At this time of year a major league baseball team counts itself among the blessed if it has one fuzzy-cheeked rookie worthy of serious consideration. The 1983 Chicago White Sox are doubly blessed, because down among the Sarasota, Fla. palms they not only have Ron Kittle, last season's Minor League Player of the Year while performing for the Edmonton Trappers, but also Greg Walker, another exceptional prospect who just happens to be Kittle's closest friend. When the White Sox really get to dreaming about what Kittle and Walker might do for them, they harken back to 1975, when a couple of kids named Jim Rice and Fred Lynn checked in with Boston and led the Red Sox to an American League pennant.
The closeness between Kittle and Walker appears to bear out the adage that opposites attract. Kittle is a 25-year-old leftfielder; Walker is a 23-year-old first baseman. Kittle bats right, Walker bats left. They both have considerable size—Kittle is 6'4" and 200 pounds. Walker 6'3" and 205—but Kittle is bespectacled and his buddy isn't. Kittle is outgoing; Walker is shy.
"We roomed together for three years in the minors, and Greg was always telling me to turn down the air conditioner so we could suffocate," says Kittle.
Kittle is factory, Walker is farm. Kittle's area code back home in Gary, Ind. is 219; Walker's area code in Douglas, Ga. is 912. Walker married his high school sweetheart, Carman Kirkland, and has a 3-year-old daughter named Kaycee. (Imagine him with the Kansas City Royals.) Kittle, a resolute bachelor, frequently baby-sits for the Walkers.
Forget about the phony male bonding in those beer commercials; this is a real friendship. Move over, Huck and Tom. Take a hike, Butch and Sundance. Make way, Belushi and Aykroyd.
As different as their personalities may be, Walker and Kittle have much in common professionally. Kittle was Double A and then Triple A Player of the Year the past two seasons. At Double A Glens Falls, N.Y. in 1981 he batted .324, with 40 homers and 102 RBIs in 109 games. At Triple A Edmonton last year he hit .345 and led the Pacific Coast League with 50 homers and 144 RBIs in 127 games.
Two years ago Walker hit .321 at Glens Falls, with a league-leading 117 runs, plus 22 homers and 86 RBIs. He missed most of the '82 season because of a broken left wrist, but in a September trial with the White Sox, he batted .412 and had a slugging percentage of 1,000.
Both are reclamation projects: Kittle was cut by the Dodger organization; Walker was drafted by the White Sox from the Phillies. Both are also average fielders and runners, but excellent hitters and hard-nosed competitors who play even when it hurts. Walker's left wrist still aches; Kittle wears a thick batting glove because of painful bone chips in his thumb.
Either has the potential to fill the large hole left by Steve Kemp, the power-hitting Sox leftfielder—19 homers and 98 RBIs last year—who became a free agent and signed with the Yankees. But there's an ironic twist to all of this. Even though Kittle and Walker don't play the same position, they may actually be competing against each other for a starting job. If Kittle becomes a regular in left, Tom Paciorek, who hit .312 as a first baseman last season, will probably stay in the infield. Sorry, Greg. But if Walker starts at first, the versatile Paciorek will probably be in left. Tough luck, Ron. "The competition's good for all of us," says the graying Paciorek, ever the diplomat.
The odds are overwhelming that at least one of the rookies will make it. But which one? Kittle has devastated minor league pitching, and Walker has the left-handed bat the Sox sorely need. Kittle and Walker refuse to think in terms of personal competition; they just want to have the kind of spring that will make Chicago Manager Tony LaRussa's decision even more difficult than it already is.
In the Sox' Grapefruit League opener against Detroit, Kittle singled sharply off Dave Tobik, who is considered the Tigers' leading reliever, to drive in the game's only run. "I just tried to stare him down and swing the bat," Kittle explained later.
Facing Kansas City's Vida Blue the next day, he hit a searing line drive that Third Baseman George Brett speared near the line. "When a guy comes up there with a 'Come on, let's go' attitude, you've got to worry," said Blue. "He stared and I stared back. That Kittle looks like he's grinding sawdust out of the bat." Kittle also hit a 390-foot fly against the wind. His was an 0-for-4 day, but a memorable one. More memorable was his performance last Friday, when he hit two home runs against the Mets. Walker had already hit his first homer of the spring against Cincinnati the day before.
Many a Bunyanesque slugger has come out of the Pacific Coast League, only to fail in the majors. Kittle is the first minor-leaguer in a quarter century to put together a 50-homer, 140-RBI season; the last, alas, was the late Steve Bilko, who had 56 homers and 140 runs batted in with the 1957 Los Angeles Angels but was a big league bust. But Kittle's swing is closer to that of another Pacific Coast League legend, the Phillies' mighty Mike Schmidt.
Still, Kittle could be more selective at the plate. "I swing at everything," he says, only partly in jest. "That way they don't know how to pitch to me." But he doesn't swing from the heels, does hit to all fields and uses a bat with a knobless handle to discipline himself. "If I had a knob at the end I'd be able to grip it tighter and I'd overswing," he explains. Charley Lau, the Sox' esteemed batting coach, prefers to leave Kittle alone. "He'll hit a whole bunch of homers," says Lau.
