The very concept seems almost incomprehensible, yet Karl Kuehl repeats it regularly: Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to him.
Kuehl says he did not do well during his 1976 season at the helm of the Montreal Expos. “I did not do a very good job at Montreal, but I learned from it.”
What Kuehl took away from the experience was something that would almost become a mantra for him: the concept of failure as an education. He would repeat it to generations of young players, assuring them that the mistakes they make could be transformed into learning experiences to build better careers and stronger character.
Kuehl may not have been destined to manage, but he has excelled at just about every other challenge he has faced in the game of baseball. He has been a top scout, farm director, special instructor and adviser for front office personnel. It is the type of resume that made him the perfect choice for the 2006 Roland Hemond Award for long-term contributions to scouting and player development.
“I am absolutely humbled by this,” Kuehl said. “This is such a great honor. I have the highest respect for Roland, and I am so pleased to win an award that carries his name.”
Kuehl currently serves as Special Adviser to Baseball Operations for the Indians. He became something of a household name in baseball back in the ’80s when he presided over the Oakland A’s minor-league system that produced three consecutive American League Rookies of the Year. His enduring claim to fame is that he is considered the authority on the mental game of baseball, co-authoring two books on the subject and helping countless players and coaches deal with the intricacies of mental fundamentals.
In his books and various seminars, Kuehl lays out the mental challenges facing baseball players and discusses strategies for dealing with these tests. His work has been revolutionary in making understandable the mental functions of successful major leaguers so that future generations can understand the game from the inside out.”
“I would go around and ask players about their mental games,” Kuehl said. “I would just start talking and find out what made them tick.” While coaching for the Twins from 1976 through 1982, he made a regular practice of chatting with successful big leaguers, the likes of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, about the mental side of baseball. He brought together his ideas in The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance, which he co-authored with Harvey Dorfman (Diamond Communications, 1989), a book that is on the shelves of most college and professional coaches. He followed last year with Mental Toughness: A Champion’s State of Mind (Ivan R. Dee, 2005), co-authored with his son, John Kuehl, and Casey Tefertiller.
With a half-century in professional baseball, Kuehl, 69, brought a special a special skill to the Indians when general manager Mark Shapiro lured him out of semi-retirement in 2002. Kuehl had been working on special assignments for Major League Baseball, including setting up the Australian Baseball Academy.
“Karl’s been a mentor and an inspiration to many in the organization, starting with me,” Shapiro said. “He has a passion for the game, a knowledge of the game, that has inspired everyone in the organization that he’s worked with. From the way we structure our Latin American Organization to our fundamental programs in the minor leagues, he’s had an impact on everything we’ve done.”
As the Indians’ farm director, John Farrell has worked most closely with Kuehl. Farrell left the job last month to assume the duty of pitching coach with the Red Sox.
“Karl has been much more than an adviser to us,” Farrell said. “To be able to tap into his experiences, 50 years in the game, and for him to be open and willing to allow me in. It has allowed me to gain some wisdom and experience. He has become a confidant: every time I’ve faced a new challenge, he’s been there to help. Whether it has been with a staff situation, staff development, dealing with players, he’s been there to help. He always takes a different approach to the game; he always thinks outside the box. That was a huge resource to know that at the drop of a phone call, I could get his thoughts on anything that came across my desk.”
Gaining all that experience has proved a life of adventure in baseball. A lefty first baseman, he signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 1955 after graduating from Huntington Park High in Southern California. In 1959, at the age of 21, he was named manager at Class B Salem in the Northwest League, making him the youngest full-time manager in baseball history. He continued as a player manager at Geneva, N.Y., in the New York-Penn League in ’61 and ’62 before moving to a new job–scouting for the Houston Astros under the legendary Tal Smith. Kuehl would be instrumental in the signings of Larry Dierker, Tom Griffin, Don Wilson, Bob Watson and Fred Stanley.
“He was a great evaluator of talent,” Smith said. “He did a great job as a scout, in Southern California primarily. Karl has a lot of great talents–he’s tireless, relentless. He chased down any possible lead scouting-wise.”
But Smith noticed something else about his young scout: “In his early years, Karl used to question as to why things were done the way they were. He wanted to understand the underlying reason for why things were done, so he could find a way they could be done better. He was always looking for a way to improve on how things were done.”
He moved to the Seattle Pilots in 1969, working as both a scout and minor league manager/instructor when the the team moved to Milwaukee the next year. In 1972 he moved to the Expos organization, where he spent two years managing at Double-A, then two more at Triple-A before assuming the big-league job. The Expos went 43-85 before he was replaced, but he had already made the decision he would not return.
“It was a bad experience,” he said. “I did not enjoy dealing with the press, or with the front office. My wife (Norma) told me, ‘I don’t know if they’re going to offer you another contract, but if they do, we (she and the children) aren’t coming back.'”
He realized what he did very well, and he concentrated on those skills. “I’m a teacher,” he says simply. And teaching would become his role for the rest of his career. As a coach with the Twins, then moving on to become Director of Player Development for Oakland, a job he held from instructional league of 1983 to 1991 before becoming Special Assistant for Baseball Operations for the A’s through ’95. He would work with Toronto for two years in player development before taking on special assignments for the Commissioner’s office, then moving to the Indians.
It was with the A’s that he established his legacy. The farm system produced the type of talent that would lead the organization to three consecutive World Series Appearances, in 1988, ’89 and ’90. Among the farm-produced stars were Rookies of the Year Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss, plus Terry Steinbach, Scott Brosius, Mike Bordick, Miguel Tejada and Mike Gallego. He played a key role in helping Dave Stewart achieve stardom. He also developed the A’s Latin American program, which includes a massive complex in the Dominican Republic.
“Karl was my big break and played a huge role in my career in becoming a major league player,” McGwire said in an e-mail this week. “The hours he would spend with me throwing BP and hitting ground balls to me . . . it allowed me to play in big-league spring games in ’86. . . . He was very hard on me, which I respected, but didn’t like at times, but a huge reason for them to see me play at that level before I should! I just needed fine tuning, mental toughness and realizing that it doesn’t happen overnight. When you put his knowledge and my work ethic together, it made a pretty darn good ballplayer, who surpassed everything we both might have wished for. (He is) one of the last true baseball men.”
Through his years, Kuehl was always innovative. He made weight training an integral part of workouts at a time when most of baseball scoffed at the idea. He changed baseball’s way of thinking by having players practice when tired so they would know how to excel through exhaustion. He was rigid in minor league curfews and bed-checks, a product of seeing young players in Houston squander their careers because of slack discipline.
“He was a creative baseball genius,” said Keith Lieppman, who worked under Kuehl with the A’s and succeeded him as farm director. “He wasn’t afraid to try to the unorthodox or get into any aspect of the game, whether mentally or physically. He had a passion that turned him into a learner: he has a voracious appetite for all things pertaining to baseball. He was always finding some way to make the staff or the organization better. Beyond all that, he’s a good person. He cared about his staff and the people around him. He was always trying to help us become better as people, not just as coaches. He is a very special person.”
And Kuehl was never afraid of controversy. In 2004, when baseball’s steroids scandal broke, including some of his former charges, he was one of the first to speak out against the dangers, with a column in Baseball America.
Winning the Hemond Award is the culmination of a career of success and achievement for one of baseball’s great innovators, whose biggest lesson came through his own struggles as a manager.