By Sridhar Pappu
There’s the instant you first see Ron Kittle, when this 41-year-old ex-slugger rises out of both memory and expectation and becomes something else, someone real.
Meeting him the day before Memorial Day in the locker room of the Schaumburg Flyers–the unaffiliated minor league baseball team he manages–you first take stock not of who he is but who he’s not. He’s not the mythic 25-year-old rookie with glasses the size of his face who led the 1983 White Sox to the brink of real glory. Nor is he a double-gutted, unshaven embodiment of the men who left the game too soon. He’s handsome–darkened from his days in the sun, his hair gray and white, his arms the size of small cannon, standing six feet four inches. His weight–200 pounds–is less than when he did play. The glasses, his trademark, come on only for games.
It was the busy time before the game. Kittle walked from the locker room to the dugout and ran into Matt McLaughlin, director of media relations.
“Hey Matt,” Kittle said. “You tell that scorekeeper, you tell him that that play last night was a hit not an error.”
The Saint Paul Saints’ first baseman had tried to backhand a ground ball instead of getting in front of it.
“I’ll ask him,” McLaughlin said.
“No,” Kittle responded, his finger pointed. “You tell him.”
“We had a long talk about that Memorial Day,” official scorer Mark Grossman will tell me later. “He was basing his argument on where the pitcher was. He says if the pitcher had covered the bag the runner would have beaten it out. I said, ‘Did you see the first baseman? He completely missed it!’ So neither of us saw what the other saw.
“He’s got it out of his system,” Grossman says. “I hope.”
His edict delivered, Kittle went on to what he’s paid to do: counseling first-year players on the bench (“You’ve got to have that positive attitude all the time. Heck, I’ve got to motivate myself all the time. I want to play so bad it’s aggravating”), hitting ground balls to infielders, satisfying every autograph request that comes his way.
“You know what the hardest part of signing autographs is?” he said, performing the act in front of a crowd gathered along the third-base railing. “People sticking pens in front of your face. I’ve ruined thousand-dollar suits just by people saying, ‘Hey, can you do this?’ and lining up my suit.”
He was handed an eight-by-ten glossy of himself kneeling in front of the exploding scoreboard at old Comiskey Park. And a 1985 Topps baseball card. Even the bill of a hat bearing the emblem of the Chicago Cubs.
The past two home games this season–the first since the franchise was bought and moved from Thunder Bay, Ontario, where they were the Whiskey Jacks–had brought the Flyers sellout crowds of more than 7,000. Today they’d be less than two dozen short of another sellout. To be sure, some of the drawing power can be attributed to the newness, the quirkiness (see children racing mascots) of minor-league ball. But part of it is reverence for Kittle. His job here in Schaumburg is simple: win some games, sell lots of tickets, and bring about a center, a common focus, to a place fraught with change.
Most lives change incrementally. There’s rarely that singular theatrical moment that allows us to say, “Chapter’s over, next chapter.” Kittle, though, has led a life full of dramatic watersheds. The first came at a tryout camp run by Dodgers’ scout Glen Van Proyen at LaPorte High School in July 1976.
Since graduating from Gary Wirt High School, Kittle had become an ironworker’s apprentice, or “punk,” to his father, Jim. Kittle says, “He was probably my biggest supporter and also my biggest critic. My dad was never really satisfied with anything that I did.” Kittle picked up bolts and hooked up torches for $7.50 an hour. Van Proyen sent him out to right field, where he showed an “above average arm.” Then, with his father watching, he took some cuts.
“The first two boys did OK,” Van Proyen remembers. “Nobody hit the ball out or anything. And then we brought Kittle in to hit. The pitching machine hit 48 balls to him, and, unbelievably, he hit 24 balls out of the park in every direction. Now, they were building an addition to the LaPorte High School building itself, which is maybe 60 or 70 feet beyond the left field fence, and the dimensions of the field were 330-380-330. Now like I said, he hit 24 of those balls out–some against the brick wall out there, 400 feet away.”
