This article was written by Mike McClary
Ask casual baseball fans which Tigers player drove in the run that clinched the 1984 World Series, and you can’t blame them if they answer Kirk Gibson. After all, Gibson’s blast off Goose Gossage gets replayed time and again and is perhaps the most memorable hit in Tigers history. But the game-winning RBI, an official major-league statistic in 1984, in Game Five of the Series that year came off the bat not of a superstar, but of a player who barely inched his way onto the team at the end of spring training: Rusty Kuntz.
Russell Jay Kuntz was born on February 4, 1955, in Orange, California, to Chet and Willie Kuntz. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Wichita, Kansas, where Chet worked as a bricklayer. “We didn’t have any babysitters. So my brother, Ron, and I would go to work with my dad if he was building a house or something fun,” Kuntz said. “Our job was to take a little trowel and stir up the cement to keep it moist.”
Chet Kuntz traveled much of the time for his job, often leaving on Sunday morning and returning on Friday night. “We’d spend Saturday playing with him,” Rusty said. “And, of course, we always went in the backyard and we played baseball.”
By the time Rusty reached third grade, Chet had grown tired of laying brick and, even more so, of being away from his wife and sons, so the Kuntz family moved to Paso Robles, California, about 250 miles north of Los Angeles, where Rusty’s mother had been raised. “My uncle was an auto mechanic and owned Shell gas stations [in that area]. So my dad went to school to become an auto mechanic, and that’s what he did from the time I was in the fourth grade all through college,” Kuntz said.
Kuntz attended tiny Paso Robles High School, a school where “if you could play a sport, you played all three,” he said. “My brother and I played football, basketball, and baseball. And to tell you the truth, baseball was my least favorite of all of them. I loved basketball because of the pace of the game.”
After graduating in 1973, Kuntz attended Cuesta Junior College in San Luis Obispo, just south of Paso Robles. He quarterbacked the football team, played center on the hardwood, and patrolled center field for the baseball team. It was on the baseball diamond that Kuntz made his mark. In 1975, the right-handed hitter batted .442 as a sophomore, was named to the Junior College All-Star team, and caught the eye of another college coach.
“Jim Bowen, who was the head coach with (Cal State-Stanislaus), had come over to scout our catcher, John Farmer,” Kuntz said. “I had a good game, and at the end of the game he talked to Farmer, but he also called me over and said, ‘Hey, where are you going to go to school next year?’ Well, I wanted to go to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo because it’s right there close. So I asked [Cal Poly head baseball coach] Berdy Harr if I could play on his team. Cuesta, Cal Poly, and Hancock Junior College, in Santa Maria, we played three times a week against one another, so I knew exactly what Cal Poly had as far as outfielders. And Berdy looked right in my face and told me, ‘Rusty, to be honest with you I don’t think you can make my bench.’ That was one of those wakeup calls.”
Though Kuntz’s desire to play close to home didn’t pan out, he impressed Cal State-Stanislaus’ Bowen enough to receive a scholarship to the fledgling school near Modesto. “I wanted a place where I could play, and Stanislaus was the only one that really gave me a chance,” he said.
In 1976, Kuntz’s first year with the Warriors, he primarily played left field before shifting to center field for his senior season. It was a remarkable year for Kuntz and a Stanislaus team that charged to the NCAA Division III World Series championship, defeating Ithaca College, 13-6. The team doubled its pleasure in 1977 and won the title again, this time beating Brandeis University, 8-5. Kuntz was named to the all-tournament team and was selected the tournament’s most valuable player. (In 2000, he was a member of the first class inducted into the Cal State-Stanislaus Hall of Fame.)
The dream season continued two days later, on June 7, 1977, when the Chicago White Sox drafted Kuntz in the 11th round of the free-agent draft. The news surprised him.
“The first year I was at Cuesta, I went in there and I hit .402 my freshman year and then hit .442 my sophomore year,” he said. “But they just weren’t that enthused on what I could do as a baseball player, professionally anyway. So my dad pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, you can’t jump and you can’t shoot a basketball. So why are you playing basketball?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘Okay, you’re a quarterback that can’t scramble, you can’t run, and they’re dragging you down from behind all the time. So why don’t you just look for a place that you can go play baseball and see if you can make something of yourself?’ Then he showed me my stats and said, ‘If you do that and they don’t look at you, there’s some reason why.’ And I thought, Okay.”
While at Stanislaus, Kuntz completed scouting questionnaires for several major-league teams – “the Mets, the Phillies, the Giants, the Dodgers, everybody in the world,” he said. In the end, the only club to talk with him was the one that eventually drafted him.
