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Mudville: August 18, 2022 11:45 pm PDT
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Good as HOF Gold

BY KEVIN KERNAN

This is is a life lesson, not only a baseball lesson.

Way back in 1958 in Missoula, Montana, a young left-handed pitcher was trying to survive in Class C minor league baseball. He was in a rough spot so his manager/ catcher Jack McKeon came out to the mound.

“Jack spit some tobacco juice on my shoes and then said, ‘Figure a way to get out of it,’” Jim Kaat told BallNine this week for The Story.

Kaat had loaded the bases this particular game, pitching for the Missoula Timberjacks.

In today’s baseball world, there would be no tobacco juice spit in any direction. The manager or pitching coach might offer some kind words about the shape of the pitcher’s pitches; or perhaps not wanting to stress the 19-year-old’s arm, the manager might remove the pitcher from the game with orders from above and a pat on the back saying “You did your job.’’

Even though he didn’t do his job.

Back then was a much more “stand on your own two feet” world.

“Jack let us play,’’ Kaat said.

Those eight words made all the difference: “Figure a way to get out of it.’’

Turned out to be some of the best baseball advice Kaat ever got. He not only figured it out that day and went 15-5 the rest of the season, compiling a 2.99 ERA, he was in the major leagues with the Senators the next season. That turned out to be the first of his 25 major league seasons.

“It seems like every time the pitching coach goes to the mound by the time he gets back to the dugout, the next pitch is a home run,’’ Kaat said. “When are they going to learn?’’

Jim Kaat went on to win 283 games. He also saved another 17 – so that is 300 wins right there; if you think of it, a most magic number in baseball lore. Kaat totaled 4,530 innings along the way and a 3.45 ERA.

Two Sundays from now Jim Kaat, 83, will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, along with David Ortiz, Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Bud Fowler, and Buck O’Neil.

Yes, Jim Kaat figured it out.

Kaat, 83, made sure to invite McKeon, 91, to Cooperstown and offered this classy comment about his Missoula manager:

“I want him to stand up and I want to tell the people what he meant to me,’’ Kaat told me. “The thing I want to point out to the people is sometimes the line is razor thin between standing at a podium and getting inducted into the Hall of Fame or having one more bad game and getting sent home.’’

Think about that.

That thought, right there, is why Jim Kaat is such a gift to baseball. He gets it.

“I started out that year 1-4 and I thought one more bad start and they might send me home,’’ Kaat explained. This was the Washington Senators organization that became the Minnesota Twins a few years later.

“Jack said to me, ‘You’re going to pitch in the big leagues. You’re going to pitch for me every four days,’ He said we only have a 17-man roster, we only have seven pitchers, you may even pitch a little in relief in between starts. So (223) innings later at age 19, I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about pitching, and I learned a lot about being a professional athlete and baseball player – and I owe that to Jack for his support and encouragement because there were a lot of managers who could have sent me home.’’

That is such a great point and young pitchers are not able to develop these days like Kaat developed, with a workload. There’s a lot of hands on in today’s game and not enough hands off and saying, “figure it out.’’

COOPERSTOWN, NY - JUNE 20: Jim Kaat Poses for a Portrait on June 20, 2009 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo By Brand Affinity Technologies, Inc. via Getty Images)

Kaat then pointed to some MLB games he had watched the previous night.

“It seems like every time the pitching coach goes to the mound by the time he gets back to the dugout, the next pitch is a home run,’’ he said. “When are they going to learn?’’

The game is trending toward instructors from pitching factories, not pitchers who once pitched in the major leagues being in charge of pitching staffs.

“Like this guy from the Yankees, he went out and reminded Gerrit Cole that ‘a home run can’t beat us because we have a four-run lead.’ ’’

Yep, big league pitchers know that.

