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The Sons Also Rise : Kirkpatrick Rallies to Thrive, Not Just Survive, on the Diamond

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Most people don’t recognize David Kirkpatrick’s name. Others greet him as “Ed” or “Steve” by mistake. Some dismiss him as a statistical fluke.

Kirkpatrick doesn’t really care if people want to think he fell out of the sky and landed near home plate--a high school senior appearing out of nowhere this season with a remarkable .522 batting average, seven home runs, and six doubles.

He has been described as free-spirited, even cocky--a smart kid who might not be graduating from high school this spring if it weren’t for the lure of baseball.

“It gave him a reason to come to school,” said Bob Canary, his baseball coach at Dana Hills High School.

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But the thumbnail sketch does David Kirkpatrick an injustice. At 18, he already knows more about fame and tragedy than most adults.

All he wants to do now is hit baseballs, have a good time and perhaps someday . . . forget.

What bothers and amazes uninformed spectators about Kirkpatrick is this was his first year on a varsity team and his first year in a starting position on any high school team.

It doesn’t seem fair that he could simply park his motocross bike one day, stow his surf board, don a Dolphin uniform and almost overnight become the best hitter in school history.

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More astonishingly, Kirkpatrick has lived up to his own seemingly bizarre preseason prediction that he, an unknown, would become the leading high school hitter in Orange County.

Among players from the county’s 56 schools, Kirkpatrick owned the No. 1 spot for two weeks, peaking at .548 in late April. Entering the last week of the regular season, his team is in fourth place in the South Coast League, but he remains among the county’s five leading hitters.

“If I had my choice of any kid in the county--other than the ones I have--the first one I would take is Dave Kirkpatrick,” said Bob Ickes of Mater Dei, coach of the county’s top-ranked team.

But Kirkpatrick’s route to the top has not been as painless as it might sound. His swing, as sleek as the arc of a helicopter blade, just happens to be one place where the scars don’t show.

The key to David Kirkpatrick’s paradoxical character--and the reason he once turned his back on baseball--is his father.

Today, 40-year-old Ed Kirkpatrick observes his youngest son’s success from a wheelchair. It provides his only means of transportation. The white chair also symbolizes the anguish Ed Kirkpatrick and his family have experienced since he suffered a brain injury following a seemingly minor automobile accident three years ago.

In 1962, when Ed Kirkpatrick was his son’s age, he was the youngest player in the major leagues. Representatives of 11 professional teams attended his graduation from Glendora High, with their pens poised over their checkbooks.

He signed with the Los Angeles Angels for a $20,000 bonus, part of which financed a red 1963 Corvette. Although he never became the power-hitting, franchise-making outfielder the Angels had dreamed of, he went on to enjoy a 16-year pro career, lasting through 1978.

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Kirkpatrick was a left-handed hitter who could--and did--play every position but shortstop and pitcher during his service with Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Texas and Milwaukee.

Ed especially liked the Royals, where he had two of his best seasons, hitting .275 in 1972 and .263 in 1973. Nicknamed Spanky, after the character in “Our Gang,” he was the first player to come to the new team in a trade. His scrambling, robust style made him one of the most popular players in the early years of the franchise.

At Pittsburgh, where Ed was used as a pinch-hitter and utilityman, David and his two older brothers were often in the public eye. They wore scaled-down versions of their father’s uniform to the ballpark and routinely warmed up on the field with players such as Willie Stargell, Richie Zisk and Bill Robinson.

David remembers the years with the Pirates well. They cultivated a wild and crazy clubhouse atmosphere where pranks seemed a necessary ingredient to winning. He would play card-games in the clubhouse with outfielder Dave Parker and pitcher Doc Ellis as partners.

Richie Hebner made a big impression on him, probably due to the fact that the third basemen’s locker was home to props such as masks and snakes.

Hebner had his own rocking chair in the clubhouse. One time when 7-year-old David was racing through the locker room, Hebner grabbed him and used athletic tape to mummify him in the rocking chair, where David sat for the duration of the game.

“The Pirates had the rowdiest clubhouse in baseball,” David said. “There was always a cake in the clubhouse and they’d invite some guy in, and say, ‘this cake smells sour.’ When the guy tried to smell it, they’d smash the cake in his face.”

Ed Kirkpatrick’s motorized wheelchair, which he dubbed “Sparky,” reminds his wife of how much he has improved in three years. Some people see the glass half-empty. Judy Kirkpatrick is one of those who perceives it as half-full.

