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A strange and rather embarrassing thing happened to me a few years ago. I had just finished interviewing Johnny Bench at some kind of celebrity golf tournament in Cincinnati when a little kid, couldn’t have been older than 8, came up to me.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Can I have your autograph?”
Two competing thoughts came to my mind. The first thought, the dominant thought, the obvious thought, was that he had mistaken me for Johnny Bench. An eight-year-old kid at that time — I guess this was 2008, when I was writing The Machine — would have been born almost two decades after Bench retired. I could imagine a parent or grandparent seeing Johnny Bench and saying, “There’s the greatest catcher who ever lived, run over there and get his autograph.”
But then there was a smaller voice. Long before, more than 15 years before, I was a columnist in Augusta, Ga., and I was at a Class A Augusta Pirates game.*
*This was before the minor league team in Augusta changed its name to the GreenJackets or, my much-overlooked suggestion, “Augusta Wind.”
Back then, a little kid — probably same age as this boy — came up to me to ask for my autograph. What followed was among the most harrowing 30 seconds of my life.
This is what happened through my eyes: I laughed a self-effacing laugh and said in the kindest voice, “Oh, you don’t want my autograph,” meaning, of course, that I was unworthy of such treatment, I was just another guy, like the neighbor you see mowing the lawn, but it’s so nice to meet you, young man, and would you like to watch the game with me?
This is what happened through his eyes: I asked the local sports columnist for his autograph because I love sportswriting, and he laughed at me and barked “You don’t want my autograph,” and I could feel the tears building in my eyes and I just raced back to my seat to hug my father and …
I tried to make it up to that boy at the minor league game, I chased after him and said that I was only joking and that of course, he could have my autograph, he could have my wallet, he could have my car and, in my memory, I did smooth it over some, but that’s probably just my memory allowing me to live with myself.
So when this boy in Cincinnati asked me for my autograph on that Johnny Bench day, I felt pretty sure that he was mistaking me for someone of importance, but I was also paralyzed with fear that he actually DID want my autograph.
And not for the first time, not for the last time, I thought about my own hero, Duane Kuiper.
* * *
There are, best I can tell, three ways in which a child finds a baseball hero.
The first way is through greatness. This is the plainest way. The best players of my youth — Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton and the like — were the biggest stars, and they had the most fans. Kids queued up in the hero line for each of them. They always will for the great ones.
The second way in which a child finds a baseball hero is through a personal connection. Jack Brohamer once played catch with me outside Cleveland Municipal Stadium after a game.* This made Jack Brohamer a hero to me.
*Whenever I tell that story, I say that I “played catch,” with Jack Brohamer, like it was the lingering final scene of Field of Dreams. It wasn’t like that. I was wearing my glove and had a ball and he said, “Throw it here,” and I threw it to him, and he threw it back. I THINK we had one more exchange — me throwing to him, him throwing it back — though realistically it might have just been those two throws.
My friend Robert once had four-time Olympic discus champion Al Oerter throw him in a pool. This made Al Oerter Robert’s hero. Another friend, Howard, had some personal connection to Frank Tanana, I can’t remember the details, and that made Frank Tanana his hero.
The third way in which a child finds a baseball hero is the mystical one, the mysterious one. There’s just a connection. What is it? I don’t know. Something bonds you with a player. Take Rey Sanchez. Please. Rey Sanchez was not a great player. He never made an All-Star team and never really came close to making one. He never won a Gold Glove. He had a 69 career OPS+, 11th lowest all-time for batters with 5,000 plate appearances.
But I often thought that if I were a kid in Kansas City in the late 1990s, Rey Sanchez would have been my hero. Why? Well, this isn’t about Rey Sanchez, it’s about Duane Kuiper, but like the guy said in Animal House: “Forget it, he’s rolling.”
There was a beautiful cynicism about the way Rey Sanchez played baseball. You never, not once, watched Rey Sanchez play and thought, “Now there’s a guy having fun.” He wasn’t having fun. He wasn’t even pretending to have fun. He was doing a job. And because he was doing a job, there was no energy wasted for purely entertainment purposes. Rey Sanchez did not dive after balls if he couldn’t reach them. He did not try to make breathtaking plays if he knew that the throw would be late. He did not simulate hustle to win over the crowd.
No, what Rey Sanchez did was play shortstop the way a true professional might, say, sandblast a brick house. He was methodical, forceful, streamlined and effective. His glove had powerful magnets in it; you would swear that ground balls bent to his will. His arm was pure; for Sanchez a bad throw was one where the first baseman had to adjust his glove.
In 2000, Sanchez played 143 games at shortstop and made four errors — this is remarkable because the Royals’ first baseman that year was a young Mike Sweeney, who as a first baseman was a wonderful hitter. Sweeney had only just switched to first base from catcher, and he would be the first to tell you that it wasn’t the easiest switch. He had trouble with every element of playing first base, even the most basic First Base 101 things. Bad throws, well, those were like Advanced First Base; Sweeney stood no chance. Throws even a couple of inches off lines would become errors. All due respect to the great Omar Vizquel, but Sanchez not winning the Gold Glove in 2000 was a travesty.
Sanchez was a remarkable defender. Truly remarkable. The numbers bear all this out, by the way. Baseball Reference ranks Sanchez 141 runs better than average as a defender, 12th all-time, ahead of (among others), Vizquel, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and all but five of the shortstops in the Hall of Fame. He was a problematic player, which partly explains why he played for seven different teams in his last five years, but oh, did I love watching him play defense. And I connected.
That longer-than-I-intended interlude is just meant to say that we often connect with players in odd ways. Rey Sanchez was hardly the baseball archetype. He played efficient, pragmatic, world-weary baseball as if his grand intention was to make sure that no child thought of him as a hero. And yet, I know that if I were 20 years younger and grew up in Kansas City, he would have been my Duane Kuiper.
