The first Hall of Fame Classic, played Sunday at Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field, gave me the opportunity to talk to former Yankee pitcher and broadcaster Jim Kaat. During our on-field conversation, I asked Kitty about his decision to return to the broadcast booth, his thoughts on the ’09 Yankees, his new marriage, and his continuing connection to the village of Cooperstown.
Markusen: Jim, first off, I know that I speak for a lot of Yankee fans who are glad that you’re back broadcasting, not on the YES Network [as before], but on the MLB Network. What went into your decision to come back after essentially retiring for three years?
Kaat: Well, my wife, who had been battling cancer for a couple of years, passed away last year. I retired because we wanted to get a little more time together. She was doing pretty well, but her cancer came back. She couldn’t survive that, so a lot of my friends and family said to me, maybe you ought to go back to work. So that’s what I did, starting this year just on a part-time basis. I just reached out to some people, and if they wanted me to do it, I said fine. So MLB hired me to do ten games, I did the World Baseball Classic, and I’ll do a little stuff for XM Radio. So that sort of motivated me to do it.
Markusen: Did it take a lot of convincing?
Kaat: Not a lot. There was a period of time there where I didn’t know if I wanted to do that [come back], but toward the end of the year in December, I thought, yeah, it might be a good idea for me to do that.
Markusen: Jim, do you still keep close tabs on the Yankees, a team that you followed so closely for so long? Do you still follow them on a regular basis?
Kaat: Oh, very much so. Two of the three games I’ve done so far have been the Yankees. I did the home opener, and I did the Yankee-Red Sox game on June 11. I keep up with all of the teams, and I’ll have another Yankee game—the Yankees and White Sox—at the end of July, so that gives me good reason to keep up with them. I have a Mets-Dodgers game coming up, too. I still follow the Yankees through the newspapers, the box scores, and of course, nowadays on television you can get about all the highlights you want.
Markusen: It’s been a very uneven year for the Yankees. A very poor April, a lot of injuries early, then they had that nine-game winning streak, and now they seem to be struggling a little bit. As you look at the team, what do you think has been the problem?
Kaat: Well, I still think, and I think that with any team, you really need to have quality guys in the seventh and eighth innings to set up whoever your closer is, in this case Mariano. And I always think that’s a determining factor. I mean, hitting comes and goes, guys will go into slumps. The Yankees have played well in the field, in the infield—I don’t know about their range—but they aren’t making any errors. But I’ve always liked teams, as Tampa Bay did last year and the Red Sox this year, that have good guys down in the pen at the end of the game. You know, when Bruney’s been healthy, Aceves has been in and out of the [late-inning] role, Coke, the lefty, has done pretty well, but they haven’t been able to find that solid seventh and eighth-inning guy.
Of course, Brian Cashman knows, and I always chide him about it, I think Chamberlain should be in the bullpen. I think he’d be a perfect eighth-inning guy, but that’s not my decision. But I think that [the bullpen] will determine how well they do.
Markusen: When you look at the intangibles and more subtle areas with this team, you sometimes hear criticism that they play a little too tense, maybe they don’t have a killer instinct, and they continue to struggle with runners in scoring position. Do you give a lot of merit to any of that?
Kaat: Well, the runners in scoring position I do, because the more years go by, the more we’re aware of how great the 1998 team was and the teams in that era, the team that had Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill, Knoblauch, Jeter was a younger player, Bernie Williams, Girardi was still playing, guys that made contact, advanced runners, manufactured runs. And they had a great bullpen. I think their offense this year is the kind of explosive offense—they’re like a team of really DHs—they can crush mediocre pitching, but until they do those kinds of things against good pitching like the teams in the late nineties, that’s probably where they’re lacking.
Markusen: Let’s talk about yourself. You mentioned the passing of your previous wife, MaryAnn. But this is a great week for you. You’re now newly married [as of earlier this week] and I guess this is your honeymoon here in Cooperstown.
Kaat: Yeah, it really is. It kind of came out of the blue, it was such a surprise to Margie and I. She’s a golf pro—I met her five or six years ago and used to say hello to her occasionally at this breakfast spot, and I would see her at some golf functions—but I never saw any kind of a romantic interest there. But we had mutual friends in Philadelphia who said, ‘We think we have the perfect match for you.’ And they were right. It was a whirlwind romance, and we’re both just thrilled. And, you know, I continue to honor MaryAnn. I’ve started a fund and we’ve put lights on a little league field back in my hometown in her memory. Margie had a similar experience in her life. So we honor [those we’ve lost]. But we’re just very happy together.
Markusen: So Margie’s at the Otesaga Hotel with you this weekend. That’s a good place to be.
Kaat: Yes, it is. We got married in Bedington, Vermont, which is her hometown. She and her dad and her brother were at the game [the Hall of Fame Classic] today. And that’s, of course, a short drive from Cooperstown. So, the Otesaga is not a bad place to hang out.
Markusen: Years ago, I used to work here at the Hall of Fame and I interviewed you a couple of times over at the Otesaga golf course. I know that you like to come back here. What is particularly special about this place, this setting, for an old ballplayer like yourself?
Kaat: Well, I guess it started as a kid because my dad was such a baseball historian and a baseball fan. I have a picture of him on my desk standing in front of the old museum in 1947; you can imagine what it looked like then, and that was the year of Lefty Grove’s induction to the Hall of Fame. So that was my start, where the attraction began. And then I was here playing the Hall of Fame Game in 1966, when Stengel and Williams got inducted, Casey Stengel and Ted Williams. The Cardinals brought up a skinny young left-hander to pitch against us, a pitcher from Triple-A named Steve Carlton. Since then, we [the White Sox] played the Hall of Fame Game in the seventies, when Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford got inducted, and then I was here as a supporter to [former teammate] Harmon Killebrew. Then along came Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt and Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn [whom Kaat came to know from his days with the Phillies], and a few years ago Bruce Sutter. If my schedule allows, I always enjoy coming back to Cooperstown.
Bruce Markusen, a resident of Cooperstown, also writes for The Hardball Times.