Jeff Pearlman

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Ron Kittle

#125
He broke his neck in his first-ever professional baseball game—then spent the ensuing decade breaking walls and windows with 400-foot homers. So what does a slugger do after baseball? He makes benches, of course. POSTED October 23, 2013

kittle

To many baseball fans of the 1980s, Ron Kittle was a bopper.

To me, he was The Bopper.

What I mean to say is that, were 12-year-old Jeff Pearlman offered the choice to pick one ballplayer to homer in a big spot, he’d have likely selected Kittle, who at the time was the Chicago White Sox’s left fielder and middle-of-the-lineup power threat. In 1982, Kittle emerged as the AL Rookie of the Year by hitting 35 home runs with 100 RBI. The next season, he added 32 homers and drove in 74. Yet Kittle was, with rare exception, an all-or-nothing guy. As a rookie, his power was accompanied by a league-high 150 strikeouts. That second season, Kittle hit .215, and whiffed another 137 times. He wound up bouncing to the Yankees, then the Indians, then back to Chicago, then Baltimore, then once more to the White Sox, before retiring in 1991 with 176 home runs, 460 RBI and 744 strikeouts. Baseball Reference says the two players his career best mimics are Steve Balboni and Bo Jackson. That seems about right—lots of oomph, interrupted by myriad strike threes.

Here, Kittle talks about breaking his neck in his first professional game, then bouncing back when few thought he could. He discusses what was, what could have been, how to make the perfect baseball bat bench and why Hall & Oates out-rank Wilson Phillips. These days Ron’s a mainstay on the motivational speaking circuit, and you can buy his handiwork here.

In the midst of World Series week, we appropriately welcome Ron Kittle to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Ron, on your Facebook page you recently wrote, “time to wake up and shake yourself out…loosen up that body and do something fun.sometimes you just need to quit worrying about what others think..who cares..LIVE LIFE and meeting some friends at Cracker Barrel soon …” Ron, I love the carefree aura of this message, because it’s something I struggle with. Ron, how aren’t you burdened? By the inevitability of death? By climate change and Syria and homelessness and tribal warfare? I see the world and, quite often, I’m heartbroken. Help, please …

RON KITTLE: Jeff, I have seen so may things over my life, and I question why things happen or why they make others suffer. What we have done is we have become complacent, and we have forgotten the ability to get better. I’ve said there is always someone who has it worse than you do. I focus on the strengths and work to make myself and others better.

J.P.: You began your professional career after making the Dodgers organization at a tryout camp in 1976. In your first-ever game, you slid across home plate and the catcher landed on your neck … breaking it. I repeat—in your first game, you broke your neck. What did that feel like? Did you know it was broken? And how didn’t you just hang ‘em up there and move on with life?

R.K.: There was no one more bitter about this accident then me. I asked myself Why so many times. I slid across the plate and a high throw came in from right field and the catcher reached off balanced and landed on my neck and shoulders while I was getting up. I just kind of laid there and couldn’t move. No feelings whatsoever. I did not feel any pain—it was more of a lack of motion, After a trip to the hospital, my neck never hurt, but everything else did. After a while I was being treated for shoulder, arm and back issues. I didn’t come back right away, but after the season I was looked at and found they found three crushed vertebrae and a fractured spinal cord. Surgery, the halo and a tough-love father made me want to get stronger.

J.P.: You’re one of the few players I’ve seen who wore glasses all the time. I’ve never seen this asked, or thought to ask it, but what’s it like trying to play all-out Major League Baseball with glasses? What were the complications? The problems? And how much trouble did it cause you?

R.K.: I made baseball my challenge. An old scout said I would never be able to play pro baseball with glasses. I had not much of a choice. I tried hard lenses, but as a catcher the foul balls caused the contacts to fall out. With glasses, the issue was sweat. But you do what you have to do. Most older parks had poor lighting back when I played, so reflections and poor lighting causes issues of subpar vision. You just adapt to what you have to deal with, but having both eyes with different RX, well, you just focus harder

J.P.: I’m gonna say something, and please don’t be insulted: I was a kid when you played with the Yankees, and I always sorta thought of you as a swing-and-miss-or-swing-and-hit-it-a-long-way lug, a la Dave Kingman or Mike Laga. Was I, in hindsight, off on this? How would you break down your game, looking back? And are you satisfied with your Major League career?

R.K.: Of course I am not satisfied with my career, but despite coming back from a broken neck, I did real well. I have always had the ability to hit for average—I missed multiple Triple Crowns in all minor league levels. But once I got up to the Majors, it was a must to swing hard and drive the ball out of the yard. A strikeout is just not three pitches—there are many scenarios to each at bat … three, four, five. six, seven swings and sometimes even more. And most home run hitters need to swing aggressively. It’s no different then a ground ball to second base or back to the pitcher. It’s still an out.

ronronJ.P.: A bunch of years ago you called out Barry Bonds in your book—something I loved, because he’s the meanest person I’ve ever met. However, I must ask—what’s your beef with Bonds? And how did you feel when he responded with, more or less, “Who the hell is Ron Kittle?”

R.K.: He knew who I was … I played against him in spring training many, many times. His comment was not really about who I was. What happened was I asked him very politely to autograph three game jerseys I bought for my charity. I took four Sox batboys with me and his comment was, “I don’t sign for f—-ing white people.” And he left. I just laughed because I thought he was kidding. The rest of the team in the locker room handed over many items for my charity … to make up for his asinine comment.

Dusty Baker came out and gave me a hug. He said he was not surprised with his comment, but was surprised I didn’t kick the shit out of him..