This is the baseball hero connection that fascinates me most — the one that doesn’t make any sense at all.
* * *
Duane Kuiper grew up on a dairy farm in Racine, Wisc. In this way, Kuip was the Kit of major league baseball — you will remember that Kit, the younger sister of Dottie in A League of Their Own, also grew up on a dairy farm. She was traded to Racine toward the end of her rookie season and liked it so much that she decided to get a job and stay there. Like Duane, she rarely hit the high ones.
Kuiper had talent. Major league teams tried for years to get him to leave Racine, and he kept turning them down. The Yankees drafted him in ’68 and offered him 15 grand to play ball. He said no. The Seattle Pilots drafted him six months later, and he said no, then the Pilots took him again six months after that. He still said no.
The White Sox took him in the January draft of 1970. No. The Reds took him in the June draft of 1970. No. The Red Sox took in 1971. No.
Finally, in 1972, the Cleveland Indians took Kuiper in the first round of the January draft. And this time Kuiper said yes. “My Dad and I both thought, ‘We better say yes or they’re going to think I don’t even want to play ball,'” he says now. Cleveland gave him an $8,000 signing bonus, seven grand less than the Yankees had offered him four years earlier, which just goes to show you that even then, Duane had a knack for making deals.
But by signing with the Tribe, he did guarantee himself the opportunity to play on those legendary Cleveland teams of the 1970s. My teams.
The only thing that most people know about Kuiper’s playing career is that he hit one home run — it happened on Aug. 29, 1977, off Cleveland native Steve Stone. The game was on Monday Night Baseball. Unfortunately, the game was blacked out in Cleveland, which means I heard it on the radio. “Look at Duane run those bases!” Cleveland broadcaster Herb Score said, which of course we could not do. But we could IMAGINE it.
“At first I didn’t think it was going out,” Kuiper told reporters. “But I never think they’re going out.”
There’s something specific about that game that I want to mention, but first I should say that Kuiper’s one home run was not why he became my hero. His astonishing lack of success as a base stealer — stole 52 bases, was caught 71 times — was not why he became my hero. His sound play (he rarely struck out, bunted well, hustled continuously) was not why he became my hero, either.
Even his defensive talents — Kuiper never won a Gold Glove, but he often played a role in This Week in Baseball‘s fielding highlights — don’t fully explain the bond I felt with him.
There’s a great line in Bob Dylan’s Brownsville Girl — “And you know there was somethin’ about you baby that I like that was always too good for this world.” There was just something about Duane Kuiper that I liked that was always too good for this world. I liked the way he dove for every ball (other players used to call him “Step and a Dive Kuiper,” which wasn’t necessarily a compliment). I liked that he played hard all the time, even though the team was annually hopeless. I liked that he was funny; his quotes in the paper were always great, like the time he got an error and told the reporter, “I was fooled by the true hop.”
As a Cleveland kid who played second base, Duane Kuiper was everything I aspired to be. And he wore it well. That was the thing. I sensed that this was someone marvelous and extraordinary in his own ways. Obviously, Joe Morgan was a thousand times better. Willie Randolph was better. Bobby Grich was better. Lots of guys were better. But if you had given me the choice to be any of those guys, I wouldn’t have taken it. I would have been like Kuip himself, turning down good offer after good offer until the chance to be a .271-hitting second baseman with one home run came along.
On the day that he hit his one home run — by the way, it was the same day that Lou Brock broke Ty Cobb’s all-time stolen base record, so Kuip was overshadowed even on that day — Kuiper sat in the dugout thinking about something: He didn’t know what kind of pitch he hit out. It wasn’t like now, where you can go into the clubhouse and look at the video from 100 different angles. Heck, in those days, the clubhouse in Cleveland didn’t even have air conditioning.
So Kuiper thought about it and thought about it and thought about it. What kind of pitch was it? Fastball? Slider? He felt pretty sure that it was one of those two. But he had to know — he knew the first question anyone would ask him, the question people would ask him for the rest of hsi life, was, “What kind of pitch did you hit?”
And if I had to pick one story to explain why I love Duane Kuiper, it’s that story. It’s the image of a big league ballplayer sitting in the dugout, trying to remember the pitch he hit out so that he could tell the story later.
* * *
Duane Kuiper became a legendary Giants broadcaster … and, more to the point here, he became my friend. I have told the story so many times, but I’ll tell it again: A few years ago, before we had ever met, he reached out by email to my wife, Margo. That only thing Margo knew about Duane Kuiper is that he was my hero, so when he wrote to her she was skeptical.
“Is this the REAL Duane Kuiper?” she wrote back.
He loved that so much. He assured her that, yes, he was the real Duane Kuiper, and he wanted her permission to send me something that he thought would be meaningful to me, something he didn’t think his own kids would particularly care about.
And he sent me this:
I look at that bat every single day. It’s by my desk at all times. Sometimes, I pick it up and bunt imaginary pitches with it, just like Duane would. And I wonder how I got so lucky.
* * *
As it turns out, that kid in Cincinnati did want my autograph and not Johnny Bench’s. I found out by nervously asking him “Are you looking for Johnny Bench?” He shook his head and said, “No, I want to be a sportswriter.”
So I signed the autograph and talked with him for a few minutes, gave the best advice I had to give, and I have to say he was really happy afterward. Maybe he even remembers it still. I certainly do. Anybody can be a hero. Life’s strange and beautiful that way.
You know, time after time in my life, I’ve talked with people who met their childhood idols and left disappointed, crushed even, because the encounter felt fleeting or awkward because their idol was dismissive or mean.
“You never want to meet your heroes,” they inevitably say.
To that I say: It depends on the hero.
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