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Thursday, February 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:15 A.M.

Larry Stone / Baseball reporter
Kittle was a hub of passion, energy


Hub Kittle
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Hub Kittle wasn't just larger than life, he was louder than life. And his life was filled with more passion, more verve, more pure energy than just about anyone I've ever met.

He was, over a remarkable 64-year professional baseball career, the absolute best at what he did, which was teaching the art and craft of pitching to anyone who would listen. But there was nothing clinical or sterile about Hub; he imbued his lessons with gestures and hands-on demonstration, and that held true into his 80s, when Kittle worked with Mariners pitching prospects even after he was largely confined to a wheelchair.

"I can't imagine there being a better pitching coach in the history of baseball than Hub Kittle," Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price said yesterday. "He was every man's man — gruff and very opinionated, willing to speak his mind.

"If you couldn't accept that, if you were thin-skinned, then you were vulnerable around him. But if you coveted information and wanted to get better, he was as good as they come."

Kittle, who died this week in Yakima at 86, did his best work with youngsters fresh out of high school, young prospects on the rise in remote minor-league outposts and the Latin players with whom he forged deep bonds. When he showed up at Safeco Field last September for the last time, to be inducted into the Washington Sports Hall of Fame, virtually all of the Mariners' young pitchers surrounded his wheelchair to offer their congratulations.

"That was an emotional moment for me," said Benny Looper, the Mariners' vice president of player development and scouting. "The players in the big leagues didn't have to come out there, but they wanted to give him the respect and recognition he deserved. That was a touching time."

Kittle also had a highly successful stint as the pitching coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, working under Whitey Herzog when the Cardinals won the World Series in 1982 with a staff that included Bruce Sutter, Jim Kaat and Joaquin Andujar, the latter Kittle's most famous protégé and most loyal admirer.

Andujar was known as an incorrigible screwup when Kittle got hold of him with the Houston Astros, the pitcher's undeniable talent undone by bouts of anger and lunacy. Under Kittle, first in Houston, then in St. Louis, Andujar blossomed into a vital member of a championship staff. Kittle was something of a legend in Latin America, where he managed winter ball for 17 seasons in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, learning fluent Spanish while building an empathy for the plight of young Latins.

But you didn't have to be a professional to get the full Kittle treatment. When I was a young reporter in the early 1980s in Yakima, Kittle's beloved home since the 1930s, my sports editor at the Yakima Herald-Republic, Jim Scoggins, invited me over to dinner to meet Kittle, a close friend.

By the end of the evening, I felt like Hub was an old friend of mine, as well. After regaling us with great baseball stories — and no one could weave a tale quite like Kittle, who seemed to have befriended every prominent baseball man since Babe Ruth — he got a baseball out, showing me various grips. I learned how to hold the split-fingered fastball. Legend has it he also taught the pitch to Roger Craig, who became the guru of the split in the late 1980s. Whenever I saw Hub after that — far too infrequently — Kittle would bellow, "How's your slider?"
 
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That voice, gravelly and croaking, the result of vocal-cord surgery in 1958, was Kittle's trademark. You often heard him before you saw him, and everyone in the vicinity heard him, too. Looper, who first met Kittle while a player in the Cardinals' organization, then hired him for Seattle in '99, remembers being across the aisle from Kittle on a flight from Seattle to Phoenix.

"The whole plane got a lesson in pitching," he said.

Those wonderful stories he loved to tell were as much a part of Kittle's repertoire as pickoff moves and the correct technique for fielding bunts. They weren't pithy one-liners that could be reduced to a sound bite, but long, intricate, colorful vignettes, rife with characters that seemed to have jumped straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel. And they could be hilarious, as when he came out of retirement in 1980 to pitch an inning at Class AAA, at the age of 63, only to have the first batter try to drop a drag bunt on him, fouling it off.

"He went down on his butt the next pitch," Kittle would bellow with satisfaction.

Or the first time he met Herzog, who was sent to the Dominican to play for Kittle's team. As Kittle told it, Herzog was waiting for his ride at the airport, when Kittle rode up to the terminal on a horse, emerging out of the jungle in full gallop.

"Are you Herzog? Get on."

They often seemed like tall tales, but invariably the parties involved corroborated them, right down to the smallest detail.

"His memory was better than ours," Price said. "When he played, every guy had a nickname — Slappy, Blimpy, Three-Tooth. It was brilliant. It got you longing to have played back then so you could have one of those cool nicknames, too."

To Price, Kittle's Mariners legacy is not just the knowledge he imparted to young pitchers, which will benefit everyone from Gil Meche to Rafael Soriano. Beyond that was the knowledge he gave to the coaches, who will pass on Kittle's methodology, and hopefully his passion, for decades to come.

"You can get into all the technical points, but you don't need to," Price said. "He got all the coaches and players back into focusing on the real common sense part of pitching. And beyond that, on how much fun it was supposed to be when you were doing it.

"I didn't do that well as a player in the pros. It seemed like there were always hills to climb, and I didn't enjoy the ride. He always talked about enjoying that ride."

No one enjoyed the ride more than Kittle, whether it was on a horse in the Dominican or a broken-down bus in Ponca City, Okla.

"You couldn't help but be affected by his enthusiasm for the game of baseball," Price said. "It was completely unparalleled. I never met anyone as infectious, and as infected by the game of baseball, as Hub."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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