.WHERE ARE THEY NOW
By Benjamin Pomerance
March 9, 2011
Here’s the scouting report, according to Jim Kern. The subject is an Alaskan Brown Bear, the former major league pitcher’s most common fishing companion on his frequent trips into the Alaskan wild, and Kern breaks down the quadruped’s habits as if he were describing the mechanics of a young southpaw just out of college. “Take note of the bear’s body language,” Kern says. “Is he hanging his head and looking at you? If so, that’s a challenge. If his head is up and looking away, he’s probably not interested in you. Are the bear’s front legs stiff? If so, then you’d better be vigilant. That’s when you know the bear might be thinking of doing something rash.”
Get the scouting report wrong, Kern acknowledges, and you could lose out on more that just missing on a Top 50 pitching prospect. When you’re fishing with four or five bears hanging out within 70 yards of you, as Kern often does now, the stakes are much higher. “As a human being, you’re only at the top when you have a gun in your hands,” Kern states. He laughs. “When you turn your back and run, you move way down on the food chain.”
Thankfully, Kern rarely misses. He can’t afford to. The three-time All-Star with the blazing fastball and the funny nickname is living a different life now, one in which he has traded the trappings of pro-sports glory for the unspoiled wilderness he loves more than any big-league diamond. Gone are the cities and the five-star hotels.
In their stead are outposts in Brazil, where Kern leads fishing trips for peacock bass along the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon’s largest tributaries and the largest blackwater river in the world. And remote sites throughout Idaho and Montana, where Kern holds professional guide licenses and frequently leads hunting trips for deer and various species of game birds.
And the Rainbow Bay Resort in Alaska, a dot on the map 180 air miles southwest of Anchorage, where Kern began working as on-site general manager in 2007. The resort is so isolated that no roads lead to its main lodge, requiring that everything — from food to fuel to the guests themselves — be flown in to the resort’s private airstrip. Bald eagles pose for photo ops in the evenings. Moose and mule deer saunter across the lodge’s front lawn. Observing full-grown bears hunting salmon in the nearby waterways is a common spectator sport.
For many professional ballplayers whose hands are meant for ball and glove, not for fly rod and gun, spending months in such a location would be terrifying. For Kern, the man who lived many people’s fantasy as a major league pitcher, it’s a chance to finally make his own dreams come true. “My wife used to accuse me of playing baseball to make ends meet for my hunting and fishing,” Kern says. “I’ve always felt comfortable in the most remote places. I love going places where no man has gone before. And all my life, I’ve always wanted to have a million things to do. I’ve only had about three days off since the end of May last year. It’s constant go. But that seems to be when I am the happiest.”
To Kern, the wilderness offers not only good sport, but also precious anonymity. Leading expeditions through some of North and South America’s most secluded locations, Kern is no longer an ex-ballplayer, but a current authority on the natural world. Clients pose questions about black jigs and spinning rods and ambush fish, not about the 100 mile-per-hour fastballs he threw in 1979, the year he led the American League in saves. Most of his guests don’t even realize that their tall, gangly guide once pitched in the major leagues.
And Kern loves it. “I’m just a guide to them,” he says, “and that’s all I need to be. I don’t believe that I should be treated different from any other human being just because the Lord gave me a marketable skill of throwing a baseball hard. I don’t think I’m special.”
Yet for several years, baseball fans across the country believed Jim Kern was special, particularly in the late ‘70s when “The Amazing Emu” turned American League batters at the end of games into his own personal chew toys. He suffered from bouts of wildness, and threw really only one pitch — a fastball that often seemed as straight as a bolt of lightning — but that was the All-Star closer needed.
That fastball, coupled with an outsized personality that made reporters laugh and opponents shiver, was enough to sustain the right-hander from Gladwin, Michigan for 13 years in the bigs, working in bullpen roles from closer to long relief man until he, as Kern himself describes it, “just damn well ran out of teams.”
And then there was that nickname. It came out of Cleveland, Kern’s first big-league team, at a time when the Indians were working their way toward yet another mediocre finish. Sometime during the summer of 1976, on one of those lazy days when ballplayers have nothing to do but hang around the clubhouse waiting for the umpire to yell “play ball,” veteran pitchers Pat Dobson and Fritz Peterson were working together on a crossword puzzle. The clue was “the world’s largest non-flying bird.” Just as they realized the answer was “emu,” the two pitchers looked up and there was Kern, just standing there begging for a nickname by his unique appearance.
“When I was 14 years old, I was 6’4” and weighed 158 pounds,” Kern explains. “If I turned sideways, the only shadow you saw was a pair of lips.” He laughs. “Needless to say, I was a little bit gangly.” With a tall, skinny body and long, wing-like arms, Kern didn’t look that much different from the world’s largest non-flying bird, at least in the minds of his teammates.