Van Proyen told the LaPorte coach, “If I’m ever going to sign a guy out of a tryout camp, it’s gonna be this guy.” He did just that the next morning over lemonade at the Kittles’ home in Gary.
Kittle started for the Dodgers’ Class A affiliate in Clinton, Iowa–three hours from home–sharing an apartment with two other players in a dump that would soon be condemned. Soon after the season began there was a collision at home plate, and afterward headaches, numbness, then nothing in his right arm.
“You know,” he says, “I couldn’t zip my zipper.”
The reason was a pinched nerve in his neck caused by two crushed vertebrae. In the fall surgery fused them together. When he returned to Clinton in 1978, he’d only just begun to recover his strength. Over Van Proyen’s protests, the Dodgers let him go.
The night of his release, Van Proyen sat with Kittle in the stands and told him all wasn’t lost. He’d help him hook on somewhere. He’d–
“Mr. Van Proyen,” Kittle said, with storybook resolve. “I’m going to play in the major leagues. It may not be for the Dodgers, but I’ll be in the big leagues.”
Kittle returned to Gary, to his job as an ironworker. He worked on beams in midair from four in the afternoon until six the next morning and on his days off played semipro baseball with a team sponsored by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.
“I think I first heard about him in a conversation with Billy Pierce,” says Daily Southtown columnist Bill Gleason. “He was driving on one of those expressways in northwest Indiana and he saw a ball land in the expressway. He didn’t stop to inquire right away, but he knew something had happened, somebody had hit the ball a long way–so he checked it out. He found out it was this fellow by the name of Ron Kittle.”
Pierce greets the story with a good-natured laugh. “He wasn’t telling you the truth,” Pierce says. “Here’s the truth.”
The fact of the matter is that in 1978 Pierce–who’d won 186 games for the Sox between 1949 and 1961–heard about a kid who’d been released by the Dodgers and was playing semipro ball. Pierce had lunch with the kid and saw him play, wrote down that he had “awesome strength” and could “run a little,” and called Sox general manager Roland Hemond.
The tryout took place at Comiskey late one afternoon in September, before a game with the Kansas City Royals. Owner Bill Veeck sat in the dugout with farm system director Charlie Evranian. Kittle’s dad looked on from the stands.
“Here’s another kid,” quipped one Royal waiting for batting practice, “wasting his time.”
Kittle hit nearly a dozen balls out. Way out. One shot bounced off the roof. “Tell Roland,” Veeck said to Evranian, “not to let this kid out of the park without signing him.”
Kittle set out to make good on his promise to Van Proyen, and himself. He made friends with another find, first baseman Greg Walker (signed, or rather stolen from the Phillies, by Veeck scout Jerry Krause), and together they began to climb through the minor leagues. In 1982, with the Edmonton Trappers, Kittle became the first minor leaguer in 25 years to hit 50 home runs and drive in 140 RBIs in a season. He arrived in Chicago on September 2 and saw Harold Baines hit his 20th home run of the season with two outs in the ninth to erase a 5-4 Texas Rangers lead. The Sox won the game in the tenth inning with consecutive doubles by Mike Squires and Vance Law, and went on to finish the year with 87 wins–the most in five seasons.
They were a team that had begun to feel something vital, the conviction that they could and should win. Those White Sox were the appealing product of two worlds. It was Veeck who’d signed Kittle, who’d scouted Baines as a Little Leaguer in Maryland, who’d approved the trade that brought the team pitcher Richard Dotson, and who’d brought in Tony LaRussa–all of 34 years old–to manage late in the 1979 season. In his last year as owner, pitchers LaMarr Hoyt and Britt Burns had joined the starting rotation. But it was Jerry Reinsdorf who with Eddie Einhorn had purchased the team and the park for $20 million in 1981, had lured Carlton Fisk from Boston, and had enabled the team to buy the contract of Greg Luzinski.
When Sports Illustrated writer Jim Kaplan visited the Sox during spring training in 1983, he thought enough of Kittle and Walker to hark back to 1975, “when a couple of kids named Jim Rice and Fred Lynn checked in with Boston and led the Red Sox to the American League pennant.”
