Kern, you see, was never that great a baseball fan. His real love is the outdoors; in Michigan, where he grew up, he was running a trap line when he was nine. He pitched because he found out that he had a whip attached to his shoulder, one that could propel a baseball almost 100 mph, an aberration that could educate him and make his family comfortable. But even by 1979, when he was The Fireman of the Year in the American League, he thought primarily of baseball as a vocation that enabled him "to afford this foolishness I love out in the woods."
Only now that he is 34 and his career is threatened—now he sees better what was there all along. "I miss the competition," Kern says. "To come in with the bases loaded and get out a Jackson or a Baylor—that's more than a thrill. That's extremely satisfying. And I miss the camaraderie, that sense of a second family, the team all pulling together. And the terrible thing is, all the time I've been in the majors, I never was on a legitimate contender, so I was especially looking forward to this year because we appeared to be a real contender and I was going to be asked to contribute. I was still throwing in the high 90s last year. They virtually gave me the short-relief job."
Instead, this is the summer he goes over and works at a gun shop three mornings a week, and drives his wife, Jan, crazy the rest of the time, hanging around the house with his arm. Bad enough she's pregnant in a Texas summer, ready to deliver their third child.
Kern has found out how much he misses pitching, and besides, while he is guaranteed $300,000 this year, he must make the club to earn that next season. "Baseball is a nice fiasco that keeps on running because you never allow yourself to look at the end," Kern says. So, while he fools with his guns, he has started to repair his arm, and he goes over to the Rangers' park and cases the opposition for The Wily G.M.
"I look at the games from a different view now," Kern says. "I finally understand what they've been trying to tell me all these years. Always before, I was just intelligent enough to be dangerous to myself. But if there's one thing I've seen from this new standpoint, it's that most pitchers try to be too fancy. They'll blow two fastballs by somebody and then figure they have to throw a breaking ball, some pitch that's maybe 60 percent as effective as the hard one. All they have to do is throw their good pitch again, just maybe in a new location, maybe with a little off it. That's all.
"I was looking forward to playing with Duncan, too, because he's communicative. He has the statistics to support what he says. Mostly, even in the majors, they just say, Do it this way. But nobody ever sat me down and told me why do it this way. Why? Because. You know where I learned the most about pitching? You'll never guess. Having beers with Boog Powell when we were at Cleveland. Because he told me what hitters think. Isn't that funny? All your life you're a pitcher and you're trying to outthink the hitters, only nobody ever tells you what they think. It was Boog Powell who helped me most as a pitcher."
The doctors have told Kern that he should be able to start lobbing in November, and if all goes right on schedule, he'll be 100% by next midseason. "Look, if I can pitch on the level I'm used to," he says, "I can be a helluva bargain for the White Sox." For a kloser, $300,000 would be a steal. If they'd had him this year, the bullpen would have been all in order at last and the Pale Hose wouldn't have had to scuffle in the early going, and they wouldn't just be running away with the AL West. Why, they might even be good enough to play in the East.