From that day forward, he would be known as “Emu.” Even today, the moniker lives on, with the outdoor adventure tour company Kern has run since 1987 named “The Emu Outfitting Company,” another tribute to his now-legendary nickname. Kern was hardly offended about being dubbed “Emu.”
After pitching for seven years in the minor leagues, he says, only being called up after going 17-7 as a starter in AAA for a team that finished 22 games under .500, he was just happy to be playing at the sport’s highest level. A man who remains calm in the face of nearby bears is not easily flustered by silly nicknames. Instead, Kern embraced the designation, turning it into a new persona worthy of a carnival sideshow.
Extending the label to “The Amazing Emu,” he grew a scruffy beard and began engaging in pitch-by-pitch theatrics that left opposing hitters quite uneasy. “I never walked in from the bullpen,” he remembers. “I ran in as hard as I could. When I got on the mound, I’d scream at myself, act like I was talking to the ball, all sorts of crazy things. And when I wasn’t doing that, I’d pitch the ball, which may have been scariest of all. I could throw it very hard, but sometimes I didn’t know where it was going. For a while, I was so wild I’d say that a no-hitter for me was when I got through the game without hitting anybody.”
Needless to say, batters were rarely thrilled to come up to the plate at the end of a game and find a seemingly slightly insane righty staring them down.
Baseball fans loved it. Baseball writers loved it even more. Knowing that Kern was always good for a quote, they’d cluster around him after games, eagerly awaiting his next bizarre statement.
For Kern, the “Emu” act gave him a niche in the majors, one that was solidly chiseled out by his success as the closer for Cleveland and then for the Texas Rangers. Yet today, looking back at his playing days, Kern wonders if he almost didn’t take the routine too far. “I gave them Emu, the crazy guy who liked hard rock music,” he recalls. “That was what they wanted. They never looked for Jim Kern, who liked classical music and a lot of other things people never found out about. That’s okay. I gave them Emu, and they loved it. Jim Kern? I kept him for me.”
For the record, Jim Kern does like classical music. Violin and piano duets, he says, are his favorite pieces to listen to. He also was much more than a novelty act. He was a workaholic, a guy who never would have made it onto a major league roster if it weren’t for sheer grit.
After pitching the autumn for 1974 with Cleveland in his first drink from big league waters, Kern tore his rotator cuff in the off-season and was projected to start the following year in the minors. “By the next spring, I was supposed to be dead,” Kern says. “I worked all off-season to prove that I was still alive.” In spring training, he gave up only one run in 26 innings pitched. He was the last man chosen by Indians manager Frank Robinson to join the big league club in April.
Starting the season as a long-relief specialist, Kern quickly worked his way up to platooning as a closer with Dave LaRoche. The duo put together the best season by any bullpen tandem Cleveland had ever seen, with a combined ERA of only 2.20. The following season, with LaRoche’s departure to another team, Robinson made Kern the full-time closer. One year later, he would be pitching in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Kern never even considered making the All-Star team until one June afternoon in the Bronx, when Yankees manager Billy Martin cornered Kern during batting practice before a game at the House That Ruth Built. “Billy told me ‘Keep pitching well, and I might pick you for the All-Star team,’” Kern recalls. “Naturally, I was worthless for about a week after that.” Still, Martin gave him the nod. “In the dugout before the game, I was so excited,” Kern says. “All I could think about was ‘OK, Kern, don’t trip over the top step when you come out of the dugout.”
Then Martin told Kern to go warm up. The pitcher grabbed his glove and sprinted out to start his stretching routine. There was only one problem: Kern had headed for home plate rather than the bullpen. Yet when he finally got into the game, Kern needed no directions to know what to do: throw and throw hard. He struck out Dave Parker of the Pirates, the first hitter he faced. Two batters later, he was out of the inning. “When I got off the field, I started heading for the clubhouse to get my warm-up jacket,” Kern remembers, “and suddenly, over the PA system, I heard the greatest sound in the world: ‘Now entering the game for Jim Kern.’ I was thrilled. I didn’t screw it up.”
Nor did he screw anything up the next year, when Kern remained as the Cleveland closer and made his second consecutive Midsummer Classic. The greatest challenge Kern faced that season was not on the field, but on his face, where his scraggly beard had caused a minor war in the Indians dugout. The team, however, forbade their players from sporting facial hair during the season.
Irritated by this treatment, Kern protested this policy to the American Civil Liberties Union, which wrote him a letter defending the Emu’s right to a beard. The letter, however, had no effect on Indians team president Gabe Paul, who threatened to fire manager Jeff Torborg if Kern failed to shave. Not wanting to risk Torborg’s job, Kern complied with the policy.
