Then and Now: RC Q&A with Kevin Koslofski

Kevin Koslofski played for the Royals from 1992-1994, and is remembered by most as a tremendous defensive outfielder with a knack for clutch hitting at the plate. Koslofski, a product of the Royals farm system via the 1984 amateur draft, is our latest guest in this edition of "Then & Now."

Royals Corner: Thanks for joining us, Kevin. You were a 20th round selection of the Royals in the '84 draft out of high school but still also attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. How did that work?

Kevin Koslofski: Well, I went to Millikin in the off-season, and I was drafted out of Maroa-Forsyth High School. And we were state champs in football and basketball this year, I might add (Laughs). But anyway, I just went to college during the off-season. The Royals gave me some scholarship money to go to school when I signed, so I kind of chipped away at school in the off-season.

RC: How long did it take you to finish?

KK: 11 years.

RC: Wow – incredible that you stuck with it! Did you ever feel like you were taken less seriously by scouts because of your height (5-8), and did that put a chip on your shoulder at all?

KK: Not really – I didn't really think too much about it. Art Stewart, who signed me, also kept talking about Tommy Poquette and Freddie Patek, and they were also 5-8 or 5-9. He instilled confidence in me, so that never really crossed my mind. Now, when I got to camps and stuff and saw that I was the shortest guy out there, I thought a bit. But in the end, you can measure height and weight, but you can't measure heart.

RC: Like you said, Art Stewart was the scout who signed you. What do you remember about the scouting process, and which other teams were interested besides the Royals?

KK: Scouting process. Wow… (Pauses) That was only 95 years ago (Laughs). Well, it was exciting for me. There'd be 3 or 4 scouts at our ball games starting my junior year. I think the Twins probably had the most interest besides the Royals, but then the Twins scout, just before the draft, told me I should go to school because I was too small. Like I was going to grow or something (Laughs). But anyway, the Royals ended up drafting me and it was what I wanted to do, so it was a dream come true.

RC: Beginning in 1984 and going through 1989, you spent six seasons at the A Ball level, as you played in Eugene, Sarasota, Fort Myers (two years) and Baseball City (two years). What do you remember about those years, and was it frustrating repeating the same level so many times?

KK: Yeah, frustrating. I played four years in the Florida State League, and in my fourth year, I didn't play a game during the teams first few games. And I went in and asked one of the coaches to convince me why I should keep playing. I think he said that he thought my defensive skills were as good as anyone in the organization, including the bigs at the time, and that he felt I was a prospect. And I'm like, "Really?!?" But that was enough for me to keep going, and after that year, I advanced out of A Ball, finally. But it just seemed like it was a mountain that had no top when I was in the lower minor league levels.

RC: Remind us of who some of your teammates were during those A Ball years?

KK: Well, plenty of guys made it to the show, including Tommy Gordon, Kevin Appier, Brent Mayne, Jeff Conine, Sean Berry, Bobby Moore, Jorge Pedre. These are all my buddies, too. I'm going to miss some guys. David Howard, Brian McRae. We had a pretty good group of guys. And I always thought that if they'd just left us alone and kept us all, those guys are all winners and I know it doesn't work that way, but we had really good chemistry together, not only on the field but off the field, and I think that's what it takes to win at the professional and other levels.

RC: 1990 was a big year in your career, as you advanced to the AA level for the first time at Memphis. You struggled a bit that first year at Memphis, hitting just .213 in 118 games. How much better was pitching at the AA level as compared to A Ball?

KK: I think there was definitely a difference. But I think I kind of got an idea at the plate and it really became easier, because even though the pitching was better, the pitches were more around the plate than they were at the A Ball level. That was the biggest difference - guys wouldn't throw one behind your back one pitch and then paint the corner the next. It seemed like once I got to the AA level, the location was much more around the strike zone. So then it was more of a matter of laying off pitches the pitcher wanted you to swing at and hitting the ones you could hit.