“I don’t need some college kid running around to tell me that,’’ Kaat said with a laugh. “That was so good about Jack, he just let us play. (Outfielder) Sandy Valdespino, who was my roommate there, we shared a room in a house there and we just drove Jack nuts. After every home game, we’d say, ‘Skip, 10 o’clock tomorrow morning be at the park, hit us some fungoes, play pepper, hit, field.’ We’d practice like for two hours, work on our sliding, and then go back home and then cool down for the game. Jack kept telling Carol, his wife, these guys won’t give me a day off.”

“The encouragement and support he gave me was tremendous, where I had seen other managers not do that,’’ Kaat said.

“Jack had the brass, too,’’ Kaat said. “One night against Idaho Falls, I struck out 12, didn’t walk a man, the farm director and everybody was there and they went out afterwards and the top brass said, ‘Well, he had a big game but we don’t think he has enough stuff.’’’

“So McKeon said, ‘I’ll bet you the best steak dinner anywhere in the country right now that this kid pitches in the big leagues.’’’

Kaat was in the big leagues by August of the next season. McKeon got his steak dinner.

“He probably got more than that,’’ Kaat noted with a laugh, knowing McKeon has a way to work out the best deals. He was Trader Jack right from the start.

2003: Manager Jack McKeon of the Florida Marlins. (Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Kaat then told me how he wound up on McKeon’s pitching staff. It’s quite the story.

“You know Jack, he could sell snowmobiles in Miami Beach,’’ Kaat said. “I had the Class B club made in spring training.’’

But here is where McKeon’s gamesmanship came into play. Pete Suder, the manager of the Class B team, a class higher than McKeon’s Class C Missoula team, was a former second baseman. McKeon could see in spring training that Kaat had pitching potential.

“So McKeon comes to me in spring training and says, ‘I heard you’re going to the Fox Cities at Appleton.’’’

McKeon then pointed out that Suder was a nice guy, but he was a second baseman and “he is not going to help you develop as a pitcher.”

“If you come to Missoula with me, I’m going to be your catcher.’’

“I just ate that right up,’’ Kaat said, “so I go to the farm director and say, ‘How would it be if I went out to Missoula to pitch for McKeon because he is a catcher and maybe I’ll learn more there?’ I actually got demoted to go out there … then I start out 1-4 and I said, ‘What in the world did I do?’ ’’

It all worked out, though.

“Turned out to be the right move,’’ Kaat said.

Now Jim Kaat will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. This is the classic example of good things coming to those who wait.

“George Will sent me an interesting text,’’ Kaat said of the political commentator and author. “He said, ‘Justice delayed ever so sweet.’ I thought that was so appropriate. I don’t know if it is justice but I appreciate it so much because for me it was kind of like my last go-around.”

“I kind of liken it to my career, in that in my last full season is the year I finally got my World Series ring. I’m the only professional athlete in any professional sport that’s played 24 years before getting a championship ring.’’

It’s that kind of information that makes any conversation with Jim Kaat so interesting.

(Original Caption) Starting pitchers for the 7th game of the World Series here display their strong left hands as they meet shortly before game time. Both southpaws, they are Jim Kaat, Twins, and Sandy Koufax, Dodgers.

That ring came with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982 when the Cards beat the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games. Kaat was 43 years old.

“So I had to wait a long time for that one too and it was worthwhile,’’ Kaat said.

I’ve known Jim, known to friends as Kitty, for decades and he is beloved in baseball; and to this day Jack McKeon has a special place in his heart for Jim Kaat.

“Jim called me and said he wanted me to be in Cooperstown,’’ McKeon told BallNine. “I really appreciate him doing that. He worked hard and put in the innings.’’

McKeon was 72 when he finally got his World Series championship ring in 2003, while he managed the Marlins. McKeon also played a part in Tony Oliva’s development, and managed Oliva at AAA Dallas-Ft. Worth in 1963.

“He starts off the season poorly,’’ McKeon said. “He’s a good hitter but he’s not hitting, he’s dropping fly balls. The fans are all over his ass. The owner of the club had kind of had a hammer over the organization and he complained to (then Twins owner and GM) Calvin Griffith. Calvin called me and said he could send him over to an International League club. I said, ‘Hey Calvin, he’ll be fine. We’re going on the road for 10 days, he’ll be fine, don’t worry about him.’”

