Growing up in Granite City, the baseball-loving kid had no clue how far the game would take him.
How could he imagine the places he would go, the people he would meet?
Kirk Champion is a modest man. He makes you pull stories out of him. It’s worth the effort.
There was that time when he was the pitching coach for the Birmingham Barons, and an outfielder named Michael Jordan joined the Class AA club. The ESPN “30 for 30” documentary that rehashes the basketball legend’s failed baseball experiment in 1994 “was pretty accurate,” Champion said.
How about a success story? Retired reliever Roberto Hernandez launched a 17-year career that included two All-Star seasons after Champion helped the righthander fix some mechanical flaws in 1989. “I’ve never made someone an All-Star,” Champion protested.
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Like the players, the travel runs together. Thanks to his involvement with Team USA, Champion has coached in front of 40,000 fans in Havana, Cuba. He’s traveled to Taiwan, Germany, Amsterdam, Venezuela and more. Forty-eight states. Thirteen countries. “If they call me, I show up,” he said.
Sometimes during one of these trips, like when he first wandered the streets of Rome, he finds himself reflecting on what a rewarding journey it’s been.
Champion’s passion was obvious as he spoke to a small crowd of amateur coaches during last weekend’s Midwest Baseball and Softball Coaches Convention. It was one of his last few free days before spring training, and here he was in a St. Charles casino explaining how the proper wrist action on a slider should resemble the subtle twisting of your car radio’s volume knob. When he wasn’t presenting, he was listening intently to the other speakers. Occasionally he would punch some notes into his phone, reminding himself to incorporate Blue Jays field coordinator Eric Wedge’s message on positive motivation, or to try out one of Mets assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler’s favorite tee drills.
During a coffee break, Champion agreed to discuss his impressive career.
“I honestly thought I would never leave Southern Illinois,” he said.
He figured he had made it big back then. After he graduated from Missouri State, he turned his assistant coaching job there into the head coaching position at Rend Lake College, where he spent four years “keeping score, taping ankles, waving them around third” and everything else a community college coach does. Jumping to Southern Illinois as a pitching coach was a dream job. Until the next dream job came along.
“Intriguing opportunities would pop up,” Champion said. “Your interest, or your ego, would say, I could do that. It just happened.”
Baseball is in the Champion family’s blood. Kirk’s brother, Keith Champion, is an advance scout for the Giants who once was a catcher in the Cardinals system. There’s a field in Granite City named after their father, legendary high school coach Conrad “Babe” Champion. Meanwhile, Kirk is entering his 29th consecutive year with the White Sox. His latest promotion came with an important title — director of instruction for player development — and the responsibility of overseeing how the entire organization teaches defense, hitting and pitching.
“A lot of guys bounce around,” Champion said. “I have just been fortunate enough to stay in the same organization, with a lot of different role changes along the way.”
His tenure is a testament to his performance. He’s the definition of a grinder. He climbed the ladder from the bottom rung.
Four years as a pitching coach in Class A. Four years as a pitching coach in Class AA. Five years as a pitching coach in Class AAA. White Sox pitching coordinator for a decade. Five years as the team’s field coordinator after that. He’s won championships at each minor league level and has a World Series ring from 2005.
His rise to the top of the White Sox farm system coincides with the arrival of some important young players. The White Sox stockpiled talent this offseason, trading ace Chris Sale and outfielder Adam Eaton for prospects that included four names featured on MLB.com’s top-40 prospects for 2016: second baseman Yoan Moncada (No. 1), pitcher Lucas Giolito (No. 3), pitcher Michael Kopech (No. 30) and pitcher Reynaldo Lopez (No. 38).
“We will all be one happy family here in a minute,” Champion said. “You’ve seen film. You’ve seen the hype.”
The hype is in Champion’s care now. Casual White Sox fans will not know the impact the Granite City native makes on the club’s major league future. That’s completely fine with him.
“I’ll turn 60 in September,” Champion said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I haven’t reached the big leagues, but I have reached some pinnacle-type excitement.”
It was time for Champion to get going. A situational hitting presentation by Indians assistant coach Mike Barnett was coming up. Champion hoped to acquire a tip he could learn, then pass along.