Former Detroit Tigers pitcher Mike Kilkenny, who lived in Belmont, passed away last week at 73.
But he was much more than just an ace on the mound. He was ace with former teammates and friends who remember him as a great storyteller, companion and teammate.
Kilkenny, a native of Bradford, Ont., was 23-18 with 4.44 ERA and 301 strikeouts in 409 2/3 innings with four major league teams during a five-year career.
With his major league career over, Kilkenny signed with the Majors and went 9-0 with a 2.31 ERA to lead the Majors to their last league title. He was named the league’s most valuable player.
Kilkenny went 2-2 pitching 33 2/3 innings with an ERA of 1.07 in the playoffs as the Majors defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semifinal and then the Guelph Royals in six games to win the title.
He returned to the Majors in 1983, although he hadn’t pitched since his stellar 1975 season. He started five games and was 3-and-1 with a 1.40 ERA.
Kilkenny’s loss was deeply felt by the Majors. He died two days before the Majors’ second annual Alumni Day celebration.
“That’s a tough one,” said Wayne Fenlon, a longtime Major who caught Kilkenny. “He was a great team guy; he picked a lot of people up. He was an incredible pitcher and incredible athlete and an incredible person.”
As a catcher, Fenlon caught some of the best pitchers to ever play in the IBL and considers Kilkenny one of the best.
“As a player he was unbelievable,” Fenlon said. “He had a 12-to-6 curveball that he knew he was going to get a (strikeout) with. It would start at the guy’s armpit and by the time it got to you, you were blocking it in the dirt or picking it up about three inches off the dirt.”
Kilkenny had been ill for several years. Fenlon and a group of other Majors visited him several weeks ago before his death.
“He was a great storyteller,” Fenlon said. “We sat with him for a couple of hours until he got tired. He just wanted to talk.”
Barry Boughner was a teammate of Kilkenny’s and one of his best friends. Boughner was emotional when he recalled the conversation he had when Kilkenny told him how sick he was.
“He said to me, ‘Bougie, I love you for all the things you do.’ We were best friends,” Boughner said. “I loved him. He’s been fighting (illness) for the 2½, three years.
“He was one of the nicest guys you meet in your life. He was the funniest guy and one of the best storytellers. Him and Jack Fairs are two of the best storytellers of all time. He had so many stories he’d be there for three days and never stopped talking and funny, oh my God . . . He was a sincere, honest guy. He loved the London Majors.”
Like Fenlon, Boughner got to see from close up how good Kilkenny was. Boughner played third base for the Majors.
“(Kilkenny) would tell me every time he was going to throw a curveball low and inside to a right-hand hitter,” Boughner said. “He’d give me a sign behind his back. That sign was for me to step in two or three steps so I’d get a nice one or two hopper. It happened a million times. He was so good. It was an honour for me to play third base when he pitched. I felt like I was in the big leagues, that’s how good he was.”
Kilkenny was a 6-foot-3, 175-pound lefthander. He was signed by Detroit in 1964 for $15,000, which was at that time a record amount for a Canadian baseball player.
Kilkenny went on to throw four complete-game shutouts in August and September while compiling an 8-6 record and 3.37 ERA.
Kilkenny pitched in Detroit for three more seasons finishing 19-17 with a 4.47 ERA before being dealt to the Oakland A’s.
He pitched one inning for the A’s before being traded eight days later to San Diego. Less than a month later, Kilkenny was traded to Cleveland. He pitched his final game for the Indians in May 1973.
“The (Majors) outfielders said when Kilkenny pitched, it was the most boring game of baseball for them,” Boughner said. “Whenever he pitched all the balls were hit on the ground to the infielders. ‘We just sleep out here.’ ”
After his career in the major leagues Kilkenny returned to manage the pro shop at Llyndinshire Golf Club. He also owned race horses.
In recent years, Kilkenny’s No. 17 was retired by the Majors.
“What I don’t understand is how a guy like that who was a Canadian hasn’t made it the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame,” Fenlon said. “He didn’t even make it into the London Sports Hall of Fame. It’s unbelievable. It really boggles my mind.”
Kilkenny is survived by his wife Edie, his son Rory, daughter Dawn, stepson Danny, his brother Peter and seven grandchildren.
There will be a celebration of life for Kilkenny on July 22 at the St. Thomas Golf and Country Club from 2 to 5 p.m.