Friday Flashback – 1979: The Year of the Emu
The Texas Rangers and great pitching are strange bedfellows. Be it the Ballpark, the heat, the winds, or some strange curse born from having the greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams, as their inaugural manager, this team rarely grows or grabs great moundsmen.
One outlier, however, is relievers. Sure, we’ve had some down years – so far, of course, 2015 is notable as one of the all-around worst.
But looking at the roster of Ranger closers, you have at least a couple Hall of Fame arguments – John Wetteland and Joe Nathan – as well as All-Star or Rolaids Relief Man of the Year seasons from the likes of Jeff Zimmerman, Neftali Feliz, Francisco Cordero, Tom Henke, and Jeff Russell.
But the first great Rangers closer was The Amazin’ Emu, Jim Kern.
And be it first-class pitching or class clownhood, he had a great run. The pinnacle was 1979, where he put up the second-greatest pitching season in Rangers history based on Win Probability Average. His 4.698 is topped only by Fergie Jenkin’s phenomenal, 25-win 1974 campaign.
To appreciate Kern, you need to first realize this was not Mariano Rivera with his stoic efficiency, or Aroldis Chapman with a 104-MPH heater, although he threw hard for pre-weights 1979, hitting the mid-90’s with his fastball and an all-arms-and-legs gangly delivery adding to his pitches’ effectiveness. But with a good repertoire, a better white-fro, and a top 10 personality, Kern’s 1979 was truly epic. And it was his only epic season – the workload destroyed his arm and he spent the remaining two seasons in Texas as a journeyman. Consider his stat line:
Courtesy: Baseball Reference Play Index
Perhaps as impressive was that he avoided the dreaded Arlington August fade, though the team could not. Kern did his best for a fading team, going 3-3 but the .500 record is more due to that fading 1979 division contender, as Kern put up a 1.72 ERA and 13 of his 29 saves.
But the stats for Kern are only part of the story. Joe Posnanski tells a great story about the sense of humor that Kern brought. I have to steal part of this to tell it right. As an eight-year-old, Posnanski relates his story of meeting Kern pre-Ranger years, in the blood-red abominations that were Cleveland’s 1976 uniforms:
“I went down to get his autograph, and just as it was my turn he said he had to go to the bullpen. I started crying — that awful try to hold-back-the-tears kind of crying — and Kern ran over and signed the autograph which made me feel great. Unfortunately he signed it in pencil so when I got back to the seat to show my father, I couldn’t even find it.
Years later, after I wrote this little story, someone forwarded it to Kern himself. And he sent me this baseball. In case you can’t see that, it says “To Joe. Quit whining!” It was a prized possession.”
Then there was the nickname. From a brilliant article by Benjamin Promerance at BaseballSaavy.com, digging deep into Kern’s career and post-career outdoorsmanship, Kern explains how he became the Emu:
“It came out of Cleveland, Kern’s first big-league team, at a time when the Indians were working their way toward yet another mediocre finish. Sometime during the summer of 1976, on one of those lazy days when ballplayers have nothing to do but hang around the clubhouse waiting for the umpire to yell “play ball,” veteran pitchers Pat Dobson and Fritz Peterson were working together on a crossword puzzle. The clue was “the world’s largest non-flying bird.” Just as they realized the answer was “emu,” the two pitchers looked up and there was Kern, just standing there begging for a nickname by his unique appearance.
“When I was 14 years old, I was 6’4” and weighed 158 pounds,” Kern explains. “If I turned sideways, the only shadow you saw was a pair of lips.” He laughs. “Needless to say, I was a little bit gangly.” With a tall, skinny body and long, wing-like arms, Kern didn’t look that much different from the world’s largest non-flying bird, at least in the minds of his teammates.”
For evidence, consider this 1980 baseball card:
All arms, legs and bigfoot from the neck up – coming right at you.
And he stole a page from a much less intimidating hurler – the control king of the Summer of the Bicentennial, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. He used perceived insanity as a part of his repertoire. As Kern relates: “I never walked in from the bullpen. I ran in as hard as I could. When I got on the mound, I’d scream at myself, act like I was talking to the ball, all sorts of crazy things. And when I wasn’t doing that, I’d pitch the ball, which may have been scariest of all. I could throw it very hard, but sometimes I didn’t know where it was going. For a while, I was so wild I’d say that a no-hitter for me was when I got through the game without hitting anybody.”
As for his personality, consider this, also from the article by Mr. Pomerance:
“He also led the team in pranks, practical jokes that ranged in scale from greasing hotel doorknobs with Vaseline to spreading hot liniment in the jockstraps of unsuspecting teammates. His shining moment as an eccentric jokester came during a team flight, when he observed that one of the team’s beat writers had been reading the same book — John Dean’s Blind Ambition — for three consecutive road trips.
Sneaking up behind the unsuspecting reporter, Kern grabbed the book out of his hands and threw it to a teammate, who passed it back to Kern. Then, as the horrified journalist looked on, Kern tore out the last 10 pages from the book, stuffed them into his mouth, and swallowed. “Now figure out how it ends,” he told the writer before grinning and walking away.
…Your life is with your teammates. And you learn the game from the best in the world, sitting in a bar or a plane or in the clubhouse, just talking baseball. My job was always to keep things upbeat. That’s what the pranks were for. I mean, I’ve always been a guy who’s lived on the light side of life.’”
But the Emu, like Kern, was both more flash than substance, and more act than man. The Emu was a niche, one that he believes really might have gone too far. “I gave them Emu, the crazy guy who liked hard rock music. That was what (the media and fans) wanted. They never looked for Jim Kern, who liked classical music and a lot of other things people never found out about. That’s okay. I gave them Emu, and they loved it. Jim Kern? I kept him for me.”
One more connection between Fergie Jenkins and Kern. It’s from Kern’s own book, Tales of the Texas Rangers:
“It’s the bottom of the ninth inning – the Texas Rangers are ahead by one run and future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins is starting to tire after pitching eight superb innings of one-run baseball. Rangers manager Pat Corrales strolls to the mound to bring (Kern) to close it out. As Emu reaches the mound after sprinting from the bullpen, Fergie shakes his head, and says, ‘Emu, could you at least wipe the nacho cheese out of the corner of your mouth before coming into this do-or-die situation?!’”
For what it’s worth, as both the Emu and Jim Kern, for one magical summer in 1979, Kern gave Texas the best relief pitcher in baseball, a daily stream of stories, and enough fun to keep butts in the stands until the very end.