, who grew up in South Euclid just like I did, gave up that home run and has never quite lived it down. Kuiper slugged .316 for his career.

As a nice bonus, Kuip is also one of the worst base stealers in the history of the game, having been caught 71 of the 123 times he tried to steal. Only one year in his career was he actually successful more times than he was caught — that was 1975, when he was young and had fresh legs. He stole 19 bases that year. He was caught 18 times.

But I should say, my love for Duane Kuiper as a ballplayer was not — and is not — ironic or cute or meant to be sarcastic and clever. I loved Duane Kuiper as a kid because of how he played baseball. As I’ve written before, he dived for every ground ball, including ones hit right at him. That’s how I played. He almost never struck out. That’s how I wanted to play. He blooped and chopped and bunted and sliced and clanked and dribbled his way to a long big league career, a .271 lifetime average, 917 hits, more triples than a handful of Hall of Famers including Johnny Bench, Harmon Killebrew and Orlando Cepeda.

That was my path. I knew, even in my wildest daydreams, that I couldn’t be Henry Aaron. I wasn’t going to become Reggie Jackson. But Duane Kuiper … yes, that dream seemed achievable somehow. It wasn’t achievable. It wasn’t close to achievable. But it seemed like something that actually could happen. I could not imagine a better life.

It obviously went a different way, I became a sportswriter, and I wrote many times about Duane Kuiper being my hero. Somewhere along the way, Kuip read one or two of those pieces.

So, my Duane Kuiper story — Kuip decided out of nowhere that he wanted to surprise me with something. I don’t believe we had ever met. You will ask: Why did he do this?

The only answer I can give you is that he’s Duane Kuiper.

He reached out to my wife Margo via email. Here is my favorite part of the story, the part that makes me almost tear up with joy: Margo sent back an email that said, and I quote, “Is this the real Duane Kuiper?” She also did not mean it ironically; Margo is a moderate baseball fan but she had heard me talk so much about Duane Kuiper that she was certain that Duane Kuiper was bigger than life.

He is, of course.

Kuip assured her that, yes, he was the real Duane Kuiper. And then he told her his plan. My wife Margo overflows with admirable qualities; keeping a secret is not one of them. But she somehow kept this one inside. I still don’t know how she didn’t let it slip. One day a package arrived at the house. Margo was practically bursting with excitement when she brought it to me. I opened it up. There was a game-used Duane Kuiper bat. And there was Duane Kuiper’s 1976 Cleveland baseball cap.

Inside, there was a small note from Kuip. It simply said, “I thought you might appreciate these.”

It goes without saying that if there was ever a fire, and there was nobody in the house, those would be the things I would try to save.

In the years since that happened, I’ve become friends with my hero Duane Kuiper. One year, I went out to San Francisco for Duane Kuiper bobblehead day, brought my wife, and because he’s Duane Kuiper he surprised her with a Giants jersey with her name on the back. Jerry Seinfeld has made that joke about how we root for laundry because we root for our team even as the names change, as strategies and philosophies and even owners change, as players are traded or leave for more money, and it’s true, too true, but it’s not the whole truth.

Margo wears that Giants jersey proudly. She doesn’t care about the Giants. She wears it for one reason. Her only complaint is that she wishes the jersey had KUIPER on the back. He’s her hero too.

 

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24 Responses to My Hero Duane Kuiper

  1. nfieldr says:

    Late in the ’83 season I was watching a meaningless Giants – Pads game at Jack Murphy Stadium. I was in town on business and sitting in the 2nd row by the Giants dugout. The Braves and Dodgers were battling for the NL West pennant and I was wearing a Braves cap. The woman in front of me was just giving me the business about how LA was going to crush the Braves. Kuip and Brad Wellman were warming up in front of us by the dugout. After they finished, Kuip came over and handed me the ball they were using and said “Well, WE hope the Braves win!” From that point, he was my hero too.

  2. Ross H. says:

    I think I knew almost all of that story going in but was still a great read.

  3. GWP says:

    Best sports writer on the planet for a reason, thanks Joe!

  4. MikeN says:

    If he were playing today, would he make a major league roster? If he did, would Joe Posnanski be leading the charge and saying he has no business playing?

