Rusty Kuntz was an unlikely cult hero on ’84 Tigers

Rusty Kuntz may have been the 25th man on the Tigers' roster in 1984, but he proved valuable

Rusty Kuntz may have been the 25th man on the Tigers’ roster in 1984, but he proved valuable.

As the Detroit Tigers sprinted toward their historic 35-5 start in 1984, one of the biggest surprises was Rusty Kuntz, a guy who wasn’t even an everyday player. In fact, he’d barely made the team out of spring training. He was new to the organization, having been picked up in an offseason trade with the Minnesota Twins for Larry Pashnick. At 29 years old, with a lifetime average of .230 in five seasons in the majors, Kuntz had gone to Lakeland figuring he didn’t stand much of a chance of making the big club.

“I wasn’t even beginning to hope. But I thought if I didn’t do anything wrong, I might get another look.”

The Tigers may not even have given him a look at all, if it weren’t for the fact that they played so many intrasquad games that spring, requiring extra players. Then Glenn Wilson got traded, opening up an outfield spot. That allowed Kuntz to see some action, even if it was only as a defensive replacement, when Kirk Gibson rested. As the Tigers broke camp and headed for Minnesota to open the season, Kuntz went with them.

“What I liked,” he said at the time, “is they sat me down and told me right away why I made the team and what I was going to do. Sparky Anderson made me feel a part of it, instead of being extra. I always felt like a fringe player everywhere else, looking over my shoulder to see who was coming up and when I was going down. I’ve never felt so much a part of a team before.”

Kuntz was born in Orange, California, in 1955, and went to Paso Robles High School, about 250 miles north of Los Angeles. He played football, basketball, and baseball, and admits that the latter was probably the sport he liked the least.

He attended Cuesta Junior College in San Luis Obispo, where, in addition to playing basketball and baseball, he quarterbacked the football team. He starred as an outfielder, hitting .442 in 1975, his sophomore year. He transferred to Cal-State Stanislaus, and was on the 1976 and 1977 squads that won the NCAA Division III World Series. His senior season, he even won tournament MVP honors.

Kuntz signed with the Chicago White Sox for a $1,000 bonus. His best year in the minors was 1979, when he hit .294 with 15 home runs and a .503 slugging average. But at the major league level, he was used sparingly by the White Sox, with mediocre results. He was eventually traded to the Twins, where he hit .190 in 1983.

On the Tigers, Kuntz began the 1984 season in a limited role. In the first month, he appeared in only eight games. He did a little pinch-hitting, a little pinch-running, and got in some late-inning glove work in the outfield. But mostly he rode the pine.

Then came May, when Kuntz had the month of his life.

It started with a 3-for-3, 3-RBI performance against the Boston Red Sox in an 11-2 Tigers win on May 1. The game saw Kuntz raise his season average from .182 to .357.

He went 2-for-3 as the Tigers edged the Royals 3-1 on May 9. He had another 3-hit game, including his first home run as a Tiger, on May 14 at Tiger Stadium. He homered again on the 26th at Seattle. All told, he hit .538 in May, including a 9-for-13 stretch at one point, with a .962 slugging average and 10 RBIs in 18 games.

What was the secret to his success? Kuntz wasn’t even sure at the time. “I’m just determined not to be the weak link on this team. I don’t want anyone saying ‘uh-oh’ when they see my name in the lineup.”

He admitted, “I’ve never hit like this in my life. I’m afraid to wake up in the morning for fear it will disappear. I’ve never had this much fun playing baseball before. I know my place on this team, but it’s great just feeling like I belong. This is so great I feel like jumping up and down and yelling. But I can’t do that. Inside I’m churning up a storm, but outside it’s best to remain calm.

Kuntz was hitting .400 as late as June 12, but of course there was no way he could keep up such a pace. He hit a combined .181 in June, July, and August. A .385 September, however, brought his season mark to a final .286.

The Tigers swept the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series, with Kuntz going hitless in one at-bat. In the World Series against San Diego, Kuntz struck out pinch-hitting in Game Two. But it was in the fifth and final Game that Kuntz’s moment in the spotlight arrived.

With the game tied 5-5 in the bottom of the fifth, the Tigers loaded the bases with one out. Left-handed hitting Johnny Grubb was scheduled to bat against southpaw Craig Lefferts. Sparky Anderson scanned the length of the dugout.

“Rusty, grab a bat,” he growled.

As Kuntz remembered it decades later, “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m actually going to play.’ I go up there and I can’t feel from nose to toes.”

The right-handed Kuntz was inserted as a pinch-hitter. As he took his cuts in the on-deck circle, the huge Tiger Stadium crowd began chanting “Rus-ty! Rus-ty! Rus-ty!”

On the first offering from Lefferts, Kunts hit a high pop fly, “a little dying quail,” as he described it, to short right field.

“Oh, my God,” he thought. “There’s my one chance to do something in my life, and I didn’t even get a good pass on it, for crying out loud.”

Outfielder Tony Gwynn normally would have made the play, but from the very start he simply stood there with his arms out, indicating he’d lost the ball in the lights. As a result, Padre second baseman Alan Wiggins had to sprint out to make the catch, practically in right field. Because his momentum was carrying him away from the infield, Kirk Gibson, the runner on third base, saw an opportunity and made a mad dash for home. Wiggins wasn’t able to get anything on his throw to the plate, and Gibson slid in with the go-ahead run.

“When I saw him run and score,” Kuntz recollected, “I was like ‘hello, baby.’” It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done, and Kuntz had cemented his name in Detroit Tigers lore.

It went in the record book as a sacrifice fly. Kuntz was also credited with the game-winning RBI, a flawed statistic that isn’t really used anymore. It was an official stat in the 1980s, but then faded away along with other icons of the era, like the Yugo and the pastel suit.

The Tigers were the champions of baseball, and Rusty Kuntz had his World Series ring.

By next season, he was back in the minors, playing for Nashville, the Tigers Triple-A team. Detroit released Kuntz in October of 1985. He was signed as a free agent by the Oakland A’s, but never played for them.

Since his retirement as a player, Kuntz has been a hitting instructor and coach at the major and minor league level for several teams. As a coach with the Florida Marlins, he earned his second World Series ring in 1997.  In 2000, he became an inaugural member of the Cal-State Stanislaus Hall of Fame.