In a clubhouse of offbeat personalities, Kern fit right in, teaming with bullpen mate Sparky Lyle to form “Crazyness, Inc.,” the name baseball writers attached to the Rangers bullpen for several seasons. Kern enjoyed the best year of his career in 1979, making his third consecutive All-Star team and winning the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award as the best bullpen pitcher in the major leagues. Over 143 innings in relief, Kern went 13-5 with 29 saves and a microscopic ERA of 1.57.
He also led the team in pranks, practical jokes that ranged in scale from greasing hotel doorknobs with Vaseline to spreading hot liniment in the jockstraps of unsuspecting teammates. His shining moment as an eccentric jokester came during a team flight, when he observed that one of the team’s beat writers had been reading the same book — John Dean’s Blind Ambition — for three consecutive road trips.
Sneaking up behind the unsuspecting reporter, Kern grabbed the book out of his hands and threw it to a teammate, who passed it back to Kern. Then, as the horrified journalist looked on, Kern tore out the last 10 pages from the book, stuffed them into his mouth, and swallowed. “Now figure out how it ends,” he told the writer before grinning and walking away.
“Not so much the games, but the companionship. Your life is with your teammates. And you learn the game from the best in the world, sitting in a bar or a plane or in the clubhouse, just talking baseball. My job was always to keep things upbeat. That’s what the pranks were for. I mean, I’ve always been a guy who’s lived on the light side of life.”
Yet darker days were soon to come for Kern. Injuries struck again, and this time, the pitcher found he couldn’t return to peak form no matter how hard he trained in the offseason. By 1981, arm troubles limited him to just 23 games. The following year, he was traded to the Mets, then to the Reds. The latter stop proved miserable for Kern, who failed to conform to the team’s rather conservative ways. “The Reds?” he retorts today.
Playing for them was like playing for the John Birch Society.”
Characters like Greg Luzinski and staff ace LaMarr Hoyt ran wild at Comiskey Park, and Kern loved the free-flowing character of the team.
For Kern, though, retirement was hardly an excuse to bask in the legacy of his own career. Instead, he began seeking new vocations. He began by landing a job as a TV broadcaster of college baseball games with Fox Sports Southwest, where he worked as a color commentator for 12 years. Yet it wasn’t long before Kern began yearning for a life outside of the press box. “I’m no good at watching other people work,” he explains. “My favorite toy is a chain saw. I love spending all day outside making wood and coming back with my arms so sore I can hardly lift them. No matter how exhausted you are after a day like that, you still come back happy as dirt.”
So Kern went back to the woods, back to the natural environment he had enjoyed since his father first took him fishing on Lake Michigan at age three, tying the little boy to the dock so he wouldn’t fall in and letting him hold the rod as he fished for yellow perch. In 1987, he formed The Emu Outfitting Company on a whim, hoping to gain a few clients seeking excursions into the wilderness that he loved.
When the company took off, he expanded, gaining more clients along the way and landing a second job as the American general manager of Captain Peacock, one of the largest peacock bass fishing operations on the Amazon. In 2007, one of his clients invited him to lead operations at the Rainbow Bay Resort, leading to yet another endeavor for the relief- pitcher-turned-professional-outdoorsman. And that’s still leaving out his work with a camera, where the photographs of wildlife taken with his Canon camera have become Kern’s favorite type of “shooting.”
“Yeah, it’s a lot,” Kern says, after rattling off a dizzying list of endeavors in which he is currently involved. “I’ll be on trips for at least three months a year now, maybe more. But it’s great fun. Our clients say they have a great time, but I don’t think anyone has a better time doing what we do than me.”
Now people know Jim Kern. Now they know that he’s as handy with a gun or a camera as he once was with a fastball. Now they know of him as the man who points out the best part of the river to fish, the best place where you can bag that deer, the best place to wait to get that close-up photograph of the bald eagle you’ve always dreamed of. With a character called “Emu” securely locked in the memories of the fans who saw him pitch, Jim Kern is happy to show that he’s a different bird than the one people saw screaming on the mound.
“The baseball stuff, that was just great,” Kern remembers. “I wouldn’t have traded my time in baseball for anything. But what I’m doing now is special, too. It’s important to be a sharer of knowledge, and that’s how I see my role now.” He pauses. “Just give me some people who love the outdoors as much as I do, and we can have a really great time. And if no one comes along for the party? Well, just give me my camera and 30 gigabytes of flash cards and put me out somewhere in the woods, and I can keep happy all day long.”
Benjamin Pomerance has written more than 350 published articles, including profiles of Johnny Podres, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and Mike Marshall. His article on Jackie Robinson’s time with the Montreal Royals, including interviews with Rachel Robinson and George “Shotgun” Shuba, can be read at http://www.apnmag.com/fall_2009/pomerance_JackieRobinson.php. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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