Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Kuip

Joe Blogs

MONDAY, APRIL 18, 2011

Poscast with my baseball hero

The Poscast with Duane Kuiper

There's a baseball bat in my office that I sometimes pick up when stuck between paragraphs. I don't swing the bat, at least not at full speed. No, I put it up against my shoulder and walk around with it for a little while. I let it quiver behind my head as I imagine standing in against fastballs. After a while, I put the bat down and return to my writing. I could say that the bat helps me think, a wooden muse, but that's not exactly right. I could say the bat clarifies things in my head, sharpens them, and that's true ... but no that's not quite right either. The bat reminds me exactly why I do this ... and maybe why someone keeps paying me to do it ... and maybe why I got so lucky.

* * *

One of the wonder of our games. I think, is that they are exactly as important or unimportant as you make them. A pitcher could throw a perfect game in the seventh game of the World Series, and it wouldn't mean much of anything to my mother, for instance.* On the other hand, an intentional walk to Yuni Betancourt in a June Brewers-Marlins game might set me off on a 5,000-word post. It is not just perspective, it is commitment. It is all about how deeply you want to enter the world.

*Then again: what happens on Dancing With The Stars and American Idol means quite a lot to her, and absolutely nothing to me. All depends on your world.

When I was 10, I wrapped myself in the world of the 1977 Cleveland Indians. I don't recall this being much of a choice, but looking back on it I guess it was a choice. Nobody I knew cared as much. Even though we were all 10 in school, there was a cynical strain running through the other kids in my class, and they mostly made the entirely sensible and terribly unromantic decision that the Indians were not worthy of their best hopes. Even by then, more than 30 years ago, the Indians had not been to the World Series in almost 25 years -- an impossibly long stretch of time to a 10-year-old -- and the last time Cleveland HAD reached the World Series it was upset and swept and humiliated by the New York Giants. The Indians were of great interest, of course, because we were kids, and they were our baseball team. But the other kids in school seemed to understand what I plainly did not ... that the Cleveland Indians were not very good at baseball.

I pinned my hopes on them every year -- full, unabashed, unchained hopes. I was not much into analysis. To me, Rick Waits could be Ron Guidry. Why couldn't he? Rick Manning could be Fred Lynn. Buddy Bell could be George Brett. Jim Kern could be Goose Gossage. Charlie Spikes could be Dave Parker. I believed in the depth of potential, the certainty that any of us could wake up tomorrow and be someone else, someone better. I was, at the time, the shortest kid in class, the one wearing the thick glasses, the kid who so clearly wasn't the smartest or the most athletic or most artistic or most musical or most anything.

But tomorrow, who knows? I kept believing in the power of tomorrow morning.

Duane Kuiper was my hero on those Indians teams. There was an uncomplicated reason for this. Kuip played second base and I played second base. When you are 10, you don't need much more than that. The kid next door can be your best friend because ... he's the kid next door. Accessibility is 90% of everything when you are 10.

That said, I'm not sure that if I had played shortstop that Frank Duffy would have been my hero. There was something Duane Kuiper, something about the way he played baseball that deepened and strengthened the connection. I've tried to explain it before ... Duane Kuiper, I feel quite certain, dived for more ground balls than any player of his era. Players would later tell me they called him "Step and a dive Kuiper," and that matches my memory. He was ALWAYS on the ground. This seems kind of a funny thing now, a quirky thing, but then it only meant to me that Duane Kuiper cared more and made more plays than anyone else. It never occurred to me, not even once, that perhaps other second basemen, like the regal Frank White, were making the same plays standing up. I can assure you that no one in the South Euclid Little League dived for more ground balls than I did.

Duane's weaknesses as a player have been well-covered on this blog. He could not get on base as often as you might hope for an every day player -- his .325 career on-base percentage was below league average. He could not run particularly fast. His stolen base percentage -- he stole 52 bases and was caught 71 times -- is one of the worst in baseball history. Most famously, he hit one home run in a startlingly long career.

And yet, the career was long. Kuip got 1,000 games in the big leagues -- more than any non-pitcher with one or fewer homers. Why did he play so long? I didn't know for sure as a kid, but I'm sure I sensed it. Everybody loved Duane Kuiper. They loved how hard he played. They loved the cheerful attitude he brought with him to every game. They loved the knowledge that he would dive for every ground ball, and that he would almost always put the ball in play, and that he would play with everything he had all the time. It is human nature, I think, to lean to the C+ person who is giving everything over the B- person who is not. Duane Kuiper exuded joy and effort. For a 10-year-old boy entirely certain that he had been given no particular talents, that made Kuip everything I wanted to be.

