January 4, 2011
Before he became a highly-regarded minor-league pitching coach, Bob Kipper lived the dream that he now helps others pursue. The 46-year-old erstwhile left-hander spent eight seasons in the big leagues, and while his record was humble—27-37 with a 4.34 ERA and 11 saves—he considers himself privileged to have simply earned the opportunity. Taken eighth overall in the 1982 draft by the California Angels, Kipper was traded to Pittsburgh three years later and logged the bulk of his 247 career appearances with the Pirates. He has been a pitching coach in the Red Sox organization since 1999, and he spent the 2010 season mentoring hurlers in Double-A Portland.
Kipper told the story of his journey to the big leagues, his two tumultuous appearances as an Angel, and his time in Pittsburgh prior to a late-season game at Portland’s Hadlock Field.
“For me, getting drafted was extremely exciting. To start with, since I was a young kid, probably dating back to the age of five, my boyhood dream had been to play baseball in the major leagues. Of course, at age five no one ever knows what their life is going to be like, but I always had a true love, and a true passion, for baseball. And I realized at a very young age that I had a special skill to play the game. I was one of those guys that always pitched successfully against older kids. In high school, I was able to pitch at the varsity level as a freshman and dominate. While I certainly didn’t know that I’d play in the big leagues someday, it was certainly a dream of mine.
“Going into my senior year of high school, I knew that there was a really good chance that, barring injury, I’d get an opportunity to get drafted and play professional baseball. How high I’d go in the draft would hinge on well I did as a senior, and I ended up having a really impressive year. I was projected to go high in the draft, with some sources saying it could be between the first and the fifth pick. That was kind of shocking to me, but also very exciting.
“The first day of the June draft I got a call from Larry Himes, the director of scouting for the California Angels, informing me that I was their first pick. Having grown up as one of six kids in a family living on a seven-acre farm in rural Illinois, we were all pretty excited, and I’ll always remember the excitement leading up to the actual day that I signed. A day or two later I jumped on a plane to Southern California. I got on that plane with two other guys who were drafted that year, and interestingly enough, one of them was Mike Rizzo, who is now the general manager of the Washington Nationals. I remember that I was late getting to the airport, because we were fighting traffic the entire way, trying to get into O’Hare airport in Chicago. We finally made it, I got checked in, and I raced to the gate and got on the plane.
“When we got off the plane, we headed to the Cal State Fullerton campus, and when I got there I remember that it was one of the loneliest feelings in the world. I had never been away from home. I realized very quickly that I was going to have to grow up quickly, and not only be independent, but learn how to coexist with other people, which is something I wasn’t challenged to do as a kid growing up in Aurora, Illinois. You’re in your comfort zone, in a relatively small town with people who are familiar to you, and now you’re a 17-year-old kid embarking on an opportunity to play in the big leagues. It was all new to me.
“In my first outing of professional baseball, I experienced something I had never experienced before—not in Little League, high school, or anywhere. I surrendered two home runs in the same game. I was in the Northwest League, playing in Salem, where we had our short-season club, and the game was in Bend, Oregon. Interestingly enough, my first manager was Joe Maddon.
“I gave up this home run with two outs in an inning, then struck the next guy out. I was very agitated, aggravated and frustrated walking off the mound, and Joe Maddon could clearly see that. He said, “You know, the sign of a good pitcher is one who gives up a home run and strikes the next guy out.” I accepted that. A few innings later, the same guy comes up again and hits another home run off the grocery building beyond left field. That was with one out, and I struck the next two guys out and walked off the field. Joe could clearly see that I was agitated, aggravated, and frustrated, so he came up to me again and said, “The sign of a good professional pitcher is when he gives up a home run and strikes the next two guys out.” He had a way about him where he could calm a situation—he knew how to handle players—and I remember that very vividly as we sit here today.
“But the game was a real failure to me, because, like I said, I had never experienced something like that before. And when you experience failure for the first time, you’re going to have question marks. You’re going to ask yourself, “Geez, how good am I, really?”
“My first full season wasn’t a walk in the park. It wasn’t a bowl of cherries, either. I was very inconsistent. I had my moments where I was dominating, but I also had my moments where I wasn’t good at all. Looking back, it was a time where my love for the game was really being challenged, because, once again, I was experiencing failure like I hadn’t ever before. I was trying to figure out how to process it and handle it.
“My second year, I was in Peoria, in the Midwest League. My manager was Joe Coleman, and he helped to professionalize me. He taught me how to act, how to talk, how to be responsible at the professional level. He called me out on a few things, like being on time and needing to show a real commitment to the game. It was a tough year for me, because I was still learning how to deal with failure. Joe was also the pitching coach, not just the manager, so he had a lot of things on his plate, but he was also a very fair man. He helped show me what being a professional really entails, and that encompasses a lot. As a kid a year out of high school, you think that you have some answers, but you don’t have the answers.
