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Kent Tekulve

December 12, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

T Is for Tekulve

Writing while parenting a newborn is like working an inning here and an inning there, loping in from the bullpen without much preparation and heaving some pitches and hoping not to get shelled. I write in little bursts, and I can’t really connect one appearance to any previous appearances. I know the hook is coming, too. It’s a quick hook. This post will not be the equivalent of a complete game but a patchwork of incomplete innings. This is the lot of the reliever.

***

Parenting a newborn is itself like relief pitching. That is, it bears some similarities to a weary bullpen protecting an endless series of endangered leads. Like a chain of relievers passing the burden of a collapsing lead to one another, my wife and I hand the baby back and forth, trying to stem the momentum toward whining then full-on spittle-choke sobs. I’m the marginally useful hurler constantly tinkering with an ineffective array of junk, called into action in situations unsuitable for the staff ace, my wife, possessor of a devastating out pitch (her boobs).

***

According to an excellent biography on the SABR bio website, Kent Tekulve’s “first exposure to baseball was playing catch with his father.” I didn’t play catch with my father. He has no interest in baseball. He did tell me, when I was a boy, to try to write something every day. I’m trying, I’m trying. I’m always trying and always will.

***

Tekulve did not develop his unusual pitching style until years after playing catch with his father. It wasn’t until his pro career began that he decided to pattern a submarining style after what he could recall about the approach of Ted Abernathy, who had pitched effectively for the Reds while Tekulve was growing up in Cincinnati. Tekulve in turn handed down the unusual style to Dan Quisenberry during spring training of 1980. Quisenberry quickly became a star, eclipsing his mentor throughout most of the 1980s, though Tekulve continued to be an effective, tireless, and remarkably consistent reliever in his own right. Tekulve had turned 41 by the time the 1988 card at the top of this post came out, yet in the previous season he led the major leagues in games pitched, with 90, while managing an ERA of 3.09, a very good mark for the home-run-hitting extravaganza that was 1987. He had another useful season in 1988, then finally came to the end of his remarkable and remarkably underrated career in 1989 with a few subpar appearances for the team of his youth, the Reds. Discounting his first brief call-up in 1974 and his last brief go-round in 1989, Kent Tekulve never had a bad year. Relievers almost as a rule go up and down, their numbers the most difficult to predict from one year to the next. Kent Tekulve was that most admirable thing in a reliever. He was steady.

***

My dad went to work every day, no matter what. This was somewhat unusual in the 1960s and 1970s, an era in America when relative prosperity combined with (and probably contributed to) a powerful cultural trend toward self-exploration most commonly referred to back then as “finding oneself.” Everyone was always setting off to find him or herself back then. Not my dad, so far as I know. He either didn’t want to find himself or he already knew where he was. I think of him at a desk. A guy with glasses sitting at a desk. That’s where he still is much of the time, actually. So am I, come to think of it. I’m at a desk right now. Every day, even if for just a third of an inning, or less if I can’t even so much as record a single out or complete a single thought.

***

Kent Tekulve was a hero of mine around the time when my dad told me to try to write something every day. I was a skinny bespectacled kid on the brink of stumbling out of a warm albeit somewhat peculiar childhood into a much grayer awkward adolescence, and as the specter of the lonely era to come loomed, Tekulve, the rail-thin relief ace of the mighty late 1970s Pirates, offered some hope that I could, like Tekulve, find an unlikely place in the middle of the action. In the 1988 card at the top of this post Tekulve, sporting some wrinkles and the beginnings of a pear shape, is unquestionably a member of the adult realm, an adult like all the adults, a guy who would blend into a crowd, but in the cards that I collected in the 1970s he was much thinner and shadowy and more distant from the rest of the world around him and because of that distance closer to my own world of growing distances.

***

Kent Tekulve doesn’t get enough credit as an elite practitioner of his craft. There’s a stat now in use called adjusted ERA (ERA+) that siphons a player’s earned run average through some machinations to account for league and park factors. Basically, it’s a way of showing that, for example, Larry Dierker’s 3.31 earned run average in 1968, when pitching in the cavernous Astrodome during the “year of the pitcher,” was quite a bit less impressive than, say, Francisco Cordova’s 3.31 earned run average in the steroidal homerfest that was 1998. Kent Tekulve is tied for 31st all-time on the career ERA+ list. A few relievers are ranked ahead of him on the list, but not one of them (besides Hoyt Wilhelm, who also pitched for several seasons as a starter) has more innings pitched.

***

I guess if you are a reliever and aspire to immortality you need a gimmick. Tekulve did not really have one. He threw underhanded, more or less, and had glasses, which I guess could be considered gimmicks, but Hall of Fame voting has an element of the channeling of male childlike fantasies of comic-book power (this is, I believe, the subconscious core of the “gut” feeling some “old school” voters talk about when brusquely explaining their Hall of Fame picks), and the elements of Tekulve’s game that might come into the mind of a voter point more toward the flaccid powerlessness of a Clark Kent than to the soaring phallic omnipotence of a Superman. Think of the relievers who have gotten into the Hall of Fame thus far. They all had comic-book superhero attributes. Wilhelm had the baffling uncanny knuckler, like something that would have spiraled forth from the spell-setting fingers of Dr. Strange; Goose Gossage’s fastball and persona raged and rampaged, Hulk-style; Bruce Sutter had an awe-inspiring mad-scientist forkball; Rollie Fingers coupled his excellent but by no means inimitable achievements with a spectacular cartoon mustache and cartoon name. These guys all had good numbers, but Tekulve’s numbers are comparable, and, to use the term for reliever in use in his day, “fireman,” he entered more burning buildings than any of them.