    • Rob Smith says:

      There are plenty of utility infielders and/or guys starting that should be utility infielders if they were on better teams similar to Kuiper. Production wise, there are always Duane Kuipers. The only difference is that most of them don’t make personal connections with a notable writer. Most of them are trying to hang around one more year and not make too many fans angry with them for not contributing much. These guys usually come up when roster construction time comes around and it’s unanimously noted that the team HAS to upgrade their position.

    • BearOn says:

      I think it is important to note that I do not believe Posnanksi has ever stated (with any hint acrimony, at least) that any player has no business playing. I think his admiration and appreciation of ALL kinds of players (perhaps best exemplified by his adulation of Kuiper) is one of the reasons why he is such a wonderful voice on baseball.

      • Benjamin Wildner says:

        If ever someone qualified it would have been Yuniesky Betancourt. And I remember the stories more along the lines of marveling that no one better could be found.

    • Dan says:

      His top BBRef comps, or the guys I’ve heard of anyways, include Jose Lind, Jose Oquendo, Wally Backman. Serviceable players all. He had a net positive career WAR, so his contributions would be slightly better than anyone readily available to replace him, so… yeah, he would have some business playing.

      I don’t suppose Joe would feel the need to write about whether such a player should get playing time, pro or con, unless there was something else of interest – a phenom he was holding back, an enormous contract to justify, something to be said about leadership, character, clubhouse stability, etc. Otherwise if he did write about him, I like to think it would be more about how he just loves puppies and kittens. 🙂

      • invitro says:

        “He had a net positive career WAR, so his contributions would be slightly better than anyone readily available to replace him, so… yeah, he would have some business playing.” — Kuiper wasn’t all that bad compared to the other AL 2B. CLE ranked #9/8/7/12/12 in 1975-1979, the five seasons that Kuiper was a starter. So there were a lot of worse guys starting at 2B. I looked at a lot of these worse guys, and have never heard of most of them, and it did look like all or almost all of them got replaced in the next season. I don’t immediately see if CLE had anyone they could’ve replaced Kuiper with in 1978 or 1979, though. I think this was a couple of years before a bunch of Dominican middle infielders hit baseball and increased the standards.

        Which I guess answers the question… without looking at anything else closely, I think 2B might be the position that has improved the most from 1977 to 2017, and Kuiper wouldn’t be starting, though he might be a bench guy, in my probably uninformed opinion. (I’d love to hear better answers of course…)

        • Patrick says:

          It says something that when Kuiper hit .255/.314/.294 for an American League team in 1979 he still managed to draw 7 intentional walks.

          Though I suspect he would not be in the majors today. Advanced metrics actually rate Kuiper a poor fielder (-29 rField), and he somehow was allowed to attempt 123 steals despite only being successful on 42% of them. I doubt he’d have been able to carve out a Crawford/Everett/Ryan type career.

          • TS says:

            When I was 11 years old, I had an ongoing argument with my cousin in the summer of ’84 about who was the better choice at shortstop for the Twins-I was a Houston Jimenez guy and my cousin was a Ron Washington disciple (neither of us had any time for Lenny Faedo or the minor league hotshot, Greg Gagne). We expended much energy debating the merits of our chosen one, while the likes of Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and a rookie named Kirby Puckett began the process of gelling into a two-time World Series championship team.

            If the likes of Jimenez or Washington were proposed as the starting shortstop today, I’m certain both I and my cousin would decry the substandard option at shortstop or ignore them entirely and focus our conversation upon Dozier, Buxton, Kepler, and Sano.

            It’s a wonderful thing about childhood, that you can latch onto heroes for no reason other than you like the way their name sounds or how their baseball cap fits over their afro (which I think is what our battles really boiled down to).