My second year, in 1991, I went from probably having one of the lowest averages in 1990 to having the highest average when I got called up to AAA. What I learned from that year really seemed to help me going forward, and what I learned was just getting ready swinging the bat before the ball was too close to me; it was really something as simple as that. Everything my coaches had been telling me the first 7 or 8 years finally seemed to click the next season, and I finally felt like I knew how to hit.

RC: Like you mentioned, 1991 was the key season in your development, as you split the year between Memphis, where you hit .324, and Omaha, where you hit .298. Can you explain what happened a bit further?

KK: I tell kids now, and I give hitting lessons, and I tell them you just have to be ready to swing before it's too close to you. That slows the ball down and you see it clearer. That was the biggest difference to me, fundamentally, by far.

RC: A lot of minor league players currently in the Royals system read our site, and before we talk about 1992 and your debut in the big leagues, what would you say to a kid that's struggling in the lower minors or feels like his time is passing?

KK: I'd just say that I probably quit 100 times mentally throughout my career, but I could never get myself to turn my shoes in - I had enough to keep those on. But I don't know man… If you go back to the basics of just loving to play ball and realize that you only get one shot at it, and if you look at it like that and give it all you've got, and you can't control a lot of things, and you just try and do your best. If it's in the cards and God willing, you'll get up there.

At one time I counted, and I'm not kidding you, I was an outfielder at the lower levels in spring training. And I counted over 60 guys that I felt would either have to get traded, quit, break their leg or something would have to happen for me to move past them on the depth charts. And here's what I learned. One, never do that again because that takes confidence from myself. But I realized at some point, if you just take care of yourself, not in a selfish way, but do what you need to do and what the coaches ask, and hustle, be a respectful player, you know, some good things will happen. And if you're good enough, you're going to make it, no matter how many are ahead of you.

RC: 1992 was a magical year for you, as you started the year at Omaha and had a 13-game hitting streak early in the year, along with a .314 average on June 25th when the Royals sent Harvey Pulliam down and called you up. What do you remember about the moment you got the call?

KK: Well, Jeff Cox was my manager in AAA and I was at home packing for a trip to Buffalo, we were leaving the next morning. And my wife was going to go on this trip with me as well. And he called at 10:30 that night and said, "Kos, stay by the phone," and he hung up. So he called back 20 minuets later, and said, "Nope, you almost got called up, but nevermind." And I'm thinking, "Why did you call me in the first place." And he said, "Seeya in the morning." And he called me at midnight and said, "You're going to Kansas City and playing the Yankees." And I remember calling my Mom & Dad, and my Mom was sick in the hospital at the time. I called them, and I couldn't believe it man.

My wife and I drove to Kansas City and walked into Kauffman Stadium the next day, and I remember seeing a greener green than I'd ever seen before. And more colorful red, white and blue than I'd ever seen before from the flag in the outfield. And I think I got fever blisters that first game from being nervous whether or not I'd get in, so I'll never forget that.

RC: You made your big league debut on June 28th against Baltimore and had 3 hits, an RBI and a run. Who was pitching that night, and what do you remember about it?

KK: Day game, in Baltimore, and Jose Mesa was the starting pitcher. I remember I got called up from Omaha on 7 consecutive strikeouts (Laughs), so not a lot of confidence going up there. And I remember my first at bat I got 0 and 2 faster than I could blink an eye. Battled 3-2, lined out to Brady Anderson in my first at bat, and next at bat hit a jam shot ground ball between 1st and 2nd for my first big league hit. I thought that was so ironical, too, because it was fielded by my first roommate, Chito Martinez from back in 1984. He was the right fielder for Baltimore that day.

Anyway, that day I was really nervous until the game started and once it started, I was pretty much fine. I got three hits and had an RBI, scored a run and thought, "Man, this is a piece of cake." (Laughs)

RC: Was Mesa the only pitcher you saw that day?

KK: No. Alan Mills came in too, and he was who I got the other two (hits) off of.

RC: You were hitting .357 that same year for KC when Chris Gwynn came off the DL on July 16th and you were sent back to Omaha. Was that frustrating at all, or did you completely understand?

