The Real One-Five: How Kevin Millar became a star
|06.24.13 at 9:39 am ET|
Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 – with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on twitter @gabekapler.
In 2004, at a tiny breakfast spot at the base of the Westin Times Square in New York City, Kevin Millar and I sipped coffee and explored a number of familiar themes. As usual, Kevin was trying to persuade me to join him in the exercise of “show-driving” in a town car with tinted windows, bottled waters and crisp copies of the Wall Street Journal. As usual, despite his endless efforts and persuasive gifts, I remained steadfast in my desire to take the subway to the park.
But the substance that day involved more than the usual banter. That morning was a meeting that secured our bond as friends forever. It created a connection stronger than our love as teammates, which was already very much intact.
Kevin was struggling on the field, unable to bust out of a prolonged funk. He literally felt sick, as we all do when unable to make consistent contact and impact the outcome of a game in a positive way. He was vulnerable and authentic in a way that only Kevin could be. He approached the conversation without fear of judgment, with self-deprecation and humility that soaked him with likeability. He was seeking counsel, an endearing quality that made him instantly charming while never relinquishing his authority or position as an expert in the field of baseball.
I recently described Millar to a friend and he asked me if only non-superstars have the capacity to be so self-aware. I’ve had the blessing of playing with some pretty big names, many with enchanting qualities, none with his brilliant self-evaluation capability. In some cases, I observed the narcissism of those stars as essential to their success. By being singularly focused on their own tools and traits, and by evaluating these tools with an inflated self-worth, they manifested further success.
As a ballplayer, Kevin was productive throughout his career. He was as instrumental in the 2003 and 2004 seasons as nearly anyone on those rosters in getting to the postseason and beyond. He relished the opportunity to be part of a supporting cast rather than have the spotlight to himself, knowing there was plenty of shine to go around.
That’s part of what made those teams so special. The stars knew their roles and they played them in exactly the fashion necessary to win. And Millar was comfortable contributing with his bat, and perhaps more importantly, as the connective tissue between the big names and everyone else.
Of course, there existed a ceiling for him on the field. Kevin had physical limitations that would not allow him into the superstar class. He’d remind me, “I bring my ham hocks to the ballpark daily,” and I’d laugh, wishing I could pull off that sort of bravado. Those forearms never did the damage of David or Manny.
Nowadays, “The Real One-Five” spends his days analyzing baseball and getting teed up by Chris Rose on MLB Network’s Intentional Talk. As a TV personality, Kevin has none of the limitations that he encountered as a professional athlete. In this arena, he’s Manny, or perhaps Charles Barkley is the right comp. The same qualities that made Kevin likeable as a teammate, coupled with an intuition- and experience-driven knowledge of the game, suggest a legend in the making on television. He has the chops to educate and entertain.
Millar is a dirt dog. I know on some level, he wishes he could put on the uniform, BS in the clubhouse and make an impact in a major league game as he did as a player. The day may come where once again he brings nationalities together like he did with Pedro, Manny, David and our American players. You may see him tutoring a hitter in the cage or with a lineup card in his hand in the future.
For now, he will visit big league parks as a member of the media, making every vendor, parking lot attendant and journalist feel as though he or she is the most important human on earth. And when he looks into the camera and displays his authenticity, he’ll do the same for you.
Kevin Millar was a grinder as a baseball player. He never presumed to be a superstar, always mindful that his career was born as a St. Paul Saint in the independent leagues and that he was blessed to wear a big league uniform. It is the same charming humility that has made him an absolute superstar in his post-playing career, where his ability to make a connection with the audience is as unique as it was as a player, but in a field where those elements define greatness rather than simply the perfect locker-mate.
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