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Duane Kuiper

March 18, 2010

Have you ever met one of your gods face to face? I haven’t, not really, unless you count the time when I was eleven and I shouted to Jim Rice through the fence separating fans from the Red Sox players’ parking lot at Fenway, or the time I rode in an elevator a couple feet away from Tom Seaver. But I know how a face to face meeting would probably go. I’ve had the chance to meet a couple writers that have meant a lot to me, and I gushed at them in an unintelligible torrent of overwraught praise, unable to stop even as a stricken look crept across the face of the person I was accosting. “I don’t know what you want from me,” the look said, “but I can’t help you.”

When I was a kid it would have been among my greatest dreams to have one of the players from these little cardboard rectangles walk into my world, big as life. What I didn’t realize is that I’m the kind of fan who needs distance. My fandom was born out of distance and it feeds on distance. If Carl Yastrzemski or Bernie Carbo ever pulled into the driveway of the house where I grew up, interrupting me to ask for directions as I built a make-believe universe out of throwing a tennis ball against the garage door, my world would have been diminished. They would have driven off no wiser (I didn’t know how to get anywhere back then except for the places in my own dream worlds), and I would have stood there watching them go, holding what was now just a ratty tennis ball instead of the game ball in the urgent latter stages of a championship game, and I’d be feeling ashamed for the words that had vomited out of me, and hurt by the stricken looks that had crept across the faces of my formerly benevolent gods.

And let down. I would have felt let down. 

***

“Duane Kuiper has never let me down.” – Joe Posnanski

When I watched the movie Sugar the other night, it was actually the first part of a living room DVD double-feature with another recent movie, Big Fan. The two movies, though very different in tone and story and subject matter, were on a certain level two sides of the same coin. Sugar delved with great empathy and sensitivity into the world of the professional athlete, and Big Fan positioned itself far outside that world, focusing on the psychology—or perhaps more accurately the religiosity—of the literal outsider: the fan.

It should come as no surprise which side of this coin I’m on. I mean, I’m a middle-aged man who has spent the last several years writing about his childhood baseball cards. I don’t know what it’s like to strike a guy out with a crowd watching, unless you go back three decades, to the one afternoon in my life when I recorded a couple strikeouts, and allow me to designate the small gathering of bored parents sprawled across the bleachers at the little league field a crowd. I have a much better sense of what it means to cheer for and agonize over and idolize and revile. I have a much better sense of what it means to live through strangers.

Two sides of another coin, call it the fan coin, could be Paul Aufiero, the character Patton Oswalt plays in Big Fan, and Joe Posnanski’s great blog post on Duane Kuiper. The latter is a customarily entertaining and illuminating piece of writing from one of the best sportswriters around, and among other things it offers a portrait of balanced, lively sanity. Posnanski seems to be, at least in the abundance of the personality he is able to share in his writing, that rarest of things in this shaky world: a sane man. This sanity comes across in the Duane Kuiper piece with his characterization of his bond to Duane Kuiper, which is as fiercely loyal as any bond forged by a raving lunatic, but which is grounded in a decidedly human realm. Joe Posnanski has never been disappointed by Duane Kuiper because all he ever expected from Duane Kuiper was what Duane Kuiper readily offered: hustle, humor, humility. He did not lean on Duane Kuiper to fix jagged holes in his psyche. He did not make Duane Kuiper into a rescuing god.

In Big Fan, on the other hand, there is a sense that the central character, Paul Aufiero, may be placing the entire burden of his life at the feet of a team, and most especially a certain favorite player. He is relying on his gods for salvation. In Paul Aufiero’s room, above his bed, hangs a poster of his favorite player, a hulking defensive lineman whose specialty is sacking quarterbacks. Where the sane man Joe Posnasnki chose a hero who was closest to him among the gods, a decidedly unimposing regular guy (“[Kuiper] was the one who said that you don’t have to be supremely gifted and impossibly strong and touched by God in order to get where you want to go”), the dumpy downcast cipher Paul Aufiero seems to have chosen to worship someone who is everything he’s not: tall, handsome, muscular, powerful, fearless, seemingly unstoppable.