“The next year, 1984, I was promoted one level higher, to the California League. I had a breakthrough season, where in 26 starts I had 26 decisions, which is nearly impossible in this day and age. I turned 19 years old that summer, and I was 18-8 and the California League Pitcher of the Year. Confidence breeds confidence, so I was feeling really good about my game and how I was developing. After the season, I had to be protected on the major-league roster, which I was.
“The following season, I went to my first major-league camp. That was 1985, and at the time the California Angels were a star-studded team. There was Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Bob Boone, Bobby Grich, Doug DeCinces, Brian Downing, Tommy John, Geoff Zahn, Donnie Moore. I mean, it was an all-star type of club, and I’m this 20-year-old kid walking around the clubhouse, at the Gene Autry Complex in Mesa, Arizona, feeling really, really out of place. That sense of belonging wasn’t there, clearly. I was in awe of the environment I found myself in.
“Even so, a lot of guys there made me feel very comfortable, and one in particular: Donnie Moore. We know that Donnie Moore, after the 1986 season, took his own life and that was a shock to me. He was the one guy that really took me under his wing and made me feel comfortable. He made sure that I always had a ride to and from the ballpark, and things like that.
“I had a lot of success in major-league camp, so the doubts began to subside a little bit at that point. Now I was facing major-league hitters, guys I had been watching on TV as a kid growing up, and I was having success against them. I began to realize that maybe I wasn’t that far away.
“I made it all the way through spring training with no idea as to my future. Was I going to make this major-league ball club? Was I going to be reassigned to Double-A or Triple-A?
“I was never told that I made that club. I made the club out of spring training, in 1985, and how I found out is that I walked into the clubhouse the day after our final pre-season game. Every year the Dodgers and Angels played a freeway series and this was the day after the third game. I remember that it was the day after Easter Sunday and there was an Opening Day uniform hanging in my locker. That’s how I found out. There was no, “Congratulations, you made the club,” or any explanation. There was simply a uniform hanging in my locker.
“Of course, there was excitement, but there was still doubt that I belonged. And, as it was, I didn’t last a long time. There were reasons for that. Part of it was that sense of belonging, and the other part was that they threw me into a role, if you will, that I was not ready to pitch in. Up to that point, I was very comfortable in a five-day routine as a starting pitcher, and I was thrown into the bullpen. They were looking for opportunities for me to go out and have success. They didn’t want to just throw me into the fire, so to speak.
“I waited a week before my first outing. It was in Oakland’s Coliseum on their opening night, and I remember warming up in the bullpen. I was clearly very nervous and uncomfortable. When I entered the ballgame, that carried into the ballgame. And I did not have success. If anyone looks up my first major-league outing, they’ll see that it wasn’t real impressive. It was two-thirds of an inning and four runs, and I walked a few guys. You don’t feel too good about yourself after an outing like that, particularly at age 20 in the big leagues. After that, I sat for another two weeks before I saw action again, and when you’re sitting for two weeks you ask yourself a lot of questions.
“I got an opportunity to start a game, in Anaheim, against the same Oakland A’s ballclub. A little story attached to that experience is Reggie Jackson. A lot of people have different opinions of Reggie Jackson, and I always have a very favorable opinion, because on that particular night in Anaheim, after I had come into the dugout after warming up in the bullpen, he came over and sat down next to me. He put his hand on my leg and said, ‘Kid, are you ready?” I said, “Yep,” and he said, “Let’s go.” He ran out to the mound with me, and he picked up the baseball and handed it to me, then he ran out to right field. That was something he didn’t have to do, but he did it anyway and I’ve always remembered that. I have a very high opinion of Reggie Jackson because of it.
“The outing started out well with a pretty good first inning, but then it went south in a hurry. I don’t believe that I made it through three innings. To make a long story short, the next day I was sent down to our Double-A affiliate in Midland, Texas. Interestingly enough, the manager of the Midland Angels that year was Joe Maddon. It was another opportunity for me to play for Joe Maddon, and once again I didn’t have much confidence. It was a time to start rebuilding confidence, and develop an effective game again, and that happened for me in Midland.
“I jumped from Midland, after having a couple of months of success there, up to our Triple-A affiliate in Edmonton, Alberta. I made one start in Edmonton and then was involved in a trade [on August 16, 1985] to Pittsburgh.
“The trade presented an opportunity for me, although going through it at the time, I didn’t see it for what it really was. I went to an organization, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were going through a very big transition. We all know the Pirates of the 1970s and the early 1980s, and even the 1960s. It is an organization with rich tradition, as much as a team like the Boston Red Sox has a rich tradition. But they were going through a transition period, and what that did was present an opportunity to me, as well as to others.
“There were guys like Sid Bream and Andy Van Slyke. Andy is a guy who came over in a trade in 1987, a couple of years later. Sid came over from the Dodgers. Mike LaValliere is another guy who came over in a trade. R.J. Reynolds is a guy I played with in Pittsburgh. We got opportunities, and going through it we never figured that by 1990 we would be National League East champs. That would happen for three straight years, and I was fortunate enough to be there for two of them, 1990 and 1991.