“I thought, ‘This is going to be good, I got drafted.’ I’m waiting for the lights, camera, action, as naïve as I am at that time,” Kuntz said. “I get a letter in the mail that tells me you’ve been selected by the White Sox in the 11th round. Get your butt on an airplane and fly back to Sarasota, Florida, as quick as you can because the Gulf Coast Rookie League has already started. And I’m going, wait a minute, where are the cameras, where’s the action, where’s all this hoopla?”
With his $1,000 signing bonus and an airplane ticket to Sarasota, Rusty Kuntz embarked on his career as a professional baseball player. He’d yet to sign his contract when he arrived in Florida. “When I got to Sarasota, Joe Jones was my first manager,” he said. “He slipped my contract under a bathroom stall and says, ‘Hey, kid, sign this thing and shove it back underneath.’ So there was my hoopla.”
Kuntz played two months in the Gulf Coast League and spent the winter in Paso Robles preparing for the neat season. When he arrived in Sarasota for spring training in 1978, little did he know that he was about to begin a streak of good luck in the Grapefruit League.
“It’s almost like a Wally Pipp story,” Kuntz said. “The center fielder for the Double-A team had a migraine headache and Tony La Russa was my manager at the time. He told me to come on over. I was slated to be the A-ball center fielder. I got to play the first game with the Double-A team, and got a couple of hits and made a catch. La Russa told me to come back the next day. So the guy still has a headache, so [La Russa] says come back again. Got a couple more hits, threw a guy out or something like that. So by the third day, now all of a sudden the guy that has the headache is feeling better, and La Russa told him, ‘Hey, relax and take another day off.’ And he called me back over. So I got three shots in a row, and I made the Double-A team out of spring training right there.”
After a year with the Double-A Knoxville (Tennessee) Sox of the Southern League, hitting .263 in 113 games, Kuntz arrived in spring training for the 1979 season set to return to Knoxville. In the offseason, the White Sox promoted La Russa to manager of the Triple-A Iowa Oaks of the American Association. Again, he brought Kuntz over for action at the higher level, and Kuntz’s performance earned him a spot on the Triple-A team. He hit .294 for the Oaks with 15 home runs.
On August 3, 1979, three weeks after the Chisox “Disco Demolition Night” debacle at Comiskey Park, La Russa was promoted to replace White Sox player-manager Don Kessinger. “[Sox owner] Bill Veeck at that time loved Tony. So he called him up at the All-Star break. At the end of the ’79 season, I got called up,” Kuntz recalled.
Kuntz made his major-league debut on September 1, starting in left field and batting second against the Milwaukee Brewers and right-hander Lary Sorensen at Comiskey Park. In the bottom of the first, he lofted a fly ball to Milwaukee right fielder Sixto Lezcano for an out — and his first big-league at-bat was in the books. Kuntz went 0-for-3 that night, with another fly to right and a strikeout in a rain-shortened (five innings) 4-3 Chicago win.
It took Kuntz three weeks to get his first major-league hit. It came after 11 plate appearances, with six of them resulting in strikeouts. At the Seattle Kingdome on September 23, Kuntz stepped to the plate with two out in the top of ninth inning. He’d gone hitless in his previous three at-bats against Mariners starter Rick Honeycutt. “I hit a topper over the mound that just snuck through. So my first year, I was 1-11 with an .091 average,” he said. Kuntz was forced out at second on the next play and the game was over: Mariners 8, White Sox 3.
With a taste of major-league experience, Kuntz headed to spring training in 1980, his future in Chicago looking bright. “I get to go to my first big-league spring training, and now I’m basically trying to do well enough to make the Triple-A team again,” he said. “Well, Tony La Russa is the manager, and he put me out there every opportunity that he could. And I just kept doing okay. I kept getting a couple knocks. And I’d play left field one day, the next day I’d play center field, and maybe two days later I’d play right field just to see what I could do. I hit okay in the minor leagues, around the .290s in Double-A and Triple-A. But I was out there for my glove. There was no hiding that.”
For parts of the next four years, Kuntz was an extra outfielder with the White Sox. He made the club out of spring training in 1980 and ‘81, and again in ’83. (He spent the 1982 season at Triple-A Edmonton before a September recall.) The 1983 season was magical for the White Sox, who won 99 games and the American League West title. Approaching the All-Star break, the White Sox, after a slow start, began to build momentum for a second-half surge. On June 21, 20 days after Kuntz’s last appearance on the field, general manager Roland Hemond called him into his office. “He calls me in and says, ‘Look, we’ve got to make a roster move. I can send you back down to Triple-A and you can do whatever. Or I can trade you to Minnesota and let you play in the big leagues and get more big-league time.’ And I just asked him, ‘What do you think I ought to do?’ He says, ‘You need to play and you can go down to Triple-A and do whatever you want. But if I was you, I would want to play [in the majors].’ And I said, okay, then I’ll do that. So he traded me to Minnesota, and I switched locker rooms.” Kuntz was dealt for minor-league third baseman Mike Sodders, who never made it to the majors.
