A Year-Round Conversation About the Game We Love

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wendell Kim — Rounding Third and Heading Home

The most exposed coaching position in professional baseball or arguably, in all of sports, is the third base coach.

Second-guessing managers is an integral part of game analysis that gives sportswriters, talk show hosts, and fans endless topics to debate. But the split-second decisions made by third base coaches are even easier to dissect because the results, particularly those that don’t work out, are so obvious.

Why did he send the runner who was so easily thrown out at home?  What was he thinking? The answer usually lies not in the coach being incompetent but with the runner not picking up a sign quickly enough, not hustling or not sliding. Sometimes a runner is thrown out simply because of a perfect relay, that more times than not will not occur.

But in 2004, something strange was happening when Chicago Cubs runners began getting thrown out at the plate with increasing frequency. Windy City fans and media unloaded their frustrations on veteran third base coach Wendell Kim, who previously held the same position with the San Francisco Giants and the Boston Red Sox.

After the season, Kim’s Major League contract was not renewed nor was he offered another job with the organization. After a year of managing a rookie league team for the Washington Nationals, he found himself out of baseball.

As it turned out, the reason for his sub-par performance on the field that season, and for some uncharacteristic clubhouse behavior, had nothing to do with his competence or judgment, but everything to do with the fact that, unknown at the time, he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now 61, WK, as he is known to his baseball family and friends, is in the final stages of this horrible affliction. Unable to walk without assistance, talk or recognize even those closest to him, he has bounced around several care homes and psychiatric facilities in Arizona as his condition worsens.

For his close friends and loved ones, watching WK’s slide in recent years has been incredibly painful and poignant. We’ve seen the man who had a separate set of signals for each of 25 players, and who knew the strengths and weaknesses of hundreds of opposing outfielders, gradually lose the ability to perform professionally or even to do many of the things we take for granted in day-to-day life.

I met WK at the 1993 Giants Fantasy Camp. He was wildly popular among campers for the same hustle he displayed on the Major League diamond where he was known for always sprinting to his position in the coach's box. WK was the most approachable of the camp's coaches. He worked tirelessly with the most skill-challenged camper players, was always willing to go out for a night on the town, or relate what it was like to be on a big-league ball club.

WK and I grew tight immediately. Besides a close personal connection with him and his family, we had in common a love for useful baseball information. WK, along with then Giants bench coach Bob Lillis, were pioneers in using historical data to determine strategies in game situations.

Combining their baseball expertise with my background in statistics and software development, we worked together to organize the data they had recorded either on paper or stored on lightweight electronic devices that lost everything when the batteries ran out.  We placed their valuable player information on more stable hardware, and made it easier to access and analyze with better software tools.

Eventually, I developed a full-blown digital video and statistical-analysis program that was used by Major League players such as Matt Williams and Curt Schilling.  WK introduced me to Matt and opened up countless other doors that allowed me to work in professional baseball, something I never thought would happen given my modest on-field skills.

A renowned hustler both on and off the field [you were a fool to bet against him in pool, golf or pretty much anything else], our conversations always ended the same way, with WK asking: “Do you need anything?”

In a game where those on the field are far too removed from those in the stands, WK was the opposite, always accessible, signing autographs, getting them for you from players, or doing anything else you needed. He hustled everywhere for everyone.

Though his baseball skills were considerable, his hustle and determination played a huge part in getting him as far as he did in the game. He was the first Korean-American Major League coach, as well as a AAA player, coach, and manager. Though he never played or managed in the big leagues, he earned the respect of many who did.

It is unclear whether or not the concussions he suffered as a hard-nosed player had anything to do with the early onset of Alzheimer’s, whose symptoms became evident when he was only in his mid-fifties.

Major League Baseball is growing increasingly sensitive to the long-term risks of concussive injuries and dementia —  However, even the new collective bargaining agreement does not include long-term health care coverage, something you think would be important in a sport where injuries from 90 + mile an hour pitches and on-field collisions are commonplace.

Such coverage is very expensive and many players harbor the illusion that they are physically invincible. However, their agents and union representatives would do their clients a great service by encouraging them to invest a portion of their earnings in protecting themselves and their families from the catastrophic financial impacts of not having it, should it be needed.

So as WK rounds third for his final run home, we should celebrate his life and learn from it. Thank you WK, all the way!