“Looking back, that was such a special time in my life, to be part of an organization that was transforming itself, A lot of the changes began in 1987 and gradually happened from there. By the end of 1987, we thought that we were developing into a pretty good major-league ballclub.
“Going into the 1988 season, I think there was an expectation to win. A lot of folks will remember the mighty Mets of 1988, who won 100 games, and in late July, we were only 3 1/2 games out. We had been contending, and competing, with the New York Mets throughout that season. As a ballclub, we really thought that we had a chance to win. It didn’t work out; we finished second in the division that year.
“Going into 1989, there were strong hopes that we were going to contend for the division, but we experienced a lot of injuries. And we’re talking about core type of players, key components of our ballclub. Mike LaValliere was hurt. Andy Van Slyke had an oblique issue. Jim Gott had Tommy John surgery—if I’m remembering correctly—and he had been our closer in 1988, saving 34 baseball games. Injuries to key players affected our performance. As you well know, it’s tough to find a replacement who is going to give you the same quality of play, on a night-to-night basis, at most positions. We scuffled in 1989, although, ironically, it was my best season on the mound.
“We went into the 1990 season knowing that we were going to have those guys back in our lineup, and we brought in guys like Jay Bell. Jay was a big part of our defense and our run production that year. Jose Lind was guy who had emerged at the end of 1987, and to this day he is probably one the best second baseman I’ve ever seen because of his athleticism and his range. There were balls he could get to that no other second baseman at that time could get to. He helped protect pitching staffs. Sid Bream was one of the better first basemen I played with, the way he handled the position. He secured errant throws and he moved well for a big guy, even though he had knee issues.
“We had a healthy outfield with Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, and Bobby Bonilla. Andy Van Slyke, to me, is one of the better center fielders I’ve ever seen, because of his instincts—the jumps he got on balls—and just the way he played the game.
“I met Barry Bonds in 1985, in Venezuela, when we played winter ball together. Barry and I always got along, so I don’t like to talk about him too much. Everybody has opinions of people and I always have a favorable opinion of Barry. He was a good teammate and always very respectful to me, as I was to him. What he did beyond that was totally up to Barry Bonds. I have no ill feelings or ill words for him. He was a tremendous athlete, obviously, and he was an integral part of our success at that time.
“Mike LaValliere was a guy who was able to command a baseball game from behind the plate. He’s a guy that you enjoyed pitching to; you trusted him. He was able to create relationships with pitchers. He was a huge student of the game and a guy you wanted behind the plate. Don Slaught is a guy that we acquired in 1990, and he complemented Mike very well.
“We had pieces of the puzzle coming together and we went out and won the division, in St. Louis, in 1990. It was the last road trip of the year before we returned home to finish the season, and that’s a story I like to tell because it was one of the more exciting experiences I was ever a part of.
“Returning home from St. Louis, the Pittsburgh airport accumulated over 30,000 people to welcome us home. It was one of those experiences that you almost can’t describe. It was so exhilarating, walking from the airport with people literally hanging from the rafters, celebrating and applauding our accomplishment. We were an organization that had been starving for a post-season appearance for 11 years, and we finally got it. That was the culmination and I could remember the process, all of the changes that were made to make that possible. It all came together, and what a sense of accomplishment and what a way to celebrate it.
“We had a disappointing National League Championship Series. We hung in there for six games, but couldn’t beat the Reds, who went on to win the World Series.
“In 1991, we were even better. We clinched the National League East with two weeks to play. We did it in Pittsburgh. But that turned into a disappointing year as well. In the playoffs, we were up three games to two, against Atlanta, and were going back to Pittsburgh with Doug Drabek and John Smiley. John had won 20 games that year and Doug was a solid pitcher in Pittsburgh for all the years he spent there. He won a Cy Young in 1990. Unfortunately, the Braves pitchers at that time were just as good. Steve Avery was up to the task and Game Six was a 1-0 shutout. Then, in Game Seven, we fell down early. John Smiley struggled in that game, and once they mounted a lead, John Smoltz was lights-out. He delivered a shutout and they won 4-0. They went on to play in the 1991 World Series and we went home. Then I signed as a free agent and played in Minnesota in 1992. That was my last year in the big leagues.
“When I look back at my career, I’m never disappointed that I didn’t do more. I’ve always looked at it as having done the best that I could. I don’t second guess myself, because I feel that my work ethic was second to none and I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to pitch eight seasons in the big leagues. I would never trivialize that, because I feel that I earned everything that I got in this game.
“I learned from certain guys, from certain pitching coaches throughout my career, and I think it comes down to this: You learn the most from guys who spend time with you, communicate with you, and treat you like you matter. I had a few of those guys who made an impact, and not just in my baseball career, but in my life. And that’s how I treat my position as a pitching coach. If you have an opportunity to impact a human life, an individual who is aspiring to pitch in the big leagues… and I’m not a guy who knows it all. I’m a guy who has experience and is trying to use that experience to help other individuals get to the same level that I was so privileged to pitch at. I’m proud to have pitched in the major leagues, and I want to do what I can to help others attain that same dream.”