        • invitro says:

          Kuiper had a little over 2700 PA from 1975 through 1979. Here’s a table of the players who had at least 2700 PA in that time period, and had the least WAR:
          +—————–+———+——+
          | name | WAR | PA |
          +—————–+———+——+
          | Jerry Morales | -3.3700 | 2746 |
          | Ken Reitz | -1.4600 | 3082 |
          | Willie Montanez | 0.6200 | 3215 |
          | Willie Horton | 2.7000 | 2817 |
          | Manny Trillo | 2.8500 | 2909 |
          | Bobby Murcer | 4.5900 | 3015 |
          | Frank Taveras | 4.8700 | 3027 |
          | Lee May | 5.3000 | 2919 |
          | Duane Kuiper | 5.3500 | 2739 |
          | Jeff Burroughs | 7.1500 | 3110 |
          +—————–+———+——+

          And the same thing, but for 2012-2016:
          +—————–+——–+——+
          | name | WAR | PA |
          +—————–+——–+——+
          | Billy Butler | 3.5100 | 2825 |
          | Jimmy Rollins | 6.5100 | 2703 |
          | Mark Trumbo | 6.7700 | 2838 |
          | Starlin Castro | 6.9400 | 3153 |
          | Kendrys Morales | 6.9800 | 2837 |
          | Alcides Escobar | 7.1100 | 3254 |
          | Alexei Ramirez | 7.3000 | 3080 |
          | Jay Bruce | 7.3500 | 3113 |
          | Nick Markakis | 7.3700 | 3251 |
          | Eric Hosmer | 8.5300 | 3159 |
          +—————–+——–+——+

          It’s quite a difference. It tells me that teams won’t let a bad player be a long-time regular nearly as often as they used to… and/or that WAR gives a better way of rating a player than what was used in the 1970’s. And I feel confident in saying that Kuiper definitely would not be a five-year starter today, maybe unless he played for the Royals. 🙂

          • Rob Smith says:

            I think it’s interesting that many of the players on those lists were good players, even all-stars, at one point in their career. Possibly they were just living off reputation during the time you pulled these stats.

          • MikeN says:

            That was my point, that under current rating systems, the type that Joe tends to espouse, Kuiper would be rated very low(I wasn’t sure about this when I asked). Any team that played him would be doing things ‘the wrong way’ and likely mocked by Joe, like Wil Myers for James Shields.

        • Matthew says:

          No, there weren’t a lot of AL second basemen (and zero shortstops) who scared anybody offensively. That’s probably why Bobby Grich made so much money, even though I didn’t dread seeing him at the plate. When the Tigers rented Tito Fuentes for a year I thought we really had something. Loved how he flipped his bat off home plate when he came up to hit.

  5. Marshall says:

    Thanks for posting this! the original story about receiving the bat is my favorite Posnanski blog post ever. Any chance someone can post a link to the original?

  6. greg elle says:

    long ago under the chilly fog of the ‘Stick I loved Kuip, and Kruk, and the Hac Man, and a Chili and a Clark22 in right, and an Evans at 3rd
    Sunshine in the fog were those teams, so different from finding the Indians at the right age.
    At the right age, are the dark ages dark at all?
    I do love me some Posnanski
    and the memories of my mind.
    thank you Margo 🙂 and the girls

  7. Luis says:

    Joe, I thought this was your Kuiper bobblehead day from 2014. Would you please post the link? I like to read that story before the start of every season, that one and the Updike essay on Ted Williams.

  8. NevadaMark says:

    You’re lucky Joe. I got stuck with Tim Cullen…

    • MarkWIDX says:

      Yikes, you have my sympathies. As another skinny kid growing up in the 70s, I am well-versed in the limited middle-infielder inventory available. If you really want to see how much the game has changed, check out NL SS, 1971 — featuring, but hardly limited to, the stylings of Enzo Hernandez.

  9. NevadaMark says:

    By the way, that is an EXCELLENT trivia question. In 1972, the A’s first world championship in Oakland, who led the club in games played at second base? Answer, Tim Cullen. You can look it up.

    • Jeff B says:

      I loved the 70’s A’s. In 72 Dick Green was supposed to be the starting second baseman. Unfortunately he injured his back moving furniture in the 1971 off season. He owned a moving company that he would work when not playing baseball, Finley paid them so little, they needed full-time jobs in the off season to survive. Anyway, I digress. With Green injured, they decided on rotating second basemen. Cullen, Ted Kubiak, Larry Brown, Ron Clark, and Marty Martinez. Since they were all considered liabilities at the plate, they were usually pinch hit for if there was a runner on base when their turn at bat came, no matter what inning it was.
      Dick Green was a defensive wizard at second base. In 1974 he would have been the World Series MVP except for the fact he was 0-13 at the plate.

  10. Jack says:

    I look forward to Joe’s column when Kuiper inevitably wins the Ford Frick award.

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