Kevin Tapani is one of the most normal human beings I came across during my baseball days, because there’s nothing about him that screamed baseball player.
I’m not talking about physique. I’m talking about basic human being. You couldn’t help talking to him, since he was just as likely to start the banter as anyone else in the clubhouse. And it didn’t matter if it was his day to pitch. He just liked to stay loose and relaxed. Some pitchers didn’t like if you looked at them on the day they pitched. Tap walked around looking to initiate conversations.
When I called Tap to talk about his playing days, there was no reason to “script” anything out. I had a few bullet points, but the rest was never going to be a question-and-answer session. It was an unscripted conversation – just like in the good old days at 1060 W. Addison. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Chuck: When I tracked you down to set up this interview, you said you recently found some old Kangaroo Court paperwork. What did you unearth?
Tap: “I looked through it, and it’s either really boring or it’s not fit for print. There’s not a lot of middle ground with it.”
Chuck: Most people may not be familiar with the phrase “Kangaroo Court.” Why don’t you explain what it was – and you’re role in it.
Tap: “Kangaroo Court was a way for players to be policing players – and making it fun. It’s not where you complain about what somebody’s doing. For instance, you know a guy is going to the back of the weight room every day after batting practice and gets on his cell phone for 15 minutes instead of doing what he’s supposed to be doing. Another player can write him up, say what it is, and the judge will go and fine you ‘x’ amount because it’s outside of what we want you to do as a team. It’s kind of different from front office rules or Major League Baseball rules. It’s the team’s way of policing how they want things done. It could be the type of clothes you wear to a home game, or something really outdated, or wearing something with a logo from a former team. It helps prevent having big blowups and players having hard feelings with what other players are doing. It gets everyone together on a regular basis. My role was the court reporter. People would come to me with any problem, grievance or claim. I would write them down, and when we held court, I would present the defendant and the accuser to whoever was the judge. The judge would take it from there and decide what the punishment was. Then I would record it and make sure it was all taken care of. A lot of times, if there were money fines, the money would go to periodic team get-togethers on the road.”
Chuck: Being court reporter kept you from getting fined, right?
Tap: “No. I think a lot of times it made me more of a target. A lot of times guys didn’t know they were being brought up on charges until they’re in court. So there wasn’t a tip off. In some ways, you become a little bit of a target for a few things.”
Chuck: I don’t know how you could ever be considered a target.
Tap: “I didn’t see it, either. But it happens. Certain guys would look at things a little differently than me and you would.”
Chuck: I recently talked to Jon Lieber and I told him I’d be calling you. He said to let you know he’s never changed his phone number.
Tap: “He just doesn’t answer his phone, and his voicemail is always full. You’ve experienced that, haven’t you?”
Chuck: Not since yesterday.
Tap: “He’s letting the people talk to him again?”
Chuck: Well, I left him a message and he hasn’t called back.
Tap: “But there was room to actually leave a message? I kind of figured I wasn’t even in his contacts list because I figured if he just saw my name but didn’t leave a message, he’d figure out to call back. I realize I haven’t gotten that far with him.”
Chuck: I have a couple important questions to really get this going. And I was reminded of this the other day when I was talking to your wife. As she was handing the phone off, she referred to you as Tap. Are you in trouble if she calls you Kevin?
Tap: “Ah, yeah. Something’s different if she calls me that. I really don’t have anyone who calls me that. I guess my parents do, but that’s OK since they named me. Other than that, I don’t know of anyone else that does call me Kevin.”
Chuck: Sticking to nicknames, how did you come to name me Bulldog?
Tap: “I think your way of policing the media probably brought that on a little bit. You were a fierce obstacle for them to try and cross.”
Chuck: Whatever worked …
Tap: “It was effective. We started to notice it when you had somebody cross the line – someone like (editor’s note: he named a certain writer here, but I’m leaving it to the imagination) – and he would continue on, even though you told him this wasn’t going to happen right now or the player doesn’t have time. And then he’d continue and try anyway. Pitchers have a lot of free time, so we’re just able to sit back and watch this and see what happens. The Bulldog would be turned loose on him, and (unnamed writer) would be heading out and keep an ongoing conversation that no one wanted to be listening to.”
Chuck: You’re making me ask this next question earlier than I thought I would. It applies here because it ties in to that writer. You’ll know why after you answer the question. I want you to think back in time … July 20, 1998 … Turner Field, Atlanta … Denny Neagle on the mound … bases loaded … Kevin Tapani at the plate. What happened next?
Tap: “I got the grand slam. And that was before either (Mark) Grace or (Sammy) Sosa had hit one, correct?”
Chuck: That would be correct.
