Kevin Kouzmanoff emphatically ended his Minor League career in late 2006, a moment he still finds hard to believe.
The young Indians prospect, hitting .353 at Triple-A Buffalo, caught a delayed flight from upstate New York to the heat of Texas on Sept. 2 and joined the Cleveland lineup. Facing the Rangers' Edinson Volquez, Kouzmanoff swung at the first pitch he saw.
"I'm walking up to the plate, I figured, 'Great, I'm a rookie, bases loaded, here we go,'" Kouzmanoff said. "I'm nervous, everyone is here to watch, my family. But then I thought, 'Hey, I've got nothing to lose.' Just be aggressive and swing the bat if I get a good pitch."
Kouzmanoff, stuffed on a coach bus touring the International League a day earlier, became the third player in Major League history to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat.
"Fortunately I got a good pitch, up in the zone ... hit it out of the park," Kouzmanoff said. "My family was there, and I'd just worked so hard for so long. My family was very supportive, it was a really cool moment for them to be there."
Kouzmanoff, the 23rd player in big league history to homer on his first pitch, capped four years of buzz in the Minors with his improbable debut. He's followed up his brief stint in Cleveland with three solid years with San Diego, setting an National League single-season record for third basemen with a .990 fielding percentage in 2009.
The Newport Beach, Calif.-born infielder was the Indians' sixth-round pick in the 2003 Draft out of the University of Nevada, where he hit .361 with 17 homers in 54 games in his final season, earning Western Athletic Conference MVP honors. He received a $45,000 signing bonus and shipped out to Class A Short-Season Mahoning Valley to begin his Minor League career that summer.
Money in his pocket and a ticket to Ohio, Kouzmanoff was taking the first steps to his goal.
"When I found out I'd been drafted, it was a dream come true," he said. "My biggest dream in college was to get drafted and I didn't really care about anything after that. That was my No. 1 goal, I didn't care what round, I just wanted to be affiliated with a Major League club."
The 6-foot-1 third baseman made his professional debut on June 17, 2003, driving in a run for the Scrappers on Opening Day against Batavia. He smacked his first career home run a day later and capped his first season with a personal-best four RBIs on Aug. 23 against Brooklyn.
Kouzmanoff's parents came over to watch him play as a rookie, and he remembers the town and ballpark fondly.
"It was a nice stadium ... good fans, they were very supportive. The stadium was in the parking lot of a mall, so it was kind of convenient," he said. "Our gym was right across the street. It was cool, I really enjoyed Mahoning Valley."
Ted Kubiak, Kouzmanoff's first manager with the Scrappers, loves to praise his former third baseman. The pair remain close and still talk defense.
"The thing that stood out the most of all was he just had an uncanny sense of how to approach a ground ball," said Kubiak, who won three World Series over a 10-year Major League career. "I've been teaching infielders a while, and he really wasn't a classic kind of fielder, but he had a good hands."
While his final offensive numbers (.272, eight homers in 54 games) were essentially cut in half from his college production, the Indians were prepared to bump Kouzmanoff up in 2004. He returned to form with Class A Lake County in his sophomore season, hitting .330 with 16 long balls and 87 RBIs in 123 games for the Captains.
It was at Lake County where Kouzmanoff became "Kooz."
"I remember in Lake County, the announcer would say my name, "Now batting for the Captains, Kevin Koooooozmanoff," he laughed. "My roommate Ryan Goleski would wear me out about that, he'd always make fun of me."
The "Kooz" chants didn't stick with him much the following year at Kinston and Akron, Kouzmanoff said, but it returned when he reached the Majors.
"I got up to the big leagues, and my first few at-bats, I'm not sure if they were boos or Kooz," he said. "I think they were people from Lake County. I didn't get a big dose of that with Cleveland, but when I came to San Diego, it just happened again."
"Kooz" enjoyed his first career multi-homer game on May 24, 2004 against Lakewood and put up a career-high five RBIs on July 27 against Lexington. He finished the season with a 10-game hitting streak and a South Atlantic League All-Star nod.
"My first couple practices, I realized that everybody can play catch and throw the balls instead of dropping them -- it was a lot more sound than in college," he said. "That was actually pretty nice."
Kouzmanoff was "a very quiet guy," Kubiak said. "He doesn't talk very much, doesn't say much, and he's very polite."
Except for that one time...
"I remember at Mahoning Valley, Teddy was our manager, and we came back from the bar one night, early morning, and we had this indoor pool at the hotel," Kouzmanoff said, beginning to laugh. "We all jump in with our clothes on, we're all loud and noisy. Finally we got a complaint and Teddy shows up -- he was old school, and he let us have it. 'You've gotta be more respectful!'"