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She also is the rare mother who readily quotes Yogi Berra and always is willing to help her sons practice baseball.

“She could hit a mean fly ball,” David said admiringly. Friends credit her with sustaining the Kirkpatricks’ “amazingly close family” under potentially heartbreaking circumstances.

“If you look backward, Ed’s doing wonderfully,” she says.

Ed Kirkpatrick steers his chair by gripping a bar with the fingers of his right hand, once so accustomed to the lower grip of a baseball bat. A large, handsome man, he typically arrives at David’s games dressed in a golf sweater and a jaunty driving cap.

He has retained his big-leaguer’s sense of humor, a strong spirit and a mostly unmarred memory.

But paralysis of the left side of his body makes speech an effort. Behind the sunglasses, one eye sometimes fails to respond to his will, making it difficult for him to see parts of the field. He has a habit of frequently checking his watch, as if he fears being late for an important appointment.

He makes the most of a few laborious words, an occasional grin and descriptive gestures with his right hand. The fingers--his only means of communication during the first months of recovery--indicate the score, the outs or the ball-strike count.

That saves him the frustration of being misunderstood or having to ask Judy to provide a translation of his words. She understands him very well and gracefully fills puzzling gaps in the conversation.

When David comes to bat, he can hear his father encouraging and coaching him from behind the backstop, although the voice is not as loud as the other fathers’. Kirkpatrick recycles some of the advice he was given in Kansas City by the late Charlie Lau, one of the game’s finest batting instructors.

“I can tell him, but I can’t show him,” Ed Kirkpatrick said. “He has a quick bat, good power and a good (throwing) arm.”

David’s fielding?

“Average at best,” Ed laughs after his son, who would prefer to play the infield, slightly misplays a ball in left field.

“He’s really enthusiastic,” David said of his father. “He loves the game. He’s always telling me, ‘Top hand! Remember, top hand!’ I can hear him over there saying it, no matter what I do. He’s really proud.”

Ed Kirkpatrick jokes about the weight that confinement has added to his athletic body. But he still looks capable of standing up at any moment to send a towering drive over the center-field wall--or down a fairway.

That appearance is deceptive.

His last athletic event, apart from twice-weekly Nautilus therapy, was Nov. 23, 1981, at Rick Burleson’s charity golf tournament on the Hacienda Country Club at La Habra. The event benefitted a charity for brain-injured children.

On his return, he was two miles from home on the 405 freeway near Laguna Niguel when his van apparently ran onto the shoulder. As he corrected, pulling the van back onto the freeway, it was hit by a tractor-trailer.

The exact circumstances of the accident are unclear because Kirkpatrick cannot remember a period of time prior to the accident. A legal suit on his behalf is pending.

His doctors that night believed he had escaped the accident with only cuts and bruises. But Judy Kirkpatrick recalls feeling worried that something wasn’t right about her husband. She insisted that he remain hospitalized overnight for observation.

Her intuition was frighteningly accurate. In fact, a blood clot had developed under a bruise in his neck. It migrated to his brain the next morning, and Ed began losing consciousness.

A few weeks later, while entering surgery to relieve swelling of his brain, he suffered a heart attack in reaction to anesthesia. He slipped into a coma. It lasted six months.

“They didn’t know if he ever would come out of the coma and if he did, whether he would know us,” Judy said.

The family--including David’s brothers, Steve and Jeff--kept a daily vigil at the hospital. All three boys were attending Mater Dei High School, but David remembers missing more than attending.

Life was not just interrupted, it was suspended for a year, until his father regained some ability to speak and was able to leave the hospital.

Jeff, a junior, maintained his flying lessons and an interest in marine biology. Steve, then a sophomore, now on a baseball scholarship at Pepperdine University, was on his way to prep stardom as a speedy, left-handed-hitting center fielder.

But David, a freshman, reacted with a sense of shock and denial that refused to subside. He became “a little withdrawn,” Judy Kirkpatrick said.

“It hit David the hardest because he and his Dad were the closest,” said Ickes, who knew all three boys at Mater Dei and is a family friend.

“For a while, he just quit everything. He didn’t know whether he wanted to go on anymore. It was like he felt his Dad had hurt him. It was as if he said, ‘Why get good grades anymore? Why be the good guy?’ ”

David began his first high school baseball season a few months after the accident and ran head-on into conflict with the junior varsity baseball coaches.

“I had to play in the shadow of my brother and that messed me up,” David said. “I knew I was good enough to play at Mater Dei. But no one else knew it because I never got a chance to show them. I think I had something like 9 at-bats my freshman year and 11 at-bats as a sophomore.

