Bucs’ Kison was fierce competitor

PITTSBURGH — When you think of a fierce Pittsburgh sports competitor, the image that probably comes to mind is Jack Lambert.

The snarl revealed missing teeth and a clue to his disposition. Woe to those who had to spend a Sunday afternoon trying to neutralize his hostility.

On the other hand, Bruce Kison, lanky and baby-faced, looked like a trombone player who had taken a wrong turn on his way to sign up for the marching band.

When he first arrived in the major leagues as a 21-year-old in 1971, grizzled manager Danny Murtaugh said, “I looked older than he does the day I was born.”

Appearances were deceiving. There wasn’t a hitter in the National League Kison didn’t feel comfortable drilling in the ribs if he felt the situation called for it. When he got to the World Series with the ’71 Pirates, we discovered he felt the same way about the American League.

Kison was called up during the ’71 season as a temp, a guy to fill two weeks in the bullpen while Bob Moose was working off his military obligation. Instead, Kison stayed the rest of the season and was on the postseason roster, too.

He may have looked like he’d skipped out on his school team, but he was major league ready, mature beyond his years, and he wasn’t intimidated by his new surroundings.

Kison was the winning pitcher in the clinching game of the 1971 playoffs against San Francisco. His career moment came in Game 4 of the World Series, the first ever to be played at night. Starter Luke Walker was knocked out early, but Kison allowed just one hit over 6 1/3 innings, held the fort and got the win.

Not insignificantly, he also hit three batters. Among them was Frank Robinson, whose Hall of Fame credentials were already established. It didn’t matter to Kison. Robinson was just another batter who was trying to take too much of the plate.

Kison also upended Davey Johnson with a take-out slide at second base. He was quickly making a national name for himself on the prime time stage, but he didn’t care about that. He was trying to win a game.

He unwittingly provided the ultimate Series sidebar when he scheduled his wedding for the evening of Game 7. Broadcaster Bob Prince mined a publicity lode by leaning on corporate connections to have a helicopter get Kison and best man Moose from Memorial Stadium to the airport, where a private jet waited for the ride to Pittsburgh.

Kison spent nine years with the Pirates, seasons that were dotted with shoulder, elbow and blister issues. He often seemed to be on the outside of the starting rotation, but guile and determination counted. He had those in abundance.

Free agency took him to Anaheim for five more years, followed by a finale season with Boston. He stayed in baseball, coaching and scouting until last season.

Word was the cancer that would wind up taking his life early Saturday morning was bad. Really bad. It had to be, otherwise Bruce Kison would still be battling, still staring down a tough prognosis with those steely eyes and strong will.

It’s ironic to lose Kison in a week where there was so much debate about rules governing slides and protecting players. He didn’t play the game that way. When Mike Schmidt irritated him, Schmidt got drilled with a fastball. When Schmidt charged the mound, Kison was windmilling those long arms to protect himself. He didn’t wait for someone else to take care of things.

Bruce Kison pitched in 390 major league games. He cared about helping his team win every one of them. That’s why his teammates will never forget him.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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