Friday, June 20, 2008

Duane Kuiper*

As a kid growing up in Cleveland during the 1970s I dreamed of two things happening. One, the Cleveland Indians would make it to the World Series, and two, at the very least, my favorite player would make the highlight reel of "This Week in Baseball."

Well, the Indians never made it to the World Series, but one of the club's most popular players, a slap-hitting second-baseman named Duane Kuiper, was featured on "This Week in Baseball" more than once. "Another caper by Duane Kuiper," is what they used to say, referring to his diving plays, backhanded stops, and running catches that foiled base hits and sent potential base runners crawling back to the pine.

Kuiper wasn't a shabby hitter either. He once hit two bases-loaded triples in a single game and spoiled three potential no-hitters by Ron Guidry, Andy Hassler, and the great Nolan Ryan. And if it weren't for that ONE home run he hit on August 29th, 1977, he'd have a perfect record of no home runs in 3,379 major league at bats.

I often wonder if that one home run jinxed Duane Kuiper and has prevented him from making the Hall of Fame as the only player in major league history to go homerless in 3,379 at bats. Baseball has seen some of its greatest players fall victim to gambling and cheating, making it virtually impossible for them to get inducted into the Hall. But keeping Duane Kuiper out because he made one stinking line drive travel just a little too far one night is both a travesty and an insult to Duane Kuiper and the city of Cleveland.

Alright, perhaps I am being a tad bit extreme. Kuiper himself would never take an induction into the Hall of Fame seriously. He still jokes to this day that he stopped hitting home runs after the first one because he didn't want fans to expect them all of the time. But I will continue to lobby for his induction because with that single home run, he is officially (be it at the bottom) on the all-time home run list - more than 700 away from the likes of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.

Without that home run, he would be at the top of a unique list of players with no round trippers in a career's worth of plate appearances. Perhaps we can induct Kuiper into the Hall with an asterisk? He can have a special category: the only player to almost never hit a home run in 3,379 at bats and would be a shoe-in for the Hall if it weren't for the wind blowing like crazy at his back one night.

Now I've done some thinking lately. Maybe his not being in the Hall of Fame runs deeper than his "tainted" record. For example, did anyone ever check his bat to see if he corked it on August 29th, 1977? Does anyone have any surveillance of Kuiper (or members of his posse) sneaking into the ballpark before the game and physically moving the wall closer to home plate? Was there a second baseball? These are tough questions, but nonetheless worthy of consideration.

What's the big deal surrounding Duane Eugene Kuiper you ask? Kuiper played in Cleveland at a time when the community needed a hero it could identify with. The city was in default, its river had the annoying habit of catching fire, and the home team was the butt of jokes everywhere. Kuiper, the unlikely hero, was small and powerless, but capable of handling whatever pitch was thrown at him. A drag bunt here, a bloop single there, a triple in the right field gap. He was scrappy, much like the city he represented. A city in decline, but trying to get on base.

He hailed from Racine, Wisconsin. Born June 19th, 1950, he graduated as a Saluki from Southern Illinois University. He was drafted in 1972 in the first round (21st pick) by the Cleveland Indians. He made his big league debut wearing #18 on his back near the end of the 1974 season. He clubbed 11 hits in 22 at bats for a .500 average. Indians fans (I for one) said, move over Ted Williams, a pure hitter is destined to unleash his wrath on all of your records one day.

Well, he ended up his 12-year career (8 with the Indians) with a .271 batting average, a far cry from the modern single season batting record of .408 set by Ted Williams. Numerous at bats will do that to a hitter's batting average. Kuiper had one season of 610 at bats, the same year he was named the Indians "Man of the Year" with a sizzling .277 average, 50 runs batted in, and 8 triples. Like I said, he was scrappy.

Other teams may have had George Brett, Rod Carew, and Steve Garvey - a worthy collection of .330 hitters. The Indians had Kuiper. There was a special place for him in the hearts and minds of Clevelanders. Aside from riding the Big Dipper at Geauga Lake, nothing made a young fan's heart pound faster with excitement than witnessing one of those diving catches or clutch singles by Duane Kuiper down at Municipal Stadium.

So go ahead and not induct him into the Hall of Fame you select group of baseball writers who spend your days scouring record books in search of profound statistics and lifelong accomplishments. But just remember there is a full grown adult here with enough money in his wallet to buy two...make that one...admission ticket to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I am taking this money out and putting it into a 6-month CD, and will keep rolling it into more CDs as terms expire until Duane Kuiper is inducted. Then I will see you in Cooperstown.

1 comment:

CoolRock said...

I like the subtle tongue-in-cheek deification of Duane. Very amusing and well-written too. I remember that homer - it was glorious. God, the Tribe sucked back then! But you're right, there were some shining stars. Hopefully your next tribute will be to the REAL luminaries of that era: Boog Powell, Oscar Gamble and, later, Rico Carty.