ANAHEIM, Calif. — Just the other day, in another ballpark in another dugout in another September in another pennant race, his manager looked at him and said without context, “You know, Kip, there’s been a lot of thick and there’s been some thin. But in the seven years I’ve been here I’ve never seen you not run hard. I don’t know if you know how much that means to me.”
That’s about where Terry Francona left it with Jason Kipnis, as nothing more than an observation, one man to another, a couple guys standing in a crowd with a ballgame to play. They’d lost plenty together, won a little more, dusted themselves off, maybe had a beer, gotten some sleep and tried again. They’d chosen careers in a business where the results are printed in the paper every morning, so there’d be no getting around that if they’d wanted to, and some mornings they probably did.
But hadn’t they also shared a goblet-full of celebrations, hadn’t they also laughed and danced to the same blaring music, hadn’t they also stood together one night one November, for 10 innings hearing the same roar in their heads? Wasn’t that great, too?
The game is designed to be a little messy. It goes on for too long, is played by too many and takes too many bad hops to end otherwise. Those who last in it have found not a way to smooth the bad hops, but a way to live with them. Sometimes it means playing to a single standard, being present, going along, putting in the work, and trying not to count it up along the way. Sometimes it means running hard. Sometimes that’s all there is.
Jason Kipnis has always been a Cleveland Indian, from the second round of the 2009 draft to today. He was an All-Star, twice. He drew MVP votes, once after a season in which he hit all of nine home runs. He was their best player for a time and, granted, they got better when he wasn’t. He’s a 32-year-old second baseman inching, unless the Indians were to pick up a $16.5-million option for next season, toward free agency. He also is a part of this, of a few more weeks of regular-season baseball games that could lead to more, if the young pitchers hold up, if the replacements for Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin and Corey Kluber hold up, if they all hit enough and run hard enough and win enough.
“We’re definitely capable,” he said. “It just comes down to doing it.”
Yeah, just that. He was in the visitor’s clubhouse here Tuesday night, paused between trips to this room and that room, between getting his body right and his head calmed, just long enough to consider who he’d become in a decade as a Cleveland Indian, and if this is what he’d expected a decade earlier.
“You start to appreciate the process more,” he said. “In the beginning you’re so — whether it’s in baseball or life — you’re so focused on the end result, the goal, and now it’s almost like I get enjoyment out of the grind every day. Whether it’s because you realize that whole idea of a future is not guaranteed or in front of you, when you don’t know how many more years you have left to play, you’re starting to soak up everything a little bit more. Appreciate it for what it is. Like, even if it is a challenge, it’s appreciated, instead of looking at it as an obstacle.
“I think you start to look at more experiences and memories instead of materialistic things. Those start to mean a little more to you. Because, you’ve done stuff. So, if it’s something new, that brings you a little more enjoyment than something, I guess, that you’re used to. Like, I haven’t played at San Diego yet. It’s the only stadium that I haven’t played at yet. I know if I do get to play there next year, that’ll be like a rookie season for me. I love looking at new stadiums. So I look forward to stuff like that. I guess perspective does change and I think for the better.”
He hit .303 once. And .230 once. He played for a team that lost 94 games. And for a team that left one win out there, somewhere. Maybe his best over six or seven months is behind him, but maybe not over a game here and there, over a few weeks at a time, over enough to help catch the Minnesota Twins or Oakland A’s or whomever needs to be caught across the next 16 games. And, then, after that, October isn’t played at 32 years old. It’s played in the moment, at that moment.
Growing a bit older, a bit slower, in a game that demands younger and faster is perhaps best left for the other guy. Yet, it comes for them all, one at a time. Then, suddenly, he looks down at the only uniform he’s ever worn and wonders how many more days. How many more wins. How many more memories. The answer, of course, is all of them.
“I think it’s something that’s going to hit you more once you’re gone,” Kipnis said. “I think I’m going to go through the process that I know I have to go through of saying goodbye. And it’s going to hit me more if everything is new next year. A new spring training. New teammates. It might be a breath of fresh air. It might be nice and exciting and give me a little jolt. In everyone and every life, comfort is a good thing. And there’s also a lot of progression to be made outside of your comfort zone. But there’s nothing wrong with knowing something you’ve been a part of, known like the back of your hand, for a long time. I will miss that aspect for sure about it. I’ve had ups and downs, even with the fans. They’ve loved me. They’ve hated me at different points. Maybe you get to that point where you’re tired of hearing that down side.
“I’m going to go, roll it out there, play as hard as I can, and leave with my chin up. And that’s the way you kind of want to look at it. You’re like, I’m going to go playing as hard as I always have, with my respect, and I think they’ve always come around to respect that, how I play the game, and hopefully it’ll be a mutual blessing to part ways gracefully at that point.”
Meantime, he said, “I want to go out with a bang. If I have a chance to go out, on even better graces, with a deep playoff run, something just to show my appreciation and make sure they know I’ve given everything that I have for the time I’ve been in this jersey. That’d be the ideal way. Whether that’s going to happen, you never know. So that’s why you go out and do what you can and with respect and hopefully that’s enough.”
If you have to ask, yes, he is proud of the past decade. He did more — a lot more — than run hard. Sometimes it wasn’t perfect. It couldn’t be. But he also ran hard. You know, just in case. Because it always meant something to him, too.
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