Tap: “All I could think of is … being a pitcher, I never took it as being insulting. But all the hitters, when they do something good, always talk about pitchers being stupid. That was the one time I came back to the dugout thinking the same thing, because he threw me a 3-2 changeup. Right into my bat speed. He slowed it down enough so that I was right on time with it. If he throws a fastball for a strike, it’s probably over. He tried to trick me. But throwing a changeup to a guy with a slow bat … from a pitcher’s view, that was dumb.”
Chuck: And you took advantage of it.
Tap: “But it was a weird sensation. You’d think hitting your first grand slam would be pretty exciting, but all I could think about running the bases was how I’d hate to be the guy on the mound who just gave it up. I couldn’t really smile or do a Kirk Gibson around second base. I didn’t want to celebrate or anything when I got back to the dugout. I wanted to go up the tunnel and yell something up there. But not where a pitcher could hear it, because that would be the last thing I’d want to have happen to me.”
Chuck: Here’s my reference to the writer you were talking about. The last Cubs pitcher to hit a grand slam before you was Burt Hooton in 1972 in my first-ever baseball game. And he hit it off Tom Seaver.
Tap: “That’s impressive. I’m actually disappointed that Denny didn’t get into the Hall of Fame – so that I’d be able to tell my grandkids about that someday.”
Chuck: There’s still time.
Tap: “Hopefully the Veterans (Committee) will vote him in. I’m rooting for him. He was a former teammate with the Twins, too. We spent a little time together … It’s one of those things where now you wish you had a few more reunions. Certain guys you’d like to be able to say, ‘Remember that time.‘ This might be one of them.”
Chuck: You did a lot of mentoring as a pitcher, whether you intended to or not. What was it like working with players like Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood – especially with what I’d call ‘dead time’ for the starting pitchers?
Tap: “It’s really helpful when you have guys that get along, and certain staffs seem to come together – where each guy has a certain role or is able to push the others. I don’t know if you call it competition with each other, but what each one is doing seems to make the other ones a little better. We had that with that staff in Chicago with Jason Bere and Woody and Lieb. I was the old guy in the group. We all got along really well. We pushed each other, and it was a competitive staff. Even the relievers – we were close knit. We didn’t have the egos or attitudes. It was about trying to win games or put the team in aposition to win.”
Chuck: You added the cerebral side to it.
Tap: “I’ve never been accused of that.”
Chuck: You definitely have a dry sense of humor. Lieber said he never was sure if you were telling the truth. He said you kept him off guard, which he thought was good.
Tap: “I always tell the truth. I kind of scratch my head and wonder sometimes – looking at it from the other side. I don’t know what might not be good advice to do or leading them the wrong way. I don’t know where that comes from.”
Chuck: Probably because people aren’t used to others who always tell the truth.
Tap: “I know, even now coaching high school baseball, I get that from a few of the players who have graduated and come back. They go, ‘When you said to do this, we didn’t know if you were serious or just messing with us.’ I kind of think there’s a certain point where you have to be relaxed to perform well, and you can start taking things too seriously. Grinding down on things doesn’t help. Some personalities, it does help – but you need a little break every once in a while. Pitchers have a lot of down time, a lot of hours and time to kill.”
Chuck: You carry yourself that way. You weren’t any different with front office people or media.
Tap: “For whatever it is, I’d like to see it from the other side. My wife says it to me a lot – that you kind of look at things a little bit differently, and I’m not always sure where you’re coming from on this. Then she just leaves the room. I’m not sure what that actually means – or if it’s good or bad.”
Chuck: You do look at things differently. I’m going to drop a couple of words on you that you were successfully able to drop into radio interviews – “whelmed” and “horts.”
Tap: “What were those two words?”
Tap: “Oh yeah. Instead of being overwhelmed or underwhelmed. Just being whelmed. Once again, I think that just goes into the boredom of being a starter. I think a few guys used it to try and mix in that word to see if anyone would pick it up and think – what is he talking about? I seemed to enjoy it, because a lot of interviews get to be kind of routine or clichés. I think most guys did it.”
Chuck: Your interviews stood out, because you dropped those type of words in the proper place in an interview – and you could pull it off with a straight face. The other word I know you dropped in once was “horts.”
Tap: “Can you spell that?”
Chuck: H-o-r-t-s. As in there wasn’t anybody else with you, so you didn’t have a cohort.
Tap: “I was just a ‘hort.’ I forgot about that one. The origin of words is what it comes back to. I was a wordsmith.”
Chuck: Changing subjects here. You didn’t play high school baseball in Escanaba, Michigan, as your school didn’t have a team. As a result, do you look at baseball a little differently – since you never would have gone through the “burnt out” factor at any point growing up?
