Steve Kline Makes Me Sad

Brian Walton weighs in on the controversy brought on by the former Cardinal reliever's latest round of public comments.

I feel sorry for Steve Kline. I really don't want to, but I do.

Like hundreds upon hundreds of Cardinals players who preceded him, the popular left-handed reliever reached the point in his career when it was time to move on. For Kline, it occurred following an injury-plagued, less-than-effective and controversy-filled 2004.

That takes nothing away from Kline's many contributions to the team for four years, during which he often pitched valiantly for the Redbirds. But, an undefined combination of his escalating salary, his questionable effectiveness and health, along with his ever-growing list of irritations to the organization led to Kline's departure for greener pastures.

The Baltimore Orioles showed up flashing that green - a two-year, $5.5 million contract, far exceeding Kline's highest previous salary ever. After beefing up their already-prolific offense, the O's hoped to finally win the American League Eastern Division flag this season.

As a Cardinal, Kline was always fun to talk with. We chatted about wrestling and rassling. Kline still practiced the former, working out and helping with his old high school team during the winter. We traded stories about the televised rassler heroes of our youth, guys like George "The Animal" Steele and Verne Gagne, as well as more contemporary ones.

In fact, most all of the members of the press like Kline. He is always good for a quote, always willing to talk and is generally unpredictable. He'd be just as likely to snap a reporter on the rear with a wet towel as he would a teammate.

But, the press' job isn't to protect Kline from himself.

In a widely-distributed interview with Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch back in April, Kline spoke of his fondness for the Cardinals. Instead of stopping there, Kline continued a long-standing practice of saying absolutely everything that was in his head.

Kline made it abundantly clear that he was sorry he left St. Louis. One could easily conclude that as a result, he was not happy being an Oriole. Understandably, those who ultimately help to pay his multi-million dollar salary, the fans of Baltimore, rightly took loud and repeated umbrage at Kline's brutally honest, but equally brutally ill-advised admission.

Hummel story

Let me make it clear that I have complete and total respect for Hummel, the dean of St. Louis sportswriters. Only for that reason and because of his gracious nature, did I feel comfortable asking "The Commish" about the controversy his Kline story generated. Not surprisingly, Hummel basically said he just reported what Kline told him. No more and no less.

And, Kline admitted all along that he said and meant what had been quoted. Still, I felt bad the instant I read that Hummel story, because I knew nothing good would come from it.

Topping it off, on the mound, Kline was generally ineffective from the very start of the 2005 season and continued in that manner pretty much all year long for the Orioles. As a result, he didn't even receive the benefit of the doubt that can often be generated when one excels on the field, though smells off it.

As the long season wound on, the Orioles' fortunes drifted downward, almost as if to meet Kline. The team had started out of the blocks fast and for the first half of the season, was one of the Cinderella stories of 2005, along with their Washington neighbors to the south. However, a dearth of dependable starting pitching along with slumping hitting eventually did the Orioles in.

Sammy Sosa was a shell of his former self and Rafael Palmeiro was busted for performance-enhancing drug use days after his historic 3000th hit. Sidney Ponson made his best attempts to drink himself out of the game and may have succeeded. Manager Lee Mazzilli, having left the successful Yankees staff to lead the O's, was unceremoniously sacked mid-season.

Kline's usage pattern from the bullpen, the original source of his one-fingered salute directed in frustration at Tony La Russa last season, once again became a problem in Baltimore. Yet, interim manager Sam Perlozzo can't be blamed for not using Kline regularly. After all, Perlozzo is trying to demonstrate enough in the job for his bosses to remove the "interim" tag for 2006, despite rumors of a number of high-profile candidates potentially coming available.

Though Kline has generally pitched better since August 1, it is just too late for him and his team this season. With the O's season less than two weeks from its welcome close, it seemed that Kline would finish the season with increasingly rare appearances, still always being greeted with boos from the jilted home fans and oftentimes allowing too many opposing baserunners.

But, it wasn't to be a relatively-quiet conclusion.

Tim McKernan, who can likely be counted among the many St. Louis media members who had a good past relationship with Kline, posted a long interview at insidestl.com with the pitcher on September 21. While not inciting Kline, McKernan allowed Kline the necessary rope to again hang himself.

The storyline itself was not new, but again, nothing good would result from it coming up one more time. Still, it is not McKernan's job to censor Kline. His job is to report. And report he did.

McKernan story

Kline is still not happy in Baltimore. He thinks the Orioles would like to trade him (I wonder where he got that idea from?). He took a swipe at his team owner, among others.

Kline seems to confuse his unfiltered candor with "telling the truth", apparently not understanding the ramifications of what comes out of his mouth.

At the same time, he backed his former teammates' award candidacies and hopes the Cardinals will win the World Series. He pines to return to St. Louis one day to end his playing career. McKernan even asked Kline if he would want to become a Mike Shannon-type of broadcaster some day.

On one hand, Kline's love of the Cardinals and their fans is understandable and admirable. Yet, that he would come out publicly again, expanding on those incendiary statements, while seemingly having learned nothing from the Hummel article furor, is not stunning only because of its source.

While many St. Louis fans still admire Kline and would love for him to return to wearing the Cardinals red, there is some truth to the oft-repeated quote, "You can't ever go home again." At this stage of his career, both in terms of salary and effectiveness, Kline doesn't appear to be a good fit for the Cardinals.

And, looking into the future, could you imagine Kline as a broadcaster? Certainly unpredictability sells, at least on a no-holds barred sports talk show. But putting Kline in front of the microphone in a live broadcast would be a recipe for disaster. A seven-second delay might not be nearly enough.

Don't get me wrong. I wish Kline nothing but the best in the future. But, he can't expect people to continually follow him around to shield Steve Kline from his own worst enemy, Steve Kline. He doesn't seem to get it and at this rate, it appears that he never will.

That makes me sad.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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