The film, drawing on Martin Scorsese’s great and harrowing movie King of Comedy for inspiration, pushes deep into an investigation of the implications of the relationship between worshipper and worshipped by allowing for an actual meeting between the two. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the meeting does not go well; you’ll be able to tell from very early on in the movie that the so-called real world, where the meeting takes place, is not a world where Paul Aufiero meets a lot of triumph.

Instead, he looks for triumph exclusively in the internal world he’s created. Some—including his family in the movie—would argue that he’s not much different from an insane person in an asylum carrying on dialogues with figures invisible to anyone but himself. But I wonder if he’s that much different from a monk alone in his cell, removed from the world, praying for salvation all day long. I also wonder if he’s that much different from me.

27 comments

  1. There’s a great scene in the John Lennon “Imagine” film where he confronts an obsessed fan who’s been camping out in his driveway–invites him in, feeds him, calmly explains why the songs aren’t reeeally sung “just to him,” etc.

    I’ve had the chance to meet a few heroes for various reasons. Dwight Evans, Ricky Gervais, Joe Castiglione, Bill Lee, Ian MacKaye… no matter how much I psych myself up and plan my little speech, I always walk away going “D’oh!” I think the hope is that when they file you away in their endless folder of fans they’ve met, you at least don’t get dropped into the “memorable psycho” section. It’s almost like George Costanza when he talked about being a woman’s first sexual encounter–“I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be forgotten.” I can’t expect that my telling Dewey that I really admired him as a child will be remembered by him even ten minutes later, but as long as I don’t say something STUPID that he’ll remember forever, I think I’ve succeeded.


  2. (Oh, another hero I met in person once–Josh Wilker! How’d I do? …)


  3. I’ve met only one of my heroes, but it was a good event. I met Matt Luke, who played here for the Dodgers in 1998 and briefly for the Angels in 1999. But, he has a pretty inspiring story to tell, so my friends and I would sit in the seats at Chavez Ravine and when Matt Luke came up to bat, we would raise all sorts of hell for him; and, he hit a few dingers the first half of 1998.

    I met him in 2008, long after his career ended, and even though he was a featured guest, it was pretty clear that no one at this particular event actually remembered seeing him play. So, I wandered over to him and told him that story, and his eyes lit up, it was pretty neat. So, at this point, I’m batting 1.000 with my long list of heroes.


  4. I’ve met Seaver, Gibson, Feller and Carlton at baseball card shows, there wasn’t much conversation. It’s kind of odd in retrospect that I paid these millionaires $20-30 dollars for them to sign their name on a photo or a baseball.

    I used to work in an upscale department store in New Jersey and Phil Rizzuto and his wife used to go in there every 2 or 3 months. One time I nearly knocked him over because he’s kind of small and wasn’t looking where he was going.

    I was kind of shocked that how small Rizzuto was in real life. Something like 5’6″ 150 pounds. I really couldn’t believe that a guy that small could be one of the top 15 short stops of all time.

    Yogi Berra would come into the store once every two years or so.

    Most of the time I dealt with the family members of the athletes. Wayne Crebet’s family, Jim Kiick’s family, a bunch of Football Giants players, a bunch of Devils hockey players.

    Roy White lived in the town next to me when I was growing up and sometimes he would appear at local events in the 70’s. Back then baseball players didn’t make the kind of money they make now so it didn’t even feel like a big deal that he was living so close.


  5. Anyone interested in a very good (and funny) exploration of the relationship between artist/hero and fan, from the perspective of both parties, should read Nick Hornby’s latest, “Juliet, Naked.”


  6. Living in L.A., you have weird encounters with famous people now and then, but it’s never what you think it will be. It’s passing Bruce Springsteen and his manager on a Melrose Avenue sidewalk. Seeing Spielberg and Hanks hanging out on a lawn with their families at a Santa Monica farmers market. Or having Vincent Price excuse himself in front of you at a checkout line with a 6-pack of Corona (all happened). But even if it were a ballplayer god, the best thing you can say off the top of your head is “Hi Bruce!” or “Hey (whoever)” and keep walking. Famous people expect and like to be noticed; they just don’t want to be bothered.


