Art Kusnyer has had a long and fulfilling life in baseball. Currently on the coaching staff of the Chicago White Sox, the 68-year-old has been around the game since being drafted out of Kent State University in 1966. A big-league catcher for parts of six seasons, Kusnyer caught Nolan Ryan‘s second no-hitter on July 15, 1973.
A journeyman who spent much of his career in the minors, Kusyner was a member of the 1974 Sacramento Solons. It was no ordinary season. His 17 home runs were eighth most on the team as the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate banged out 305 home runs in 144 games.
“We played at Hughes Field, which was a football field,” explained Kusnyer. “It was used for baseball for a few years, but it just wasn’t compatible. It was 230 feet down the left field line and 315 down the right field line. Center field was maybe 385-390. In left field they had this great big net – this 30-foot net you had to hit it over – but at 230 feet, guys would pop balls up and they’d go out. Bill McNulty, who ended up going to play in Japan, hit 55 home runs for us. Gorman Thomas hit 54. Sixto Lezcano hit . Tommy Bianco hit close to 30 home runs. He went to the big leagues and his claim to fame is pinch-hitting for Henry Aaron.
“I was there two years and they were the worst I ever had as a catcher. Not only did we keep home and road ERAs for our pitchers, you couldn’t see for the first five innings, because the sun was so bad. I’d have balls clanking off of me and hitters would sometimes step out of the box when the pitcher released the ball, because they couldn’t see it. After the fifth inning, when the sun went down, that’s when the fireworks started. Balls would be flying all over the place. In one game, the Tacoma Twins hit something like nine home runs in the ninth inning to beat us.”
Nolan Ryan gave up 324 home runs [including playoff games] on his way to the Hall of Fame. It goes without saying hitters didn’t see the ball very well off of him. The all-time leader in strikeouts tossed seven no-hitters. Kusyner remembers No. 2 like it was yesterday.
“It was at Tiger Stadium and he had 17 strikeouts, the most in any no-hitter,” said Kusnyer. “Usually he just beat the shit out of you, because he had the hard curveball and you’d be blocking balls. That particular day he was right on. You know how the infield grass is cut out in front, in a half circle? When the ball got just a little bit past that, it would explode. It would just take off. I remember when he struck out Norm Cash early in the game. When Cash was walking back to the bench, one of his teammates asked him, ‘How is he throwing?’ Cash said, ‘Don’t go up there.’
Cash – a slugger who retired with 377 home runs and a 139 adjusted OPS – was the last batter Ryan faced that day. He came to the plate knowing he had no chance.
“Cash walked up to the plate carrying a table leg instead of a bat,” remembered Kusnyer. “Ron Lucchiano was the umpire. Cash said, ‘I’m going to use this.’ Lucchiano said, ‘No you’re not.’ Cash got a real one from the bat boy and popped up.”
According to Kusnyer, “The Ryan Express” battled a bit of paranoia on that July day in Detroit. The story is nearly as strange as the table-leg escapade.
“When we got back to the dugout after the first inning, he said to me, ‘Somebody’s getting your signs up in center field,’” recalled Kusnyer. “I said, ‘How in the heck can you see that?’ He said, ‘I think he’s rolling his pant leg up for a fastball and letting it down for a curveball.’ I said, ‘Bullshit.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m going to the bill of my cap for a fastball, and if I’m fixing the back of my cap it’s a breaking ball.’ I said, ‘OK, if you want to do that, I’ll give some bogus signs.’
“When he comes back to the dugout after the second inning, he said, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do next: If I go to the back of my hat it’s a fastball, and the bill of my cap is a breaking ball.’ I said that was fine. There was only one problem. He forgot. Next inning, I’m looking fastball and he throws a curveball. I missed it and it hit Lucciano right in the knee. Lucciano was pissed off. I went out to the mound and Nolan goes, ‘Sorry, I forgot.’ I said, ‘You ain’t going to forget no more. I’m calling the game and you can shake me yes or no.’ We went on to do that, and he got the no-hitter.”
Kusnyer wasn’t much of a hitter. He hit .176 with three home runs as a big-leaguer. When I asked what he considers his finest moment with the bat, he pointed to one of the long balls.
“When I played in Kansas City, we were on Monday Night Baseball and I hit a home run off Frank Tanana,” said Kusnyer. “It was on a high fastball. The next day, I told Frank if I faced him 20 times, I’d probably punch out the other 19. The only reason I played that day was Darrell Porter, our starting catcher, missed the airplane. He had some problems with alcohol and drugs, the poor guy. He missed the plane and they couldn’t get him there on time.”
