July 20th, 2020 in Tigers
Most likely, Rusty Kuntz loves baseball more than you do. Which is why the former major league outfielder is itching to see the game back in action.
The former Detroit outfielder is famous for his optimism, his smile, and his high-pitched voice. For those who remember 1984 in Detroit, Rusty personifies the 25-man team approach that the Tigers illustrated during that magic season.
“I think baseball has a way of lifting people’s spirits,” Kuntz said last month in an interview that ranged from the state of the game today to his role as a bit player on one of the greatest teams of all-time, the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers.
Kuntz In Kansas City
Kuntz, 65, is currently starting his third stint as a coach for the Kansas City Royals, a position he previously held for eight seasons. The eternal optimist has been a member of the Royals’ organization since 2009 in some capacity or another. Even as the names and faces have changed around him, with managers coming and going, Rusty has proven to be a valuable organization man.
“Rusty Kuntz”, Royals manager Ned Yost said, “is the best first base coach in baseball.”
“I’m blessed, I’m just living my dream,” Kuntz says. “Baseball, whenever it comes back, will help bring us back to something normal, and gosh we need that.”
Not too many people realize what a first base coach does. The job is overshadowed by the third base coach, who gets to wave runners in, and the pitching and hitting coaches, who have higher profiles. To some, the first base coach is the “attaboy” guy, the coach who pats a runner on the butt and congratulates them on getting a hit. But it’s much more than rah-rah.
The Kuntz Approach To Coaching
In 2014 and 2015, Kuntz was part of the coaching staff under Yost who helped the Royals win pennants both years. He remembers the joys of winning and the pride in being part of a winner. In 2015 he earned a second ring as a world champion. He was reassigned after the 2017 season to help the organization in other areas, but he’s always hoped to get back in uniform with the big league club, and he loves working with young players.
“My job was to help each one of the guys on the team to reach their potential,” Rusty says. “It’s about team, and some guys need you more than others. I think I was able to understand what a role player needed from a coach because I was the 25th man on a big-league roster every year I played.
“You are there to get them extra work in the infield or outfield, or to shag flies for them. You’re there to boost their confidence because a lot of what helps you stay in the big leagues is believing in yourself.”
The Magical 1984 Tigers Season
The 1984 Tigers were a talented young team, so it was a shock to many observers that the club headed north from spring training in Lakeland with a skinny, long-legged outfielder named Rusty on the roster.
The team had a jumble of fine outfielders in Kirk Gibson, Larry Herndon, Chet Lemon, and Johnny Grubb. A young Cuban refugee named Barbaro Garbey was filling the right-handed DH role, and veteran bats like Dave Bergman needed playing time. It wasn’ clear how all those pieces would get used, but early in the season, it meshed in a record-setting way. The Tigers won 35 of their first 40 games and rampaged over their competition. The stars were playing well, but role players were getting it done too.
“It got to the point where if we were up or down or tied or whatever situation we were in, we got what we needed,” Kuntz said. “I had been in baseball long enough [to say to myself] this isn’t normal.
“It wasn’t just one guy, we weren’t waiting for Trammell to do it,” Kuntz said. “It could be Tommy Brookens or anyone.”
“When we went to the World Series, it was like an out-of-body experience,” Rusty says. “I know I asked myself ‘Do I belong here?’ ”
But belong he did, and in Game Five, Kuntz lofted a sacrifice fly that scored what proved to be the winning run in the clinching game of the World Series. Dream accomplished.
“I know when I went to Detroit they hadn’t won a World Series since 1968,” Kuntz remembers. “But now they haven’t won it since we did in 1984, and it’s very special to have been part of that.”
In 2020, Kuntz will return to his first base coaching position with the Royals, and when Kansas City comes to Detroit to face their division rival, Motown fans will get a chance to cheer for a former hero, a connection to a remarkable season in Detroit.