  7. gedmaniac: Hm, I don’t remember you… (Just kidding, of course, it was the highlight of that conference for me, and the Buzz Capra/Pete Redfern baseball card magnet you gave me is at this very moment posting up a couple coupons on my refrigerator, so how could I ever forget?)

    That story about Lennon and the fan reminds me of the Larry Sanders episode where Larry tries to give the same kind of gentle lecture to a guy he thinks is a fan stalking him but who turns out to just be someone trying to rob his house.

    whtrbruin: Cool story.

    johnq11: I’ve never been to one of those autograph shows, but I can imagine it’s not set up to allow any interactions, really.

    perry534: Thanks for the recommendation. Hornby certainly got into that territory in Fever Pitch, too.


  8. polfro: Interesting thoughts on LA. My celeb-sighting days peaked when I worked at Coliseum Books in Manhattan. I had a couple shame-inducing moments of slobberingly grateful babble with a couple of my rock gods, Phil Lesh and Donovan. I also helped Andy Rooney try to find a copy of the Koran. (This interaction went much better than the others since the little old guy hadn’t “changed my life.”)


  9. I recall an interview with Bob Dylan where he said it wasn’t that he minded talking to strangers and fans, it was just that the conversation had nowhere to go once they started telling him how he changed their lives. Basically, he’d be happy to talk to you about the game last night or how your kids are doing, but once you start gushing about how meaningful his work is, he shuts down. I keep that in mind, in case I ever meet Bob. (Of course, I’d just freeze, I’m sure.)
    I once had Richard Thompson sign a cd. The best I could muster was “Thanks for all the music.” His response (which I loved) “No, no, thank YOU for listening!”


  10. I am hugely excited because I have never seen this card before. Is it just me or is Kuiper wearing a cross-eyed look? He also looks like somebody who’s holding a bat for the first time in his life at a company softball game. Both the crossed eyes and unfamiliarity with a bat would explain his offensive output.

    I remember being ten or eleven and waiting for Yastrzemski outside Fenway, behind the same fence Josh describes in his spotting of Jim Rice. Yaz had just become the first 400 home run/3,000 hit guy in the AL and a big deal was being made of it. He was clearly winding things down and he had become this elder statesman figure, leaving the turmoil of the early ’70s behind. When he finally came out, he was smoking a cigarette and holding a six pack of cans (with one conspicuously missing). Not quite the hallowed figure I had been expecting. Talk about being disappointed….


  11. Kuiper looks a little like Frank Gorshin with longer hair here.


  12. blankemon: What you said to Richard Thompson is exactly what I said to Phil Lesh. He was in a rush but still nice. He signed a little slip of paper with the words “Rock on!”

    More often than I’d like to admit, I like to imagine some situation in which I’m somehow “hanging out” with Bob Dylan, and even in the imaginary scenario I freeze up. I think the only way I’d be able to handle a meeting with him would be if I was some sort of skilled worker who helped him out of a jam (e.g., a mechanic who fixed his stalled car for him), but I don’t know how to do anything useful, so I’m screwed. Maybe he’d need something heavy carried. I can carry things.

    sb1902: Nice description of this dusky card. You and Posnanski would both find it unfamiliar–he says in his article that the last Kuiper he ever got was in ’76.


  13. As a journalist, I occasionally get to meet some of my heroes, and it’s hard to separate the subjective, worshipping fan in me from the supposed objective journalist.

    I try to balance the two, partly by asking unusual questions that lets them know I’m not some random scribe assigned to cover a story I’m not really interested in. I told Earl Weaver how hard it was for me being an Orioles fan in the 1970s & 1980s in Yankees country. I was completely professional with Mark Messier but thanked him for 1994 after our brief chat. I was alone with Yogi Berra at an event at Gracie Mansion and started talking to him about his tenure with the Mets; he acted as if no one had asked him that in years, so we had a fun talk about 1973.

