Reflections on America's pastime: Talking baseball with Jim Kaat
Jim Kaat, now a part-time resident of Manchester, is among those who were fortunate enough to have achieved the goal to which many young children aspire to reach.
Kaat had an outstanding professional career with the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, and St. Louis Cardinals, that spanned four decades. In his 24 years in baseball, he won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves (1962-1977) - a record at the time - was a three time All-Star (1962, 1966, 1975) and appeared in the World Series twice.
His first trip to the World Series was in 1965 as a member of the Minnesota Twins. He started three games in the series - each one of them matched up against the legendary Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"In those days we never saw each other on television because we were just always playing and there was only one game a week on TV," said Kaat. "I had a chance to warm up next to him in those three World Series games and you know just listening to the ball was pretty impressive and I remember Game 2 we went through the lineup the first go round, and I was sitting next to Johnny Sain, our pitching coach, and I said, 'John, you know if I give up a run this game's over. There's nobody that can hit this guy. '"
Kaat and Twins won the game 5-1, but Koufax shutout the Twins in Game 5 and Game 7 to help lead the Dodgers to the World Series title.
It would be 17 years before Kaat returned to the World Series - which is still a record today - this time as a reliever with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982.
When the Cardinals were on the brink of winning the series, Kaat said the police officers in the stadium told the players in the bullpen that to avoid the rush of people, they could move to the dugout, but Kaat would not go.
"Being kind of superstitious I guess, I said, 'I've waited too long for this. I'm not going to do anything different. I'm going to sit right here until that last out is made,' which is what I did," said Kaat. "That still is one of the top thrills. You get a lot of individual achievements, but to be part of a World Series that's what we play for. It was my last full year, So, to wait that long and finally get the ring, that was really special."
The long awaited World Series title may have been among his greatest memories as a player, but Kaat said what he missed the most once he retired in 1983 was the interaction with the other players.
"The things that make you happy are relationships with people and coming into that club house everyday and you can say the kind of things to your teammates that the public couldn't say to them in terms of needling one another and that part you really miss," he said. "All of sudden when you're out of uniform, and even though I'm a former player and now a media person, you always feel like you're on the outside if you're not wearing that uniform anymore."
The game has changed vastly over the years with some of the changes coming while he was still in the midst of playing the game, like the introduction of free agency, and several others - like the implementation of instant replay and the banning of collisions at the plate - after he'd left. Kaat said that he believes both the use of instant replay and the banning of collisions at the plate are positive changes in the game, but he had mixed feelings about free agency.
"I think it's nice that the players have the freedom to move. The sad part about free agency, because I'm a fan as well as a former player, is I can still name the starting lineup of the 1950 Philadelphia Athletics, which was my team, because they were the same guys probably for at least a half a dozen years in a row. We don't see that anymore," he said. "We talk about the Yankee, Red Sox rivalry and it's the fan rivalry and I always say the fans are rooting for laundry, not for the players because Ellsbury's a Red Sox one year and a Yankee the next."
Earlier this season a controversy arose in baseball following a second straight meeting between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in which Yankee pitcher Michael Pinada was ejected in the second inning for using pine tar - which was smeared on his neck - to get a grip on the ball.
Though not as overt as Pinada's actions, Kaat said the use of pine tar and other such substances was accepted when he was playing.
"We all had pine tar or homemade solutions, little solutions that we were able to tuck in the thumb of our glove and get some kind of a tackiness," said Kaat. "I remember Jim Honochick, the late umpire I was pitching this particular game, he was at second base, and he came walking up to the mound between innings as I was finishing my warm ups and he said, 'Hey lefty, I see what you're doing. You're putting a foreign substance on that ball. You know that's illegal. ' and I said, 'No, Jim it's not a foreign substance. It's made in North Carolina,' and he just laughed and went back to second base because everybody used it."
Kaat's retirement came shortly before the so-called "Steroid Era" really began. On Monday, he said it was pretty easy to pinpoint the time period that players began using steroids due to the changes in their body type, which he said became noticeable in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
Many of the players who played in that era and set records or had outstanding accomplishments will likely never reach the Hall of Fame. If they are acknowledged in the Hall of Fame, Kaat said, there should probably be a separate wing detailing their accomplishments, but also explaining why they were not formerly inducted.
Even so, Kaat said that Major League Baseball bears some of the burden for the tainted era and the records that were set during it.
"I think baseball administration is to blame for sweeping it under the rug because they had the strike in '94 and they didn't want another black eye for the sport even though they knew it was going on," he said. "People that had lost interest [after] the strike in '94 were coming back. (Sammy) Sosa and (Mark) McGwire had that home run hitting battle. So, they just sort of turned a blind eye to it."
Kaat got into broadcasting during his playing career as players often had to work in the offseason, he said. Toward the end of his career, players were often called up to the booth during rain delays to tell stories and kill time. A producer who had heard him in one of those interviews later asked him to call AAA minor league games with Ralph Kiner. The experience led to calling college games on ESPN and later Twins games. But his big break in broadcasting came when Tony Kubek - a former player and broadcaster for NBC Sports - recommended that the Yankees hire Kaat to replace him in the booth where he began his full time announcing career in 1986.
"It's a nice way to stay involved with the game," he said. "This is really my 57th season of being involved in professional baseball in one way or another; player, coach or announcer."
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