When Walker raps out a line drive, he takes his left hand off the bat on the follow-through; it's his own pull-prevention medicine. "A double to left center is as good as a double to right center," he says with admirable logic. Taking his stance, Walker leans on his back foot and barely toes the ground with his right, like a ballet dancer in the tendu position. He shifts his weight to make contact and follows through with a pronounced forward lean. Lau would no more mess with Walker's pure swing than fool around with George Brett's—which Lau himself designed. "Walker will hit .300 with better-than-average power in the major leagues," says Lau.
There's a lively debate in the Sox organization as to which prospect is further along. "Kittle can be pitched to, but Walker could fall out of bed and hit," says one White Sox coach. Others feel Kittle's full year in Triple A gives him the edge.
Of course, as with all rookies, there's also the possibility that neither Kittle nor Walker will go north with the big club. As the situation stands now, if he doesn't start, Kittle will probably be the fourth outfielder. But the White Sox, desperate for a third baseman, have been talking to the Rangers about trading Kittle and some pitchers for veteran Buddy Bell. Chicago wouldn't relish losing a popular kid from a nearby town—Bill Gleason, editor of Chicago Sports magazine, has already threatened to lead a fan boycott if that should happen. But if the Sox land Bell, they might thereby gain enough hitting to justify using slick-fielding Mike Squires at first base for his defense. Thus such a trade could also send Walker packing—back to the minors—because if he isn't a starter in Chicago, the Sox want him to be playing regularly elsewhere. "I'd hesitate to sit him on the bench; that would be a waste," says LaRussa, who then hints that he'd recall Walker at the earliest possible opportunity. "I ain't going to quit or anything," says Walker. "If I'm sent down, I'll just do my best to get back up here as soon as possible."
Kittle in Texas? Walker in the minors? Wherever they wind up this season, they seem destined for eventual big league success. But it will be a shame if they are prevented from doing it together.
The fourth of six children, Ronald Dale Kittle is outspoken self-confident and honest to a fault. He inherited these traits from his father, James, an unemployed ironworker. "I taught Ron to be his own man," says James. "You live by your convictions and sometimes you pay for them.
"Ron got slighted in the draft [L.A. signed him as a free agent in 1977], and he still isn't getting enough credit. The other night I was watching some sports-writers on television. They said Ron had an iron glove and would bat .240. And they said Walker's smooth. Hah! Ballet dancers are smooth." The senior Kittle, mind you, is a big Walker fan; he just wants his own boy to get his due.
"After graduating from high school in 1976, I was an ironworker with my father," Kittle says. "I was what they call a gofer, a punk. You go around fetching up bolts, hooking up torches, gassing air bottles. Later I'd be working up on the beams, sometimes from four in the afternoon to six in the morning. The dirt would fly and my face would be black as graphite, but I made good money. If I weren't playing baseball I'd still be doing that."
Upon being drafted, Kittle was sent by the Dodgers to Clinton, where he was shifted from the infield, which he'd played in high school, to left. "They told me he had too much arm to play infield," says his father. "Goofy."
In retrospect, L.A. made what turned out to be another goofy move by releasing Kittle during the 1978 season. To be sure, at the time it seemed a logical decision. Kittle had injured his neck in 1977 and undergone surgery to fuse two vertebrae; because he tried to come back too soon, he hit .213 for three Dodger farm clubs in 1977 and '78. Typically, he has no idea how he got the injury. "I had been hurting so bad I was kind of glad to be released," says Kittle. "But I had it in the back of my mind that I could still play in the big leagues."
Kittle went back to construction work, lugging two 50-pound bags of bolts at a time and playing semipro baseball on the side. Enter Billy Pierce, the old Sox southpaw, now in the envelope business in Chicago. "A purchasing agent named Cecil Messer, who does some youth-league umpiring and managing, told me about Ron," says Pierce. He checked Kittle out, liked what he saw and arranged for a tryout at Comiskey Park.
The story of that tryout gets better with each telling, but according to the most conservative report, Kittle was thrown 12 pitches and hit seven over the fence. "I remember someone behind me—I think it was Don Kessinger—saying 'He's swinging at everything,' " Kittle says. "Then someone else said, 'Yeah, but he's hitting everything.' It made me feel good that guys were watching instead of saying, 'There's a punk trying out.' " One of those watching was Bill Veeck, then the White Sox owner. "Sign him," said Veeck.
Leery of reinjuring Kittle's neck, the White Sox at first used him as a designated hitter—"a mistake," says General Manager Roland Hemond, because it hindered Kittle's development as an outfielder. Then he suffered another disabling injury, torn tendons in his left thumb, and got off to another slow start in the minors. But since 1980 he hasn't hit less than .300.
Last season, the bone chips in his right thumb notwithstanding, Kittle put on a one-man extravaganza. "He was the Wayne Gretzky of the summer," says Bill Davidson, sports editor of The Edmonton Sun. The Edmonton Trappers drew 233,000 fans to their rickety, 5,000-seat bandbox as Kittle hit towering moonshots into the night. One of his longest homers, in Albuquerque, N.M., cleared the 390 mark in left center, a 40-foot grade to a parking lot and the lot itself.