    I recently saw Bob Mould hanging out at the bar before a show and went over and talked to him about playing in NYC and he was really cool about it. I didn’t want to bother him, but he kept on wanting to talk, so I hung around. After interviewing Heidi Klum in the middle of a huge event in a Midtown store, I was trying really hard to be professional, but when I thanked her for speaking with me and got up to leave, she looked into my eyes and said, “Don’t you want to take a picture with me?” So she put her arm around me, put her cheek against mine, and my photographer snapped away my favorite picture ever, even better than when he got me and my bald head interviewing Messier and his bald head at the Garden.

    A few weeks ago I bumped into Lou Reed in Chelsea and talked to him about his Metal Machine Music show that I had seen, and he lit up, glad that someone actually enjoyed it. I did not identify myself as a journalist or he would have torn my head off.

    I would actually prefer not to ever meet Bruce Springsteen or Tom Seaver, I think, for fear that they would be dicks, or that I would be.


  14. seaver41: Everyone I know who’s met Springsteen said he was very affable, gracious and low-key. I’m surprised but pleased you had a nice run-in with Lou – his reputation suggests otherwise.

    Josh: Ask our mutual friend about his encounter with Lesh. It’s pretty funny. (He got to meet Jerry and Bob a few years later too.)
    And yeah, I don’t know how one deals with Dylan. I’d like to think I could be cool and try to pretend he was just this guy Bob and not BOB DYLAN, but how do you do that? I totally understand his point of view, but man, how can you ignore the elephant in the room?


  15. You do tend to have celebrity sightings out here in L.A. Whenever I’m introduced to one I usually just try to have a normal conversation. I’ve found most celebrities I’ve met to be very shy.


  16. I’m a total Dylan freak, so it would be hard, but maybe you really could talk some ball with him. About 5 years ago in Rolling Stone there was a story about him with some recent photos from the Never Ending Tour. In one he was hanging out in a store, I guess while the bus was gassing up or something. He was reading Baseball Weekly.


  17. “Is it just me or is Kuiper wearing a cross-eyed look? He also looks like somebody who’s holding a bat for the first time in his life at a company softball game.”

    The batting glove on the “wrong” hand completes the look.


  18. Josh,

    Most of those Autograph shows are tied into card shows, I went to a few when I was young but really have no desire to go to one now.

    By far the oddest encounter was the Steve Carlton one. He was at a show with Stan Musial and I really wanted the Stan Musial autograph but I couldn’t afford it because he was charging $50 dollars and Carlton was “only” charging $25 dollars. I was going back to school for my teaching certification so I literally had no money so why I was even “paying” for a autograph is beyond me.

    Everyone on was on line to get the Musial autograph except me because I couldn’t afford it. So I went up to the Steve Carlton table and it was the most awkward 30 seconds of silence in my life. Musial at the other table with 50 people laughing and joking and Carlton is just sitting there not saying a word with only me around the table.


  19. My father was a very bizarre individual, he was kind of a cross between Bob Crane, Dean Martin and Louis Jordan. My father had basically a “second” life apart from our family where he “befriended” several strippers.

    One of the strippers, to whom my father was very close to, used to get Yankee tickets from some executive at Ford Motor Company. These were Serious tickets, literally 4 rows behind the Yankee Dugout.

    Because of the proximity to the Yankee dugout, the stripper became “friendly” to a number of Yankees. I wasn’t even a Yankee fan but I would go to a few games with my father and the stripper.

    We used to wait after the game to see the players and I remember one time Reggie Jackson invited the stripper into his new Porsche. I think I still have pictures of it somewhere.


  20. Even without the actual picture, it makes for a good picture in the mind: Reggie, the Porsche, and the stripper.


  21. I met Kevin Youkilis at wedding in 2005, and learned a great deal about interacting with favorite players. In particular, ya gotta think before you speak! I had my cousin introduce me, because they knew each other and I didn’t want to be that guy who just awkwardly interrupts someone. The exchange started off with a bang:

    KY: Hi, I’m Kevin.
    me: NO SHIT YOU’RE KEVIN!

    He was friendly enough to laugh at my excitement.


  22. I once attended a lecture by an anthropology professor who specializes in emotions. He described several emotions that we humans feel, and which other languages have words for, but English doesn’t. One example: an emotion that means “overcome by cuteness.”

