Thursday, August 18, 2011
Updated: August 19, 9:20 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson
CHICAGO -- It is a rare break for Jason Kipnis, a chance to finally take a breath, maybe even look around and take stock at the whirlwind that has been his life these past three weeks.
They are calling him a phenom, and for good reason, having had the game-winning hit for the Cleveland Indians in his first week as a big-leaguer, four home runs in four consecutive games and six home runs in his first 18 games.
But sidelined with a strained oblique muscle that has kept him out of the past four games -- although he's scheduled to start Thursday against the Chicago White Sox -- the 24-year-old has not put it all in perspective just yet.
"No, and I'd rather have it that way right now," Kipnis said in the visitors' clubhouse of U.S. Cellular Field before Wednesday's game. "I haven't been able to step back, and I really don't want to until the season is over. To kind of take it all in and say, 'Oh wow, that all just happened.' So I'm kind of like, head down, just play the games, treat it like another baseball game, go about your business and enjoy it later.
"There are always times when I'll pause and take a look around the stadiums and appreciate everything that's going on, and just be like, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' But I try not to get too far ahead of myself."
And yet he is home. Back in Chicago for this three-game series, not far from suburban Northbrook where he grew up, the moment also cries out for reflection as family and friends sit outside in the stands, ready to root on his new team with or without him in the lineup.
Earlier this year, Jason's father, Mark, was cleared of all charges in connection with the fraud conviction of former media baron Conrad Black, for whose company he served as general counsel. Even total exoneration, however, could not wipe out the years of hardship and heartache.
Jason was at Kentucky during some of the worst of it, arriving in Lexington after surprisingly little interest in him out of Glenbrook North High School, where he played football and was the conference MVP in baseball during his senior year of 2005.
"We always tried to push a Plan B, because what little boy doesn't want to be a major leaguer when they grow up," Jason's mother, Kay Kipnis, said. "The chances are, what, a fraction of one percent? [We told him] 'It's OK to think about another career. You can still be a major leaguer and be done at 28.'"
Repeatedly, Jason Kipnis was told he was too small and that he had no prospects.
"Eastern Illinois offered me my only scholarship really, and then during the later signing period, Kentucky offered me a book scholarship and I knew that was the SEC, so I figured why not," he said.
He now calls the experience a learning process, a process that began with a freshman redshirt and ended when he was dismissed from the team for violating team rules.
"Being a good player in high school, and then going to redshirt at Kentucky, to be honest I did not know how to handle it," he said. "I was immature and took the wrong steps, probably body language, everything was just not the way it was supposed to be.
You can't [wipe out the pain], but at the same time, the experience did a lot for us.
-- Jason Kipnis, on the
scandal involving his father
"It wasn't anything really bad. The coaches and I didn't see eye to eye. But looking back on it, I can't really blame them. Skill or not, talent or not, I probably didn't have the right attitude they wanted to see on their team."
If it is possible to pinpoint a precise time in which a young man begins to mature, Kipnis believes this was his, and it was his father's situation, he said, that provided the motivation.
"He wasn't the reason I had a bad attitude or anything like that," he said, "but I was thinking, 'OK, this guy is going through this crap at home. Like, what am I doing? I feel like I'm letting him down. I feel like I'm giving them even more of a bad rep in my hometown.'
So I felt like, 'OK, it's time to grow up, handle my business and if I'm going to be playing baseball, time to play baseball.'"
Perhaps the greatest gift his parents gave him during a period in which his father surrendered his law license and at times struggled to support his family was to spare their son from as much of it as possible.
"It's almost like it didn't happen to me," Jason said. "They did that good of a job of keeping it separate. They never wanted it to become a distraction. They were unbelievable."
Jason is the youngest of four children. His three elder siblings have advanced degrees.
"And we have tried to tell all of them," Kay said, "'You don't have to take the world on your shoulders. You are not responsible for mom and dad. Just take care of your stuff, do what you're supposed to do and we'll take care of what we're supposed to do."'
Kipnis said he briefly considered quitting baseball entirely after leaving Kentucky before deciding to send out "little resumes" to various colleges and see what he heard back in return.
