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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rich Tunison Interview, Part 2: Baseball Profiles

Rich Tunison, center, his wife Brenda and daughter Allyson, 10, on Easter 2012. Also with Tunison are his mother, Jan, aunt Cindy and mother-in-law Anne. (Photo Provided)

Rich Tunison autographed 1990 Appleton Foxes cardRich Tunison looked around the bus en route to that spring 1991 game and he couldn't help but be in awe.

On that bus in spring 1991 was the Kansas City Royals, including the likes of George Brett and Danny Tartabull.

Also there was Rich Tunison, already tagged for the AA club, but called over to major league camp for the day.

"I was just a nobody sitting there and admiring," Tunison recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently. He then corrected himself, "I wasn't a nobody, I was there for a reason. But they were super stars and I was admiring the whole way."

For Tunison, though, the Royals' second-round pick in the 1989 draft, that was about as close to the majors has he would get.

Tunison spoke with The Greatest 21 Days recently by phone from his Florida home, where he lives with his wife and 10-year-old daughter.

Part 1: Bigger Deal | Part 2: That Mentality

He covered his roots in the game, his early success in junior college, success that led directly to the Royals putting him high on their 1989 draft board. (Part 1)

Old Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Rich Tunison played there as member of visiting Appleton Foxes in 1990 and 1992. Photo is from New Veterans Memorial Stadium gift shop wall in April 2012.
He also talked of early success in the minors, but also about how injuries and his own ego helped prevent him from playing longer and getting further.

Tunison's career with the Royals began with that selection in the second round. It was high enough for Tunison to forgo a scholarship to LSU, where he'd signed out of junior college, and take the Royals $75,000 offer. Tunison, his father and grandfather negotiated the deal.

With the Royals, Tunison was sent to short-season Eugene. He called the transition between college and the pros like night and day, with the cohesive team from college turning into team of different pieces put together.

His year, there, Tunison recalled could best be termed mediocre. "I stole my bases," Tunison recalled, "but I didn't hit for average. I think I hit .228 or something ridiculous, played a good first base, but as a team, they penciled me in the line up, third every night."

He also lost some time suffering an injury on a play at the plate. Tunison didn't recall if he was safe or out, but the end result was he stepped wrong and rolled his ankle. Once back, though, Tunison recalled he was fine.

Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium, home to the South Bend Silver Hawks in 2011. Rich Tunison played there in 1990 and 1992 as a member of the visiting Appleton Foxes. (G21D Photo)
Tunison's second year, his one at single-A Appleton, was arguably his best. He hit .300, with eight home runs and 32 stolen bases. He also battled for the league RBI title, coming up three short the final day for a total of 86. If he had a weakness that year, it was his strikeouts, 115 of them.

Tunison also made the All-Star game that year in Quad City. Before that June game, Tunison recalled, was a get-together on a riverboat, with Royals legend Dan Quisenberry as the speaker. By that time, Quisenberry had moved on from the Royals, but Tunison recalled the reliever taking note of Tunison's status in the Royals system.

Tunison recalled being fortunate enough to talk be able to talk to Quisenberry, with the former reliever seeming to take a shining to him for a moment.

"When we were done and getting off the boat, he made it a real point to come over and talk to me," Tunison recalled, "Really for him it was just all about me being a Royal and noticing that I was the only Royal player there."

Tunison moved to AA Memphis the next year, just two steps from the majors. But he was also still a good distance away, with the likes of Bob Hamlin and Jeff Conine ahead of him at first base, not to mention Brett was still around.

At Memphis had a decent first half. In 55 games, he hit .250. Toward the end of the first half, Memphis visited Orlando. Tunison looked forward to that trip. His family was there, making the trip up from Fort Lauderdale.

So, after playing the first game of a double header, he jumped at the chance to play the second. He had been scheduled to have the second game off.

He recalled getting a couple hits that second game, then he got hit, in the field. Tunison recalled the Orlando hitter, Joe Siwa, hit a swinging bunt down the third base line.

"I reached in and grabbed the ball, Siwa hit me at the same time as I reached in," Tunison said. "I ended up fracturing my elbow. It was just one of those freak, close plays at first."

He was out the rest of the year. He stayed with the team, though, through the grueling rehab. He also had no doubt he would make it back.

AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds in 2008. Rich Tunison played in Memphis for the AA Memphis Chicks in 1991 and 1992. (G21D Photo)
But the injury, breaking the radial tip of the bone, proved more serious than thought. Multiple doctors looked at it, but there was little that could be done, Tunison recalled.

"There was no piece they could put in, there was no prosthetic they could make my elbow better with," Tunison said. "It ws just go out and do the best you can."

For a switch-hitter, too, Tunison said, the injury robbed him of the strength needed to get on top of the ball as a left-hander.

"Lord knows I worked my ass off on it and tried to get it better, but unfortunately, at that point starts the regression of my minor league career," Tunison said.

He started losing at bats back at Memphis, enough that he asked to be sent down just to get some work in. He arrived back at Appleton, where two years before he had tore up the league, and it was like a senior in high school going back to freshman year, Tunison recalled. He also just didn't hit.

By the next spring, Tunison thought he was going back to Memphis. The Royals, though, wanted to send him to high-A Wilmington. That's where Tunison admitted his ego got the best of him.

"I felt that I didn't want to go back there, just being a young person... it was little ego trip. I basically said 'no' and I walked out," Tunison recalled.

He didn't play at all that year. Instead, he went down to Miami and worked on Hurricane Andrew recovery.

By the next year, he was up to returning. His agent got him signed on with the Twins. He went to high-A, Fort Myers of the Florida State League.

"I got a real taste of what life was like without baseball," Tunison admitted. "I desperately wanted back in."

As the season went on, Tunison came to the realization that this would likely be his last season. He wasn't moving up. He recalled that as kind of liberating.

Digital Domain Park, home to the St. Lucie Mets in May 2011. Rich Tunison played there in 1994, his final year as a pro. (G21D Photo)
He started to enjoy the game for the first time in a long time. He enjoyed the bus trips. He enjoyed the motel stays. He enjoyed the crappy food.

"Knowing that probably I wasn't going any further, and there was still another three months left of baseball, I actually enjoyed those three months of baseball more than any time in my life," Tunison said. "I was still getting paid to play a game."

Then he went on to the next phase of his life.

Tunison is now happily married to his wife Brenda. Together, they have one daughter, Allyson, 10. Tunison works in the window covering business, selling blinds, shades, shutters and window fashions. He followed a high school friend into the business.

In his first years out of baseball, Tunison kept up with the game, signing on with a local amateur team, the Pompano Sea Dogs. They even won a national championship.

Tunison recalled playing that game with the knowledge of his pro days, including playing it knowing how not to get hurt.

"I wish I could have had that mentality when I played it as a young man," Tunison said. "I wish I could have had that same mentality, but, you know, age is wisdom."

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