“It was just a great situation for two young players to come into,” says Walker, who drove in 55 runs in 1983. “You know, Ronnie coming out of spring training wasn’t trying to be the man. You had Greg Luzinski, Carlton Fisk, and Harold Baines. But he ended up fitting in really well.”
Fisk and Luzinski barely hit the first two months, and Kittle took on the role of team thumper. In one early game he homered and drove in six runs. In another he hit a ball over Fenway Park’s left-field wall, the green monster. In June, against the division-leading Angels, he tripled in the second and homered in the sixth.
“I kept giving Kittle fastballs,” said Angels pitcher Ken Forsch. “And he finally pounded one out.”
He became an all-star, then 1983 rookie of the year, and began to live large in our hearts. He opened up supermarkets, wisecracked to sportswriters, signed autographs. His life story evoked the game’s pioneers like Joe Jackson and Honus Wagner who’d escaped a laborer’s life to star on the diamond. His swing was large and led to tons of strikeouts (150 of them his rookie year) but seemed to say this: the most fiercely felt things in our lives command us to take the greatest chances, the biggest cuts.
“He was huge,” Walker says. “Local boy made good. Good gracious, I mean, it’s a great story. And it’s true.”
“It was almost fictional,” Gleason says. “Who was this guy? Then as it turned out he was from Gary, and the rest of it. You couldn’t have written it. And if you did people would have said, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous.'”
South-side fans, accustomed to second-half swoons, saw Kittle finish with 35 homers and the White Sox finish 20 games in front of the American League Western Division with 99 wins. They were the first team in Chicago history to draw more than two million customers in a season. The Tribune reported that Lucille Brennan, a 75-year-old Sox fan living in Orlando and suffering from Parkinson’s, didn’t need her walker for a week after the team clinched the division title. “Hey, look down at that town,” Walker says Roland Hemond told the team one night, as their plane flew into Chicago. “We own that town.”
But true happiness, which White Sox fans had been waiting for since 1917, would elude them this year too. The Sox beat Baltimore 2-1 in the first game of the best-of-five AL championship series, but scored one run total after that. In the third game, an 11-1 drubbing at Comiskey Park, Oriole pitcher Mike Flanagan threw a breaking ball that shattered Kittle’s knee. When Richard Dotson retaliated the following inning by whacking Cal Ripken, the shortstop trotted to first base and called out, “Is that all you got?” Yes, as it turned out. The next afternoon the White Sox lost in ten innings, in a game best remembered for a base-running error by Sox second baseman Jerry Dybzinski and the tenth-inning fastball that starter Britt Burns sent over the plate to Tito Landrum, who homered to break open a scoreless game.
“You try and say we were so close to going on to something bigger, the World Series,” Hemond says. “You just have to be lucky certain times. We ran out of luck then.”
“When we lost in ’83,” says Walker, “we thought, with that pitching staff, ‘Hey, we’ll be back next year.'” It didn’t happen. Despite a streak of nine wins in ten games before the all-star break, the Sox finished the year with only 74 wins, tied for fifth place.
Kittle, featured before the season in Rolling Stone and Playgirl, continued to hit for power; he posted 32 home runs, 3 of them off the roof of Comiskey Park. But his average and RBIs fell off, and his defensive lapses were blamed for two losses. His back had begun to hurt, and after the season he admitted to pressing for home runs and feeling “defeated” even before he walked to the plate.
In April 1985 he crashed into the left-field wall chasing a ball and by July was hitting .195 and in excruciating pain. The team put him on the disabled list. He regained his stroke in the season’s second half, but the ownership had started to panic. In October Hemond was forced out and TV announcer Hawk Harrelson took over.
The next June Kittle–batting .188 and without a home run in five weeks–struck out three times in four innings against Oakland and LaRussa lifted him. “Things were going so bad for him,” the manager explained, “they could only get worse.”
