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Mudville: April 19, 2024 12:04 am PDT

The Amazing Emu: Jim Kern Part Deux

"I loved all the bullshit that went on, like Sparky Lyle and his cakes. "

Sports evolve.

You don’t even have to go back generations to see the changes. Watch a baseball game from just 15 years ago and the only shift you’ll likely see is Chone Figgins jiggling his cup around.

At what point though does change become counterproductive?

Three-time All Star reliever Jim Kern has seen enough, and he joins us for the second part of a two-part Spitballin’.

The heart of Kern’s argument is essentially what everyone who has watched or played baseball for decades has been saying recently: common sense and baseball knowledge that has been gained through decades of experience are being phased out by the nerds who never played and simply don’t know any better.

The game is played on a diamond and not on a spreadsheet. Who do you side with? The players or the nerds? Tom Seaver or Lewis Skolnick?

Kern is part of a growing number of former players who have seen enough. After Kevin Cash flushed Blake Snell’s dominant World Series Game 6 start down the toilet at Globe Life Field, the pushback against analytics was as loud as it has ever been.

It was the first time that on a large scale, current players banded together with former players to scream at the baseball heavens that things need to change. The real driver for change in baseball will come from the players.

If they want to stop being treated as a bunch of ones and zeros in an algorithm, they have to stand up for themselves. They have started and there will be generations of former players and baseball lifers standing behind them to offer support when they want to really push back.

“Now Sparky is real hairy, so the pies were just hanging all over him and he was just sitting there picking pieces off his chest eating it.”

And for the 20-something chest-beaters who like to yell on Twitter about BAIP, VORP and launch angle, not to worry. In thirty years, you’ll be complaining about the way the game is being played, just the way baseball lifers are doing now, and every other generation has done prior.

But for now, we’re riding shotgun with Jim Kern. Whether you’re on the diamond or in an argument about the condition of baseball today, it’s always good to have him on your side.

So, join us for this week’s Spitballin’ because Kern has some stories to tell and grievances to air.  

Thanks for joining us again, Mr. Kern. I want to talk to you about the changing role of relief pitchers and some other topics on today’s game. But first, you had an incredible season in 1979, one of the best ever for a reliever. You pitched 143 innings out of the bullpen and were totally dominant. Can you tell us a little about that year??

Right from the start. It was the second game of the season and Doyle Alexander was pitching. I came in for him in the fifth inning with the bases loaded and got out of it. I pitched great and in the eighth I saw Sparky Lyle warming up. When it came to the ninth though, Corrales sent me back out and I got the save.

He said I was pitching great so there was no reason to take me out. That’s pretty much how it went all season. Sparky was the closer, but he didn’t get in as much as they thought, and I had a truly awesome season. My ERA was never over 2.00 at any point in the whole season. I pitched 143 innings, had 136 strikeouts and the biggest thing for me was I only gave up 99 hits.

I love hearing the stories about managers leaving well enough alone when a guy is going great. What do you think about the way the pitching staffs are handled today?

I think all of this started a while back when they started to come up with a pitch count of 100 for young kids, which wasn’t bad. But what it did was teach kids to look into the bullpen when they started getting near that mark. It took away from building up arm strength.

Look at Nolan Ryan, Fergie Jenkins or Don Drysdale. Even Harvey Haddix or Warren Spahn. Spahn threw 12 innings and came back two days later. You have to throw to build arm strength. When Fergie pitched, you knew you’d be in the showers in an hour and a half. He pitched to contact, but that was his plan. He knew he had seven guys behind him who could play defense and he wasn’t scared to let people put the ball in play. He might have given up 32 homers a year, but 31 of them were gonna be solo shots. He came right at hitters and challenged them for nine innings.

That’s true. What do you think of the way the game is managed today?

I have a few reasons why I think the game is suffering. I think the press is into it big time and that’s a problem. If a manager goes against the numbers and tries something with his gut and gets it wrong, he gets fried in the paper. That happens enough and they get fired in real life too. It used to be you had five starters, five relievers and you put your best guy on the mound for the situation and leave him there until he couldn’t get people out anymore. Now you need seven or eight relievers and that comes at the expense of pinch hitters and pinch runners at the end of the bench.

I feel like it has degraded the game. The technique of the game is gone and now it’s all about the long ball. You look back at that great brand of ball the Dodgers used to play. They could beat you 2-1 because they had the pitching and defense and manufactured runs. Now you need to score five or six runs to win. But when it comes down to the World Series, good pitching beats that style of play.

Owners and Major League Baseball think that home runs bring in more attendance than shutouts. The balls are wound tighter and everything is geared towards the offense. When they changed the rules to speed things up, they limit the time between pitches, they limited mound visits, but they didn’t do anything about the batters leaving the box to wander around. Get in there and hit.

