My Hero Duane Kuiper
These last few days before the baseball season actually begins are a bit frustrating. The previews have all been written. All the fan hopes are just out there, waiting, like some banquet table with food already on it, but NOOOOO you're not allowed to eat just yet, stop nibbling on the bread, stop it.
All of this means: It's time once again to tell my Duane Kuiper story.
I have written before: My greatest wish for you as a sports fan (or movie fan or Broadway fan or fan of neurosurgeons -- whatever) is to luck into a hero like Duane Kuiper. I did. I happened to be born in Cleveland at exactly the right time; I was seven years old when Kuip made his Major League debut. Vern Ruhle was on the mound. Kuip hit a double play grounder. I was 9 years old when he became Cleveland's everyday second baseman.
Of course, it wasn't enough to be born in Cleveland at that time. Other things had to fall into place. For one thing, the Tribe happened to be in the midst of a very bland period of time. My buddy Scott Raab, who is a bit older than me, DESPISED those Cleveland teams. That's because they were not good, but they were not exactly terrible either. They finished with a winning record in Kuiper's first full year. They then lost exactly 90 games two years in a row, which is obviously not great, but they had another winning record in 1979, when I was 12 and they were right around .500 the next year too.
When your team is truly terrible -- as Cleveland would become in the late 1980s and Kansas City was in the years I covered them in the 1990s and 2000s -- you don't really have much of a choice for favorite player. There are likely only two or possibly three players on those teams who can plausibly become your favorite player, unless you're going for effect. But those Cleveland teams of my childhood had lots of players, all about equally plausible. I could have become a Buddy Bell fan -- he was really the team's best player. I also could have become a Rick Manning fan. Frank Robinson was at the end of his great career, a legend, the first black manager. Rico Carty was absurdly fun. Jim Bibby was a pitching behemoth as was Jim Kern.
Ray Fosse ... Charlie Spikes ... George Hendrick ... Dave LaRoche ... Dennis Eckersley ... I really loved all these guys, they were all icons and moving statues and stars to a little kid whose mind exploded whenever his Dad took him to Municipal Stadium to watch a game from behind a steel girder. But only one of them could be my hero.
And there was one more lucky break. I was a small kid, smallest by far in my class. Small kids play second base.
Duane Kuiper played second base.
I've written many, many, many times about what it was like to have Duane Kuiper as a hero. He was not a great player, if you want to look at things like "offensive production." Everyone who cares already knows that Kuip hit one home run in his career, a Monday Night Baseball bomb in late April of 1977 that barely cleared the right field wall. Steve Stone, who grew up in South Euclid just like I did, gave up that home run and has never quite lived it down. Kuiper slugged .316 for his career.
As a nice bonus, Kuip is also one of the worst base stealers in the history of the game, having been caught 71 of the 123 times he tried to steal. Only one year in his career was he actually successful more times than he was caught -- that was 1975, when he was young and had fresh legs. He stole 19 bases that year. He was caught 18 times.
But I should say, my love for Duane Kuiper as a ballplayer was not -- and is not -- ironic or cute or meant to be sarcastic and clever. I loved Duane Kuiper as a kid because of how he played baseball. As I've written before, he dived for every ground ball, including ones hit right at him. That's how I played. He almost never struck out. That's how I wanted to play. He blooped and chopped and bunted and sliced and clanked and dribbled his way to a long big league career, a .271 lifetime average, 917 hits, more triples than a handful of Hall of Famers including Johnny Bench, Harmon Killebrew and Orlando Cepeda.
That was my path. I knew, even in my wildest daydreams, that I couldn't be Henry Aaron. I wasn't going to become Reggie Jackson. But Duane Kuiper ... yes, that dream seemed achievable somehow. It wasn't achievable. It wasn't close to achievable. But it seemed like something that actually could happen. I could not imagine a better life.
It obviously went a different way, I became a sportswriter, and I wrote many times about Duane Kuiper being my hero. Somewhere along the way, Kuip read one or two of those pieces.
So, my Duane Kuiper story -- Kuip decided out of nowhere that he wanted to surprise me with something. I don't believe we had ever met. You will ask: Why did he do this?
The only answer I can give you is that he's Duane Kuiper.
He reached out to my wife Margo via email. Here is my favorite part of the story, the part that makes me almost tear up with joy: Margo sent back an email that said, and I quote, "Is this the real Duane Kuiper?" She also did not mean it ironically; Margo is a moderate baseball fan but she had heard me talk so much about Duane Kuiper that she was certain that Duane Kuiper was bigger than life.
He is, of course.
Kuip assured her that, yes, he was the real Duane Kuiper. And then he told her his plan. My wife Margo overflows with admirable qualities; keeping a secret is not one of them. But she somehow kept this one inside. I still don't know how she didn't let it slip. One day a package arrived at the house. Margo was practically bursting with excitement when she brought it to me. I opened it up. There was a game-used Duane Kuiper bat. And there was Duane Kuiper's 1976 Cleveland baseball cap.
Inside, there was a small note from Kuip. It simply said, "I thought you might appreciate these."
It goes without saying that if there was ever a fire, and there was nobody in the house, those would be the things I would try to save.
In the years since that happened, I've become friends with my hero Duane Kuiper. One year, I went out to San Francisco for Duane Kuiper bobblehead day, brought my wife, and because he's Duane Kuiper he surprised her with a Giants jersey with her name on the back. Jerry Seinfeld has made that joke about how we root for laundry because we root for our team even as the names change, as strategies and philosophies and even owners change, as players are traded or leave for more money, and it's true, too true, but it's not the whole truth.
Margo wears that Giants jersey proudly. She doesn't care about the Giants. She wears it for one reason. Her only complaint is that she wishes the jersey had KUIPER on the back. He's her hero too.