Duane Kuiper is moving toward baseball immortality in the twilight of his career. Since 1974, he has been a perfectly average second baseman for Cleveland and San Francisco. The one aberration in his otherwise pristine batting record occurred on Aug. 29, 1977. He hit a home run. He savors that magic moment as if it were a Proustian madeleine or a Babe Ruth hot dog.
No one in the majors hits 'em over the fence less frequently than Kuiper. He batted 1,381 times during his first three years in the majors before he hit his first home run. And through last Sunday, after 1,934 more at bats, he was still waiting for the second one. Of all the players who have batted at least 2,500 times in the big leagues, nobody has a worse home-run record per at bat than Kuiper. Frank Robinson, who has managed Kuiper in both Cleveland and San Francisco, says, deadpan, "He waited until I got fired to hit his homer. The truth is, he won't hit one for a black manager."
Kuiper, 34, is a lean, tough, nervy player. He was an outstanding fielder with pretty good speed when he first came up, and he could hit singles; he has a .272 career average. "It's not that Kipe lacks the power to hit a homer," explains Giants pitcher Mike Krukow. "It's just that he'd have to stand on second base, toss the ball in the air and fungo it."
Kuiper was batting only .179 at week's end as an irregular second baseman and an occasional pinch hitter. "It scares me when I see a reporter talking to Kipe," says his Giants teammate and friend, catcher Steve Nicosia. "I think maybe his house burned down or his dog died. The funny thing is, he doesn't have a dog."
Kuiper, who's something of a clown around the clubhouse, takes a loony pride in his one-homer feat. He posed for his 1983 Fleer bubble-gum card with a broken bat slung upside down on his shoulder. Kuiper called himself Jimmie Joe Smooth III in the questionnaire he filled out for this year's Giants media guide. A bachelor, he listed his "wife's" maiden name as Suzie Clam.
Kuiper walks around the locker room in the one and only OFFICIAL DUANE KUIPER HOMERUN T-SHIRT with the date of the historic clout on the back. "Lots of people have asked for them," he says, "but I figure, one homer, one shirt." Back home in Cleveland, he has enshrined the ball, the bat and the jersey he wore when he hit it-even the seat it struck five rows back in the Cleveland Stadium bleachers. "Needless to say," he says needlessly, "it was shattered when the ball hit it."
He has the TV and radio tapes of the great event, and he'll play them for anybody willing to sit still. "He came over to my house and made me watch the video tape seven times," says Nicosia. "I had to see it in slow motion, stop action, forward and backward. My kids were watching Mr. T, and he made me change the channel and plug in that stupid tape."
The Duane Kuiper Career Highlight Film lasts 20 seconds, but Kuiper remembers 100,000 details of the event. "It was your basic, humid, overcast evening in Cleveland," he says. "Steve Stone was on the mound for the White Sox. At the time it was no big deal, but now it's something he has to live with every day. The first pitch was a ball, and the second, a fastball, went out of the park."
Out of the park? "You're right," he says. "I meant over the rightfield fence."
In the dugout afterward, teammate Bill Melton told him, "Don't be using that bat anymore 'cause I don't think you're gonna hit another one. It might be worth something someday." Melton was right; Kuiper says it's priceless. "Today it's probably worth less than face value," he says. Kuiper didn't lose his perspective: The next time up, he bunted.
Kuiper's 1977 homer isn't the only one he ever hit. Just last month he got another off a former National Merit Scholar (honorable mention) in an exhibition game against Stanford. "It was the only time I'd ever seen anyone go deep when the third baseman was charging," says Krukow.
A local morning radio show began a "Kuiper Countdown" toward 2,000 consecutive at bats without a regular-season homer. His record then will be one tater in 3,382 times up. Boston's Jerry Remy has an even longer current string than Kuiper: 2,292 at bats since his last home run. But Remy ruined his bid for the record books by squirreling away seven before he went into home-run hibernation. Still, Remy's streak is the longest since Emil Verban's in the 1940s.
Kuiper is a natural resource for the collectors of baseball trivia. Twice, in 1979 and '81, he and his double-play partners have gone an entire season without hitting a homer. In 1980, his sixth year as the Indians' second baseman, he collided with Seattle's Tom Paciorek while turning the pivot and messed up his right knee. He was traded to the Giants before the '82 season, and he and Johnnie LeMaster became perhaps the only double-play combination to have the same birthday (June 19).
Kuiper also claims the unofficial lifetime mark for breaking up no-hitters. He got the lone singles in otherwise hitless games pitched by Andy Hassler (July 2, 1977), Nolan Ryan (May 5, 1978) and Ron Guidry (Sept. 24, 1978).
"Kipe's a disciplined hitter," says Krukow, who's quite a slugger himself, with three lifetime homers. "He's got only one thing in mind when he comes to the plate. He'll serve the ball over the third baseman's head, slap it through short, push a bunt, milk a walk, drag a bunt. If he went up there and free-hacked, he might have...two. But he still would never have more than me."
And Kuiper probably wouldn't have lasted another five minutes in the majors. "I do get envious when I see Reggie Jackson hit one out of Tiger Stadium and stand there watching it," he confesses. "My real good friends tell me not to try to hit another one. There's more notoriety in one than there is in two. One is better than none, but any more than that and people start expecting them."
Kuiper, who's a card off the field, has vivid recollections of his 1977 moment of glory.