LAWRENCE — For years, the routine was the same. Baseball game. Then a phone call. Kevin Kuntz knew no other way.
His father, Rusty, would be on the road in some major-league city, coaching on another big-league staff, and the phone calls were the best way to share the game they both loved.
“I’d basically call him,” Kuntz says, “and we’d just talk to him about the games. It had to be good enough.”
Kevin Kuntz is now the senior shortstop for the Kansas baseball team, a squad that enters this week’s Big 12 tournament mired in a bit of a funk. His father, of course, can relate. Rusty is the first-base coach for a Royals franchise battling the same May doldrums. At 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, Kuntz will lead a young Kansas team against West Virginia in its opening game of the Big 12 tournament. And at some point this week, father and son will check in on their respective teams.
"He’ll usually call," Rusty says.
For the younger Kuntz, this week could be the culmination of a four-year career that saw him transform from a little-recruited infielder to the most dependable defender in a resurgent KU program. After a six-game losing streak to finish the season, the sixth-seeded Jayhawks (31-24, 12-12 Big 12) need a long run this weekend to earn a postseason bid — and that maybe means a championship.
But for Kuntz, who is batting .299 with just six errors on the season, it’s certainly better than last year, when the freshman-dominated Jayhawks stumbled to a 24-34 record.
“It’s been a pleasure to watch his development and his growth and maturity in our program,” KU coach Ritch Price says of Kuntz. “We’ve won with pitching and defense.”
It’s a long way from where Kuntz was four years ago. He had spent his childhood as a baseball rat, following his family as his father moved from franchise to franchise. He was born in Seattle, when Rusty worked for the Mariners, grew up in Florida, and spent his middle school years in Pittsburgh.
“It’s been kind of crazy, not really settling in one area,” Kevin Kuntz says. “But it’s definitely helped out in the long run.”
His dad’s job came with perks, of course. When he was still in elementary school, he walked up to Mark McGwire in a major-league clubhouse and spent the rest of the summer with Big Mac’s signature on his baseball glove. The summer before Kuntz arrived at Kansas, he’d spend his afternoons taking grounders on the field at Kauffman Stadium before batting practice.
But there were few Division 1 options, until Price called with an offer.
“No scholarship. No nothing until he became a starter,” Rusty Kuntz remembers. “But it was an opportunity.”
Last season, Rusty Kuntz took a job as a special assistant to Royals GM Dayton Moore, a position that allowed more flexibility. And he took advantage by seeing nearly 20 KU games in person.
“Except for a handful of times,” Rusty says, “I hadn’t seen Kevin play since he was 12.”
This season, with Rusty back in a full-time coaching role, Kevin has returned to the routine of the post-game phone call. This, he says, is just the baseball life.
“It’s pretty much all I’ve ever known,” Kevin Kuntz says. “It’s funny. You kind of have to step back and put in perspective what we’ve been able to do.”