By IAN WILSON
From a historical and statistical perspective, Ron Kittle put together the best single season of baseball that Alberta has ever seen.
But as good as that 1982 campaign for the Edmonton Trappers was, Kittle is much more prolific as a sports personality and baseball storyteller.
Edmonton got a taste of Kittle’s gift of the gab recently when the 1983 American League Rookie of the Year visited the provincial capital. The 6-foot-4, thick-armed and bespectacled former outfielder was in town as a guest of the Edmonton Prospects of the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL).
The night of nostalgia on July 20th – which was set to include a ceremonial first pitch from Kittle – did not take place because the game versus the Regina Red Sox was rained out. However, that didn’t stop Kittle from making the rounds on Edmonton’s sports radio shows, or participating in an entertaining and engaging 80-minute Q&A with former Trapper radio announcer Al Coates, the Triple-A team’s first president Mel Kowalchuk and radio personality John Short.
It also didn’t stop Kittle from making some time for Alberta Dugout Stories.
Before we explore the 60-year-old’s magical year in Edmonton, we need to look back at his first Canadian minor league stop with the Lethbridge Dodgers of the Pioneer League.
THE OTHER L.A.
Kittle’s career began in 1977 in Clinton, Iowa in the Midwest League, and for a while it looked like it would be short lived. A double in Kittle’s first plate appearance was followed by a single from catcher Mike Scioscia. That sent Kittle around third base and headed for home, where a collision at the plate saw him stretchered off the field with a broken neck.
But Kittle’s fractured vertebrae went undetected by physicians. He was hurting but he kept playing. He returned to play for the Clinton Dodgers, where his performance was – not surprisingly – less than impressive. Over 22 games in the Midwest League, he batted just .189 and was unable to park any balls into the bleachers.
In need of a change, the undrafted right-handed batter – who was discovered and signed at a Los Angeles Dodgers tryout camp – was on his way to L.A. … the other L.A. … Lethbridge, Alberta.
As a fresh-faced, 19-year-old from Gary, Indiana, Kittle didn’t know what to expect from his move north of the 49th parallel.
“I had no idea where Lethbridge was, Alberta, or Canada at the time. I was just a young kid,” said Kittle, who has worked as an ambassador for the Chicago White Sox since 2000.
“I got there and we were overwhelmed with the people there.”
When he found a place to live, Kittle couldn’t believe how inexpensive the rent was and it became even cheaper because of a miscommunication with his landlady.
“It was kind of funny. I had a Hungarian lady who rented the place for $200 a month and I go ‘$200!’ and she said, ‘OK, I’ll take $100.’ I was excited for $200. It didn’t matter to me,” laughed Kittle.
That rent included cooked meals but Kittle said the food was too spicy so he ended up eating submarine sandwiches from the same shop every day.
Whatever he was eating seemed to be working when he took the field at Henderson Stadium. During 34 games of rookie ball, Kittle belted seven home runs, drove in 21 batters and scored 22 runs. He also recorded 25 hits in 100 plate appearances and stole three bases.
“The ballparks were nice. We went to Medicine Hat, Calgary and all these other places. It was another world for me and I was really away from home for the first time. I had a great time,” recalled Kittle.
TODAY I HATE EVERYONE
After the season, Kittle returned home and his parents urged him to go to the doctor so he could determine the source of his ongoing pain. An X-ray confirmed what his body had been telling him all year – he had a broken spinal cord.
Spinal fusion surgery followed and Kittle thought his career was over. It was not a situation he handled well.
“I hated everybody when I got hurt,” he said. “I was out of the game and I didn’t know what to do.”
Kittle did some work away from baseball – ironwork, with his father. It was work that built up his strength. And, while his time in the Dodgers system had come to an end, the White Sox came calling.
Another successful tryout allowed Kittle to show off the power in his bat and put him back on track. He spent his early 20s playing Double-A baseball in Knoxville and Glens Falls. Everything came together in 1981 – Kittle played in 109 Eastern League games and swatted 40 home runs, recorded 103 RBI and posted a .326 batting average. He was named the league’s MVP after the season.
As impressive as his 1981 season was, Kittle was just getting warmed up. He was also heading back to Alberta.
The Edmonton Trappers were the Triple-A affiliate of the White Sox. They had a respectable inaugural campaign and in 1982 they would welcome their first superstar.
Kittle, meanwhile, was not thrilled about coming to Alberta’s capital.
“I should’ve made the big league team. I had a great spring – I batted 15 times and hit nine home runs,” said Kittle during conversation at Edmonton’s RE/MAX Field.
“I got sent to Triple-A and I was a little frustrated, a little pissed, but I got there and I was ready. I had to something to prove.”
Before he got around to proving what he could do, Kittle and the other Trappers received a warm welcome from team owner Peter Pocklington, who invited the players to tour Labatt’s Brewery in Edmonton and enjoy all that the facility had to offer.
It was a nice touch for the team, but Kittle was ready to get to work.
“I’ll never let anybody outwork me,” said Kittle. “I stayed here, I played hard – I did what I could.”
The result was a 50 home run campaign, 121 runs, 144 RBI, a .345 batting average and a .442 on-base percentage. The RBI total remains a Pacific Coast League (PCL) record and for the second straight season, Kittle was a league MVP.
“I was pitched around a lot. I’d get the ball behind me, and you had to go out and try to focus and it was tough. They didn’t want to give you nothing to hit,” said Kittle, who earned a 20-game audition with the White Sox at the end of the 1982 season.
In addition to making a name for himself and making it clear that he belonged in Major League Baseball (MLB), Kittle enjoyed some perks while playing for Pocklington, who also owned the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League (NHL).
Kittle liked to get to the ballpark early and, during home dates, he’d often find another star athlete on the field.
“I knew he was a hockey player and his name was Wayne. It was just me and him,” said Kittle, who threw batting practice to Wayne Gretzky over the course of the season.
“I’m throwing to this little blonde-haired skinny kid and he’s hitting the shit out of the ball. I did it almost every other day when he was down at the ballpark.”
Gretzky would later present Kittle with an award in Chicago and the slugger’s friends were stunned that he knew The Great One.
“Everyone said, ‘You know Wayne Gretzky?!’ and I said, ‘Is that his last name?’ I didn’t know it at the time,” Kittle told Alberta Dugout Stories.
It wasn’t just the people that left an impression on Kittle – who now spends a lot of time on woodworking projects, including baseball-themed pieces that have been presented to MLB legends David Ortiz, Jim Thome and Derek Jeter.
He also fell in love with the natural beauty that Alberta had to offer.
“Every day we had an off day, I would just get in my rental car and drive out to Jasper,” said Kittle, who earlier this year was presented with a 2005 World Series championship ring from White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
“If I had a choice to just fall down and live somewhere where nobody would know me, I would go there. I think it’s one of the prettiest places on the planet.”
JUST LIKE OLD TIMES
By the end of that 1982 season it was clear that Kittle belonged in The Show. And after back-to-back MVP seasons in the minors, he wasn’t done collecting awards. Kittle hit 35 home runs and 100 RBI for the Chicago White Sox in 1983 and was named the American League Rookie of the Year.
He would go on to play 10 MLB seasons for the White Sox, Yankees, Cleveland and Baltimore. His body was never the same after his neck injury and he played much of his career in pain, but he did make another visit to Edmonton during his last season as a player.
In 1991, as a member of the Vancouver Canadians, Kittle returned to Edmonton and he did what he had done so many times before at John Ducey Park – he hit a home run.