Playing Ball in the House
Michigan's fifth-year senior and star catcher Jeff Kunkel was raised in the perfect place to fall in love with sports. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1990's meant watching the Bulls win six NBA Championships and having two hometown baseball teams. "I have been pretty lucky," the Wolverine captain admitted. "My Mom works for the Bulls and my Grandpa was a Cubs season-ticket holder, so I've gotten to see a lot of things that most kids don't get to experience growing up."
It was only natural for the standout catcher to fall in love with sports at an early age, and to idolize Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. But with a family full of self-proclaimed die-hard Cubs fans, it seemed fitting for Kunkel to turn to baseball.
At a young age, he and his twin sister Heather played wiffle ball for hours on end in their Oak Forest house, much to their mother's dismay. But it was because of their playing in the house, which seemed like a simple game to the pair as they emulated their favorite players, that Jeff began to discover and build upon a unique talent.
"One day we were playing in the house and my Mom said, `if you're going to play in the house you can't hit right handed' because I would be hitting the ball at her pretty hard while she was in the kitchen. So I had to hit the other way if I wanted to keep playing in the house. Once I started hitting her with the ball left-handed, then we had to go outside," Kunkel confessed.
With a lot of practice, he became a strong left-handed hitter, and still hits the ball from both sides of the plate. This season he has a .250 batting average batting right-handed, and a .380 average left-handed in 111 total at bats.
Heather excelled at softball, volleyball and basketball at Oak Forest high school, and went on to play softball at Missouri. She started in 165 out of 166 of the Tigers' games at shortstop through her four-years, as a senior held a .352 batting average and hit 16 home runs, and was an All-Big 12 selection.
Jeff won two regional championships in baseball and one in golf during his time at Oak Forest. Several members of his baseball team were involved in golf as well. "It was kind of funny," he said. "It was just a lot of guys on the baseball team who wanted to play a different sport too, but didn't want to get hurt playing football or something else. So we all just decided to go out for golf and it worked out well."
As for baseball, "I was part of a good program that has done well in our area and I was lucky enough to have a good coach," he said. "We worked a lot of hours, practiced hard, and coach always got us to do whatever we needed to do to prepare against the teams we were playing."
The pre-season All-American as a senior had a stellar high school career playing catcher, but it was actually through his teammates that an opportunity came up to attend Michigan. "One of the coaches at the time had come to recruit a couple of other guys on my team and I had a good day while he was there, so he talked to me for a bit," he said. From there, Kunkel was invited for official visits and to camps, and accepted the Wolverines' offer after falling in love with the campus and university.
Now a fifth-year senior, Kunkel has worked hard to excel at the intangible skills that are necessary to play catcher to go along with the tangible. The team's 2005 Most Valuable Player knows that being a good player and teammate involves a lot more than hitting the ball well.
"I think defense is my biggest strength, because sometimes you go through hitting slumps," he said, "but being a good defensive catcher can really help your team out."
Even beyond his .995 fielding percentage, the preseason All-American has to develop relationships with all of his pitchers and umpires as well as study the opposing line-ups in great detail. "Helping pitchers get through different situations, getting strikes for them and knowing the umpire and his strike zone are all so important to the guy you're catching," he said. "You have to know what he can and can't do on certain days against different lineups, it's all of those things. I have to make a pitcher feel comfortable enough to throw any pitch in any situation and have him know that I'll block it if there is a runner on third, or whatever the situation may be."
This combination of a unique playing style and his ability to work well with his pitchers led to Kunkel being chosen by the Detroit Tigers in the 2005 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. After deciding to return to Michigan for his fifth year of eligibility, several factors now determine whether Detroit will keep their rights to him after this season.
He explained, "if I was a junior and decided to come back to school, they would have lost their rights to me. But, because of my fifth year if we're done playing seven days before the draft, they have the chance to sign me. If we are still playing into that seven-day time frame, then I will go back into the draft."
First things first though for Kunkel, who majors in sports management and communications. Before his time at Michigan is up, his top priority is winning the elusive Big Ten Championship. He remembers what it was like last year to get a surprise at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, with the team gathered in the locker room watching the selection show. "We were all sitting there and they had gone through most of the regionals and we hadn't been selected, so we were all down on ourselves," he said. "But they announced our name and we all went crazy. Nobody knew where we were going or who we were playing until they put it up on the internet because we were all celebrating."
Though he recalls that memory fondly, he hopes that this year there will be no such anticipation. "I didn't feel like I was ready to leave my teammates or the university," he said of his decision to return to school. "I want to win that Big Ten Championship with my teammates. That's really what I'm hoping for now."
The Wolverines' journey towards the Big Ten Championship is well underway. Already with 20 wins on the season, Michigan currently sits in second place in the conference standings. With a recent four-game sweep of fourth-place Ohio State, they are in a prime position to compete for the top seed in this year's tournament, allowing them to play the tournament at home and give Kunkel a few extra games at Fisher Stadium before his career comes to a close.