Outside the pool, the pair grew closer.
"I've got a good relationship with him since 2003," Kouzmanoff said. "He's helped out a lot in my career. He's old school, he's been though the game. He's just a good baseball guy, a good friend. Very supportive."
The Indians gave Kouzmanoff a brief taste of Double-A in '04 when he appeared in seven games for Akron in late August. He went deep in his third start, but batted just .208 before returning to Lake County. He was promoted to Class A Advanced Kinston in 2005, hitting .339 with 58 RBIs in 68 games amidst back problems he sustained the previous fall. He continued improving in his final Minor League campaign a year later, flirting with a .400 average at Akron in 67 games.
"Joe Inglett was in front of me, and he was hitting like .500 for awhile. It was unbelievable," Kouzmanoff said. "It was weird, I was just seeing the ball well, that was the biggest thing."
A phone call away from Cleveland, Kouzmanoff was more focused than ever before. He could hear the drum beat from Jacobs Field.
"By this point in Akron, I wanted to get to the big leagues bad. That was all I breathed. I ate that, I slept that. It was all I thought about," he said. "I had one goal in life, and it was to get to the big leagues."
Splitting his time between third and designated hitter, Kouzmanoff took off with the Aeros in '06, raising his average to .458 on May 4. He homered in three straight games May 22-24, launched a pair on May 31, fell a homer shy of the cycle June 6 and finally went deep six times in seven games from July 16-22. Hitting .389, the Tribe promoted him to Buffalo on July 26.
He kept raking with the Bisons, homering in each of his first three Triple-A starts.
"Buffalo is a great town. I loved it there, although it was only for a month," he said. "I was just so hungry to get to the big leagues. And I was just lucky. I got the opportunity to play with the Indians, they pushed me through, and I took advantage of it. It was a good road. I got to play with my buddies all the way, so it was a good experience."
With Travis Hafner on the shelf and Kouzmanoff hitting .353 at Triple-A, the Indians made the call late in the year. Kouzmanoff singled in his final Minor League game Sept. 1 against Rochester and caught a flight to Texas to join Cleveland against the Rangers. A few hours later, he found himself in the Major League record books.
"Usually I get a feel for a guy if he'll make the Majors, but how well he'll do, it's hard to say," Kubiak said. "You don't know how he'll respond to pressure and everyday life. Kooz has certainly done a lot better than I ever thought he'd do -- he's a quality player who was consistent and that's what I look for."
Kouzmanoff said climbing through the Minors motivated him to reach higher and compete with his teammates. There were the "long bus rides and the grind," he said, but he made friendships and connections along the way.
"I befriended a few guys and I felt like each level I got to, I improved," he said. "You're on the same playing field as everyone else there, so I felt like I stepped up my game. I was the same caliber as those on the team, so I felt like I kept getting better."
Even with a National League fielding record to his credit, Kouzmanoff still has room for improvement -- at least according to his old skipper.
"He still confides in me, asks me about things he's doing in the field. I was watching him on TV one night, I see him field a ground ball and he didn't do it the way we worked on," said Kubiak, who currently serves as Cleveland's defensive coordinator. "So I called him up and left him a message."
Kouzmanoff found his phone in the locker room and endured the critique.
"It was an ESPN game, I got a tough grounder and after the game, I get this message from Teddy," Kouzmanoff laughed. "'You are not doing that correctly, you're fielding it the wrong way.' He's still criticizing me."
Minor League career breakdown
2003: Kouzmanoff is drafted by the Indians in the sixth round and begins his career at Class A Short-Season Mahoning Valley, batting .272 with 33 RBIs in 54 games. ||
2004: "Kooz" is given his nickname by Lake County fans as the third baseman earns South Atlantic League All-Star honors and reaches Double-A in his first full season in the Minors. ||
2005: Kouzmanoff, who hurt his back in the Arizona Fall League in 2004, manages to put up solid numbers after his promotion to Kinston, hitting .333 with 58 RBIs in 71 games for the Indians. |
2006: The Carolina League All-Star becomes consumed with reaching the Majors in his fourth Minor League season. He starts the year at Double-A Akron and hits over .400 for much of his time in the Eastern League. The Indians promote him to Triple-A after he hits .389 with 15 homers and 55 RBIs in 67 starts. |
2006: Kouzmanoff destroys Triple-A pitching in 27 games with Buffalo, hitting .353 with 20 RBIs for the Bisons. Cleveland calls him up on Sept. 2, setting the stage for his dramatic grand slam. |