Teammates, colleagues remember Bartee
Alan Trammell was a 38-year-old shortstop in the 20th and final season of his Hall of Fame career in 1996. He was also by far the oldest player on a Tigers team that was embarking on a rebuild.
Kimera Bartee was a 23-year-old outfielder with just 68 games above Class A ball when he rolled into Tigers camp in the middle of Spring Training. The Twins had plucked him from the Orioles system in the Rule 5 Draft but decided he would be a tough fit on their roster. Before the Twins could offer Bartee back to the Orioles, the Tigers claimed him off waivers.
Bartee was a relative unknown in a camp that already had young, new faces. But he didn’t take long to make an impression.
“He could fly,” Trammell said. “I mean, he could fly.”
That was the idea when Randy Smith, the Tigers’ 32-year-old general manager, made the waiver claim. Smith had just been hired a few months earlier, and he was trying to find more athleticism. The team still played in Tiger Stadium; Comerica Park was barely a concept. But with the Tigers then in the American League East, he was looking for young, undervalued talent to bolster the squad.
“If we were always going after the same types of players [as the Yankees and Red Sox], it was difficult to compete with that,” Smith said. “And so, we were trying to think of speed and defense. We were just trying to find any way to pick up talent and compete in the East.”
The Tigers took a chance on Bartee. Detroit went 53-109 in 1996, but the move not only helped Bartee launch a six-year Major League career, it pushed him to become a baseball lifer.
Bartee spent more than a quarter-century playing and coaching in professional baseball before his sudden passing this week at age 49. The qualities he showed as a rookie are some of the same traits that shaped his career as a teacher of the game, including last season as the Tigers’ first-base coach.
“I think his biggest message from how he lived his life was just to take no one for granted,” said Damion Easley, his former Tigers teammate and longtime friend.
Trammell saw him at various steps along the way. Three years after they were teammates, Trammell became hitting coach for Bartee’s final season in Detroit in 1999. When Bartee rejoined the organization last season -- first as a baserunning instructor, then as first-base coach -- they were colleagues again.
“He really was a good guy,” Trammell said. “He cared. He was a fun guy to be around. He always treated me with the utmost respect that I really appreciated.
“KB's career might not have been the way he wanted as a player, but it helped him as a coach, because he paid attention. He paid attention in the right way. He understood what it was like.”
Though athleticism caught the Tigers’ attention, it could only take Bartee so far. To make a career, Bartee had to work. Fortunately, he was a coach’s son. Jerry Bartee played in the Cardinals system in the 1960s before serving as head coach at Creighton from 1978 to 1980, a decade before Kimera became an all-conference outfielder there and played in the College World Series.
“He was a sponge,” Trammell said. “He was always looking to learn. He wanted to fit in obviously with the role when he got called up to the big leagues. And he fit right in. That's not surprising because of his personality.”
The Tigers challenged Bartee as a Rule 5 pick. Beyond trying to stick on the roster as an extra outfielder, he was tasked to learn switch-hitting.
“When we claimed him on waivers, he was strictly a right-handed hitter,” Smith said. “It says a lot about his work ethic that we converted him to a switch-hitter. I give him credit. He never complained. He never wanted to give it up, because he realized that was his way to stick.”
It’s not an unprecedented change, but it almost always happens in the Minor Leagues. That wasn’t an option.
Said Trammell: “Here was a kid doing switch-hitting at the big league level, and it's not easy. It was just one more thing for him to overcome.”
Another challenge was his arm. While Bartee was a standout defensive player who could cover ground to make catches, he needed to improve his throws.
“[Tigers instructor] Steve Boros totally helped revamp his throwing,” Smith recalled. “He didn't have a strong arm, but he did all the things to make up for his arm strength. He was a very willing learner. …
“I remember how hard he worked on his rotation on his throws. Steve Boros took a sharpie and drew a black line on the ball so he could see the rotation on his throwing mechanics. He just was willing to do anything to make himself a better player.”
Not only was he willing to learn, he was eager and energetic to do it.
“When I think of him, the first thing I think of is the smile,” Smith said. “He was one of those guys you're always happy to see. He lit up the room. He was good to be around. He had energy.”
Bartee played in 110 games in 1996, but had just 247 plate appearances. He made almost as many appearances as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement as he did in the starting lineup (65 games).
Even in limited time, he had moments. Just weeks into his Major League career, he stole second base off left-handed starter Brian Anderson and All-Star catcher Sandy Alomar for his third career steal. Moments later, he stole third, setting up a run.
“It was game-changing, top-of-the-chart speed,” Smith said. “He created a lot of havoc when he was on the bases.”
“I always told him I just want to feel what it feels like, just for one day, how fast [the bases are] turning over,” Easley said. “It is amazing.”
Then there were the catches. Though Tiger Stadium was a hitter’s park, it had a cavernous center field, topping out at 440 feet. Famously, there was a flagpole in play not far from the 440-foot marker. Bartee could cover it.
“I still remember him making an unbelievable catch out by the flagpole,” Smith said. “He went a long, long way for the ball, literally right by the flagpole.”
Bartee batted .253 (55-for-217) in 1996 with six doubles, a triple, a home run and 14 RBIs. He struck out 77 times but led the team with 20 stolen bases.
Beyond the field, he became good friends with slugging rookie first baseman Tony Clark.
“His passion and love for the game, and compassion for those around him, touched everyone he came in contact with,” Clark said in a statement through the MLB Players Association. “Personally and professionally, my heart hurts. We will remember Kimera always with fondness and love.”
Bartee also befriended Easley after he came over in a midseason trade from the Angels.
“He extended himself to me realizing I didn't have a way around town, didn't know Detroit,” Easley said. “He offered to give me rides back to the hotel where I was staying, picked me up to go eat, just different things. He was a genuinely very, very nice man, just an incredible person.”
Bartee spent parts of three more seasons between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo, then was traded to the Reds. After bouncing around a few more seasons and playing two years in the Atlantic League, he retired as a player.
Soon after, he took a job as a coach at Class A ball in the Orioles organization. The same qualities that helped a former 14th-round Draft pick last six seasons, from his work ethic to his enthusiasm, helped him pass along what he learned to the next generation. He encouraged Easley to join him in pro coaching, which Easley has done for the past decade, including two years as Padres hitting coach.
“It was infectious. It was genuine,” Trammell said. “He wasn't a phony. He loved baseball. We need more guys like that. …
“At 49 years old, if this is what he chose to do, I could see him doing this role for years. It’s just sad, so sad.”
That’s what friends and colleagues are trying to process. Between a coaching career seemingly set on an up-and-coming team and a tremendous family with three kids and a fiancée, Bartee was in a great spot in his life. An unforeseen tragedy took it away.
“It’s very surreal,” Easley said.