By TREY WILLIAMS
David Crockett athletic director Josh Kite had his toenail split in half by a Juan Gonzalez line-drive, sped down the highway in a Mustang with leadfoot flamethrower Justin Verlander, pitched for Panama in a World Baseball Classic exhibition game, delivered pizzas for Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland and had lunch with Major League Baseball Hall of Famers Buck O’Neil, George Brett, Al Kaline and Fergie Jenkins.
But he’s never experienced anything as surreal as the coronavirus pandemic that brought life as we know it to a screeching halt.
There are aspects of this social-distancing, shelter-in-place existence that Kite has embraced, such as enjoying time with his wife Caitlin and their four children (ages 6-10).
“It’s like we ride bikes every five minutes,” Kite said. “Heck, my wife and I, we mulched the whole yard today. It’s been good to be able to spend time together. We’ve been in the house putting puzzles together, watching movies, riding bikes, playing in the yard for 3-4 hours a day.
“It’s been a good time getting to spend some quality time with the family. But I hate what’s going on with the world today, for sure.”
Tough times produce enduring scenes. Kite is moved by the fact that meals are being prepared daily for students suddenly without a school to attend.
“My wife is the nutrition director,” he said. “Her and the cafeteria staff, they’re working tirelessly preparing 6,000 meals a day. And there’s a lot of volunteers helping out. It’s bringing people together and showing there’s a lot of people that care, making sure these kids are fed.”
Kite, who pitched at Chuckey-Doak and East Tennessee State and spent two seasons apiece in the minors with Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers affiliates, said the spring sports season is usually the busiest time of year for an athletic director. But this spring ballparks are ghost towns and dedicated athletes can only chase dreams in their minds.
“It’s difficult,” Kite said. “It’s an emotional time for everyone. Athletes and coaches put so much time into preparing for their seasons. It’s just so disheartening for these kids.
“Who knows, they may say we’re going back to school May 1. But I highly doubt it.”
Kite is a promoter. Loud music, fireworks and skydivers have all enhanced Pioneers sporting events. So has winning.
Kite, some say, has been a high-wire act. He brought in former NFL player Gerald Sensabaugh, which didn’t end well. But also on his watch Crockett has hired basketball coach John Good and football coach Hayden Chandley, who took programs to unprecedented heights.
“We changed, in my opinion, the image of Crockett,” Kite said. “If you look at what we’ve done from 2014 on, you’ve got the softball winning two district titles, you’ve got the boys basketball winning the district and going to the state and beating Oak Ridge two (games). You’ve got a football program that was ranked next to last in 5A that was top five two years in a row. You’ve got a cross country team that placed in the state. You’ve got a volleyball player (Addisyn Rowe) at Tennessee. … She was a state champion in the high jump. You’ve got a wrestling program that’s sending 10-15 kids to the state and a state champion in girls.”
A left-handed pitcher, Kite began making memories involving Crockett while at neighboring Chuckey-Doak.
“My senior year we played Crockett,” Kite said. “It was 1-1 and I threw nine innings and I think struck out like 17 and we ended up beating ‘em, 2-1. I got lucky because the center fielder dropped a fly ball, or we more than likely we would’ve lost that game. We were down 1-0. We were supposed to go to the state that year and I threw a no-hitter and got beat by South Greene at Hunter Wright Stadium (the final game of his high school career).”
Kite’s so-so career at ETSU was hampered by injuries.
“One of my best memories from ETSU was when we swept The Citadel when they were ranked in the Top 25,” Kite said. “That was one of our biggest highlights. I mean I had a decent college career, but a lot of the time I was injured. So it was tough.
“I didn’t get to my full potential until my second year of pro ball. I got healthy playing up there in Winnipeg. That was the Northern League at the time.”
Kite had mixed results pitching for Cleveland in the Appalachian League and New York-Penn League during his first two seasons out of college (2004-05). At Winnipeg in 2006 he went 1-1 with 12 saves and a 1.96 ERA. He struck out 54 and walked 16 in 46 innings, which led to dining with Buck O’Neil, George Brett and Fergie Jenkins.
“I made the Northern League All-Star game in Kansas City and I got to sit down and have lunch with Buck O’Neil, Fergie Jenkins, George Brett,” he said. “I got to pick their brains and have some fun with them. When Buck O’Neil came out to us he came in singing, ‘The greatest thing in life I see is loving you.’ He came out singing a song before he said any words.”
Kite missed the 2007 season due to injury. He returned to independent league ball in 2008 when he pitched for Sioux Falls in the American Association. He had a 2.31 ERA with 26 strikeouts and eight walks in 23 1/3 innings, helping him land a free agent deal with Detroit in 2008. He went 5-4 with two saves and a 3.21 ERA in two seasons for Detroit’s Double-A Erie SeaWolves before injuries concluded his career. He had three shoulder surgeries in 2012-13.