I can’t imagine you approve of the changes made to the game the past couple of years.

Seven inning double headers? Are you shitting me? Used to be when your ERA hit 3.50 you stopped looking at the scoresheet because you were embarrassed. Now a 4.10 ERA is considered good. A quality start is six innings and three runs? Come on. They changed the save rule too to make it easier to get saves. It’s more about stats and less about the game now. Stats sell.

Right, the folks at BallNine agree completely. And I am sure you’re not too excited about analytics either?

They’re trying to simplify the game down to numbers. You look at the people in charge now and they’re people who couldn’t play the game. They don’t understand the game. But they understand numbers, so they push that agenda and the owners and Rob Manfred let them. Owners have always been scared of the lifetime players, the guys who really know the game.

So, what do they do? They phase them out and replace them with people who understand statistics better than baseball, just like them. It’s a way to simplify things and put it on a level for people who don’t understand the actual game. I say Manfred is the Commissioner of Owners, not Commissioner of Baseball. He’s not for the players. He’s killing the golden goose.

Photo: emuoutfitting.com

I couldn’t agree more. I am glad more players are speaking up about this. I think I’ll take the word of players rather than the front office nerds and people complaining on Twitter. Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about the passing of Hank Aaron, someone you faced, and really the passing of so many Hall of Famers from your era.

The first time I faced Hank was late in his career in a Spring Training game. It was a 3-1 count, and he was looking for a curve. I was young and he didn’t know me. I blew a fastball by him and he took a real weak ass swing. I’m thinking to myself, “I got this old man no problem.”

Next pitch I throw a 97 MPH fastball and he smoked it so hard off the outfield wall that our centerfielder was able to hold him to a single. He baited me into doing that and when he was on first, he just kinda gave me a smile.

But you talk about Hank Aaron and those guys and the first thing you think of is class. Hank, Don Sutton, most of the stars from that era, not just the ones who recently passed away. Fergie Jenkins and Carl Yastrzemski. Each one of them was first class. Even Gaylord Perry. Underneath those barnacles, he has a heart of gold.

But all those guys who passed away, every single one of them was not just a great baseball player, but they were great men. It’s sad. But hey, I’m 71. My generation is dying, and I’ll be there one day too.

What strikes me about all of the Hall of Famers that have died the past 14 months or so was that they were all faces of their franchises. They were all such visible superstars when they played and bigger than life guys that the fans absolutely adored.

That’s not an accident either. Fans would ask those guys to take a picture and they would put their arm around you like they’re your best friend just to make you look good. They signed autographs until the cows came home. There would be kids lined all along the wall and they signed every last one. They did that every day and wouldn’t have thought to ask for a dime to do it. There’s not many like that today. To me a kid asking for your autograph is the highest form of flattery. Now, it’s more about how much players are going to charge for their autograph.

OK, let’s end this with some fun. You were always known as a great prankster and one of the game’s great personalities. That Rangers team had a lot of those kind of guys. Pick out a fun story to share with our readers.

I have so many and that’s what was so great about my career. We had so much fun. One of the best was with Sparky Lyle. Sparky had this thing where anytime a cake came into the clubhouse for any reason, he would strip down to his jock and sit in the cake.

We were in Boston and it was Sparky’s birthday, so Doc Medich goes out and gets a cake made in the shape of a naked ass and has them write “sit here” on it. So, the cake comes in and sure enough, Sparky strips down to just his jock. While he was doing that, we handed out six Boston Cream pies to the biggest guys we had. Sparky jumped on that cake and was sitting there smiling and laughing.

All the guys just wound up and pelted him with the pies. Now Sparky is real hairy, so the pies were just hanging all over him and he was just sitting there picking pieces off his chest eating it. It was so funny and there are just so many stories like that.

That’s an amazing story! Absolutely love it. I also appreciate you taking so much time with us to share these stories and give your opinion on the game today. It was incredibly fun. Last question for you, do you have any final reflections that you’d like to leave for our readers?

I always told people that playing Major League Baseball was like playing high school ball with a credit card. It’s the same fun game but there’s so much more to it. I look back on my career and it was just awesome. It was unbelievable. It was an unreal experience and there is no other way that I can describe it.

I loved all the bullshit that went on, like Sparky Lyle and his cakes. The game on the field was great, but the fun we had off the field is what I miss most. I actually have a book coming out soon that shares a lot of those great stories from the 70s and 80s and they’re just so fun to read and remember. I told my former teammates to give me their best stories as long as it wouldn’t get anyone divorced or arrested. It’s a great book.

Jim is the founder Emu Outfitting Company, an outdoors adventure company that specializes in fishing, hunting and photography trips to the Amazon and other locations. Visit www.emuoutfitting.com  for more details. Kern has also written a book of tales from the Texas Rangers of the 1970s that is due out in February 2021.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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