Tap: “It really helped my overall health. Not being a physical specimen by any means, I didn’t have the height, the angle, the leverage, the things you really look for. The only thing I really had going for me was body control. You can really see it in a lot of guys who were big name college players. When I was playing at a smaller mid-major (Central Michigan University) that got to compete against a lot of the good teams, we were successful for the conference we were in. But you saw there was a definite step up to the really elite programs and to the elite pitchers. Then you’d see those same pitchers in the minor leagues, and a lot of them were already on their way down – and I was still working to try to get to a peak. So I think it helped me overall. It got to a point where, when I had the opportunity to see if I could make it in the big leagues, I was really healthy – and the ability started to peak at that time, too.”
Chuck: Can you talk about growing up in an area where baseball wasn’t king? You played other sports, but you didn’t go through the normal wear-and-tear that pitchers go through.
Tap: “When you realize how little baseball I actually played, it’s amazing that I ever played at that level. I don’t think you can recommend it to anybody today and think they’re actually going to get there. Before I got to college, I don’t think I played more than 25 games in any summer. Even walking on when I went to Central – I wasn’t recruited for that. I played football and basketball in high school. Our football team won the state championship. I was the quarterback and the starting safety. Because we won it and I was the quarterback, people had at least heard of me and thought I was an athlete. So that helped a little bit with baseball. When I went to Central, I went to a baseball tryout and did alright. I was asked if I wanted to come out for baseball, and I said ‘Sure.” That was kind of it. Then I was in class for about two weeks in the fall, and I got a phone call in my dorm room. The coach said he thought I was going to come out, and I said when baseball starts in the spring – I’ll be there. I didn’t know college baseball had started two weeks before that. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. So I showed up in sweat pants – and everybody else was in uniform. I wound up making the team and being the team’s fourth starter my freshman year. I stayed in school four years. By my senior year, I was ready to compete at the professional level.”
Chuck: Now, you’re coaching a high school team (Providence Academy in Minnesota). How does your own unique experience help you as a coach?
Tap: “It’s funny. It’s not only the coaching stuff. Because I played, a lot of people ask me to speak to college groups and for banquets – things like that. Most of it seems to be with the idea that I’d be gung-ho about playing baseball 12 months a year. ‘The more you do, the better you’ll be’ sort of thing. Then I tell my actual story … Professionally, the season ends in October. Sometimes, it’s the end of the month. Sometimes, it’s the first couple days of the month. As professionals, you’d put the gloves and bats away for a few months and pick them up again in January – and some guys don’t do it until February. You can’t just keep going. Today, some guys – all they’re doing is baseball. At least with coaching our kids at the high school, we try to find some sort of balance. More baseball doesn’t necessarily make you a better baseball player. I think playing high school football – and having to take care of yourself and understanding mentally and physically what you needed to do to push yourself out of your comfort zone – that helped me as much in baseball as much as playing baseball did. It was a completely different experience. It really helped in footwork and stuff like that. I really encourage our kids to play other sports. I had this one kid – he was 6 feet, 230 pounds – and I talked him into going into cross country in the fall. I told him it would help his body control and that he’d shed a few pounds. He didn’t look like any other cross country runner out there, but he competed hard. By his senior year, the cross country coach thought of naming him a captain because his attitude was so good. And he really benefitted from it. He came back and said the same thing; he realized he was able to do some things that he couldn’t do before. He had looked at me cross-eyed when I first brought it up. He had three other guys go into it with him to try it. One of the kids was a nervous kid, and was actually the best conditioned for cross country. I remember their first meet, I got a text from one of the other guys saying that this kid had pulled off the trifecta. I said, ‘What is that?’ He said the kid threw up before, during and after the race. But the kid went back and kept doing it. I give the kid a lot of credit.”
Chuck: Your own children are past the high school years (one is in the working world, two are in college), but you’re still coaching. Do you still enjoy it?
Tap: “I’m not a particularly good game coach because I don’t get a kick out of doing something strategy-wise to try and win a game. So I’m glad this year that I’m back as an assistant coach. I really enjoy the practice-type stuff where you help a kid get better. It’s a better role for me. I just work with the kids and help out where I can. That stuff I enjoy. You get to know the kids and really get some good relationships there – even though they let me know the difference in age. For a while, I thought I was keeping up and doing OK with them. But some of the comments I get on occasion – they let you know that I’m an old guy.”
Chuck: But then you can break out a World Series ring and show them who’s in charge.
Tap: “None of them were born when that happened. I don’t think that carries a whole lot of weight. Maybe they’d want to wear it to school for a day.”
Chuck: I could talk more, but I’ve got plenty of stuff here.
Tap: “Good luck putting that together. And if Lieb ever calls you back – share my number with him. Even if he doesn’t want to call, ask him if he’d put the number into his phone – so if I do call him, he’d know it was me. I’d just like to know if he’s caller ID’ing me or ignoring me because he doesn’t recognize the number.”