"Yeah, and the third baseman dived for it," says Walker.
"Well, it was a line drive," Kittle says, deadpan.
The youngest of three children and a second cousin of the Astros' Harry Spilman, Gregory Lee Walker grew up in Douglas, a farming community in south-central Georgia with a population of 10,980. He'll talk at great length about farming, but not about his own accomplishments. Like Kittle, Walker is every bit his father's son. Billy Walker, a feed salesman, admits only that he played some ball—he was in fact a local legend in both softball and hardball. A potential professional career was aborted by military service. He also won't extol his son. "I'm afraid to brag on Greg—he wouldn't like that," says Billy.
Leave the bragging to Clayton Mathis, a junior high school principal who coached Greg on several youth teams. "He was an excellent, serious student, and he won the Trojan Award for being the best athlete at Coffee High," says Mathis. "You'd never notice him in a group because he was always listening. In junior baseball he was a catcher, and I taught him to cover third when there's a runner on first who's stealing and the ball is bunted to the third baseman. The play came up again two years later, and he covered third and made a tag play there. I asked him how he knew to be there and he said, 'You told me to do it in junior ball.' "
Walker switched to first after suffering a shoulder separation in high school football. "I was a slow quarterback," he says disgustedly, failing to mention that he was also an all-region quarterback. Because of the injury, he wasn't drafted by the Phillies until the 20th round. It was hardly auspicious that when he was scheduled to report to the Class A club in Auburn, N.Y., he had mono. Nonetheless, Walker piled into the car with his brother Jamie and drove north.
There are thousands of promising ballplayers who never make it out of the low minors. After three seasons of mediocre statistics in Class A—Walker couldn't hit lefties then but can now—he could have been mistaken for another run-of-the-mill player. But not by Jerry Krause, the White Sox special assignment scout who saw Walker perform in the Instructional League in 1979. "You don't look for averages when you're watching that league," says Krause. "You look for swings. Walker has a short swing for a big man. Guys with short strokes leave less room for error. A short, quick basketball shot is better than a long, sweeping one; a quick puncher hits hardest."
There's a major distinction between a player left unprotected by his parent club at the Double A level and one unguarded at the Triple A level. A Triple A player can be drafted for $25,000, but he must remain on the big league roster of his new club for a season or be offered back to his original team for $12,500. But a Double A player can be picked up for $12,500 and can't be reclaimed.
When Krause saw that Walker was listed on the Phillies' Double A roster, he was incredulous. "Prospect—would like to deal for," he wired Hemond. Later he told Hemond on the phone, "Damn, Roland, we got lucky."
"Tell me about him," said Hemond.
"He's been in the minors for three years but he can hit. He's 20, the same age as a college junior. If he'd been in college, he'd have been a high draft choice." Walker was claimed forthwith.
Because the White Sox had some veteran first basemen on their Double A roster, Walker spent a fourth season in Class A, but he has since advanced one classification a year. After batting .463 for the first 10 games at Edmonton last season, he broke his wrist on a tag play and was out for three months. When he returned the wrist was still tender, and Edmonton Manager Gordie Lund wisely limited him to designated hitting. "He's unbelievably hard-nosed, and he kept saying 'Goddarn, I've got to play, I've got to play,' " says Krause. His final stats for 117 at bats were a .350 average, three homers and 12 RBIs.
When the Edmonton season ended, Walker happily reported back to the Instructional League to play himself into condition so he'd no longer be a DH. But the day Walker arrived in Florida, Paciorek suffered a pulled hamstring. "Squires then pulled a leg muscle, so we put in a hurried call to Sarasota," says Hemond. "They ran Walker out to the batting cage and he was swinging well, so we rushed him up." Joining the big club on Sept. 15, Walker was reunited with Kittle, who had been promoted a couple of weeks earlier. During their September apprenticeship, each of them drove in seven runs with seven hits; no wonder people make comparisons.
"They're good for each other," says Mathis. They should be good for the White Sox, too.
THEY'RE GETTING A LONG LOOK AT SHORT
It's a rare rookie who's able to become a starting shortstop, but this spring there are a number of newcomers who could turn the trick: Oakland's Tony Phillips moves with grace afield and speed on the base paths. He had 29 steals in '82 for Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League.
Cleveland has something unusual in Julio Franco (above), a shortstop with power. He hit 21 home runs for Oklahoma City in '82. Tony Fernandez, who batted .302 for Syracuse, may be deft enough with the bat to unseat Toronto's Alfredo Griffin.
FOUR MORE WHO COULD COME TO THE FORE
Second Baseman Bill Doran hit .302 for Tucson and .278 in 26 games with the Astros.
Beastly Brad (The Animal) Lesley had a 2.58 ERA in a trial as a Red relief pitcher.
Greg Brock, the new Steve Garvey, hit 44 home runs for Albuquerque.
Baltimore Third Baseman Leo Hernandez hit 34 homers while playing in three leagues