In 2016, Jason Kipnis nearly won a World Series against the Chicago Cubs. Now, the Cubs represent the next chapter of his career.
There’s probably something to fit in here about going home, or about journeys coming full-circle after so many years. Kipnis is from Northbrook, an Illinois neighborhood all of about 20 miles from Wrigley Field.
But discounting the fact that he will now wear the uniform of the very team that thieved a championship from him in 2016, there’s also something to be said about Kipnis leaving home.
Kipnis was drafted by the Indians in 2009, and he made his MLB debut in 2011. Kipnis wore an Indians uniform for 1,121 games and 4,849 plate appearances. He scored 594 runs, recorded 1,120 hits, swatted 252 doubles, swiped 135 bases, and slugged 123 home runs.
All of these cumulative numbers rank him somewhere inside the top 25 in Indians franchise history, and he surprisingly sits at 12th in doubles.
Kipnis was selected to the All-Star Game twice, in 2013 and 2015. There was a time early in his career when he was one of the best second basemen in the league.
Beyond his statistical contributions, many of which are admittedly the product of simply having spent so much time in Cleveland, Kipnis’ tenure in an Indians uniform should be remembered not solely for how well he played, but rather for the kind of player he was.
There’s an old adage shared by many a Little League coach to his players that you should never leave a baseball game with a clean uniform. Kipnis personified that advice, and was appropriately given the nickname, “Dirtbag.”
If Kipnis’ production dipped in the back half of his Indians career, his desire to win–always on full display by way of the grass and dirt staining his pants and jersey–never subsided for even an instant.
Kipnis also never failed to put the team before himself. Two years in a row, in 2017-18, the Indians needed to open up a spot in their infield alignment late in the season. In both instances, the shuffle required Kipnis to move to center field despite not having regularly played there since college.
It may not be readily apparent to the untrained eye how difficult it is to make such a transition with minimal time to prepare, but being thrust into center after nearly a decade of playing exclusively at second base is no small hurdle. While it’s unlikely Kipnis was thrilled with the idea, he made the move without complaint both times in the best interest of the team.
Along with Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana, Kipnis set the table for the Indians as we know them today. Cleveland’s roster wasn’t always populated with MVP candidates like Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez, nor did it possess nearly the level of starting pitching depth it currently enjoys.
The seasons in between 2007’s close encounter with the World Series and 2013’s Wild Card appearance were bleak, except for the promise laid across the horizon by Kipnis, Brantley, and Santana.
It should never be forgotten that the Indians’ ascent from no-name, small-market, sub-.500 team to star-laden World Series contender began, by and large, with the hustle and determination of Kipnis.
Kipnis’ Indians career is dotted with some unforgettable moments. He hit two home runs in the World Series in 2016, including a three-run bomb in Game 4 that appeared, at the moment, to ice the Cubs for good.
But for me, the defining moment of his tenure in Cleveland–the one that sums up his entire career in an Indians uniform–came in the fifth inning of Game 7.
The Indians had spotted the Cubs a 5-1 lead early. Especially considering the way Games 5 and 6 had gone, the Indians were down and out, and badly in need of a spark–some reason to believe again. Lindor stood at the plate with Kipnis on second base and Santana on third.
Jon Lester‘s 0-1 pitch got away from him, bouncing sharply off the mask of replacement catcher David Ross and disorienting him enough to allow the base runners to advance. Santana scored easily on the wild pitch, and that would normally have been the extent of the damage. But not with Kipnis on second.
Kipnis picked up a good bit of steam on his way to third, as opposed to simply jogging and taking for granted that he was only going to be able to move up one base. Once he saw that Ross and Lester might be unable to field the ball in a timely manner, he kicked into another gear and never stopped.
If Kipnis doesn’t sprint out of the gate, the third base coach probably doesn’t send him. Or maybe he does, but Kipnis gets tagged out at home. We’ll never know, because he hustled the whole way.
True to form, Kipnis’ uniform was suddenly covered in dirt from the chest down. The score was 5-3, and the home crowd at Progressive Field was given the chance to imagine that the unimaginable might just be in the cards on that cool November night.
Because of what Rajai Davis did three innings later, Kipnis scoring from second on a wild pitch in the fifth can get lost in the background of all the madness that ensued in this game’s final stages. But if Kipnis doesn’t give his all on this one play, Davis’ home run doesn’t tie the game in the eighth.
Kipnis’ deal with the Cubs is of the minor-league variety, meaning he’s not guaranteed to make the club to start the season. I hope he does. Even if it’s for the team that celebrated as I cried in 2016, I hope to see him out there, still giving it his very best.