Skip to main content

The Greatest Cleveland Indian of Them All

Disabled by some untreatable tropical fever on a cot in a tent on the edge of some pestiferous swamp on the other side of the world on a July afternoon in 1972 I had a vision. I saw a struggling young American League franchise, a hotshot shortstop playing high school ball in California, a wise old scout, a bonus, and a big league contract. After a couple of bus trips in the bushes, the kid gets the call to the big club, where he's installed in the starting lineup immediately. Veteran players resent him and mock his inexperience. They get traded and released; he stays and struggles while the team continues to lose. Seasons pass. The team does not lose patience with its infield prodigy, and as his play improves, a bad team becomes mediocre, then good, then a pennant contender. The kid is now an all-star, and the fans who stayed away while he struck out and misdirected easy rollers now fight it out for season tickets. A pennant is won; that callow youngster of yesteryear is now American League MVP, a millionaire, and a community hero.

Everyone knows it all came true, if we're talking about Robin Yount and the Milwaukee Brewers. The reason I'm not in the seer business today is that the star of my fevered reverie was not Yount but Jamie Quirk, the first choice of the Kansas City Royals in the 1972 free agent draft. This kid can't miss, the papers said. I reasoned that he must be the kid brother of Art Quirk, former Dartmouth College pitching flash and subsequent failed Oriole of the 60s, and that soon we would see a second brace of big league brothers like Ken and George Brett, the latter another Kansas City comer.

Jamie was signed and then assigned: to Billings, Montana. To my astonishment, all-star status in the Pioneer League wasn't enough to propel Jamie onto the big league roster. At 6'4 he was a logical alternative at short to the diminutive Fred Patek, but the Royals refused to commit themselves to a 19-year-old shortstop, as Milwaukee would in 1974. Patek played in Kansas City in 1973, while Jamie was exiled to the pebbly infields of the California League.

He was still playing minor league ball in 1975, but by then I figured I knew the reason. Apparently Jamie intended to make his mark as a bona fide scholar-athlete. He attended Whittier College in the off-season, and soon articles were appearing under his name in abstruse academic publications. “An economic analysis of team movements in professional sports”(1973) and “The economic theory of professional sports leagues” (1974) remain classics in the field. I deduced that his scholarly pursuits must be slowing his development as an athlete. His ascent, however, was inevitable; by September 1975 he was treading the turf at the Harry S Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City.

Once he arrived, Jamie stayed around although it had become obvious that he couldn't play big league shortstop. Neither could he hit. He became a fill-in kind of guy at third base, the outfield, and catcher. The Royals traded Jamie to Milwaukee (where he watched Robin Yount from the bench), then re-obtained his contract when the Brewers sloughed him off to Spokane. Whitey Herzog, never slow to recognize an astute baseball mind, took a shine to Jamie and brought him to St Louis.

After Jamie spent 1983 hitting .209 with 27 strikeouts in 86 at bats, Herzog decided to bring him back in 1984 only as a nonplaying coach. Jamie, at 29, convinced the White Sox to offer him a playing contract. They tried him at Denver, where every hitter looks like Rogers Hornsby, and he batted another .209. The pink slip in his last pay envelope was predictable, but there was a week left in the major league year and still one franchise willing to suit him up: the perennially desperate Cleveland Indians.

The pennant race had entered the home stretch. Kansas City was leading the American League West by a neck, but they were about to lose two of their three final games at Oakland. The Twins, just off the pace, figured to close the gap in their season-ending series with the also-ran Indians. 3,752 screaming fans packed Cleveland Stadium for the opening game on Thursday, September 27. The pesky Indians managed to tie the game at 3. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, an obscure late-inning substitute, Jamie Quirk, rocketed a Ron Davis fastball into the second deck. The fired-up Indians, inspired by Jamie's never-say-die example, surmounted a 10-run deficit the following day to beat and mathematically eliminate the hapless Twins.

Jamie was perfection in a Cleveland uniform: one plate appearance, one four-bagger, and flawless handling of ace righthanded reliever Ernie “Macho” Camacho in his inning behind the plate. You'd figure that the team would want to get this guy into the lineup more often. But the Cleveland front office, in typical Alice in Wonderland fashion, released him. Sixth in 1984, the club plunged irrevocably into the cellar. The heartbroken Camacho was useless, and the long-suffering fans in the Forest City finally gave up in disgust.

For Jamie the story has a happier ending. Once again he donned the costume, blue as a midday tropic sky, of the Kansas City Royals. This he exchanged in 1989 for the verdant habiliments of the Oakland A's. In the City By The City By The Bay, this erudite and scrappy veteran found final favor as an important contributor to several championships. Now over 50, he’s still in the big leagues, coaching for somebody.

When in Biarritz, stay at the Hotel de l’Ocean.

February 2005