* * *

I've written this before ...  I never once, my entire childhood, had anyone tell me that I could write well. Not once. I know people in this crazy journalism business, a lot of them, who have always known their destiny, who started neighborhood newspapers when they were 3, who broke the story of lunchroom corruption when they were in the fifth grade, who wrote their first novel at 11. I meet more and more young people who know their destiny, and I admire and am even a bit jealous of their conviction.

Because no one ever told me that I could write, I was obsessed in my early journalism years with the concept of "talent." I would ask myself (and anyone who would listen) the same question: Am I TALENTED enough to make a living as a sportswriter? The answers were generally unsatisfying. None of my closest friends knew any sportswriters. My parents did not know any sportswriters. And so, it was a foreign world for them. Was I talented enough? How would they know? I wasn't a bad speller. I put too many commas in my sentences -- cut down on those. Try not to use too many big words. Beyond that, though, none of them could really help me. Was I talented enough? The best plan, everyone agreed, seemed to be to keep doing it until they called me in and made me turn in my playbook.

But, it turns out, that plan was exactly right for me. It was the plan I had unknowingly learned from Duane Kuiper. See, he played in the big leagues without speed and without power, he played in the big leagues by showing up every day filled with energy and life and the stubbornness to dive for every ground ball, the hunger to put the ball in play over and over in the hopes that enough of them would squeeze through. Now, years later, I realize that THIS is talent too, maybe the most useful talent, the talent of the every day. I worked absurdly hard ... I really did. I read everything. I wrote constantly. I traveled as far away as they would let me, to the smallest towns they could find, to write the stories that would appeal to the fewest people. And I did it all joyfully, because in time I found that I loved writing about as much as Duane Kuiper loved baseball. That was my talent. I loved this stuff.

I once heard Bruce Springsteen talk about the story behind one of his songs. And when he finished explaining the song, line for line, he said something like this: "How much of this was I actively thinking when I wrote the song? None of it. But how much of it was INSIDE me when I wrote this song? All of it." That's what I think about my connection to Duane Kuiper. I was just a short 10-year-old kid with glasses who lived in Cleveland. Had I grown up in Kansas City, I'm sure my hero would have been Frank White. Had I grown up in New York, it would have been Willie Randolph. Had I grown up in Boston, it might have been Rick Burleson. So when I flopped around and pretended to be Duane Kuiper day after day -- in the backyard, in my basement, on the diamond-hard Little League fields of Bexley Park -- I was not thinking about how much that connection would shape my life.

But all of it was inside me. I'm a prisoner of narrative -- one of the hazards of the job, I suppose -- but I remain convinced that a part of how I ended up doing what I'm doing and living the lucky life I live was that when I was a kid I watched Duane Kuiper play baseball and wanted to be just like him.

* * *

It was inevitable, I suppose, that Duane Kuiper would find out that he was my hero. I mean, I wrote about it a lot. Duane, as longtime announcer for the Giants, was certain to hear about it.

Duane is an extremely modest man ... he knows exactly what kind of player he was. And, at the same time, I think he takes a lot of pride in his career, as he should. He played in the big leagues! How many people can say that? What's more, he STARTED in the big leagues! Of all the kids in the world who play baseball, he was one of the few to reach the pinnacle, to really live the dream, and he loved it, every minute of it.

And, deep down, I think most ballplayers, maybe even all ballplayers, would love to think that they inspired someone. I would love to ask Barry Bonds that question. He seemed so bitter at times, so angry at times, so cheated at times ... but deep down I can't help but wonder: Didn't he want to believe that there was a kid out there -- maybe a bitter kid, maybe an angry kid, maybe a kid who felt cheated by life -- who watched him play and was inspired and became something he might not have otherwise become? Corny, sure, but don't we all wish that just a little bit?

I know Duane wished it. In a long history of baseball players, Duane Kuiper does not stand out except for the single home run he hit off Steve Stone. But in his own history, in his own life, his is a remarkable story. He is the son of a Wisconsin dairy farmer. To this day, he wakes up early every morning. He worked hard on the farm, and he worked hard at baseball, making himself the best player he could become. I know Duane wished that there was someone, maybe a few someones, out there who were just a little bit inspired by his story.

A year or so ago, a long tubular package came by mail. It was in my office when I first saw it. I opened it up ... and inside was a Duane Kuiper used bat. He thought I might like it.

Whenever I'm stuck between paragraphs, I pick up that bat and let it remind me ... of something ... something as important to me as just about anything.

* * *

This week, as mentioned, the Poscast is with Duane Kuiper. Among the many great bits her shared was this: Duane is almost certainly the only player of recent vintage, probably ever, to seriously consider failing a physical so that he could stay in Cleveland. He is, undoubtedly, the only person to get married in Hawaii and honeymoon in Cleveland. He is also the greatest guy in the world; there's no better feeling than having your hero live up to all your expectations and go beyond.

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