It’s been more than 70 years since Jim Kaat threw his first pitch, in American Legion ball on the sand lots of Zeeland in west Michigan. It’s been nearly 40 years since the man they called “Kitty” threw his last pitch in the major leagues.
Next weekend, Kaat, now 83, will take his place on stage at Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, New York, as one of the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Fortunately for him, he’s used to waiting.
Kaat pitched in the 1965 World Series for the Minnesota Twins in an eventual loss to the Sandy Koufax-led Los Angeles Dodgers. He didn’t get back to the World Series until 1982, when, then with the St. Louis Cardinals, he finally got that ring, in beating the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I think I was pretty realistic in ’65, trying to get a couple runs off Koufax … we were fortunate to get two off him in Game 2,” Kaat said Friday, talking to reporters ahead of his induction as part of the Class of 2022. “It’s not like we blew the series. (The Twins lost in seven.) I thought we’d get back. When you’re in your 20s …
“That’s what made that ’82 season worth the wait and very rewarding.”
The 17-year wait was the longest in baseball history for a player between his first World Series appearance and his next World Series appearance.
Also, no player in any North American professional sport had played 24 years before winning a ring.
Kaat, a left-hander who won 283 games and 16 Gold Gloves, first appeared on the writers’ Hall of Fame ballot in 1989 and made the maximum 15 appearances, never receiving 30% (75% is required for election). He finally was elected in December, by members of the Golden Era Committee ballot. He will be joined on the stage Sunday, July 24, by fellow inductees David Ortiz, Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, Buck O’Neil and Kaat’s long-time teammate with Minnesota, Tony Oliva.
Kaat, born in Zeeland on Nov. 7, 1938, becomes the fifth Michigan-born man to enter the Hall of Fame: John Smoltz (Warren), Charlie Gehringer (Fowlerville), Hal Newhouser (Detroit) and Kiki Cuyler (Harrisville).
“Happy chaos,” Kaat said Friday, discussing the feeling since he got the Hall of Fame call in December. “That’s really what it’s been. It’s been an unbelievable ride since I got that phone call.”
Kaat said he’s trying to do the equivalent of “slowing the game down,” an adage preached to athletes today.
“I’m trying to do that,” he said. “Take it as it comes and stay in the moment. I’m sure come July 24, it’ll be a little more of an emotional day.”
Kaat actually got his start pitching fast-pitch softball before transitioning to American Legion baseball and, eventually, Hope College in Holland, where he pitched for one season before signing with the Washington Senators as an 18-year-old in 1957. Kaat debuted for the Senators in 1959 and was part of the original Minnesota Twins franchise — after the Senators moved to the Twin Cities, starting in 1961.
Kaat pitched 15 seasons for the Twins, winning 25 games in 1966. In 1967, with the Twins battling the Boston Red Sox for the pennant, he went 7-0 in September, with six complete games.
He was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1973, and also pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees and, eventually, the Cardinals. He played 25 seasons, one of the longest careers in MLB history.
That’s what he’s most proud of, the longevity. He wasn’t a dominant, hard-throwing pitcher. Just good.
An old pitching coach once told Kaat something that stuck with him for decades: “You don’t have the stuff to get hitters out, so you need to give hitters the opportunity to get themselves out.”
It helped that he fielded his position. Every year from 1962 through 1977, he won the Gold Glove.
Kaat’s career lasted so long, it spanned seven U.S. presidencies and several generations of ballplayers. He was the only pitcher to face Ted Williams and Julio Franco.
After retiring following the 1983 season, Kaat transitioned to baseball broadcasting, on a national level and local level. He’s broadcast the World Series and worked locally for the Yankees and the Twins. He still works games for MLB Network, despite two on-air, off-color remarks in the past two years.
Kaat apologized for both incidents, and stayed employed. Time heals many things.
And Kaat knows all about time, and waiting.
“I wanted to play this game for as long as I could,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in that.”
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