Two days later, Kuntz appeared against his former team at Comiskey Park, now as a member of the Minnesota Twins. Manager Billy Gardner put Kuntz in the leadoff spot against Chicago lefty Floyd Bannister. “I’m a fourth or fifth outfielder playing sparingly [with Chicago], and now all of a sudden I’m the starting center fielder leading off for the Minnesota Twins,” Kuntz said. “So I walk up to the plate … and I look out there and Banny’s got his glove over his face. And I’m trying not to smile, too, and, oh, my gosh, it’s weird. And I look out there and he’s looking in. Okay, so now I put my head down and dig in to the plate. Well, the first pitch he throws to me is right under my chin. I fell flat on my back. I’m like, oh, my God!
“And so as I’m laying there looking up, now I kind of get up, and I’m finding my helmet, I’m finding the bat, I’m looking around,” he said. “Well, I put everything on, and I look out there and Banny is like ‘Sorry,’ you know, one of those it-just-got-away-from-me kind of deals. So now I’m looking around for the helmet. Well, the second pitch that he threw to me was just a fastball [belt high], nothing on it, and I hit a home run. And I hit my first home run against Floyd Bannister.”
Kuntz played in just 31 games for the Sox and Twins that year and finished the 1983 season with a combined .211 average, three home runs, and six RBIs. In December he was traded to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Larry Pashnick.
“At the end of the season I talked to Billy Gardner, and he said there’s a good chance that we might trade you because we got a Double-A center fielder that we think is going to be better than you,’ he said. “And I’m sitting there thinking, you know, just so naïve: ‘Wait a minute, I’ve been in the big leagues for about four years now, and you’re going to bring a Double-A guy up that you think’s better than me?’ You know, that kind of pompous ass kind of stupid talk. And they said, yeah, he’s pretty good, and I said, well, all right. And this is after I hit .200. How in the heck could I say anything? I’m just happy to have a job. But, a Double-A guy? Okay, I want to see this Double-A outfielder that’s so hot. Of course, it was Kirby Puckett.”
The Tigers assigned Kuntz to the minor-league camp in Lakeland, Florida, for spring training in 1984. Detroit had played several games before he was called over to the big-league facility for a look. When he got to the Tigers’ clubhouse, he met briefly with Tigers manager Sparky Anderson. “He said, ‘I’m going to play you a lot, as many games as I can, just to see what you can do.’”
As the team prepared to break camp for the 1984 season, Anderson called Kuntz to his office to meet with general manager Bill Lajoie. “They said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal. We’d like to offer you a big-league contract.’ And I go, ‘Huh?’ And Sparky said, ‘Yeah, but here’s the deal and here’s what I need you to do.’ And he laid it all out.”
The Tigers’ skipper, Kuntz remembered, told him how he’d be used and what the manager needed from him. “Sparky said, ‘If you don’t want the job, I’m going to give it to [another player], but I’m giving you first choice at it. So you can say yes or you can say no. Now, first thing out of your mouth that you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to be that [player]? I’ll have you out of here in a heartbeat.’”
Anderson told Kuntz that he was never going to start, never going to play more than two games in a row, and never be in the mix of main guys. “You’re going to be basically a backup guy, defensive replacement,” Kuntz remembered Anderson telling him. “So if you want it, accept your role and be ready.’ That’s exactly how he used me.”
On April 3, 1984 — Opening Day — he made his Tigers debut against the Twins as a ninth-inning defensive replacement for Kirk Gibson. On April 13 at Fenway Park in Boston, Kuntz got his first hit as a Tiger, an RBI single off Red Sox left-hander Bruce Hurst. Throughout the first half of the season, Kuntz appeared in games and situations precisely as Anderson and Lajoie had mapped out in spring training. He was batting .432 at the end of May and .311 at the end of June, having already appeared in 50 games.
In midsummer, the Tigers found themselves desperate for pitchers. The club was feeling the crunch of early-season rainouts being made up in the form of multiple doubleheaders. So they sent Kuntz down to the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, the Evansville (Indiana) Triplets, where he’d have to stay for at least the prescribed 10-day minimum. He said he was confident that he’d be recalled by the Tigers, but understood there was no guarantee. “I had a lot of guys on the team like Dave Bergman, guys that were going, ‘Okay, we’re on day nine. Okay, now it’s day 10. Where is he?’” Kuntz said. “So they were really good about making sure I got called back up there again. [Some players] put pressure on [Tigers management] to have me come up again. That was great to have the teammates pulling for me.”