“They were really, really strict. I would go to bat with no confidence because they didn’t think anything of me. Anything I did, I got yelled at, and I hate being yelled at. That’s the worst. I didn’t have any fun.”

Ickes: “He never went out of his way to look for trouble, but the problem was that he didn’t want any authority over him at that time--except his Dad.”

Bob Canary, David’s coach at Dana Hills, said, “I think the situation was a little bit too disciplined for David, a little too structured.

“Steve adjusted better to it, while David rebelled against it. He and his mother made the decision that a change of environment would do him good, and it has.”

How much impact did his father’s accident have on David’s attitude?

“That’s what really started all the troubles at Mater Dei,” Kirkpatrick said. “It made me feel like arguing a lot. I stayed out of school for like three months.

“I didn’t feel like doing anything, not school or anything . . . If that didn’t happen, I’d still be at Mater Dei. I know I would.”

Kirkpatrick transferred from Mater Dei to Dana Hills his junior year.

Despite years of success in youth baseball, he abandoned the diamond, where the shadow of his brother and reminders of his father loomed painfully large.

Instead, he took refuge in the hills and the waves not too far from the Kirkpatricks’ Laguna Niguel home. He raced motocross for several years and spent other days surfing “from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.” His school attendance record was mediocre.

“I think it (the accident) did throw him into limbo,” Judy Kirkpatrick said. “He didn’t know what to do. Just to survive as a person was important for those years.”

David still finds it very difficult to talk about what happened to his father.

“These last three years have been terrible for me,” he said carefully. “I wasn’t into the baseball atmosphere. All of a sudden, I wasn’t around it at all after being around it my whole life. Finally, I said, I want to get back into that.

“When I stopped playing, people said, ‘He’s a quitter.’ They didn’t understand. I had to come out and prove myself.”

Even his brother Steve, with whom he is close, had little faith in David’s comeback-ability after so long away from baseball.

“He’d always say, ‘You’re lousy,’ ” David said. “I go, ‘Steve, you watch. I can hit just as good as you can. I’m going to lead the county this season.’

“He just said, ‘You’re terrible.’ I knew I could do it, but nobody believed me.”

Canary encouraged Kirkpatrick to play, with no inkling how exceptional he would be.

“It’s been an absolute thrill watching him hit,” he said. “I think David is perhaps the most naturally gifted hitter I’ve ever coached. I kept wondering when he was going to go into a slump. He never did.

“He has never questioned himself as a hitter. That’s what sets him apart from other kids. He doesn’t have a lot of experience, he just knows he’s a hitter.”

That quality shines through when Kirkpatrick discusses his hitting. So does the peculiar brand of confidence that has been mistaken for cockiness.

“I think hitting the baseball seems like a pretty easy thing to do, if you’ve got the right frame of mind,” he said. “I mean, the ball is floating right there. There’s no reason you shouldn’t get a hit every time up.

“The pitchers I see are so predictable. If I was pitching, I’d be a little smarter. I’ve never had a pitcher throw me curveballs for three strikes. All it takes is one fastball down the middle for me to get a hit. So I just wait, and it always comes.”

He is genuinely hurt by the suggestion that he might come across as arrogant.

“I’m not,” he protested. “I know they think that. But I’m not in the least bit. People get the impression that just because someone’s doing well, he’s cocky. I’m really outgoing. I like to joke around and I’m pretty loose before the games. But if people want to think I’m cocky, I can’t do anything about it. I’ll just keep hitting the ball.”

Canary said, “I can see how people could interpret it that way, but he doesn’t rub you the wrong way. When he thinks he knows something, he’s not afraid to say it. Other guys may think he’s a know-it-all, but that’s not his intention.

“He’s a free spirit, his own person, but real likable too--as long as you let David be David and take him for what he is.”

Ickes added, “If he meets you for five minutes, he acts like he’s known you all his life. He’s a little kid in a man’s body. He’s the fun-lover. He doesn’t hide anything from anyone. Maybe that’s why he gets into trouble with people sometimes, he lets everyone know what he feels.”

This year, everyone knows David is feeling great. At the same time that his father has rehabilitated enough to take a community college computer class, he has also begun to think about attending college.

He doesn’t know where he will go yet. But he has overcome his old reluctance enough to look forward to the two activities he once avoided--raising his grades and becoming a better baseball player.

As for the time he and his father lost, he says, “I try not to think about it. We’ve got to start over.”


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