KK: I understood it, but I don't think I made it back hardly to Omaha before he got hurt again. So I was there for literally a day and came on back. Every time I see Chris's baseball card, I thank him for helping me get to the big leagues (Laughs).

RC: (Laughs) You finished the year in KC, and some of the highlights for you in 1992 were being named the best defensive outfielder in the American Association, a 7-game hitting streak in KC and your first big league home run off of a halfway decent pitcher. Tell us about that.

KK: Yeah, Nolan Ryan. I remember we went to Arlington for a 4 game series and Hal McRae told me I'd be starting the third game. I looked at the chart and saw Nolan pitching, and that was literally the first time I got real nervous since being up there.

First at bat, he threw one right where I was swinging, and a lot of homers I knew were gone when I hit them. But I remember hitting the ball and partially remember running the bases. I remember getting back to the dugout and Keith Miller thought that was the best thing since sliced bread, so he was real excited. I remember thinking, "Keith, I have to hit again so you might want to shut up a little bit." (Laughs) So I thought for my next at bat he'd probably drill me.

I remember Hal asking me that very question as I walked out of the dugout and he said, "What do you think?" And I said, "I think he'll try to drill me." And he said, "No, he'll try to strike you out," and sure enough, he did.

RC: What was it like playing for Hal McRae?

KK: I enjoyed it. I'd known Hal for quite awhile. Brian (McRae) and I roomed a lot together in the minor leagues, so I'd see Hal and he knew me, which I think helped a bit before the big leagues. Hal had a very subtle way of teaching; he didn't say a whole lot, but when he talked, especially about hitting, he gave great advice. He seemed to like the veteran guys better, which hey, who wouldn't. And I think the younger guys really had to prove their worth to get some playing time; that was just my perspective. But I'd say he was a hard-nosed manager who sure played hard, and I think he liked the players who played like he did, and I felt like I was one of those.

RC: You came to spring training in 1993 and were expected to make the big league roster, but hurt your shoulder early on diving for a ball and landing on a sprinkler head. As a result, you spent the entire year at Omaha and were again voted the best defensive outfielder while hitting .276 until you were a September call up to KC. When you look back, was that sprinkler head the worst break you ever got?

KK: Probably. Maybe even worse than that, speaking of ironic, was the guy that hit that ball was Tuffy Rhodes of the Astros. I dove for it and just kind of twisted and landed, and sprinkler heads are about as big as a silver dollar, and it hit right on my left rotator cuff. And later that year, the Royals acquired Tuffy and he pretty much blew right by me at the minor league level. So I thought that was ironic.

But I'd say timing wise, it couldn't have been worse. Things happen for a reason and whatever the reason was, it happened, but I felt like I was doing well at that time in spring training and even though I missed probably 2 and a half to 3 weeks, there were still guys telling me I'd made the team. So when we went north to Jacksonville before heading to Kansas City, they told me I was going to Omaha, so that was pretty disappointing.

RC: You still had two very memorable things happen to you in 1993 (Royals were 84-78, 3rd place in AL West), as you hit a game winning home run in the 10th inning of a game at Oakland off of Roger Smithberg, and had the 9th-inning game-winning hit in George Brett's final home game against Cleveland. How special was it playing with George, and what kind of teammate was he?

KK: He was great. He made everybody feel… Well, he was a lot better than I was, put it that way, but he didn't make me feel that way. He would not offer a lot of advice, but if you asked him, he'd just sit and talk with you. Great guy to learn from, both by example and what he said. The guy just hustled all the time and was just a great role model. He was actually one of my idols when I was a kid, and I remember after a game taking a shower one night, and I said, "George, I sent you a note when I was kid and you sent me an autographed picture," and he said, "I did?" And I told him I still had it. And I still do. And it was so weird playing with him, because I thought there should be a different level for George to play at. A lot of guys needed to have their own league, actually, and he was one of them.

RC: You hit .269 in 15 games with KC in 1993. What else sticks out about that year?

KK: I think the last game that George played in Kansas City, and as a matter of fact, in my office right now, I've got the Sports Illustrated article on my wall that talks about that game.