“Oliva was hitting .217 when we went on the road trip,’’ McKeon recalled. “We come back off that road trip and he was hitting .327, 3-for-4, 4-for-4, 4-for-5. He finished .304 that season. Now at the end of the season I go up to Minnesota to spend a week, and Calvin and the farm director want me to meet with the press and one of the writers said, ‘Can Oliva play in the big leagues?’’’

“I said, ‘play regular, oh yeah, I don’t have any doubts about that. The only problem I have is, I don’t know how much over .300 he’s going to hit.’’’

McKeon called it. The next season Oliva was rookie of the year.

“He led the league in hitting the first two years,’’ McKeon said.

New York Yankees' manager Joe Torre (left) greets Florida Marlins' manager Jack McKeon at the batting cage before the start of Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. The Marlins defeated the Yanks, 3-2. (Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

It was so important in 1963 for Oliva to learn for himself in Dallas and battle through the hard times. Same thing for Kaat in 1958 in Missoula.

“That’s the key,’’ McKeon said. “We over-instruct today. We don’t give these guys any incentive to think on their own to develop their game.’’

McKeon recently told Kaat: “Part of the problem with baseball now is we don’t let guys do what I let you do. I let you figure out a few things yourself; now we’re all robots, we have everybody telling pitchers what to do, you never have a chance to develop any initiative to figure out ‘Why am I getting hit. Maybe I’ll work on this pitch.’ Try some things on your own. That’s what you did because you had the desire to get ahead.’’

And remember, when McKeon allowed Kaat to learn on his own, McKeon was only 27, a young manager, and Kaat was only 19, yet they found a way to build a better pitcher, a left-handed pitcher who would go on to pitch in the majors until 1983 and eventually make the Hall of Fame.

That should count for something.

Baseball would do well to get back to that kind of advice to pitchers. Don’t baby them. Help them figure it out – and that takes innings pitched. In that season at Missoula, Kaat pitched 223 innings, allowing 189 hits, 108 runs (but only 74 earned) – remember, it was Class C baseball – 118 walks, and 245 strikeouts.

All that extra work paid off, as Jim Kaat won 16 Gold Gloves.

Twins Kirby Puckett (C) with American League President Dr. Bobby Brown (L) and CBS analyst Jim Kaat (R) before game vs Atlanta Braves at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Game 1. Minneapolis, MN 10/19/1991 CREDIT: John Iacono (Photo by John Iacono/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Hence the title of Jim Kaat’s new book, written with Douglas Lyons, just a wonderful read: Good as Gold: My Eight Decades in Baseball, published by Triumph Books.

Kaat dedicated the book to his daughter Jill, who was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer about the time he started writing the book and passed away on March 5, 2021. Proceeds from the book will be donated to the Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation.

The forward was written by legendary sportscaster Bob Costas.

Costas recounts his first meeting with Kaat in 1982, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “I have talked baseball with countless players, managers, and other baseball figures, from old-timers to present-day stars. Very few are in Jim’s league as baseball raconteurs; his still keen insights and his firsthand experience over more than 60 consecutive years in the majors as player, coach, and broadcaster are a hard combination to match,’’ Costas wrote.

“Credibility? Two-hundred eighty-three wins. Three 20-win seasons, topped by 25 victories for the Twins in 1966,’’ Costas went on to write. “Sixteen Gold Gloves. And for good measure, 16 home runs as a hitter. All this spread over 25 seasons from 1959 to 1983. He was 44 when he threw his last big league pitch.’’

Costas and Kaat are a joy to listen to when they broadcast a game on MLB Network. The knowledge and love of baseball is evident. Kaat remains a great athlete at his age and his passion for baseball makes every conversation so enjoyable.

Jim Kaat truly is a baseball treasure and it is a Cooperstown coup to have this man in the Hall of Fame, finally, thanks to the Veterans’ Committee.

Yet some timely advice from Jack McKeon to a 19-year-old pitcher also helped pave the way to baseball gold.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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