Neither skipper nor slugger would survive the summer. LaRussa (who’d go on to win three pennants and a World Series with the Oakland A’s) was fired on June 20. A month later, on July 29, the White Sox ended their longest losing streak in eight years, with Kittle hitting an upper-deck home run to help beat the Red Sox. Kittle then approached Harrelson during the seventh inning and asked if the rumors were true that a deal had been made. “Hawk,” he said, “am I gone? Just tell me that.” Yes, said Harrelson, who after the game announced Kittle had been traded, with two others, to the New York Yankees.
“Things had gotten so bad,” Walker says. “There was a lot of coming and going at that time. It was still a little bit of a shock, but things had just deteriorated. It wasn’t like a family anymore, like it had been in ’83 or even part of ’84. It was changing. Times were changing.”
Kittle didn’t sleep that night. At seven the next morning he drove up to Milwaukee and joined his new team. He struck out three times batting cleanup that evening, and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner griped, “I signed this guy because he was supposed to be the savior.”
“Hey,” Kittle said, “Jesus is the savior. I’m Ron Kittle, a human being.”
Kittle arrives at the Flyers stadium wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops and tells me there won’t be much time to talk. His team just got back from a road trip and he wants to make some cuts.
He and general manager John Dittrich have this luxury because the Flyers belong to the Northern League–a confederation of clubs outside the auspices of Major League Baseball. Most minor leagues exist to develop players for the parent teams; Northern League general managers answer only to themselves. Though they work within the league’s salary cap of $82,000 for 22 players, they set their own rosters, are free to make trades, and can release a player whenever they choose.
“In affiliated baseball it’s development first, winning second,” Dittrich told me. “Here, it’s winning first, development second. It’s like a miniature major league.”
Ten minutes into my talk with Kittle, a relief pitcher named Derek Santiago with a 9.64 earned run average comes into view. Turning his head just slightly, Kittle looks at me, at Santiago, and back at me. He slices his hand across his throat.
“Really?” I ask.
He nods and gets down from the top of the dugout bench where we’ve been sitting. “C’mon Derek,” he says. “Let’s go into the office.” In the presence of visiting Glen Van Proyen, who was there when the Dodgers cut Kittle 21 years ago, he doesn’t tell Santiago that he stinks. He says the pitcher should believe in his talent. Have hope, he says. (Later that day Santiago was picked up by the Adirondack Lumberjacks of Glens Falls, New York.)
A half hour passes and three players–pitchers Jim Boynewicz, Jeff Keppen, and Will Rushing–come out of the locker room, into the dugout. All are still on the roster, and all have spent time in clubs affiliated with major league teams. They know what it’s like to be let go. “That was brutal,” says Boynewicz, who will be sold before the month is up to the Quebec Les Capitales. “At least they could have done it last night, instead of today when the guys got their uniforms on.”
“That’s how I found out,” says Rushing, now sitting in the dirt just above the dugout steps. “I was all dressed, and they said, ‘We want to see you in the office.’ I thought it was to fill out some paperwork or something, because I wasn’t expecting to get cut.”
“Same thing with me,” Boynewicz says. “I was hurrying”–he moves his arms wildly to exaggerate a run–“coming in late, and everyone around me was like…”
“Quiet,” Rushing says. “Not looking at you.”
“Running out of doors as soon as they see you come in,” Boynewicz continues. “See you guys! Nice talking to you! And we had to sit there. There wasn’t just a release, there was a whole group of people they had to release, so then you had to sit there. And everybody’s sitting out there in their clothes, and it’s like, ‘Well, it looks like I have to be picked up somewhere else.’ And it was my first year and I was like, ‘What the fuck do I do now? Cry?'”
After a moment of quiet, unspoken agreement, Keppen says, “Two weeks before my release, they sent me a fucking New Year’s card. ‘Happy New Year’s from the Dodgers.’ So when I get the next letter, I figure this is my spring training letter.”
“That’s right,” Boynewicz says. “With a box checked.”
“It wasn’t that way. Just a letter saying, ‘We have granted you your unconditional release. You are now a free agent.'”
The next day Keppen will be traded to the Winnipeg Goldeyes.
More players come up from the locker room, though their manager does not. Johnny Martinez, a pitcher, says something quick and unintelligible and heads down the third-base line.
