The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

 

So Long, Kitty

A few months ago, when Al Leiter suddenly became a staple in the YES Network broadcast booth, I predicted to a couple of friends that Leiter was being groomed to replace Jim Kaat. As great as Kaat is as an analyst, he's clashed with Yankee brass before over everything from contracts to criticizing the team to NOT criticizing Alex Rodriguez enough, and given his advancing years (he'll be 68 in November) and the sudden presence of another articulate former pitcher on the YES team, it seemed likely the end of his time with the team might be nigh.

Alas, the future has arrived much more quickly than I had predicted. After 50 years in the game as a player and broadcaster, Kaat is retiring, effective this Friday. He'll throw out the first pitch at that night's Yanks-Red Sox game, do his thing in the booth, and head off into the sunset. Damn. Set your TiVOs.

I've long enjoyed Kaat's work, particularly in tandem with Ken Singleton. Pre-YES, the duo anchored the team's coverage on the Madison Square Garden Network. As I wrote more than five years ago: "Kaat & Singleton are a smooth, even-keeled, knowledgable duo. Whereas Fox's blaring production [these were the days when Tim McCarver and Bobby Murcer were calling 20 games a year for the Yanks on network TV] gets old real fast even in the most exciting of ballgames, MSG's low-key approach is perfect for the long haul of a season." The intrusion of Michael Kay once YES came about upset that dynamic a bit, but the duo's smooth, subtle dynamic withstood the intrusion of the blathering Kay, keeping Yankee broadcasts bearable.

Which isn't say that the opinionated Kaat gets a free pass on everything. He's been pretty critical of the influence of Moneyball on the game, and his disdain for pitch counts isn't surprising given that we're talking about a pitcher who spent parts of 25 years in the big leagues, from 1959 to 1983.

For his career, Kaat tossed 4530.1 innings, good for 26th all-time (Greg Maddux passed him earlier this year) and 180 complete games, winning 283 overall and reaching 20 three times. He was a fast-working southpaw who at his peak faced off against Sandy Koufax in the 1965 World Series three times, including the decisive Game Seven. He closed his career as a lefty reliever for Whitey Herzog's Cardinals, earning a World Series ring in 1982. Once upon a time, I touted his case for the Hall of Fame:
Kaat was a remarkably consistent performer for the Minnesota Twins for a 12-year span, a teammate of Blyleven's for the better part of four seasons (their 1970 division-winning rotation also included Jim Perry and Luis Tiant--a foursome with at least 215 career wins apiece). Had the Cy Young Award been given in both leagues instead of just one overall, he likely would have won in 1966, when he went 25-13, 2.75 ERA, and he would have been in the mix in '65, with an 18-11, 2.83 for a pennant-winner. Until David Cone won 20 games in 1998, Kaat held the record for the longest drought between 20-win seasons (eight years). He won in double digits 15 times (he lost in double-digits 16 times), won 17+ games six times, but had a 115 ERA+ or better only six times. A lefty, he tacked on a successful second career as a middle reliever, which enabled him to set a record for the longest gap between World Series appearances (1965-1982). Oh, and he also won 16 straight Gold Gloves, though a look at his raw fielding stats suggests several somebodys weren't paying attention--five times in that span his Fielding Percentage was below .930, though his range factors were always 50-100 percent higher than the league average at the position. If I had to pick one of the three [Tommy John and Bert Blyleven being the others] to leave off, it would be Kaat, but I still think he should be in.
The development of the JAWS system ultimately led me to conclude Kaat wasn't quite worthy of induction, but his work with the Yanks has more than earned my respect and even gratitude -- no way in hell could I tolerate 100+ Yankee games a year with Tim McCarver in the booth. A Ford C. Frick Award admitting him to the broadcaster's wing of Cooperstown would get no argument from me.

The New York Daily News's Bob Raissman recounts Kaat's rocky early relationship with The Boss:
As a player, Kaat was a good interview. He left an impression. The late Don Carney, who directed Yankee telecasts on WPIX-TV, was so impressed with Kaat after a rain-delay interview (remember those?) he reached out and hired him to work with Bill White and Phil Rizzuto in 1986. Carney did this knowing Kaat was not on the best of terms with George Steinbrenner.

After Sports Illustrated put The Boss on its cover posing as Napoleon, Kaat wrote a scathing letter to SI accusing the magazine of poor taste. With so many great players in the game, Kaat wondered why SI would choose Steinbrenner. SI printed Kaat's letter. When Kaat pitched for the Bombers (1979-80) he also got into a contract dispute with Steinbrenner.
Richard Sandomir's New York Times article elaborates on Kaat's 13-year history as a Yankee broadcaster:
Kaat first called Yankees games in 1986 for Channel 11, but he was bumped after a season for Billy Martin. Kaat thus had another reason to dislike George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, with whom he got into an unhappy contract dispute as a player a few years earlier. But on Dec. 25, 1994, he received a call at home from Steinbrenner.

“I was heading out to hit golf balls, and Mary Ann said, ‘It’s George Steinbrenner,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Kaat said. Steinbrerner called to say he had approved Kaat as the MSG Network’s replacement for Kubek.

“He said, ‘I want everything to be good between us,’ ” Kaat said.

Kaat picked an exquisite time to join the Yankees at the start of their playoff and World Series run. From MSG to YES, he has been a low-key star, never boisterous, never loud, but always with strong views, and that made him the equal of the more nationally known McCarver and Joe Morgan.

“He knows the game so well and gets to the essence of a play so quickly,” said John Filippelli, YES’s president of production. When he was at Fox Sports, he added: “The one mistake we made was that we should have hired Kitty. I think you rate him the equal of any analyst you’ve ever heard.”
Amen to that. We'll miss you, Kitty. Thanks for making summer evenings so much fun.

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