Bruce KisonFebruary 8, 2012
How Strange the Design
There’s a trend toward the unusual, even the bizarre. That was the horoscope for Mike Torrez on October 2, 1978. But what use could this information have been? Torrez may or may not have read his horoscope that day, but he did go into the game with a plan, at least for the batter who ended up proving the accuracy of the horoscope.
“I wanted to pitch him in,” Torrez said in a 2001 USA Today article, referring to the Yankees’ light-hitting shortstop, Bucky Dent, “get him off the plate, then go away from him with a good slider, give him an outside pitch down and away. I never got to throw him an outside pitch. I got too much of the plate.”
He wanted to get him off the plate but being human and fallible failed in his attempt to use a plan to stave off the unusual, even bizarre. The day was undone.
Which reminds me, I never finished telling you about Luke Walker. When last seen on these pages, he had just thrown a historic pitch—the first ever in a night game in the World Series—for a strike and was ahead in the count to Orioles leadoff hitter Paul Blair. Things rapidly disintegrated. Blair singled, as did Mark Belanger and Merv Rettenmund, loading the bases with no outs. A passed ball scored Blair, Frank Robinson was walked intentionally, and Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell plated two more runs with back to back sacrifice flies. Down 3-0 in the first inning, Luke Walker was lifted from Game 4 of the 1971 World Series, and a call was made to the bullpen. A tall, thin rookie named Bruce Kison moved toward the center of the diamond.
Kison had started the 1971 season in the minors. While there, he was featured in a Sports Illustrated article by Pat Jordan on bush league life in the Pirates’ system. The piece included this telling sketch of the young unknown:
Kison retires the side in the fifth, but in the sixth he gives up two singles with one out. He gets the fourth batter to pop out to third base and then he fires two quick strikes past the potential third out. [Catcher Woody] Huyke crouches behind the right-handed batter and sticks two fingers beneath his glove. Kison flicks his glove fingers. Huyke responds with one finger and Kison nods slightly. Woody then hunches over the outside corner, but before he can set himself Kison flicks his glove again. Huyke shifts to the inside corner and places his glove at a level with the batter’s knees. Again Kison flicks his glove. The catcher raises his target until it rests inches from the batter’s chin. Kison goes into his motion and fires a fastball directly at the spot where the batter’s head would have been if he had not fallen to the dirt.
Kison was promoted to the majors in July, where he contributed to the Pirates’ pennant drive with 6 victories (and 6 hit batsmen) in 95 innings of work. In relief of the battered Luke Walker in game 4 of the World Series, the Pirates teetering on the brink of a 3-1 series deficit to the defending champs, Kison hurled 6 and a 1/3 innings of one-hit shutout ball, earning the win. The key line from the box score would have to be this one:
HBP: Etchebarren (1, by Kison); F Robinson (1, by Kison); Johnson (1, by Kison).
The three hit-batsmen in one game established a World Series record. An AP article about the game attributed the high-speed assaults to Kison’s “history of wildness.” Pat Jordan revisited Kison in another Sports Illustrated story after the World Series, and the former pro pitcher turned legendary sportswriter provides a more nuanced view of Kison’s propensity for hit batsmen:
Those Orioles were simply being served notice that despite Kison’s virginal appearance he was not one to treat idly. Kison had hit a high proportion of batsmen in his three-year professional career. He hit seven batters in one minor league game, which he won. His difficulty stems from a fastball that breaks sharply in on a right-handed batter at the last second. This break is often misjudged and can result in bruised ribs. Also, because his curveball is such a brief affair and anxious batters tend to lean far over the plate hoping to paste it to the right-field wall, Kison must protect himself by firing an occasional pitch inside. This combination of a batter leaning one way and a fastball breaking the other accounts for the knockdowns. There is a feeling among Kison’s friends that he is not particularly upset when he hits a batter, that he feels it helps compensate for his limited repertoire (two basic pitches) and his boyish appearance. Yet, in the fourth game of the Series, he claimed his youthful wildness was responsible for the three hit batters—Dave Johnson, Andy Etchebarren and Frank Robinson. Strangely enough, he did not walk a single batter during that span.
“Any pitcher who permits a hitter to dig in on him is asking for trouble. I never deliberately tried to hit anyone in my life. I throw close just to keep the hitters loose up there.” – Carl Mays
“I wasn’t trying to hit anybody. I can’t help it if my fastball runs in on the right-handed batters.” – Bruce Kison
Bruce Kison uttered the above quote in 1974, after a game between the Pirates and the Reds. Kison’s pitches had been sizzling under the chins of Reds’ batters all game, and finally in retaliation Reds pitcher Jack Billingham plunked Kison. Billingham was ejected, and manager Sparky Anderson came onto the field to argue the ejection with home plate ump Ed Sudol. During the argument, Anderson stepped on the foot of Pirates’ catcher Ed Kirkpatrick, who reacted by shoving Anderson. At that point, according to the powerless would-be peacekeeper Sudol, swarms from both teams “ran onto the field like animals.” A prolonged fist-swinging brawl ensued.
Three years later, Kison plunked slugger Mike Schmidt, who took offense and began jawing at Kison. According to Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, the dialogue between Schmidt and Kison proceeded like this:
Schmidt: The next time you do that I’m going to come after you.
Kison: Why don’t you come now?
Within moments, both benches had emptied. Pirates catcher Ed Ott, a former wrestler known for body-slamming and choke-holding fellows during brawls, grabbed Schmidt, and Phillies man-mountain Greg “The Bull” Luzinski grabbed Kison.
Kison, seemingly always ready to send a purpose pitch, remarked of Luzinski afterward, “Boy did he have B.O.”