“What’d he say?” Boynewicz, who’s hanging from the dugout roof, finally asks.
“He said, ‘Good luck, guys,'” says third baseman Harry Berrios, sitting at the far end of the dugout, holding a bat. “He’s on waivers.”
Kittle shows up again when most of the team is on the field stretching.
“Well,” he says, wiping his hands together. “A lot of the damage has been done.”
“You get any blood on you?” I ask.
“No.” He looks into right field. “But I had a couple of guys that really didn’t care.”
He slaps my thigh and heads out to join his players. The Flyers’ press kit says Schaumburg Baseball Stadium was modeled on Wrigley Field–exact dimensions, green seats, manual scoreboard, proximity to the train. But on days when the park sells out, 2,000 fans will sit on the grass. Looking around the stadium today–at the open sky and the cars on the Elgin-O’Hare expressway beyond left field, the trees and houses beyond right–it somehow seems more organic, as if it were born out of the prairie that Schaumburg once was.
When Marge Ali and her family moved here in 1971, this was country. The mayor was a western singer–Smilin’ Bob Atcher–and the circuit court and jail and village board meeting room were all located in a former milking barn. The village had been incorporated only 15 years earlier, when its population numbered in the hundreds and 98 percent of the land was farmed.
But Schaumburg had a master plan drawn up by Atcher and the village trustees in their hayloft. They saw development coming and they wanted to keep it orderly. The year Marge Ali arrived six farms became the Woodfield Mall. Schaumburg attracted almost half a billion dollars in construction from 1970 to 1976, and a decade later the Chicago Cubs had a look around. They hinted in 1985 that if they couldn’t install lights at Wrigley Field they’d have to abandon the city in favor of a 100-acre tract the Tribune Company owned in Schaumburg.
Ali and her husband had left their two-flat near Logan Square, where they’d started to raise two kids. There’d been a knife fight on Fullerton Avenue, and their eldest child was just a couple of years from school. They wanted space, quiet, and safety. They made deposits on homes in Hanover Park and Crystal Lake, then found they could get more for their money in Schaumburg–$33,000 for a tri-level house.
“It was still Cook County,” she says, “and close to the expressway, and the schools were some of the best at that time.”
And how has it changed?
“It’s gotten so congested,” she responds. “It takes forever to go three miles. They’re always making the roads wider and wider, but while they’re doing that you can’t maneuver. I mean, progress is for the better–you can’t stand still. They say if you stand still you die. But I liked it more with the open spaces.”
There’s a temptation, looking down from the huge windows on the third level of Schaumburg’s stadium, with its 16 luxury suites and press box–onto the subdivisions where 900,000 people live within a ten-mile radius–to reach for malignant thoughts. The fact is, though, this is how most of us live. This is even how most of us like to live.
“I don’t even want a beautiful old house,” the critic Terrence Rafferty wrote in GQ. “That’s someone else’s history. The suburbs are mine.”
But the stadium, the team, even Kittle, are expressions of the need for a center.
Not far from the stadium is Schaumburg’s “Town Square” project–a four-year-old attempt to build a downtown from whole cloth. There’s a Dominick’s, a library, and a 55-foot clock tower. The tower is meant to give, according to one civic leader, “the whole thing credibility.”
“This is their downtown,” says Flyers managing partner Rich Ehrenreich. “They’re trying to create a bedroom community, hey-how’ya-doing-neighbor kind of thing. This is exactly consistent with the town square.”
We’re sitting in a box that a year and a half ago was nothing–just grass touched by the harsh winds of the expressway and the last looks of commuters boarding the Metra to Chicago. It would have stayed grass if Ehrenreich (who has owned two teams in the Frontier League) and his partners hadn’t begun looking at sites in Libertyville and Gurnee and Arlington Heights two years ago, and if the village and park district boards of Schaumburg hadn’t met eight times in executive session in the early months of last year and finally agreed to buy, and build upon, the ten and a half acres where the stadium now sits. In turn, the Northern League promised the suburb a team, via relocation or expansion, and the new Flyers agreed to lease the stadium for $200,000 annually for 15 years and to hand over to Schaumburg 70 percent of its concession revenue, 10 percent of the revenue from renting billboard space at the stadium, and 80 percent of the money it would receive if a corporation purchases the right to name the park.
