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March 30, 2011

Wezen-Ball

A Solo Shot

by Larry Granillo

Fans come out to the ballpark for a variety of reasons, from cheap family fun to the intricacies of the hit-and-run to the devastating ruin of Pedro Martinez's changeup. Baseball has something for everyone. There is no denying, however, the almost universal appeal of the home run. Purists will tell you that they would rather witness a 1-0 combined three-hitter that's not decided until the ninth inning over a 10-8 slugfest with five different home runs, and it may even be true. But there's a reason the mound was lowered in 1969, the designated hitter was added in 1973, and the "steroid era" was so popular at the turnstiles. Greg Maddux said it best: "Chicks dig the longball."


0.0 seconds
The little second baseman steps into the lefthander's batters box, ready for the pitch. His stance is very much that of a man with a .280 career batting average and a .329 career slugging percentage. His body is as upright and rigid as his bat, which looks about two-times too big for him. His chin is dug deep into his right shoulder, as if he is trying to scratch an itch while his hands are otherwise occupied.


The observation is no longer new, but that doesn't stop it from being true: the offensive era we live in today, even as the "steroid era" disappears beyond the horizon, is very different from years past. When the home run rate dropped in 2010 to slightly below 1 home run per game per team, pundits all over the country started saying baseball was entering a new "golden age of the pitcher" - all because a fan could expect to see only two home runs a game on average. Needless to say, fans in other eras weren't so demanding of their sluggers.


0.3 seconds
The 1-0 pitch comes out of the hand of White Sox pitcher Steve Stone. The second baseman prepares, moving his bat ever so slightly before stepping into the pitch. The step is small, no bigger than one you might take to re-balance yourself after a herky stop on the bus. As he steps, the second baseman swings his bat through the zone. The pitch is a bit slow and the bat connects with it. The second baseman, used to failure after solid contact, wastes no time getting out of the box while the catcher, the home plate umpire and he watch the flight of the ball, looking for signs of what might happen.


There were 4,600+ home runs hit in 2010 by 494 different batters. Only two of these 494 managed at least 40 home runs during the season, with another 15 or so cranking out 30 or more home runs. To these players, and many more, the home run is taken for granted. "Oh, you didn't hit one today? Don't worry. You'll get it tomorrow." When it took Alex Rodriguez two weeks to move from career home run number 599 to number 600, the New York tabloids told us that the world was about to collapse (as if it were W.P. Kinsella's newest story, "The Last Home Run Before Armageddon"). Home runs don't come at will, no matter what The Babe Ruth Story tells us.


4.7 seconds
The second baseman has somehow managed to put some pop on the ball. It sails, a high line drive, towards the 10 fans sitting on the fair side of the right field corner. There are only 6,000 fans in attendance all told, a paltry number there to witness what might be an historic moment. One fan in particular stands up, certain it will come to him. And it does, but the fan cannot handle it. The ball sails through his hands and bounces on the empty seat behind him, ricocheting back onto the field. Chicago right fielder Wayne Nordhagen is there to catch the ricochet, though he manages only slightly better than the fan. Nordhagen's catch won't get recorded in the record books, but the second baseman will surely thank him later. After all, the second baseman is Duane Kuiper and this home run, over 1,500 plate appearances into his career, is the first he has ever hit.


Five players in 2010 hit a home run in their first major league at-bat. One of these five was Daniel Nava, whose first career major league at-bat lasted only one pitch and ended with a grand slam. Only one other player has ever been known to do that in history. Funnily enough, it was the only home run Nava would hit in 188 plate appearances in 2010. Seventy other players hit their first career home run in 2010, an achievement they'll all remember for the rest of their lives. None will remember it quite like Duane Kuiper, however.


8.5 seconds
The camera finally gives us our first look at Kuiper since the ball cleared the fence. Kuip is moving fast (most players take about 12 seconds to reach second base), but the euphoria doesn't seem to have fully set in yet. His lifelong training and professionalism are still in control, which explains why Kuiper's posture is so rigid as he shuffles his feet in approach of second base. He turns the corner with nary a word said or a celebration vocalized.


It seems almost no fair that, say, Steve Hill was able to hit is first career home run in his first (and only) big league game while players the likes of Duane Kuiper are forced to wait nearly three years of full time play (and then never again) before hitting his. But that's the nature of baseball. You never know who is going to come through, or how.


13.4 seconds
As Kuiper heads into third base, the importance of the moment begins to sink. He steps on the bag and passes umpire Al Clark quietly as a smile begins to form. The excitement is about to break through, professionalism be damned.

14.4 seconds
Three steps on the home side of the bag and the realization is finally there. "Yes!" Kuiper seems to yell, as he slaps his left hand with his right. It's taken three-quarters of the basepaths to finally get here, but Kuiper is in full-on celebration mode...

15.6 seconds
...which is more than apparent when third base coach Joe Nossek finally enters the picture. Nossek sticks his hand out to celebrate with Kuiper, who slaps it with a child's enthusiasm. Nossek joins in with his enthusiasm, directing Kuip on home with a dramatic, fluid wave of his arms. "Go on! You've earned it!" the wave screams.


They say hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in sports. If that's true, then what's hitting a home run? It's obviously tougher than just hitting a baseball. I guess we'll have to go beyond sports when describing the difficulty of hitting a homer: "hitting a home run is the toughest thing to do in life", perhaps? For some people, like Duane Kuiper, that may be more true than we'd like to admit.


19.1 seconds
The last 50 feet, with the goal so close, are the hardest. But our hero never breaks stride. He's intent on circling the bases at a nice clip - the quicker you run the bases, the earlier you can celebrate in the clubhouse with your teammates.

Two more steps to go.

One.

Finally. His cleats touch home plate and the run is now official. Duane Kuiper has joined the ranks of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson as "home run hitters" and it only took 1,533 plate appearances. Buddy Bell is the first to greet a smiling, clapping Kuiper at home. From there, his whole team shows up on the dugout steps, ready to congratulate the newest home run king. The joy is everywhere in the Cleveland clubhouse, just as it should be after a home run.


Epilogue
When asked after the game about his home run, Kuiper said "It was exciting, believe me... At first, I didn't think it was going out, but I never think they're going to go out." And they never did again. But, in that one, shining moment, it did, and Duane Kuiper new what it was like to be the king of the diamond. That's all anyone needs.

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