Darrell Porter was 50 years old when he died of a reported cocaine overdose in 2002. The tragedy came 13 years after a playing career that was equal parts storied and underrated. Porter made four All-Star teams and won a World Series ring with the 1982 Cardinals, but thanks to a .247 batting average he was never fully appreciated by many fans.
Porter’s solid on-base and slugging numbers, along with his defensive skills, earned him a berth on ‘The .250-and-Under-All-Star-Team,’ an article I wrote for Baseball Digest Magazine earlier this year. Each hitter on the hypothetical squad, which included players from all eras, finished with a lifetime batting average of .250 or lower. Porter was one of six reserves I chose to augment my starting lineup.
The editors of Baseball Digest granted me permission me to list the batting order I put together:
For those of you not familiar with Baseball Digest, it is a print publication that has been around since 1942. Some of the most-highly-respected writers in the country contribute to their pages. Recent issues include stories from Mike Berardino, Tom Haudricourt, Stuart Shea, Susan Slusser and T.R. Sullivan.
Conor Gillaspie had the best three-game stretch of his career this past week. Against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the 26-year-old Chicago White Sox third baseman went 6 for 9 with a pair of doubles and three home runs. The mini-explosion lifted his seasonal slash line to .323/.373/.482. His batting average and OBP are team-bests.
A former first-round pick by the Giants – Chicago acquired him 17 months ago for minor league pitcher Jeff Soptic – Gillaspie was barely better than replacement level last year. Playing in his first full big-league season, he went deep 13 times but hit just .245/.305/.390.
I asked the left-handed hitter if his breakout can be attributed to a change in approach. More specifically, has he sold out some of his power in hopes of hitting for a higher average?
“Somewhat,” said Gillaspie. “We have a couple of guys in our lineup with insane power. They can really drive the ball, so when they hit a mistake it’s usually launched. Being able to get on base gives them a viable chance to drive me in. If I can hit line drives and work walks, that’s going to help us win games.”
Asked if he’s changed his swing, Gillaspie ruminated on his response for several seconds.
“Any time you’re trying to really drive the ball, there’s a little more tilt to your swing,” Gillaspie finally replied. “I rarely try to do that. Maybe I’ll want to lift one to the outfield if we have a runner on third, but mostly I just want to square balls up. Truthfully, I’d rather hit a lot of doubles and make my outs on hard ground balls. It really never crosses my mind, on 2-0 or 3-1, to try to get something I can drive out of the park. You could argue my power is down, but I’ve already doubled more times this year  than I did all of last year .
“Do I wish I would hit 20 home runs? Yeah, I think everybody would. But I don’t think I can be as effective trying to do that. I’m content with hitting a hard ground ball through a hole, and it’s a good feeling to be able to get a base hit the other way. Like I said, with the guys we have in this lineup, I can help the team by getting on base and letting them do the damage.”
Gillaspie hit .419 in his junior season at Wichita State and won a Cape Cod League batting title. Multiple editions of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook lauded his plate discipline but questioned whether he’d hit for the type of power normally expected from a third baseman. Six years after being drafted 37th overall, he’s quit worrying about home runs and has settled into his comfort zone. His line-drive rate has risen from 20.4 to 26.2 and his fly-ball rate has dropped from 42.2 to 34.8.
“The more you play at this level, the more you get accustomed to the sights, the sounds, the pitches, the guys you’re facing on a daily basis,” said Gillaspie. “You learn and develop your best approach through trial and error. You have to screw up to learn how to do things right. That’s the way life works, and it’s how this game works. I’ve definitely tried different things this year – different approaches and different ways of thinking about things – and it’s helped take away some of the stress and overanxious feelings. I’m pretty happy with where I’m at right now.”
The conversation I had with Gillaspie came on Tuesday afternoon. A few hours later he hit his second home run of the season. The following night he hit his third. On Thursday, he hit a ninth-inning, game-tying, pinch-hit home run against Koji Uehara. Afterward, I returned to the visiting clubhouse to ask about the sudden power surge.
“That’s the way it went this series, but I wasn’t trying to hit any of them,” Gillaspie told me. “I was just reacting and trying to put the barrel on the ball. I’d have been just as happy with line drives to left field. Any time you hit balls hard it’s a good feeling. I don’t know what else to say other than it happened.”
The White Sox have scored 403 runs this season and allowed 429. Chicago’s south-side squad is six games under .500, and in the opinion of Rick Hahn pretty much where it deserves to be. Speaking to reporters prior to a recent game at Fenway Park, he brought up run differential as a reason why. Shortly thereafter, I asked the White Sox general manager to elaborate.