Kuntz was recalled after playing 10 games for Evansville and finished the 1984 season with a .286 average, a pair of home runs and 22 RBIs in 84 games. He had spent the past six months preparing himself for whenever Anderson would call on him. Now, with a 104-win season behind them, Kuntz and his teammates prepared for a much bigger prize.
In Game One of the American League Championship Series, Kuntz pinch-hit for left fielder Ruppert Jones in the top of ninth inning. Facing left-hander Mike Jones of the Kansas City Royals, Kuntz flied out to right field. It was his only plate appearance in the series.
Against the Padres in the World Series, Kuntz appeared in Game Two as a pinch-hitter for Johnny Grubb, and struck out against southpaw Craig Lefferts. In Game Five, with Detroit up three games to one, Kuntz again pinch-hit for Grubb — once more against Lefferts. The game was tied, 3-3, in the fifth inning, and the bases were loaded: Kirk Gibson on third, Larry Herndon on second, and Chet Lemon at first.
“The scouting reporting on Lefferts was [that] he would come in hard early and then throw that little nothing changeup away late. So when you go to the plate, look for that first one to drive,” Kuntz said. “Well, I can’t tell you what happened because the adrenaline is just overwhelming. When Sparky looks down and says, ‘Rusty, grab a bat.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m actually going to play.’”
“I go up there and I can’t feel from nose to toes anyway. So I get in the box and I just remember, ‘Okay, now get this guy early. Don’t wait around for the nothing changeup.’ Okay, here we go. First pitch, is the nothing changeup. I take a full hack and hit right off the end of the bat, and it’s a little dying quail going towards right field over the second baseman. Well, they had the infield in, and Alan Wiggins [was] the second baseman and Tony Gwynn was the right fielder. The only thing I remember is hitting that little quail and looking up and go, ‘Oh, my God. There’s my one chance to do something in my life, and I didn’t even get a good pass on it, for crying out loud.’ And all of a sudden I look out and I see Gwynn. He’s got his hands up in the air and he’s looking up and he can’t find the ball. And so immediately I turned and here’s Wiggins just flying after this baseball. Well, there’s no place for me to go because everyone is tagging on it. So I slow up towards first base, I look over my shoulder, and I see Gibby at third base. I’m going, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and here he goes. Wiggins catches it. He turns and throws something that rolls over the mound. Gibby steamrolls to the plate and he slides in. When I saw him run and score, I was like hello, baby. Now [the at-bat] turns into a sacrifice fly, and I got an RBI.”
The Tigers took a 4-3 lead and never relinquished the lead. So even though Gibson’s dramatic rocket shot in the eighth inning off Goose Gossage may have been more emphatic, Kuntz is credited with the game-winning RBI of a World Series-clinching game.
“We started off 35-5, and it just kept steamrolling,” he said. “Then we go through the playoffs and the World Series and win a ring. It was just unbelievable. And it was just a wonderful experience to be a part of it.”
Kuntz returned to the Tigers in 1985 but appeared in only five hitless games before spending the rest of the season with Detroit’s new Triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds. He hit only a dispirited .222 for Nashville and on October 9 he was released by the Tigers. He was 30 years old. Two months after his release, he signed as a free agent with the Oakland Athletics but never appeared in another game — major or minor league.
With his playing career over, Kuntz spent the 1986 season delivering packages for UPS in the Stanislaus area. But he wasn’t out of baseball for long. In the winter of 1987, the Houston Astros hired him as their roving minor-league outfield and baserunning coach, a role in which he served again in 1988. The following season, Kuntz was hired by Seattle Mariners manager Jim Lefebvre to be the team’s first-base coach. That same year, Kuntz married the former Salli Elmore. In 1990, the couple’s son, Kevin, was born. Kuntz coached in Seattle until 1993, when he took a coaching position with the Florida Marlins; it’s also where, in 1997, he earned a second World Series ring. Next he moved to the Pittsburgh organization, first as the Pirates’ first-base coach and then as a roving outfield instructor.
Kuntz was the Kansas City Royals’ first base coach in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 the Royals named him an assistant to the general manager/field instructor, a role that focuses on player instruction at the big-league and minor-league levels. But during an in-season managerial change, Kuntz was installed as the club’s third base coach.
Cal State-Stanislaus Hall of Fame page: http://www.warriorathletics.com/sports/2007/8/28/GEN_0828074000.aspx?tab=halloffame
NCAA Division III College World Series page: http://www.ncaa.com/history/default.aspx?id=87924
1977 College World Series statistics page: http://www.odaconline.com/div3base/1977/champ1977.htm
Rusty Kuntz bio on Royals.com: http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/team/coach_staff_bio.jsp?c_id=kc&coachorstaffid=117366
Nashville Sounds team history: http://www.nashvillesounds.com/clubhouse/history.asp
McClary, Mike. Interview with Rusty Kuntz, Surprise, Arizona, March 6, 2008.