A lot of people don't know this, but that game was tied and Hal took him out in the 8th. And it was 40 some thousand people who were there to see George play, and he gets taken out. Hal told me after the game, "You saved my job." And he said, "You got that hit before people got real mad at me for taking him out."

But I do remember that game; that was pretty exciting for me to do it on that night.

RC: You were always known as a clutch hitter, but many rotoheads and stat geeks will argue that this term doesn't exist. What is your response to that?

KK: Well first of all, clutch hitter? I don't know about that. I guess it was right places, right spot. At the big league level, I feel like I got big hits in important situations with opportunities I got. In the minor leagues, I drove in some runs the latter part of my minor league career, but I don't know if I ever considered myself a clutch hitter or not.

But yeah, I totally disagree with them, yeah. There are guys that for whatever reason will hit well for average with nobody on base, and I don't know if they just change or don't think they can do it in clutch situations, but there's also guys on the other hand who can't wait to hit with guys on base. I think it's all about confidence. So yes, I do believe in the term clutch hitter, definitely.

RC: 1994 was both exciting and disappointing for you, as you began the season on the Royals Opening Day roster but were sent down to Omaha on May 1st after appearing in just 2 games and getting 4 at bats. First, the good. What was it like making an Opening Day roster at the major league level?

KK: Oh, it was unbelievable. I thought that was the opportunity that I needed, especially after the year before. That spring was like this one, weather wise, it was real wet and there were off days everywhere, and we had several rainouts. We had some doubleheaders coming up and we needed pitching. And I was the guy to go. I hadn't played a whole lot, so I don't think it was too big of a decision to send me back. But that, I think, was really what knocked the wind out of my sails the most. I kind of limped back to AAA and that was probably one of the times that I quit but didn't turn my shoes in – I really struggled.

RC: When you were sent down May 1st, did it ever occur to you that you'd never make it back to Kansas City, or did it feel like the rest of the times you made the journey back to Omaha?

KK: No, I thought that was it. I remember sitting in Hal's office and I just knew I was done then with the organization. But I think that might have been my own fault, you know? I think I took things too personally, to be honest with you, and it just hurt me. It hurt bad. And I look back now, and at the time I thought I was the only one who it ever happened to, but live and learn, and that's the way I felt, and I played the 1994 season in Omaha. If someone asked me to describe that season, I'd say I played that year feeling sorry for myself. And believe me, it's pretty easy to hit .200 when you feel sorry for yourself.

RC: What do you remember about the baseball strike of '94, and how did it affect your career?

KK: Actually, in '94, it didn't, but the next year, it was still going and I would say yes, it did affect me, because Milwaukee had signed me and I did not go to camp initially during the first couple weeks. Then, I ended up going to minor league camp after they had replacement player rosters established, so I stayed there. And the organization told me that once the strike got resolved, I'd be called up and put on 25-man roster and join the club.

So anyway, the strike was still going when the minor league season started, so I went and started there and was doing real well after three weeks. Then, the strike got resolved and the big league camps had a few weeks of spring training. I had a date to go up there and two days before it, they made a trade to acquire David Hulse, a left handed hitting outfielder, just about the same type of mold player I was, and I just stayed in AAA that year with the Brewers. Another disappointment.

RC: Do you feel like replacement players were really discriminated against by big league players, and was there as much animosity toward them in big league clubhouses as the media likes to portray?

KK: Well, there were some pretty true chances at that time for guys that went and played. Anytime there's a situation like that, whether it be in a factory or major league baseball, guys take that personal, and some guys more than others. I had buddies who did what they had to do, and I didn't feel any different about them for doing it; it just wasn't me. I just sat out and waited until that kind of washed out and joined the minor league camp. And I never felt any pressure from Milwaukee to be a replacement player, but I think there's some validity to guys taking that pretty personal when the union is trying to accomplish something and there's guys that don't see the purpose, and they do what they think they need to do.

RC: Yeah. I just remember hearing a lot about guys such as Rick Reed, who were replacement players that were always labeled as such when the "regular" big leaguers came back.

