I don’t think I ever truly appreciated Paul Splittorff, the ballplayer.
Kind of funny, actually. Because growing up in Kansas City in the 1970s, I could have been mistaken for mini-Splitt. Left-handed, glasses almost larger than my face, pitching to contact in the Johnson County 3&2… Really it was only natural I have Splitt as a hero and a role model. My mom used to always bring up the comparison. As if it was cool being compared to a major leaguer. It was cool, but Splitt just didn’t excite me. Besides, I liked hitting better, so why couldn’t people associate me with Amos Otis or John Mayberry? Those guys kicked ass. Splitt… He didn’t kick ass as much as he survived.
As I got older and grew to appreciate the history of the team and it’s players, I learned that to be compared to Splitt was a high honor. When you talk about Splittorff being a competitor or a bulldog, that’s not being cliche. It’s being truthful. The guy didn’t have all the talent in the world. Hell, he was often overshadowed on his own team… First by Busby, then by Leonard. But the guy battled and often was successful.
Look at his stats… These days we’re all about the strikeouts. After the 1972 season, his high strikeout rate was 4.4 SO/9. That’s so low, it’s insane. He was in line to win the decisive Game 5 of the 1977 ALCS and did pick up the win in the clinching Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS. That gained him the reputation of being a Yankee killer (even though it wasn’t really true) and we loved him for it. His best season was probably 1978 when he finished with a 3.40 ERA in 262 innings. But he struck out only 76! And walked just 60. But he had 12 complete games. (Seriously, the game 35 years ago is unrecognizable today.) Splittorff was 31 years old and a key figure on three consecutive division champions.
One of the great things about sports is when a player becomes synonomous with a team. We were lucky in Kansas City in the heyday when the Royals were winning… Brett, Leonard, White, McRae and Splitt. Those guys were the core, the foundation. They were the team. We hope this new group of guys will emulate the old timers. We hope…
In many ways, Splitt was the Kansas City Royals. Drafted in the 25th round of the 1968 draft – before the Royals played a game – the guy was the ultimate lifer. Upon retiring from the game in 1984, he soon moved to the broadcast booth where he remained until earlier this month. That’s where the younger generation of fans will remember Splitt – as a no-nonsense broadcaster who didn’t hold his punches. He explained what was happening on the field in a way you could understand and appreciate. No flash… Just the facts. He called a game like he pitched… He got the most out of his abilities.
I appreciated Splitt the announcer because he lived for this team. There is always a debate about whether or not people want their announcers to be “homers.” I never felt Splitt was that way, but you could tell the often crummy play of the last 20 years irritated him. That was perfect. He was just like those of us sitting on our couches, watching the game. We felt great on the rare occasions when something went right for the team… And we were disappointed too often when something went wrong. You could tell, Splitt was right there with us.
It’s difficult when a team loses someone like Splitt. Because, as modest and understated as he may have been, he’s really irreplacable. Someone else just can’t fill those shoes. Not with the mileage acquired being around this franchise and this city. Frank White will always be the favorite son, working on the construction crew at the Stadium and going through the Academy. And George Brett is… George Brett. But Splitt was here longer than either of them.
His final game in a Royals uniform came at the Stadium on June 26, 1984 against the Oakland A’s. Splitt pitched most of the season in relief, but I assume that because it was a doubleheader, he was summoned for what was supposed to be a spot start. He retired the A’s in order in the first and the Royals scored four in the bottom of the frame. Then, Splitt surrendered two in the second and two in the third to tie the game. Then, in the top of the fifth, the A’s scored three runs, the final score crossing the plate on a Davey Lopes triple. It was Splittorff’s last batter.
In that game, Splitt was relieved by a 20 year old Bret Saberhagen. And the baton was passed…
Thanks for everything, Splitt.