    Another unnamed-in-English emotion is one you experience when you are interacting with someone who has a higher social status than you. It’s kind of a combination of pride (of attaining the status of being allowed to interact with this higher-status person) and shame (of realizing you are of a lower status). The mixed nature of this emotion is why celebrity encounters are often disappointing–it’s not an unambiguously positive feeling.


  23. That explanation for the element of shame in these meetings makes a lot of sense, Ken.


  24. Not much written on here as kuiper the player…..but I’ll be the cleveland connection and fill in the gaps. Pure hustle, no muscle.

    My one and only poster of a sports player was a Duane Kuiper action shot turning a marvelous DP. Great mullet (did not know they were mullets back then), dirt flying in the air, some opponent spikes aimed high. Yet Kuiper leaped over them and surely completed the DP.

    Ironically the slick fielding .280 hitter at the time, career was cut short with injuries when someone spiked him on a similar play. He was never quite the same after that injury.

    He is probably best know as the major leaguer with the most AB and least HR. I still remember his first HR. Squeaked around the right field foul pole. He sprinted (like he always did) around the base paths. He must not ever had practiced the HR trot. Almost as if he was embarrassed to hit one out of the park, and not aiming a single between 3rd and short.

    He is very good commentator now for SF.

    Broke my heart when cleveland traded him to SF. Adolescence had fully kicked in and I knew things would never be the same. Reality of life taking hold.


  25. Off topic somewhat, but what baseball reference dot com needs is another statistic (come on they have a gazillion) showing times on the disabled list.

    It really brings into perspective a players career and the ‘what happened’.

    Duane Kuiper would have played alot longer with much more productive singles and triples had he not been injured.

    He surely would have put the AB with least HR out of reach for generations!! ;)


  26. I am watching the last place indians play the 2nd to last royals…..rick manning is our cleveland tv color commentator….the AFLAC trivia contest in the 3rd inning was ‘who is the player with the most AB with one HR’. The answer is, of course, my hero, Duane Kuiper……i had to watch this dreadful team and game till the 6th inning to get the answer because I knew they would talk about it in greater detail…..they actually showed the clip of the homerun by kuiper off steve stone!!!!!! I was so excited to see this clip…i can’t believe it is not on you (remove my clips) tube.

    They had the radio broadcast in the background of Joe Tait (awesome pbp, known most for radio pbp of the cavs since 1970) and Herb Score (HOF). They were screaming like it was Bobby Thompsons HR! Duane, clad in Indians red tops and white bottoms, ran around the bases and was greeted by Buddy Bell.
    We didn’t have much to root for in cleveland, so this was a big deal back then.

    Rick Manning commented that Duane still has the stadium seat where the ball landed in his house : )


  27. I remembers DK’s first and only HR. Growing up on the east side of Cleveland during those tough years in the 70’s and 80’s, he was one of my favorites. I’ve never met him, but I have spent some time with Rick Manning (another of my favorites growing up), Super Joe Charboneau, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, and the late great Bob Feller. My interactions with them has all been at Indians Fantasy Camp. They couldn’t have been nicer.

    At other points in my life I have met Tom Hanks (at a fundraiser in Cleveland, where TH honed his chops as a young member of the Great Lakes Theater Festival Company) and the great Arthur Ash (at Wimbledon in 1985 — He and the broadcaster Bud Collins signed my ticket) and a quick handshake and exchange of greetings with Val Kilmer on the Plaza in Old Santa Fe (he was sitting on a bench by himself having a coffee and my wife walked right past without recognizing him).

    My favorite brush with a hero is also the briefest encounter. I was riding an escalator in the San Francisco airport. Going up. Just as I was reaching the top a wild-haired bum-of-a-man got on the down escalator… NEIL YOUNG!!! Moving in opposite directions and with our shoulders practically touching, I near shouted, “Hi, Neil!” He turned. I like to think that behind his dark glasses he was making eye contact. And, he said…… drum roll please……., “Hi.”

    I stood at the mouth of the escalator blocking traffic until his back disappeared.



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