My 11-year-old son was a member of the 2017 Cumberland/North Yarmouth Little League champion Red Sox, and I was one of the coaches. It was my second involvement with a Little League championship team. The first was in 1966, when I rode the bench for the Easton (CT) Little League champion Hawks. Oddly, after the CNYLL Red Sox won their championship game last month I couldn’t help but think of a certain former Major League Baseball player.
Jim Kaat was an outstanding pitcher who had an exceptionally long career. I wasn’t yet potty trained when he debuted with the Washington Senators, but by the time his big league playing days concluded I was a college graduate. Kaat is one of only eleven hurlers in Major League Baseball history to have pitched in four different decades, and his 283 career wins exceed the totals compiled by any of the other ten, except for Hall-of-Famers Nolan Ryan and Early Wynn.
But Kaat wasn’t known solely for his longevity. The 6’4” native of Zeeland, Michigan won 15 or more games in a season eight times between 1962 and 1975, including a 25-victory effort in 1966. He amassed 200 or more innings pitched in a season 14 times, which, given changes in philosophy regarding the care and handling of pitchers, is unlikely to be equaled (or even approached) in the future. He won the Gold Glove, emblematic of being his league’s best-fielding pitcher, a record 16 times. He also reinvented himself in mid-career, morphing from a flame-throwing left-hander with high strikeout totals to a pitcher whose experience, guile, quick delivery, and ability to keep batters off stride more than made up for the inevitably decreasing velocity of his pitches.
How did Jim Kaat feel on June 17, 1957, when he signed his first professional contract with the Washington Senators at age 18, or on August 2, 1959, when he made his major league debut at Chicago’s Comiskey Park against the World Series-bound White Sox?
What it was like a little over a year later when his team uprooted all its employees and moved from the nation’s capital to a new home in the Upper Midwest, rechristening themselves the Minnesota Twins?
How great was it on June 19, 1962 when, again in Chicago against Dom Zanni of the White Sox, he walloped the first of his 16 major league home runs?
Was the elation he felt after Game 2 of the 1965 World Series, a 5-1 victory over the Dodgers and Sandy Koufax, more intense than his disappointment of losing Games 5 and 7 to Koufax and his Los Angeles teammates four and seven days later?
Was Kaat nervous taking the mound for the American League in the 4th inning of the 1966 All-Star game in St. Louis, when the first six batters he faced were future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Ron Santo, and Joe Torre? He was probably calmer nine years later when only the first three hitters he faced, Lou Brock, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench, were Cooperstown-bound.
After more than 17 years with the notoriously stingy Senators/Twins organization, getting waived in August of 1974 had to hurt. Was being released for the final time, on July 6, 1983, worse?
Stealing a base at age 41 during a complete game victory had to be great, but was it better than the 16th and final home run of his big league career, which came two months later?
But maybe the most rewarding thing about Kaat’s career was returning to the World Series 17 years after his only other appearance in the Fall Classic, and helping his team win it.
Let’s face it: I never played pro baseball, and as a consequence I have no way of really knowing how Jim Kaat felt when he signed to play professional baseball, got uprooted when his team moved, hit unexpected home runs or stole even more unexpected bases, won (and lost) World Series games against Sandy Koufax, pitched in front of millions of viewers in two All-Star games, or got unceremoniously dumped by his team in the middle of a season after 17 years with them.
But thanks to simple math I believe I know how he felt when he and his St. Louis Cardinal teammates won the World Series 17 years after his only previous appearance there.
About one-third as good as I did when the CNYLL Red Sox earned their title last month, 51 years after the Easton Hawks won theirs.Andy Young
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