This month’s “C” word has been COMPOSURE, which, in the “C” You In The Major Leagues lexicon, means that a person is calm in the eye of the storm; slows the game down; poised; and shows self-control. That usually described Royals Hall of Fame shortstop Fred Patek. With Patek being the August “Coaches with Character” honoree, we thought this would be a good time to remember more of Patek’s story, leading off with one when he was able to remain calm in the eye of a storm.
Freddie Patek is sitting with a group of friends and former teammates at Chappell’s Sports Museum and Restaurant. One of those former teammates, Royals Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Leonard, recalls a time when he unintentionally helped start a brawl in Texas. That prompts Patek, who’s quick to admit that he always tried to stay on the outside of fights, to tell a wonderful story about another scuffle between the Royals and the Rangers.
“Again, I was trying to stay on the outside of the fighting,” the 5-foot-4 Patek says, “but the next thing I knew, someone grabbed me by the back of my jersey. I thought, “Oh, man, this isn’t going to be good!” I turned around and it was Billy Martin, who was Texas’ manager then. Because of his fiery personality, I knew he was going to lay me out. But no, instead he pulled me by the collar to the pitcher’s mound and said, “You just stay here with me. We’ll be out of trouble up here.””
As the group continues to talk, it seems Patek is getting most of the double-takes from Chappell’s customers. For many of the onlookers, it’s the realization that Patek, who made up half of one of baseball’s best double-play combinations during the 1970s, is back in the public more and more after several years of isolation. For others it’s the realization that Patek looks so good for all that he’s been through. For most, though, it’s just the realization that this is Freddie Patek.
“I’ve always tried to do a lot in the community and keep a good reputation,” said Patek, “and I think that’s part of it. I still have people that I did something for years ago come up to me and say something, which is nice because it was meaningful to them.
“When I played, though, because I was small, people related to me. They’d see this little short guy playing pretty good, which is also part of it.”
Patek, a little more than humble, was very good for a player 5-4 or even 6-4.
During his career with the Royals, 1971-79, he was a two-time All-Star, led the American League in triples in 1971, and in stolen bases in ’77. He was the first player to steal a base at Kauffman Stadium, and the first to score a run there. He was the first Royal to hit for the cycle, which he did on July 9, 1971.
As if all of that weren’t enough, in 1980 while playing for the then-California Angels in a game at Boston, Patek became just the second shortstop in major-league history to hit three home runs in a game. (He also doubled off the top of the Green Monster that game.)
“You know, the thing I remember most from that game,” Patek says, “is that the fans in Boston gave me a standing ovation after the third home run. They did it so long that I went back out and tipped my hat. That’s really unique for a visitor, but Fenway and the Boston fans were special.”
Like many Royals who played throughout the 1970s, however, Patek is remembered as a member of the great Kansas City clubs that couldn’t get past the New York Yankees in three playoff series — 1976, ’77 and ‘78. And, frankly, for many years that was tough for Patek to handle.
“At that time it was important,” Patek says of the three American League Championship Series losses. “It would’ve been great to go to the World Series, but it’s OK that I didn’t. Today those losses look so small compared to what life is all about.
“Those losses gave me a lot of knowledge later in life about how to deal with disappointment. Losses like those are hard, but when you look back in the reality of life, they weren’t quite as big in the real world. When you go through difficult times, you find out about life is all about.”
Patek knows that better than most.
On July 21, 1992, two days after the Royals inducted Patek into their Hall of Fame, his youngest daughter Kim was in a car accident on Interstate 29. The accident left her paralyzed from the neck down.
For the next three years, most of that time spent in their home, Fred and his wife Jerri cared for Kim around the clock. There were times she nearly didn’t make it through the night. However, in June 1995, Kim died. She was 23.
Like many parents who suffer through the death of a child, Fred cut himself off from the outside world. Nothing meant what it once had. Including the years caring for Kim, Fred Patek, one of the most visible sports figures in Kansas City history, went into a dark isolation for more than 10 years.
“I was in a shell,” he said. “When you go through that, you go through so many emotions — hurt, sad, angry, and you don’t understand. There’s more than what words can explain. The only thing I can tell you is that I was never the same; I was totally different.”
It’s only through his strong belief in God, the encouragement of Jerri and their oldest daughter Heather, Freddie Patek didn’t go into complete despair. Of course, there was Jordan, Patek’s first grandchild. She was born just a few months after Kim died.
“She saved my life,” Patek says quietly of Jordan, who played golf at UMKC. “She’s the one God gave me to keep me going.”
Of course, as oftentimes happens in life, even when Fred started coming out of the constant darkness and making more appearances and visiting people in hospitals, more hardships began. In 2005, he had unique shoulder surgery to repair the damage that years of throwing had done. At one point he was one of about 400 people in the world with a cobalt shoulder. Two months after that operation, Patek’s heart required triple-bypass surgery.
“You wonder if things are ever going to stop,” said Patek. “It’s just another thing to test your faith. You accept that. God’s a part of my life and that’s all that matters.”
Today, Patek looks great. He’s back in the community more. He’s been a little league coach for nearly 30 years, and he’s enjoying every possible second with his family.
“It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t in the public although I wish now that I had been out there more,” he said. “It wasn’t the smart thing to do but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Looking back, I wish I would’ve done things differently.”
Patek is back to talking baseball again, also. About the letters he received and the countless comments he’s heard about how inspirational he was on the field. In fact, when it comes down to it, in spite of his accomplishments during his major-league career, Patek’s most proud of one thing from his career — the fact that he had one.
“It’s still special to me that I played for so long when I wasn’t supposed to make it at all,” he says. “People tell you all your life you can’t do it, but you do it for almost 14 years. That’s pretty good.”