“When the question was asked – ‘Do you deserve your record right now?’ – it was an easy touchstone to look at the broader season,” said Hahn. “When you sit and watch your club on a daily basis, it’s easy to get caught up in, ‘Oh, we gave this game away,’ or ‘We got away with one there.’ Run differential is by no means an end-all-be-all in terms of who you are as a club, but it’s a decent reality check. Currently, it’s pretty indicative of where we are.”
Hahn made clear there’s a difference between what a team is and what it will be going forward. Health is a factor, as are development and declining skills. There is also the trade-market.
“If your personnel is going to change, run differential isn’t totally indicative of who you are,” said Hahn. “If the personnel stays the same, it’s a decent touchstone for describing the underlying elements of your club and what you can expect going forward. Of course, there are always going to be coaching adjustments, and scouting adjustments, where you feel you’re going to get more out of a certain player than you’ve been getting. Different things go into the mix of helping you understand, from an objective standpoint, exactly where you’re at. There are also subjective reasons that might lead you to convince yourself it’s going to be better, or even that it’s going to be worse.”
With the trade deadline looming, Hahn and other GMs have to balance win-now and win-later. Buy or sell is often a difficult decision, and scribes and bleacher creatures aren’t the only ones voicing their opinions when a move is made.
“Last year, on August 1, I came down to the breakfast table and my eight-year-old was sitting there looking at the headline of us trading Jake Peavy,” explained Hahn. “He said to me, ‘What are you doing? You’re making the team worse. Isn’t your job supposed to be to win games?’ I had to explain to him that sometimes you have to take a half step back in order to get better for the long term. That’s what we had to do last year at the deadline. If there are opportunities to improve ourselves for the long term, we’ll weigh them against any short-term detriment.
“There’s no honor in winning 77 games instead of 75. Our goal is to get consistently above 90 wins. We’re not going to get too hung up on winning a few extra games if we’re not the caliber of team we want to be. [When you trade veterans] you also can’t assume you’re automatically going to be worse because the guys you’re now going to be playing are young. That’s sometimes a flawed assumption. And even if you are perhaps getting a little worse, the benefit of those two months of development time will help you avoid that in the subsequent season.”
Caleb Thielbar has quietly emerged as a reliable reliever. Since debuting with the Twins last May, the 27-year-old southpaw from Randolph, Minnesota has a 2.24 ERA in 83 appearances. He feels at home in the bullpen.
Thielbar worked as both a starter and reliever at South Dakota State University. He was drafted by Milwaukee in 2009 and picked up by Minnesota two years later after a short stint with the St. Paul Saints.
“My first summer of pro ball, I did the piggyback thing,” said the former SDSU Jackrabbit. “That was in the Arizona League with the Brewers. The next year I was exclusively in the bullpen, and I have been ever since.”
I asked Thielbar, who throws a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup, why he thinks he was developed as a reliever.
“I guess they probably didn’t see me having the stuff to be a starter,” replied Thielbar. “I’m not the hardest thrower. I command fairly good, but maybe not good enough to be a starter. I was also an 18th-round pick and generally it’s your higher-round picks who are going to be your starters in the minor leagues. It’s kind of tough to get out of that relief role, plus I was never really that great as a starter in college anyway. My mentality is also more suited for the bullpen.”
In all likelihood, so is his delivery. Hitters get a different look when the max-effort lefty jogs in from the pen.
“I’m a little herky-jerky,” admitted Thielbar, who stands an unimposing 6-foot. “Gardy says I have a little funk to me. I have a really long stride, and I think that helps a lot, especially being a softer thrower. I’m kind of average – around 90 mph – but if you add an extra foot to the stride of a normal guy, 90 doesn’t look like 90 anymore. I release the ball a little closer to the plate. My front side goes up real high, so maybe hitters don’t pick the ball up on me real well. As for whether my delivery has anything to do with being in the bullpen, I couldn’t really say.”
Thielbar doesn’t hesitate to say he has a fresh arm. He’s thrown only 500 innings between college and pro ball. He also grew up in the north country.
“I’ve talked to our strength-and-conditioning guy about that a lot,” said Thielbar. “He lives in Florida and his son plays all year. He sees the kind of wear and tear those guys have. The reality is, I played baseball two seasons out of the year – spring and summer ball – and the amount of games weren’t nearly as much as they have in the warmer climates. Wear and tear wasn’t a factor for me growing up. That could have saved three or four years worth of bullets.”
LaTroy Hawkins, currently pitching for the Colorado Rockies, has appeared in 978 games, ranking him 18th all-time among pitchers. The 41-year-old would be even higher on the list had 98 of his first 99 appearances not come as a starter.
When the Los Angeles Angels won on Wednesday, their all-time franchise record stood at 4,273 wins and 4,273 losses. Since beginning play in 1961, they have allowed 191 more runs than they’ve scored.
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