***

I’ve always been drawn to Tekulve because I was a thin bespectacled kid, but I think it’s not necessarily the Clark Kentian eyewear that has brushed him to the side in talk of great relievers as it is his submarine pitch. The pitch, it’s . . . girly. Consider Tekulve’s protégé, the great Dan Quisenberry. I mentioned ERA+ above; the Quiz’s career ERA+ ranks fifth all-time, behind only Lefty Grove, a short-tenured 19th Century pitcher named Jim Devlin, Pedro Martinez, and Mariano Rivera. The Royals ace did not pitch for that long—not anywhere near as long as Tekulve—but neither did Bruce Sutter, who is in the Hall of Fame. The difference? Quiz threw the submarine pitch. I’m telling you, Hall of Fame voting is done with the imagination to some extent, and it’s generally a very strongly Neanderthalic male imagination that values things that crush and smash and are “feared”; it would naturally shy away from things that are somehow vaguely womanly, even if those things are effective. I mean, there was a kid in my little league who threw sidearm. I felt embarrassed for him. I felt embarrassed for anyone who couldn’t fire a good overhand pitch. My father couldn’t. I always worried that this would come to light.

***

My dad throws ideas at me. The gist of them is that, as things stand now, and until we bring about changes, we—as in we the people—don’t have our hands on the reins. We are in many ways dominated by a microscopically tiny percentage of the population. I don’t really understand how this works, and besides studying some of my father’s chosen field, sociology, in college 20 years ago I haven’t done much to learn about it and don’t do anything to fight it. I have a job at a corporation. It helps me and my family get by and provides us with some health insurance. I go to work, come home from work, do what I can to help my wife take care of our baby, write when I can, maybe go for a run. With any other spare time, I generally think about or read about or cheer for sports. Why? I ask this question periodically, and most recently I found myself asking it in regard to the current term for a team’s standout reliever: “dominant closer.” This wasn’t always the term used. I often find myself recoiling from new developments in the lingo of sports, and this is no exception. Compare the term “dominant closer” to a term applied with great accuracy to Kent Tekulve in his day: “reliable fireman.” The 1970s populism reflected most stridently in the theme song, “We Are Family,” of Tekulve’s 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates champs also comes through in “reliable fireman,” a term suggesting a sense that that we can count on one another even in tough times, that we are all in this together. Or, we were all in this together. Things appear to be different now, at least according to the current terminology used for an effective relief pitcher. The noun in this term, “closer,” conjures cutthroat Glengarry-Glen-Ross victimization, and the adjective, “dominant,” adds to it a testosterone whiff of subjugating simian brutality. It’s sort of sickening, if you think about it. I don’t want to dominate anyone. But, if I’m being honest, I sure do like it when my sports teams win. Following sports is a way, I guess, to fantasize guiltlessly about being, for once, the one with the hands on the reins, the dominant victimizer.

***

Kent Tekulve was my passageway from childhood into what came after it, and what came after it lasted all the way until this past July, when my own son was born. Now I’m no longer a loner on the outside of things. I’m the guy my son will first look to. Will I be steady? Will I be reliable? I don’t know. I do know I’ll no longer primarily be the uninspired star of my own tedious story but a supporting player in another new story. I’ll be the guy with glasses sitting at a desk.

8 comments

  1. The “dominant closer” is horribly overrated today by most fans, managers, and especially the media. It is further exaggerated by the fact that closers are now almost exclusively measured by the save statistic–a very misleading stat. Teke was WAY better than most of these guys routinely getting 35+ saves per year. Tekulve’s manager put him in when the game was on the line way more often that today’s managers hold back their closer until they are three outs away from the win with (typically) nobody on base.

    As much as I disliked LaRussa as a manager, at least he put the bed a lot of the recent thinking that you can’t win without the “dominant closer”.

    If you son ever looks at you like I look at Teke, you will be a true superhero.


  2. I guess it was sometime during the mid-’80s where the term “fireman” was completely phased out. Yes, Tekulve was a quintessential fireman, rather than a “dominant closer” – someone who comes in with a 3 run lead, pitches one inning (possibly giving up 2 runs), and still gets credit with a save.

    There are no more firemen in baseball anymore. The third way to get a save according to the rules – pitching effectively for 3 innings – is extinct. Rivera is about the only one now who has pitched 2 inning saves with any frequency – or even one and a third innings for that matter.


  3. Bill James has an article on the value of relievers that places the way Tekulve (and some others of the ’60s-’80s) was used as both the most demanding and most effective way relievers have been used throughout history, i.e., use them frequently and for multiple innings when the game is close.