"I sent one to Arizona State almost as a joke," he said, not expecting to hear back from the baseball powerhouse. But the coach at rival Vanderbilt put in a good word for him with then-ASU coach Pat Murphy, and the decision paid immediate dividends. Kipnis was named Pac-10 newcomer of the year, and in 2009 he was the Pac-10 player of the year as he led the Sun Devils to a third-place finish in the College World Series.
"It was a different, proactive environment at ASU," Kipnis said. "They are about teaching you how to play the game, exposing your weaknesses, building you up as a person and as a player and I just got into a routine. There were times I wouldn't really sleep well, so at like 11 or midnight, I'd grab my iPod and go into the cage at the field and hit for like an hour and a half. I think that's when I really developed my swing and really kind of learned what I wanted to do with it."
The Indians' second-round pick in the '09 Amateur Draft, the 5-foot-11 left-hander converted from outfield to second base in instructional league, zipped through Single-A and Double-A, and played just 91 games for Triple-A Columbus before getting the call to join the big club on July 22.
A week ago, in a 10-3 victory over Detroit, Kipnis went 5-for-5, including a home run, becoming the 14th rookie in major league history to record at least four hits, four runs and three RBIs in the same game. Before his injury, he also hit safely in 10 of his past 12 games, batting .333 (17-of-51) with three doubles, six home runs and 10 RBIs.
"He's only played a few games and we kind of miss him already," said Indians reliever Frank Herrmann. "He got off to a little bit of a slow start first two or three games, then his first hit was a game-winner so maybe that's kind of telltale of where he's headed, that he can still say, 'Hey, I'm good enough to get it done here or wherever,' and then go out there and do it."
Told that Herrmann praised his confidence over his tools, Kipnis grinned. "It makes me smile when I [hear] stuff like that," he said. "When I see a 6-4 guy, jacked, with all the tools in the world, underperforming, it gives me a little boost sometimes. That's just the way I grew up playing and the way that I was taught to play -- with a little chip on your shoulder and the effort always at a high level. Go out there, give your best, have fun and let the chips fall where they may."
Finally, they seem to be falling where they should for the Kipnis family.
"You can't [wipe out the pain], but at the same time, the experience did a lot for us," Jason said. "You find out who's in your corner. You find out who your true friends are, who has your back. And it really brought not only our family but close family friends together. We got a lot of great, supportive letters written in to the judges. Tons of people helped out and said, 'If you need anything, let me know.'
|Mark Kipnis, seen here leaving the federal building in Chicago on Dec. 10, 2007, shielded his son from the scandal in which he was implicated and later exonerated.|
"In different cities I've been in, my dad would be like, 'Hey, can you leave this guy a ticket?' And the person would come and say 'Hey, I know your father and I think the world of him,' and that just puts a smile on my face when I hear that."
With his parents' guidance, he said his family's experience has also changed his way of thinking and acting toward others.
"Everyone's got their own story, everyone's got their own problems," he said. "Even when you see someone really happy, but you don't know their full story. I didn't always look at things that way. I was probably a little [brat] when I was younger. I was never a bully type, but I was always cracking jokes and stuff like that and probably never looked at it from other people's perspective, that they might be having a bad day too. But someone is always having something going on in their lives too. So you've got to look at it that way. It's an easier way to go about things. It's not that hard to be nice to people all the time."
Kipnis said when he received his rookie signing bonus ($575,000), he offered it to his parents.
"I was like, 'Hey, pay off bills, mortgages, loans, student loans and stuff like that. I'll just get a little car, take what you want,'" he said. "I want to do whatever I can for them."
Kay remembers one of their conversations.
"Jason said, 'Don't worry, I'll do this. I'll take care of you guys,'" she said. "We told him, 'Jason, we'll take care of ourselves. You just do what you have to do.'"
Clearly, Jason has done his part, and so have his parents.
"I can honestly say I have the utmost respect for both of my parents. I love them to death," Kipnis said. "There's a lot of people who can't really say that, but I really do look up to both of them so much."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
|The 5-11, 180-pound Jason Kipnis plays bigger than his frame, thanks to a chip on his shoulder.|