KK: Well, I played with Rick, and quite a bit. I thought that guy could pitch anyway, and he can, and did for a long time. He needed to do that and he benefited from that. He took advantage of the opportunity, and it worked out for a few of them. I think as time went by, there were several guys that were considered replacement players that stuck in the big leagues for quite some time, and relationships with players got better with time, but there were still some ramifications, and they didn't receive some of the same benefits.

RC: As we already talked about, and following the 1994 season with the Royals, you were released and signed with Milwaukee prior to the beginning of the 1995 season, where you spent the year in AAA. What do you remember about that year?

KK: I played the best defense of my life that year, and it was a very, very mediocre batting year - very poor. But for whatever reason, my defensive skills weren't affected by the way I hit. Chris Bando was my manager that year, and he told me to stick with it and thought I was the best defensive outfielder he'd ever seen, and to be honest, I felt like it. I loved playing defense; running, throwing the ball, going to get it. And that's what kept me around the lower levels of the minors back in the day until my offense and game became complete.

But to be honest, what I remember most about '95 in New Orleans was that it was about the hottest place I'd ever been in my life (Laughs). Aw man – it was bad.

RC: 1996 was your last season at the major league level, as you appeared in 25 games for the Brewers. How does that experience compare to the Royals?

KK: It was a bit different. I didn't know the guys as well in Milwaukee as I knew the guys in Kansas City, just because I hadn't been there as long. One thing I liked was that I got to play with Kevin Seitzer, who was from near where I lived, and was with the Royals when I first started. That was the first time we ever got to be together on the same team. Mike Matheny, Greg Vaughn, Fernando Vina… That team was a good group of guys, hard-nosed players, and we weren't the most talented team, but we really competed hard, and I think there was as much enthusiasm on those Brewers teams as there were on the Royals teams.

RC: Following the 1996 season, you were granted free agency, but never appeared in the big leagues again. How much longer did you keep playing after that?

KK: Played one season, with my last year being 1997 for Louisville, the Cardinals AAA team. I'm a Cardinal fan and grew up a Cardinal fan, so that was exciting. They really wanted me and signed me in October of 1996, so I looked forward to going to spring training with them and breaking in, but I think at that time, I was kind of… Lets put it this way. I played every game until mid-June of ‘97, and then they called a younger kid up and I sat the bench. And I think that gave me a lot of time to gain perspective and try to figure out what I should do. I kind of realized after that year that I just felt like my enthusiasm and desire to continue to work hard and compete at that level was really kind of waning.

And as a matter of fact, I remember hitting a line drive to left field in 1997 and made the last out of the game and that year, and looking for my wife in the stands, tipping my hat to her, and that was kind of my sign to her that I was done. I went through the whole off-season that winter and stayed in shape, but in the back of my mind, I wasn't sure if I wanted to play again, but I'd see if there was opportunity.

In February, Cleveland asked me to come to camp, but I politely declined, and that was it. That was my unofficial retirement from baseball in February of ‘98.

RC: When you look back to your times in Kansas City, what do you remember most, both on and off the field?

KK: On the field, just the excitement of being in the big leagues. There is a not feeling like that that I've had since then, regarding competition at least. I've had children since then so that's a different ballgame, but just the excitement of being a big leaguer. And it's hard to describe, but it's just the most wonderful feeling in the world because its something I'd wanted to do since I was 7 years old.

Besides that, just sitting on the bench with George Brett, Wally Joyner, Keith Miller, Mike MacFarlane, and I'm going to miss some guys, but those guys stick out.

Off the field, didn't do a whole lot in KC, kind of laid low. I enjoyed eating the ribs and miss that (Laughs). Kansas City reminded me a lot of home, really, just pure Midwest. Kind of laidback, where you could go find something exciting to do but if you didn't, you could just kind of be anonymous.

RC: Do you consider yourself a Royal?