  4. The first team that I could get behind while my beloved A’s were being dismantled at the end of the 70s was the Pittsburgh Pirates. I remember having hope and faith and a belief in the ragtag bunch of yellow and black striped misfits that included Willie Stargell and Tim Foli (the other 4-eyed guy on the Bucs). The deal was sealed when I bought one of those lumberjack 3-striped old-fashioned caps…at an A’s game. It gave me something to believe in, an identity with experienced players who were not has-beens, but a club of veterans who were still living in Bob Clemente’s shadow.

    That 1979 year was magical: I was still 10 years old when the Pirates came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Orioles in the Series. The Orioles had that devastating pitching staff with Palmer, Flanagan, Stone (?), et al. The Pirates, on the other hand, had the Candy Man, John Candelaria. Maybe even Burt Hooten, too. That kind of detail blurs now into the wierd collage of white, gold, and black uniform combinations that the Pirates put together on aging astroturf that year. Omar Moreno and Rennie Stennet were poster children for the uni riot that revealed my own astigmatism when they played in the home whites with yellow pinstripes. How did they decide which day they were going to wear the yellow lumberjack hats instead of the black?

    Teke was the gangly gump that showed up just in time to take out the Ron Ceys, Greg Luzinskis, and ultimately the Ed Murrays of the big leagues as the innings wound down. His oversized glasses are now today’s fashion, but back then, they communicated “nerdy engineer” to the masses. I wonder what the Pirate bench conversations were between him and the aging black men who took the team under their wings to get them to the promised land. Though he could be the butt of book-learnin’ jokes, he came in to calmly get the job done.

    My father too went to work every day, a small time academic who called in sick maybe twice in his life. He woke up early, snuck out of house before the 3-boy rabble really got moving. I cherished those moments of basking in his presence as he sipped his coffee and read the San Francisco Chronicle every morning. I felt lonely as a child, but his warmth provided me shelter from my own anxieties and physical, emotional weaknesses. When he came home every afternoon he retired with a glass of wine and a nap, a predictable routine for someone who tried to keep his world tiny while harboring future dreams of being a Shakespearean scholar, a trajectory he fulfilled in the last years of his life. His light went out last year, but his glow still warms the heart, just as memories of Teke’s submarine efforts warm the heart today. I am shocked to see him in a Phillies uniform…his existence in my world ended when I stopped paying attention to the Pirates. Billy Martin’s show had come to Oaktown, and Ricky Henderson said “Never Look Back”…except, of course when you are an aging player who can’t get the baseball out of your blood and are willing to play on every coast and every country that is Major League Baseball.


  5. still amazed by this.
    Mr. Wilker looks at childhood baseball cards and explodes in recollection and then ties to the present day-his parenting. i’m forever floored by this site.
    this post an added bonus. i never knew how high up tekulve and quizz ranked in terms of era +.
    one interesting thing i discovered about the 79 pirates in Lou Shadi’s The Pirates-“We are family”
    or at least one thing phil garner thought.,..he said the pirates sparred on a daily basis with all the ethnic and ecominc origins variety, it was far from a family….but they got it out..emptied their heads of prejudice.
    that made a lot of sense to me-sort of like an ideal bar rail where there would be be no passivity and no need for a psychiatrist’s couch. a reverse chemistry or “friction as mother of pearls.”
    thank you Mr. Wliker. again and again! this is truly amazing.


  6. Shortly after I read this post, I was watching the 12/20/11 Penguins-Blackhawks hockey game.

    They were showing the Pittsburgh feed on NHL Network, and late in the 3rd period they cut to–who else!–Kent Tekulve in the stands and bantered a bit about him.

    Kent these days is hardly the ectomorphic guy in glasses I always recall looking extra-thin in those pinstriped Pirates uniforms with the old-timey caps circa 1980.

    In fact, he was stuffing some food item in his face as they were showing him live on TV, and they finally cut away when it became embarassing to show him picking crumbs off the front of his sweater, unaware he was part of the broadcast.


  7. Gotta weigh in on our mutual distaste for the emergent, and now, yes, “dominant” vernacular lexicon that has taken hold in the national pastime recently.

    Seems like forever, but a dozen years ago was anybody “going yard?”;
    were there any “walk-off” anythings? I miss “firemen,” damnit. I share no love for the “dominant closer.”

    Maybe I’m just a cranky altacocker-in-training, yearning for the “golden age” of the ’70s, but I could even do without the whole constantly expanding emphasis on an unrelenting, unceasing procession of new, cleverly-initialed and-acronymed statistics which, to me, just seem suck all the life out of the game, after a while…

    Sh*t, you know what I’m talking about… Anyway, nice post…
    I had erased any memory of Tekulve as a Phillie. He’ll always be the weird, misfit cousin-in-law of “The Family” to me, an essential part of the whole big-assed populist Pirate aesthetic.
    One contention though:
    Tekulve didn’t have a “gimmick?”
    Hell,…Kent Tekulve *WAS* a gimmick.


  8. as a mets and orioles fan, i always hated when i saw tekulve warming up in the bullpen. i was also frightened of him because he reminded me so much of the chauffer from “burnt offerings”: http://bit.ly/ud6hpE



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