At this time of year a major league baseball team counts itself among the blessed if it has one fuzzy-cheeked rookie worthy of serious consideration. The 1983 Chicago White Sox are doubly blessed, because down among the Sarasota, Fla. palms they not only have Ron Kittle, last season's Minor League Player of the Year while performing for the Edmonton Trappers, but also Greg Walker, another exceptional prospect who just happens to be Kittle's closest friend. When the White Sox really get to dreaming about what Kittle and Walker might do for them, they harken back to 1975, when a couple of kids named Jim Rice and Fred Lynn checked in with Boston and led the Red Sox to an American League pennant.
The closeness between Kittle and Walker appears to bear out the adage that opposites attract. Kittle is a 25-year-old leftfielder; Walker is a 23-year-old first baseman. Kittle bats right, Walker bats left. They both have considerable size—Kittle is 6'4" and 200 pounds. Walker 6'3" and 205—but Kittle is bespectacled and his buddy isn't. Kittle is outgoing; Walker is shy.
"We roomed together for three years in the minors, and Greg was always telling me to turn down the air conditioner so we could suffocate," says Kittle.
Kittle is factory, Walker is farm. Kittle's area code back home in Gary, Ind. is 219; Walker's area code in Douglas, Ga. is 912. Walker married his high school sweetheart, Carman Kirkland, and has a 3-year-old daughter named Kaycee. (Imagine him with the Kansas City Royals.) Kittle, a resolute bachelor, frequently baby-sits for the Walkers.
Forget about the phony male bonding in those beer commercials; this is a real friendship. Move over, Huck and Tom. Take a hike, Butch and Sundance. Make way, Belushi and Aykroyd.
As different as their personalities may be, Walker and Kittle have much in common professionally. Kittle was Double A and then Triple A Player of the Year the past two seasons. At Double A Glens Falls, N.Y. in 1981 he batted .324, with 40 homers and 102 RBIs in 109 games. At Triple A Edmonton last year he hit .345 and led the Pacific Coast League with 50 homers and 144 RBIs in 127 games.
Two years ago Walker hit .321 at Glens Falls, with a league-leading 117 runs, plus 22 homers and 86 RBIs. He missed most of the '82 season because of a broken left wrist, but in a September trial with the White Sox, he batted .412 and had a slugging percentage of 1,000.
Both are reclamation projects: Kittle was cut by the Dodger organization; Walker was drafted by the White Sox from the Phillies. Both are also average fielders and runners, but excellent hitters and hard-nosed competitors who play even when it hurts. Walker's left wrist still aches; Kittle wears a thick batting glove because of painful bone chips in his thumb.
Either has the potential to fill the large hole left by Steve Kemp, the power-hitting Sox leftfielder—19 homers and 98 RBIs last year—who became a free agent and signed with the Yankees. But there's an ironic twist to all of this. Even though Kittle and Walker don't play the same position, they may actually be competing against each other for a starting job. If Kittle becomes a regular in left, Tom Paciorek, who hit .312 as a first baseman last season, will probably stay in the infield. Sorry, Greg. But if Walker starts at first, the versatile Paciorek will probably be in left. Tough luck, Ron. "The competition's good for all of us," says the graying Paciorek, ever the diplomat.
The odds are overwhelming that at least one of the rookies will make it. But which one? Kittle has devastated minor league pitching, and Walker has the left-handed bat the Sox sorely need. Kittle and Walker refuse to think in terms of personal competition; they just want to have the kind of spring that will make Chicago Manager Tony LaRussa's decision even more difficult than it already is.