Cost overruns, a lawsuit (the Kane County Cougars sued former owner Peter Heitman, then a Flyers limited partner, over what they argued was a breach of his agreement not to own another team in the vicinity), and unwelcoming neighbors couldn’t spoil the fun. A team name was chosen last July, four months before the franchise was even bought. The former owners had lost more than $200,000 in Thunder Bay, when striking city workers all but shut down their stadium for a month.
The organization wanted a big name for the party where Ehrenreich and Dittrich intended to announce the team’s name, logo, and colors. They found Kittle through a booking agent and saw how he interacted with the fans, his enthusiasm modeling the cap and uniform. They listened when emcee Norm Van Lier remarked, “If anyone’s wise here, you had better get him involved.”
In 1989, after another season in New York, then one in Cleveland, Kittle had turned down an offer to play for Hemond in Baltimore and come back to the Sox. “C’mon home,” his mother told him. “We’ll all be together again.” He was a different player now and showed very little at first–striking out 17 times in 62 at-bats in spring training. But, as was his custom, he pounded back. He began to play left field on turf to relieve Harold Baines, and in Seattle he chased down a ball that had bounced off a speaker and began a relay that easily nailed a stunned runner. In May, with the Sox trailing Baltimore 5-4 in the seventh inning, he hit a go-ahead two-run homer with no balls and two strikes. He was hitting over .300 with 11 home runs when incessant back pain put him on the disabled list in June and eventually the operating table.
“[Hitting coach] Walt Hriniak and I would be taking batting practice and I hurt so bad that this would be coming down my face,” he says, wiping a finger down his cheek. “Swinging, there would just be tears jumping out of my eyes. Or I’d be all right in batting practice and all of a sudden my back would stiffen up and I couldn’t move or walk.”
The following season, the last in the history of old Comiskey Park, Kittle doubled against Milwaukee in the fourth inning and manager Jeff Torborg took him out. Slamming his helmet, Kittle confronted his manager.
“Give me two reasons,” he said.
“One, you are hurt,” Torborg said. “Two, you are tired.”
The Sox were playing their best baseball in six seasons, and were in a virtual tie with the A’s for first place, but Kittle was soon traded to Baltimore. General manager Larry Himes said it came down “to Kittle being one-dimensional.” Kittle responded that Himes “didn’t understand baseball” and had “the personality of a Pet Rock.” The next year he played briefly again for the Sox, was released, and retired, his career over at the age of 33.
“In my opinion,” says WSCR radio host Les Grobstein, “Ron Kittle doesn’t have to apologize for a goddamn thing. When he went out there, he left everything on the field. He’s probably one of the most intense and fun-loving major leaguers I’ve ever seen.”
Adds Gleason: “It was just like a transmission was going on between him and the fans. And he was truly one of the favorite players in White Sox history. Management just didn’t recognize it.”
Kittle never left sports or the public life, not completely. He coached his daughter’s soccer team and his son’s Little League team, and he hosted a radio show for WYIN radio. He opened up K marts, raised money for charity, and was selected to run with the Olympic torch in 1996. He gave hitting lessons and served as the auctioneer at last year’s town ball in Merrillville.
In the spring of 1995, a few months after his father died of cancer, he made his first attempt to reenter the game. This was in Merrillville, managing a fly-by-night independent team called the Mud Dogs, whose owner, Richard Jacobson, had eight lawsuits pending against him when the season began and would gather more as it wore on. Kittle paid the price–first with his pants, stolen from a locker room in East Chicago, and then with his wallet, when he realized the team was bankrupt and used $25,000 out of his own pocket to pay the players. In August he made his professional pitching debut in Anderson, Indiana. “We were down in Anderson and we were winning with the best pitcher in the league on the mound and it was a local umpire. Our guy had only walked one or two guys all year and he wound up walking seven guys in a row after we had a 5-0 lead and now we’re losing 7-5 and nobody had any hits. And I mean, those pitches were right there–strikes–and I got so upset that I put myself into the game. I told the catcher exactly what I was going to do, and wound up throwing three consecutive fastballs and hit the umpire right in the mask.”
