Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Oct. 8, 1997.
The handwritten title on the tattered piece of paper reads, “Meeting With Pitchers, Fall 1988.”
There were originally 15 to 20 agenda items on Brent Kemnitz’s list. Nine years later, there are 145.
“I think of something, I write it down,” said Kemnitz, Wichita State’s pitching coach. “My brain never quits working. I wish it wasn’t like that.”
Kemnitz’s brain, which teaches through humor – sometimes bizarre, twisted humor – is one of the things that keeps WSU’s pitching staff going through the rigors of fall practice. The lessons are taught periodically, during half-hour sessions in the Shockers’ team room.
“It’s the most fun part of fall ball,” said senior Matt Dobson, who is sitting through his fifth year of meetings. “You don’t want him dull, where everybody’s falling asleep.”
That’s Kemnitz’s philosophy. To get his point across, he will do anything, from imitating an opposing hitter to quizzing a pitcher on the guest speaker at a 1980 clinic (it was Lou Brock).
“I know when you’re talking to 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-old brains, you’d better interject some humor,” Kemnitz said. “And some humor that’s relative to a 19-year-old brain.”
So to emphasize complete concentration on the mound, Kemnitz might stand up and imitate a pitcher not prepared to throw.
“ ‘Man, I walked by my girlfriend today and she didn’t say anything to me,’ ” he says in a trembling voice, looking for a sign from his imaginary catcher. “ ‘I hope she’s not seeing some other dude.’ ”
Kemnitz’s latest addition, No. 145, is “Eliminate comfortable at-bats.”
To illustrate, Kemnitz lectures about throwing inside, a must for all pitchers. He also stresses throwing off the plate, close enough to a batter that he has to get out of the way.
Then, Kemnitz reasons, the pitcher’s in control and “the batter is on roller skates.”
Kemnitz, entering his 20th season as WSU’s pitching coach, tries to cover five or 10 items on his list during each meeting. He takes roll, sets the rotation for the next few days, then assesses his staff’s arms.
Pitchers are asked to rate their arms: Sweet (arm feels great), stiff (arm’s tight, but can get loose and throw), sore (threw recently, not game-ready) and scalpel (on disabled list, doing rehabilitation).
Then the teaching begins. In one recent meeting, Kemnitz emphasized velocity isn’t as important as control and movement, pointing to Atlanta’s Greg Maddux as an example. He also hit on the importance of a changeup, pitching inside and even throwing at batters.
But it’s the way Kemnitz’s points come across. Maybe he’ll imitate a batter being hit in the side by a pitch, or a home-run hitter swaggering around the bases.
“I can sit at home, watch a hitter and get irritated as hell,” Kemnitz said. “When I start re-enacting it, the last thing I’m thinking is that I’m going too far. I turn into Charlton Heston for a minute.”
Pitchers’ meetings get even better come winter time. Kemnitz takes his staff into Levitt Arena, where they run both distances and sprints to get in shape for the season.
As a way of lightening things up, Kemnitz will hold contests where the winner doesn’t have to run the final “burnout” sprint. All he has to do is produce the best barnyard animal noise or the best impression of a 3-year-old.
Marc Bluma, who has never won with his pig imitation, said, “You’ll do anything to get out of a burnout.”
That includes bringing things to the workout. In the past, Kemnitz has waived the final burnout if a pitcher brings an item to the arena. Among his favorites: moldy bread, a wheat penny and a praying mantis (two burnouts if it’s alive). Once, he waived a burnout if a pitcher would take an apple to an instructor and bring Kemnitz proof in the form of a signed note.
There was the time Darrin Paxton got his burnouts waived because he ran two miles in a Boy Scout uniform, and the time Scott Martin wore a hunter’s cap – with insulated earflaps – for the same distance.
“You’ve got to understand,” Kemnitz said, “some of this is entertainment for me, too.”