Looking Up While He’s Down : Stillwell Toils in Minors, Hoping for Another Chance at the Big Show


He has seen an ivy-covered brick wall in center field before, and Bush Stadium certainly sounds familiar. But something just isn’t right as Kurt Stillwell trots toward the outfield for pregame stretching.

He is stopped by the plea of a youngster who wants an autograph. The cry echoes throughout the 103-year-old stadium, a relic that reminds Stillwell of baseball’s ability to paint the black with a nasty curve.

After all, that’s not Wrigley Field ivy in center. You have to head north about three hours on Interstate 65 to see that. And this Bush Stadium is a far cry from that Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

But for now this is home for Stillwell, who played shortstop in a major league All-Star game at 23 but today is a 29-year-old infielder for the Indianapolis Indians, the triple-A affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds. After being released twice in two months last season, Stillwell is left dreaming of a journey 100 miles south to Cincinnati, whose fans once adored his boyish charm as if he were a slick-fielding Opie Taylor.


But that dream ends these days with 5 a.m. wake-up calls at the Holiday Inn Omaha.

“There’s a lot of things that run through your mind, especially when you wake up and you’re in the minor leagues,” said Stillwell, who came into organized baseball out of Thousand Oaks High. “You’re not really where you want to be, and it really makes you wonder what’s in store for your future. Not because I’m too good to be here; it’s just that I’m still young and I still got a lot of life ahead of me.”

Stillwell hasn’t lost faith, despite consecutive pink slips issued in 1993 by the San Diego Padres and the Angels. Stillwell’s contract was too expensive for the frugal Padres. He was a victim of budget cuts that also sent Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff packing.

Although Stillwell signed with the Angels three days later, he was hampered by nagging injuries and was the odd man out during a player shuffle.

“San Diego was a great place to play,” said Stillwell, who resides in Poway during the off-season. “My family could come down and watch me play and I was making good money. But it didn’t matter if I was hitting .200 or .400, I wasn’t going to be part of their plans. I hooked up with (the Angels), but I got hurt and they were running a lot of players in and out. Next thing I knew, I was out.”

Stillwell accepted a one-year deal with the Reds in November, returning to the team that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 1983 draft. One day he’s smashing Marmonte League fastballs at a .552 clip and leading the Lancers to the league title, the next day he’s playing pepper with Manager Pete Rose.

At 21, he was the Reds’ everyday shortstop. Two years later, he played in the All-Star game in his first of four seasons with the Kansas City Royals. After a year with San Diego came the cuts by the Padres and Angels in 1993.


Then--be it injuries, politics, or fate--he suddenly couldn’t find a job in the major leagues. When Stillwell failed to make the Reds’ roster this year in spring training, he accepted an assignment with Indianapolis and finds himself starting at shortstop and batting fifth for a team that leads the American Assn.

“There are a lot of failures in baseball,” he said. “But I’m too young to hang it up. I’ve decided to keep playing until they tell me I can’t play anymore--and it’s gotten real close to that.”

If it’s any consolation, Roger Maris and Harmon Killebrew once wore Indianapolis uniforms. And George Foster and Ken Griffey stopped here en route to the Big Red Machine.

But that’s only mildly comforting to Stillwell, an eight-year major league veteran who has become a $135,000 insurance policy for all-star shortstop Barry Larkin. Stillwell is virtually assured of a September call-up, but his contract can be purchased at any time by a club looking for a veteran down the pennant stretch.

“There isn’t any doubt that Kurt can still play,” Indianapolis Manager Marc Bombard said. “He’s had some productive years in the big leagues and he’s still not that old. He hasn’t had his full arsenal because of injuries, and I know that’s been frustrating to him. But the skills are still there. He swings the bat consistently from both sides of the plate and he’s a smart player who’s been a great leader.”

Indeed, Stillwell’s skills are still apparent. In 75 games through Wednesday, he was batting .273 with 40 runs batted in and 29 extra-base hits, including five triples.


And, without a doubt, Stillwell is one of the most popular Indianapolis players. He speaks to Christian youth groups and politely obliges most autograph requests. There’s something about that big smile and polite demeanor that plays well in the Midwest. But there’s also something about playing down the street from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Whereas 250,000 people turn out to watch qualifying at the Brickyard, the Indians, who are 20 games above .500 and in first place in the American Assn., average 4,378.

“It’s not a huge baseball town with the Indy 500 and the (Indiana) Pacers, but I’ve been enjoying myself to a certain degree,” Stillwell said. “We have a winning team here and I’ve played fairly well. It’s been a good experience for the most part. The perks aren’t here, that’s for sure. It’s not very glamorous, but that’s just the way things are in the minor leagues.”

Stillwell and his wife, Angie, have adapted to the new lifestyle--in which his monthly salary equals his daily salary of a year ago--in part because of their Christian faith. But he hasn’t decided how much longer he will wait for major league baseball.

“I still feel very fortunate to have gotten eight years in,” he said. “The Lord blessed me with those eight years, and that’s really what it comes down to, my faith. I’m not real outward about it, but that’s the foundation of my life. That’s what keeps me going.”

Some players might try to find answers in batting cages, but Stillwell turns to the pages of a Bible that sits in his locker.


“It sounds like a crutch, I know,” he said. “But I really believe God has a plan for me and I know that what’s happened the past couple of years has been part of that plan.”

That’s the type of mental strength Bombard first witnessed as manager at Billings (Mont.) in 1983. Stillwell, fresh off a senior season at Thousand Oaks in which he was named Southern Section player of the year, was a $135,000 bonus baby--a fact trumpeted in headlines when Billings opened the season in Idaho Falls.

Stillwell responded to the jeers with a 4-for-5 night that included his first professional home run. Then he homered from the other side of the plate the next night.

“I mean, here’s a 17-year-old kid under a ton of pressure, and he just goes up there and does his job like it’s a walk in the park,” Bombard said. “It didn’t even faze him. And you know what? He’s the same person today that he was in 1983.

“It’s tough to stay the same, especially when you’ve been in the big leagues eight years, but Kurt has always managed to stay humble. He’s always trying to learn, that’s why he’s a valuable commodity as a player and as a person.”

Such praise consoles Stillwell, but he would rather hear it at the major league level. Preferably in the form of a contract.


“You know, I don’t wake up thinking, gosh, I hate this place, I gotta get back to the big leagues before I go nuts,” Stillwell said. “If it happens, it happens. In this game, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even be around the next day.”

With that, he carries a tender hamstring and stiff knee onto the outfield grass. The injuries are at least two reminders of his attempt to extend his career. But the hamstring feels good tonight. The knee is getting there. He grins when he thinks of recent, premature reports that his season ended with a collision at second base May 23.

Another of baseball’s many curves.

Just then a young boy hangs over the railing, flashing a pen, a game program and a smile.

“Do you have time, Mr. Stillwell?” he squeaks.

Stillwell grins again. He has all the time in the world, kid.

“Kurt’s the kind of guy who knows that the game doesn’t owe you anything,” Bombard said. “You owe it all to the game.”