KK: Oh yeah, definitely. I still follow them, and I keep waiting for them to have a breakthrough year, but man, its just been a struggle lately and I don't know a lot of the players now. I played against Reggie Sanders some, but there's not a lot of guys there I'm familiar with. I spent a lot of time with (Brian) Poldberg and (Luis) Silverio, who were minor league instructors the whole time I was with the Royals, so I've known those guys for quite some time. And Nick Swartz and Frank Kyte, the trainers, they've been there forever. But yeah, I still consider myself a Royal.

RC: Do you still stay in touch with any of your former teammates?

KK: The guys I was closet to were Brian McRae, David Howard, Brent Mayne, Jeff Conine, Keith Miller, Sean Berry, and as a matter of fact, I talked to Dave last night, and I'm going to go down to St. Louis soon and spend some time with him. I try to keep in touch with them, but I think of all the guys I played with, there's 8 or 10 guys I'd drive a distance to see, and those guys are on that list.

RC: Have you seen the Royals play in person since 1994?

KK: Yeah. My wife and I went out a few years ago, and I've been out a couple of times since I no longer played. I still think that's about the prettiest park and best playing surface in the big leagues for a park that was built in the 1970's. So that's a beautiful park and when I go back there, sometimes it doesn't even seem like I was a player there. It was a different lifetime ago.

RC: This is kind of a random question, but what was it like having your own baseball card, and as a player, do you get copies of all cards and other memorabilia made of you?

KK: I collected cards when I was a kid, so once I knew I had a card coming out, I remember going to a card shop here in Decatur, and he put a box of cards in front of me and just said, "Keep opening until you find one." So me and a buddy went through, and I remember seeing my first Topps card and that was awesome.

But yeah, they usually gave us like 100 or so of each card in spring training. And I still get maybe 10 or 12 letters a month for autographs.

RC: Really?

KK: (Laughs) That's what I say, "Really?" But yeah, I'm pretty good about signing.

RC: Tell us what Kevin Koslofski has been up to since his playing days ended, and where will we find him today?

KK: I've got a family, which I didn't have any kids when I played ball. I was married for about 7 years of my career, but I've got three children now. I have a little girl that's 6, and twin boys that are 3 today. So, we don't get out a whole lot right now, but we're busy at home.

My Wife is really, really busy with the kids, and I work for a company called AXA Advisors. I do personal insurance and investment planning, and small business insurance and retirement planning. I enjoy it tremendously and I enjoy people, so that can keep me as busy as I want it to and it's a great job where I can set my own hours.

I still stay involved in baseball and teach hitting lessons. I've done that for 9 or 10 years now, I guess since I've been out of baseball. I do that from January to the end of April, and I think if I knew then what I know now about hitting, I'd do a lot better (Laughs). But I really enjoy teaching kids and when my kids get results, I see results.

I also coach junior legion baseball in Mount Zion, which is just a couple of minutes away from here on the outskirts of Decatur. My passion now is seeing kids improve that like to play baseball, and my school has a great baseball team, and I think there's a player there that I look at and compare him to me. And I think he could play in the big leagues, so I've got a real interest in trying to help and get people out to see him play, as well as some other kids here in the community that I've taught that I think have big league capability.

So I think that's going to be my role here, as far as staying involved in baseball, to try and find those kids who were passionate like I was, who had the dream like I did, and try and get across to them that someone has to fill those uniforms eventually, so why not you?

RC: This has been a great conversation, and we really appreciate your time. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

KK: Well, you know, maybe one thing, and I'm covering my tail here a little bit Dave. We've talked for what, 40 minutes, and I haven't mentioned my wife a whole lot, so if she reads this, I'd like her to know, and this is the truth, that at some point, when she became a part of my life, is really when my career took off. And if she wasn't a part of my life, I'm not sure if I would have made it, because she kept me going. So if you can fit some of this in, please do.

When I felt like hanging it up, she was the encouragement that was always there. I had encouragement back home, sure, but they were 1,000 miles away. She was with me, and that to me was the biggest difference, as far as having someone there that could pat me on the back or kick me in the butt.

She was there for whatever I needed, and I owe a lot to her for that.

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