J.P.: Baseball is a strange game—you were the 1983 Rookie of the Year, you had a bunch of other big power seasons and then, by age 32, you were done. How is it, wrapping up a career so early? Like, when did you know—for sure—you were finished? How did you accept it? And did you miss the game much after your career wrapped?

R.K.: I signed out of a tryout camp in 1976 with so much talent, but I ended with a major injury. I played my career at about 65 percent of my ability, and as anyone should know when you have spinal injuries … you’re limited to what you can do, and maybe even how long you can do it. I shattered my shoulder in 1984 on Opening Day while jumping for a baseball and into a brick wall. I still hit 32 home runs but I couldn’t lift my arm to get better. I struggled after that, but I still wanted to play. My plate appearances went down due to injuries, but I was still in the Top 5 of home runs per at bats in the Majors, and I was advised by my doctor that if I played any longer, I would be in a wheelchair at age 50.

So three fused vertebrae in my neck, two ruptured—one above the three fused and one below the fused ones and also two taken out of my lower back in 1989—when I was having a very good year, until someone ran me over at first base.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 3.22.39 PMJ.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

R.K.: My first paycheck is tops. My low would have to be not getting to play at my ability to show everyone what I really had.

J.P.: You make benches out of baseball bats. I’ll repeat: You make benches out of baseball bats. Uh, explain? And how’s business?

R.K.: I have always had a passion in woodworking and steel work. I bought a bench years ago and it was poorly made, so I just recreated it and made it better. It’s very practical, but it’s more baseball art. I make beds, humidors, ashtrays, larger bats—all sports art. I tell everyone, there is nothing I can’t make … and I played baseball for a hobby.

Business is good. I work when I want and have no trouble selling or making these items

J.P.: You do some motivational speaking. I’m always a tad skeptical when athletes work as motivational speakers, and here’s why: What the hell does playing a sport have to do with the real world? I know … I know—teamwork, togetherness, blah. I’ve heard it all. But honestly Ron, is there any true crossover between DHing for the White Sox and working behind a desk at a law office?

R.K.: I see here, J.P., a huge hint of jealousy in your question and I can see by your questions what personality you have. [Jeff's Note: Ouch, babe] There is no difference in any occupation, but so many valuable lessons to learn from others who work at their skills and know what it takes to get to the next level. I personally challenge others to give their best and make the world a better place. It’s so easy to sit back and let others succeed, and you question their efforts. I know personally I make people better, because I know what it takes. I have heard many speakers over the years and if one things is said to make you think I can do this or that, well, you did your job as a speaker. I open my talks by explaining that there are five things I can’t do: 1. Give birth, 2. Do my taxes, 3. Sing, 4. Dance, 5. I haven’t found this one yet.

And when I speak, I offer my hosts a deal. If they don’t find it fun, educational, motivating—they do not need to pay me. It’s been 26 years, and I’ve yet to find someone who didn’t enjoy my talk.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 3.22.10 PMJ.P.: Looking back, does playing in the Majors meet the hype? What I mean is—sooooo many boys and girls dream of one day being pro athletes. But is the reality as spectacular as the aspiration? Does it live up to the hype? And are you as happy now as you were back with the Sox, young and carefree?

R.K.: I feel very lucky and honored to have competed at the highest level. Everyone needs a dream, and they also need to know you have a better chance to be a Dean of a University than becoming a Major League player. And I have know so many better baseball players who never made it … due to not being able to handle pressure of failing. Those are the bitter ones.

I look back and, before I broke my neck, I was a switch hitter, and I hit them farther lefty than righty. I had skill like no others, but with my injuries I realized I had to show others you can come back from most anything to excel, and to pass on what it takes to get there. And make it fun.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 3.23.35 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH RON KITTLE:

• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Dan Pasqua?: Quiet. Great guy … good friend.

• We give you 300 Division III softball at-bats right now. What’s your line?: .900 average with 250 home runs.

• Five nicest guys you ever played with?: Harold Baines, Greg Walker, Scott Fletcher, David Winfield, Ron Guidry.

• Celine Dion calls and offers you $5 million to play Naked Gum-Chewer No. 7 in her Las Vegas show, “Kittle and Celine Do Naked Stuff.” You have to work 320 nights per year. You in?: Rode a Harley naked for $1000. Might be in.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Twice. Shit happens, no control.

• My sister’s boyfriend recently accidentally sent a romantic text (intended for her) to the entire family. How long am I allowed to ruthlessly mock him for?: Send pictures next time … and giggle.

• Best joke you know?: Real life things that happen are funny.

• Number of times a year you’re asked, “Aren’t you Greg Walker?”: Never … he’s my best friend and was my roommate for eight years.

• One questions you would ask Trey Lorenz were he here right now?: Honestly, I don’t know who he is. Sorry

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Sammy Sosa, Anthony Weiner, plastic cups, Circle K, Hebrew National Hotdogs, six feet of snow, Wilson Phillips, St. Louis Rams, the Kingdome, John F. Kennedy, purple nurples, Hall & Oates: Purple nurples, John F. Kennedy, Hall & Oates, Sammy Sosa, Hebrew National Hotdogs, Six feet of snow, plastic cups, Circle K, Wilson Phillips, St. Louis Rams, Anthony Weiner, the Kingdome.

  • Tim miller

    Thanks for this. Growing up i was a huge little fan. Me and my three year old girl card collect and every now and then we get a pack of randoms from the dollar tree and I’ve happily gotten six or seven kittles. “Daddy..you got ‘nother’ one with funny glasses?” God bless the dollar tree

  • Tim miller

    A god pounding Ron kittle interview. Right here and now!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life