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Jim Kaat returns to Zeeland, shares baseball stories

Jim Kaat was in his Michigan hometown on Tuesday, donating memorabilia and talking baseball

Jim Kaat with his memorabilia collection in Zeeland
Jim Kaat with his memorabilia collection in Zeeland
Von Ins Photography

Jim Kaat made a stop in Michigan on Tuesday, between assignments as a color commentator for the MLB Network. He may be assigned to a Tigers' playoff game, though the assignments are pending the completion of the regular season. Last year he announced one of the Tigers' AL Division Series games against Oakland. Kaat stated that Verlander should start game one of the first round this year.

Jim was celebrating the unveiling of a collection of his donated memorabilia in Zeeland, his home town. Zeeland is in West Michigan, bordering Holland and near Lake Michigan. The town has two high schools, with mascots of the Chix and Dux reflecting the rural community. As a small town of about 5,500 Zeeland has few notable natives. Zeeland is proud that Jim Kaat once called it home.

Kaat was signed out of Hope College by the Washington Senators. The southpaw was called up in 1959 at age 20. Like Mickey Lolich in 1968, he made three starts in the 1965 World Series with the Twins. He faced Sandy Koufax each time, winning once. Kaat won 25 games that year, one of three seasons of at least 20 wins. His numbers are a reminder of another era: season highs of 42 games started, 304 innings pitched, and 19 complete games. He had two seasons with a bWAR over 7, as does Justin Verlander.

Kaat's 25 seasons of pitching across four decades were a record when he retired, and 283 wins are his argument for a Hall of Fame vote. David Laurila recently penned an article summarizing a survey of 22 baseball writers. He asked each "Who are the three best eligible players not in the Hall of Fame". Jim Kaat took seventh place in the voting, between Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.

Jim donated some baseball cards as part of the collection. When asked what year an early card was, he looked for his smile on the card. In 1962 he had his front teeth knocked out by a one-hopper as it skipped on wet grass. After oral surgery, he no longer had a gap-toothed grin. Ironically that was the first season of 16 consecutive Gold Glove awards. He donated two of the awards to the Zeeland collection.

Jim related a time in the early 1960's when he faced the Tigers and Yankee Killer Frank Lary. It seems Kaat went out to the mound and found a hole about a foot in front of the rubber. Between innings he asked his coaches if the grounds crew could fix it. They just laughed and explained that Frank Lary took a step forward during his windup, and the hole was where he pushed off. He was taking a foot off of his fastball! Kaat suggested that you could never get away with that today given the advancements in video quality. He should know, he was won 7 Emmy Awards for sports broadcasting in a career that begin in 1984.

Kaat was Pete Rose's pitching coach with the Reds. During his tenure, one of his pitchers broke his upper arm. Kaat is familiar with four or five pitchers who have broken their arm, and oddly all are left handed. Tony Saunders and Dave Dravecky are others he mentioned.

Jim said that he initially threw a fastball and a curve, but learned to change speeds on the breaking ball. He feels that what they called a slider in his generation is today's cutter. Today's slider is too often a slurve, and ends up in the seats. Rick Porcello has learned this lesson.

So if you are watching the playoffs with your kids or grandkids, and Jim Kaat is announcing the game, point out that they too can grow up in Michigan and have a 50+ year career in major league baseball.

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