That December Jacobson thanked his former manager by accusing him of stealing more than $10,000 worth of souvenirs. Kittle said that he did have the stuff, at least some of it, because it had been left outside the stadium and he had taken it for safekeeping and if Jacobson didn’t want it going to charity he’d best pick it up.
“I learned what minor league baseball is about,” he says. “It’s a business.”
And now Schaumburg. The Flyers won their division’s first-half title and have clinched a spot in the Northern League playoffs. The team draws more than 5,400 people per game (1,300 fewer than the Kane County Cougars, the Class A farm team of the Florida Marlins). It’s the new jewel in the crown of the most successful of the four independent minor leagues in the country. Kittle remains guarded about his ambitions. (“As a coach?” he said when I passed along Van Proyen’s hunch that he wants back in the majors. “I don’t know, it’s in the future. Hell, it might happen next year. It might never happen.”) But the Flyers are clear about his purpose in Schaumburg. Just turn on the radio, where Kittle’s voice hawks season-ticket packages, or the TV, where he does the same in curlers and a size 26 dress as “Ma Kittle.” Dittrich, a veteran of several minor league clubs, says Kittle’s “marketing attraction” is the club’s biggest asset.
“We felt in year one marketing was the most important thing,” Ehrenreich says. “And we like Ron as a manager–so that’s not an issue. But marketing’s been so much more important to us. Like I said, it’s sales. We’ve got to get fans in the seats, sell hot dogs, provide entertainment to kids. And Ron’s part of that entertainment.”
Kittle says he’s honored. “It’s pretty hard to be out of baseball and still be a drawing attraction,” he says. “People like honesty. They like to be around me. You know, I get nice letters from people all the time saying, hey, it was the most enjoyable day I’ve ever had being with you or meeting you at a golf tournament. I’m not putting on a front for people.
“I’ve stayed the same since I was 17 years old till right now. I haven’t changed a bit. Absolutely not. That’s me. ‘Have Fun!'”
On a warm afternoon in early July, Kittle is sitting in a windowless conference room on the first floor of the stadium. Not far from us is a framed poster from the Tom Selleck film Mr. Baseball, about the plight of a former Yankee playing in Japan. Kittle’s filling out a lineup card. “Half these guys, I don’t even know their numbers, they keep changing on me,” he says. Again he adds that things would be rushed, that to tell the truth he doesn’t have even half an hour to spare because “everybody’s just beat and I’m trying to move guys around. I mean, as a manager in minor league baseball, it just takes you everywhere.”
Things go smoothly enough. We talk about Merrillville and his father, about why exactly he’s in Schaumburg. And at the end, he remarks that I’ve done a good job. I reply that I’ve spared him, handing over a notebook full of questions I’d intended to ask.
“I think you need to simplify everything,” he says. “You know, you can’t say, ‘What happened on July 7, 1985?’ Hell, I don’t know what happened. You woke up, like everybody else, go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, eat, and go to the ballpark. I think what you’re trying to do is get so much, and you can’t do that. Understand?”
“I understand,” I say.
“Like if Michael Jackson would come in, what are you going to ask him? What would be the first question you’d ask him?”
“How’s the boy?”
“You know,” Kittle says, his eyes wide and his arms spread far apart. “‘How’s life?’ He’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful, I’ve been traveling, I’ve got a child, I’ve got a wife-girlfriend-nanny-weird-relationship going.’ You know, ‘How’s life?’ ‘Do you still enjoy music?’ Because then he can give you that much. When you’re giving a one-on-one interview and you’re asking specific questions, you want a quick answer. But it gets stale, you know. So that’s my advice.”
From another person this could have sounded like a dressing-down. From Kittle it was simple instruction. He knows why he’s here. He wants things done right.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.