Steve Zalusky: Ron Kittle on his roof shots, Comiskey encores
Part 2 of 2
In 1983, the sky seemed the limit for the Chicago White Sox, who stormed to an AL West title, finishing 99-63, 20 games ahead of second-place Kansas City.
The ceiling also seemed unlimited for one of the team's shining lights, a muscular, bespectacled rookie from Gary, Indiana, who followed up an All-Star appearance by twice homering onto the stratospheric Comiskey Park roof.
I recently spoke with Kittle about the roof shots and his three tours of duty with the Sox.
Home runs on the roof were as rare as Chicago pennants. Among the luminaries who achieved that rare distinction were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams.
Kittle joined this exclusive club on Sept. 6, when he lifted a ball just inside the left-field foul pole in a 7-6 win against Oakland. It was the fifth straight game in which he had homered.
His manager, Tony La Russa, said, "Kitty's went out of here like it was shot out of a cannon."
Then, on Sept. 19, in a 7-5 loss to the Twins, Kittle parked his 33rd home run -- he would set a Sox rookie record that year with 35 -- on the roof.
In 1983, the White Sox moved home plate eight feet closer to the fences, but even though Greg Luzinski hit three roof shots that year and Kittle two, Kittle pointed out, "We had some guys (Luzinski, Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines, and Greg Walker) on our team that, when they were hitting good, there was no doubt they were home runs and they were going to hurt somebody if they hit them in the stands."
In the field, Kittle, much like Eloy Jimenez today, needed to adjust to playing left. He said he had an expert tutor in Sox coach Jim Leyland.
"Jimmy Leyland hit me thousands of fly balls during batting practice. I wasn't a gazelle out there, I wasn't running stuff down. We had Rudy Law for that. Every ball that I got to, I caught."
He remembers it was a difficult outfield to play.
"Obviously the lights nowadays are a thousand percent better than the yellow lights that we had at old Comiskey Park."
Plus, home plate was higher than the backstop, "so you were basically looking at eye line sight" from the plate into about six or seven rows of the stands.
Complicating matters were the "white shirts, yellow shirts, light colored shirts" of those fans, making it difficult to pick up the ball.
Kittle reacted to the occasional misplay with characteristic humor.
"There was a ground ball down the line, over third base. And the old third-base chalk line was an old fire hose that had nail spikes in it. I rounded the ball, I charged it like I should, and it hit a lip right where the overlap is, and it went straight over my head. I mean I had no chance, because I'm coming up to throw, and everybody said, 'What happened,' and I said it hit a gopher in the head, and it was in the paper the next day."
On Sept. 17, 1983, the White Sox clinched the AL West title on Harold Baines' sacrifice fly off Seattle's Ed Vande Berg.
"I told (Baines), 'You better win this game, because I'm going to go on the roof.'"
"It was fun every single night," Kittle said of the 1983 season.
During the playoffs against Baltimore, however, the team's fortunes turned, although the Sox won Game One behind the pitching of LaMarr Hoyt.
In Game 3 at Comiskey Park, Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan hit Kittle, who had doubled in his first at-bat, in the knee on a 3-2 cutter in the fourth inning, breaking his kneecap and putting him out of commission for the duration of the series.
He said, "If we had gone to the World Series, I don't think I would have been able to play, because my knee was three times the size. It still bothers me to this day. It hit me in a perfect spot."
Flanagan, he pointed out, had pinpoint control.
"He probably walked six-to-10 guys through the course of the year. So he's very accurate. You got to be a little suspicious of it."
Kittle won AL Rookie of the Year honors after hitting 35 homers and 100 RBI.
He continued his long ball contributions to the Sox in 1984, 1985, and 1986, with 32, 26, and 17, before the new Sox GM, Hawk Harrelson, traded him to the Yankees.
"A lot of people were upset, including my parents, but it's part of the game," he said.
But he would return to Comiskey in 1989 after signing as a free agent.
The move back to Chicago was a natural, since he would be close to family and was raising two young children at the time.
He arrived in time for a Sox resurgence with young stars like Robin Ventura and Jack McDowell.
He recalls how he and Fisk watched a young Frank Thomas take ground balls at first base during batting practice.
"(Frank) walks out and puts his arms around us and he goes, 'You got any advice for a young rookie coming up?'"
Kittle pointed to groundskeeper Roger Bossard and said, "Every time you play a game at first base, tell him to put those (batting practice) screens behind you, because I don't see you catching any ground balls.
"Carlton said, 'Boy, you're a (jerk).' I said, 'Am I wrong?' He said, 'No.'"
Kittle was traded in mid-1990 to Baltimore for Phil Bradley, but returned to the Sox in 1991, playing in 17 games and hitting two more homers in his final season.
Kittle said he still stays in contact with La Russa, sending him texts before games.
"I wish him well. I hope the White Sox get hot here, kick some butt, and give us their strongest effort in the playoffs."