Change of heart: Kaat deserves Cooperstown
Decades later, sturdy left-hander looks more like a Hall of Famer
'Tis the season of "Upon further review," and high time I use the available mulligan. I should have supported the Hall of Fame candidacy of Jim Kaat.
I regret my decision to withhold a vote from his candidacy, not that one more check next to his name would have made much of a difference. In 15 years on the annual writers' ballot, Kaat never came remotely close to gaining election. But what's right is right, and now that first period of eligibility has passed. I believe Kaat is right for Cooperstown.
Kitty has another life now, on the Golden Era Ballot, created by the Hall in 2010. He is one of 10 candidates to be considered by a 16-person panel during the Winter Meetings early next month. And in my still-open mind, he is the most deserving of Hall of Fame status among the 10.
I can't say that I never cast a vote for Kaat. Through his 13th year on the ballot, the 2001 vote, he never had been checked on more than 29.6 percent of the ballots. And my ballot had left him unchecked 13 times. But I didn't want my lack of support to stand between him and election, just in case a rush to re-judgment occurred and his percentage increased dramatically in '02 or '03. So I voted for him in his last two years on the ballot, each time recognizing his merits were substantial, each time knowing he deserved the benefit of the doubt.
I like Jim Kaat. What's not to like? I've appreciated his passion and respect for the game for decades. But I checked those considerations at the door each time I didn't vote for him. Judging more tangible areas is what convinced me Kaat was lacking, even though I suspected any Hall of Fame veterans committee would act more favorably on his candidacy. To me, Kaat was on the threshold.
The broad strokes in his favor were these: He won 283 games, fielded his position as if his life depended on his defense, played the game wisely and played it for 25 seasons.
It was his years on the field that ultimately prompted this change of heart. It required a change of head first, and one occurred in the summer of 2010, during a conversation in Cooperstown with Whitey Herzog, Kaat's manager for most of his final four seasons, during which he was in his 40s and pitching mostly in relief. Herzog used Kaat in 176 Cardinals games in that period, had him pitch 292 innings. And then, 27 years later, Herzog said this:
"You don't ask a guy to pitch -- what? -- 200 times and keep bringing him back if you don't trust him. I trusted Jim Kaat as much as any pitcher I ever sent into a game. I always knew I had a pro on the mound. You knew he'd pitch smart and give you all he had. You knew he'd make the right play. He'd hold the runner, he'd cover first and back up the bases and just play the game the way it was supposed to be played. And he'd pitch his butt off for you.
"He might give it up. But if he got beat, it was because the other team did it right, not because he made a mistake. You call in a pitcher, and that's what you want."
Herzog wasn't campaigning for Kaat. The Hall never came up. We were merely kibitzing and reached the topic of the seemingly gawky, left-handed pitcher who kept himself in prime condition and was ready to go whenever his name came out of the bullpen phone.
"You never had to worry about Kitty," Herzog said. "There weren't too many like him then, and there are less of them now. You never knew if he had a problem. He never made excuses. Just call on him, and you got his best for as long as he could give it."
Witness the 10-inning shutout Kaat pitched against the Mets on June 4, 1980. Ken Boyer was in his final days as the Cardinals manager and desperate for a good and long start. Kaat gave him 10 zeroes. He had made but one start -- five days earlier -- in the preceding 14 months. Think Kaat kept his arm -- and legs -- in shape?
Herzog didn't consider Kaat a luxury -- he wasn't a left-handed specialist, and each year with the Cardinals, he faced more right-handed than left-handed hitters -- but rather a necessity.
"You could warm him up four or five times Friday night, not bring him in," Herzog said, "have him get ready twice on Saturday, not bring him in, and then get 3 2/3 out of him on Sunday."
Herzog didn't use the term "staff saver," not for a pitcher who had accomplished so much in his career. Kaat was much more than the 11th man on an 11-man staff. Nor did he deny that Kaat saved the staff a few times along the way.
To Herzog, Kaat had value that went unrecognized by the masses.
"Very valuable to me," he said. "I knew he wasn't the same pitcher that won 20 games for the Twins and the White Sox. He knew it too. But he was reliable in the roles I'd choose for him. You don't play as long as Kitty played if you're not reliable. Real dependable, you know?"
I recently came across those quotes scribbled in a notebook. They required extensive deciphering. I read them more than a few times, and the more I read them, the more a Hall of Fame candidate Kaat became. Reliable ... valuable ... effective ... dependable ... always available. And Herzog was characterizing Kaat at ages 41-44, not during his prime, when the foundation of his 283-237 career record was under construction.
Kaat had genuine value to his teams, even at the end of his career. His responsibilities diminished, of course. But he accommodated whenever asked and afforded his manager a sense of security. There's something to be said for that, as well as his 16 consecutive Gold Gloves and the dispatch with which he accumulated outs.
Bob Gibson was said to have pitched as if he were double-parked. Kaat pitched as if the cop already had written half the ticket and found two broken tail lights. The late Chuck Tanner, Kaat's manager with the White Sox from 1973-75, kiddingly suggested that he mapped out his starters' assignments in Spring Training so that Kaat would make as many starts on getaway days as possible.
One of the factors I consider when voting is whether a candidate ever was the best at what he did -- or close to it -- for an extended period. Don Mattingly was a great player, but his performance diminished after six splendid seasons. Not enough. Vada Pinson, my favorite player other than Mickey Mantle when I was a child, had seven terrific seasons. I couldn't vote for him either.
No such obstacle with Kaat. He won enough Gold Gloves to outfit a team, including four starters and four relievers. Sixteen years qualifies as an extended period in any sport, and this by a man who sometimes looked like a giraffe chasing a mouse when he came off the mound -- arms, legs, long torso. How was an opponent supposed to get a bunt down against those Cardinals teams with Kaat, Keith Hernandez, Ken Oberkfell and Ozzie Smith manning the infield? Herzog acknowledged he occasionally had summoned Kaat to relieve only to enhance the Cardinals' defense when a sacrifice was in order.
All this, and barely a mention of Kaat's years as a successful starter. Kaat won at least 20 games three times -- in 1966 with the Twins and '74 and '75 when he was with the White Sox in his mid-30s. His 1966 season produced a 25-13 record and a 2.75 ERA over 304 2/3 innings. But he was the victim of another deserved Sandy Koufax shutout. There was one Cy Young Award for both leagues until 1967, and one place on each ballot. Koufax won unanimously for the third time in four years.
Kaat pitched 31 shutouts -- not in the same league as Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan or Bert Blyleven, but a nice total. And in his 14-season prime, from 1962-75, he started 480 games, appeared in 524, went 225-163 and produced a 3.21 ERA.
What was I thinking? I hope the Golden Era panel does a better job than I did.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.