His time with the Tigers was memorable. Oddly enough, he’d met Justin Verlander seven years earlier in the Coastal Plains League.
“His dad was a lawyer, I think, for union workers,” Kite said. “I think he was already pretty well off. He had this black Mustang and we were going to the lake and I was riding with him. We were going over to ride jet skis, and I ain’t kidding you, man, he would drive with this need-for-speed type attitude. I was like, ‘Man, you need to slow down. You realize you’ve got a million-dollar arm in here?’”
Kite recalled watching future Atlanta Braves player Wes Helms put on a power display in batting practice that season for Gastonia.
“Wes Helms was putting on a home run derby,” Kite said. “Verlander was like, ‘Man, I’d love to be facing him right now.’ I was like, ‘What are you gonna do special tonight?’ He said, ‘Well, I think I’m gonna walk the bases loaded and then strike the side out.’ And sure enough, he goes out there the first inning and walks the first three and then strikes the side out.
“It was so easy for him. I mean this guy is throwing 100 miles an hour and a six-foot drop on his breaking ball. He was just in a different world from anybody else. He lived with us before he got with his host family. He was a cool guy. Me and Tim Turner were coming from East Tennessee State. We had an unbelievable team and I think we finished dead last.”
Kite had brushes with Al Kaline, who died Monday, Mickey Lolich and Jim Leyland while with Detroit. He was in his first big league Spring Training camp in 2009.
“My first big-league Spring Training debut was in 2009,” Kite said, “and Jim Leyland came over to me and said, ‘Hey, Lefty. Man, keep showing me that good stuff and I might see you up here.’ And I thought he was gonna talk to me, because he said, ‘Hey, come here, I want to give you something.’
“I was like, ‘Oh man, sweet.’ And I walk over there and he hands me about eight boxes of Little Caesars pizzas and says, ‘Hey, take them over to those minor-league boys and make sure they get fed.’ I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to get me something special,’ and he hands me about eight boxes of Little Caesars pizza.”
Kite was given pause when he heard of Kaline’s death Monday. He said Kaline and Lolich were good company.
“Those guys were fun to be around. They had so many good stories,” Kite said while talking about how they played a purer game before technology and analytics. “They basically just grabbed a bat and went outside and played ball. … Kaline would always come around and talk with the guys at lunch where we’d eat. He’d sit down and tell a few stories.”
Kite got to participate in an exhibition game at Turner Field at the end of Spring Training in 2009.
“In 2009 I got invited to mini-camp and got to pitch with the big-league club four or five times,” Kite said. “I got to travel up to Turner Field for an exhibition game. That was pretty fun. I didn’t get to go in, but got to throw in the bullpen.”
Kite got to pitch for Panama in a World Baseball Classic exhibition game that year.
“The Panamanians needed a left-handed pitcher,” Kite said. “So I got to go with them. I signed a one-day contract with the World Baseball Classic to pitch for Panama. I didn’t even cash the check. You know, I got to throw one pitch. I faced Jeff Larish. One pitch, one out. It was a groundout to second base.
“I threw one pitch for Panama in the World Baseball Classic. Carlos Ruiz was my catcher.”
Cleveland got little more than one pitch out of Juan Gonzalez when they took a chance on the slugger coming off an injury when Kite was in the Indians organization in 2004.
“Juan Gonzalez was in extended Spring Training with us rehabbing his hamstring,” Kite said. “And man, he just had a really good Spring Training. I wanna say he ended up signing for $800,000 for one year and then when he went up with the big-league club, the first pitch he grounded out to shortstop and blew his hamstring out. So he got $800,000 and the next thing you know, he’s retired.
“I struck him out a few times swinging out a slider. And then I’ll never forget the one time he lined one back off my toe, busted my toe. I bled threw my sock and they flew me to Akron to see a podiatrist. … Luckily, I had an ingrown toenail in there and they went ahead and took care of it. But I tell you what, you talk about hurting. It busted my toenail completely in two.If it’d hit me in the face it would’ve killed me. I went to Mahoning Valley right after that and never could get it together.”
Baseball is in Kite’s blood. It’s unsettling having no baseball being played – from Little League Baseball to Major League Baseball – in April due to the pandemic.
“They just canceled the British Open,” Kite said. “They’ve rescheduled The Masters for November. They postponed the Olympics. I heard they could possibly be playing Major League Baseball games in Arizona with no fans. …
“It’s trying times for America. … I trust my faith and put it in God’s hands and hopefully something good will come out of all this.”