GOODYEAR, AZ – Jason Kipnis’ baseball career has taken flight in Arizona after getting its start in Northbrook.
It has been a busy March for the former star, who took time out from spring training with the Cleveland Indians recently to reminisce about his hometown.
“I had an absolute blast growing up there,” Kipnis said. “I wear a Cleveland Indians uniform here, but I’m an all-Chicago guy. I root for every one of the teams. White Sox, Cubs, I like them both. I want the Cubs a little more right now because they could use a few more wins, I think. Anybody in the area has to love the Bulls, the Bears.
“I didn’t limit myself to one particular favorite player when I was a kid, but I was like everybody else. I wanted to be like Mike. Who doesn’t dream of being Michael Jordan?”
Right now, Kipnis is doing what most red-blooded American boys for the past 100 years have at least considered. He’s in a major league training camp, playing against his beloved White Sox, Cubs and even the World Series Champion, San Francisco Giants.
“I’m living the dream,” he said. “What’s not to like about this life?”
Arriving just after sunrise each morning to get a spot in the always-crowded batting cages, Kipnis takes a few cuts before heading out for regimented drills. These are particularly important for him, as he’s in the process of learning a new position: second base.
After a break for lunch, it’s time for a game. Early in camp, it was hours of more drills. Then came appearances in nine games with the big league team before he was sent back to the minors, where he now goes through the same routine with players heading to Triple-A Columbus Clippers or Double-A Akron Aeros.
Kipnis was not dismayed in the least at being sent down.
“I came in with no expectations,” he said. “The Indians told me they had none, either, other than they wanted me to go and play hard. That’s what I did. I watched the veterans every day to see how they went about their business. I learned just from watching.
“I didn’t come in trying to hit 1.000, and I wasn’t disappointed when I got sent back. They had told me in advance that was going to happen. I was just happy to have the time up with the big leaguers and to get the chance to learn.”
That’s pretty much what Kipnis was doing a decade ago in Northbrook, when he also was having fun while learning—from his dad
“Dad played a big role for me,” he recalled. “He always spent as much time as he could with me--pitching to me, giving me pointers, hitting grounders to me.
“I played Little League, Legion ball, if there was a league, I wanted to be part of it. The big thrill was always to play at , which is in the center of town. That’s where fans were more than moms and dads. You got a real crowd and it was always a thrill.
“There’s four or five of us, we played Little League ball, through high school. I talk to these guys four or five times every day. A couple of the guys came out to Arizona to watch me play this spring. I’ve got some great friends.
“One of my best friends’ dad, Scott Weiner, was our travel ball coach and he helped a lot with my development. Not as much as my dad, but he was important,” Kipnis said.
Kipnis enjoyed a variety of sports growing up, but said there was never any question that his goal was to become a professional baseball player. He knew it would not be easy, but could not have imagined some of the twists and turns he would encounter.
“I played all the sports--basketball, football,” Kipnis. “I was a wide receiver and a kick returner. I played a lot of soccer, so I was the place-kicker too. I’m the youngest of four brothers, and we all played baseball. My older sister played college softball at Maryland.
“I went to Kentucky to play baseball, but that didn’t work out. I transferred to Arizona State and I was very lucky to get a chance to play for a top-ranked program like that. The books say I went to Kentucky as an infielder, but that’s not right. I was an outfielder,” he explained.
After hitting .337 in 34 games at Kentucky, his career blossomed in the Arizona sun. Kipnis batted .371 with 14 homers, 76 runs, 73 RBIs and 24 stolen bases in 28 attempts in 62 games for the Sun Devils in 2008 as a sophomore. He was then drafted by the San Diego Padres in the fourth round.
He stayed in college and had another fine season as a junior, hitting .384 with 16 homers, 77 runs, 71 RBIs and 27 steals in 33 tries over 63 games in 2009. The Indians made him their second-round draft choice.
“When the Indians drafted me, it was a big day, but I don’t think I fully understood that until later,” Kipnis said. “We [ASU] were in the playoffs [the College World Series] at the time and I was focused on that. A group of guys were watching the draft on TV with our coach, Pat Murphy, and when my name was called, it was pretty cool.
“We didn’t go crazy. There were some hugs and handshakes, but we were more focused on what we had to do. We were thinking about playing our next game.”
Kipnis had a fine pro debut at Mahoning Valley, an Indians farm team about 90 miles east of Cleveland. He hit .306 in 29 games.
Last year, he skipped a level to start the season with the Kinston Indianas in North Carolina, was promoted to Double-A Akron Aeros and finished the year helping the Columbus Clippers win the Triple-A championship.
He hit .300 at Kinston, .311 at Akron and totaled 16 homers, 96 runs and 74 RBIs before going to Columbus for the playoffs.
“Last year really was something,” Kipnis said. “I think I am very fortunate to have moved across all those levels in one year. There are some players who have been stuck at a level for three years and I feel for them. That’s got to be really tough.
“Akron’s season was over and then they called and asked me to go and help at Columbus. That was a great experience. The guys with the Clippers were so professional they made it really easy for me. It was a smooth transition because they treated me great. I was part of the clubhouse right away, so there was no pressure," he recalled.
“I didn’t go there thinking that I had to prove myself. I went thinking that I would do whatever I could to help those guys finish what they started. They would have won it without me, but it was nice to help.”
Kipnis hit .389 in four games, all as the designated hitter. He hit for the cycle (single, double, triple, homer) in the Clippers’ 13-2 victory over Durham that clinched the International League title.
"They bring up Kipnis from Akron and we look at this little guy and say, 'Where did he come from and what is he doing here?' " said veteran catcher Luke Carlin. “We were teasing him and all he does is go out and hit about a million. I mean, here's this little infielder and they put him in the fifth spot as the designated hitter. What's that about? He goes out and hits for the cycle. Then he nearly hits for another one.”
Kipnis’ early spring this year was not as prolific. He hit .167 in nine brief appearances with the big league club before being sent to the minor league camp. He doesn’t regard it as a failure. In fact, he considers himself a much better player for the experience.
“Until the Indians switched me to second base last year, I had not played the infield in six years, since my junior year in high school,” he said. “So working with [veteran] Orlando Cabrera this spring was huge.
“He would come by from time to time and show me how to do something a little differently on defense. He would show me stuff and I paid attention because he’s been one of the best in the business in the infield for a long time.”
About a decade from now, the Indians hope to say the same of Kipnis .