Whether his teams were winning big or losing big, former major league pitcher Clay Kirby could always be counted on to take the mound and give his team some quality innings.
Kirby, who died in November of 1991 from a heart attack at the age of 44, grew up in Arlington and played high school baseball at Washington-Lee. In the big leagues, the talented right-hander played his first five seasons with the San Diego Padres (1969-73), a new major league franchise at the time and perhaps the worst team in baseball.
But when Kirby, who was born June 25, 1948 in Washington, D.C., was traded to the powerful Cincinnati Reds for Bobby Tolan and Dave Tomlin following the '73 season, he was immediately part of a big-time winner.
Indeed, Kirby, who played baseball under the legendary Del Norwood while a prep school star at Washington-Lee, saw the best and worst of major league baseball throughout a solid eight-year career.
Overall, Kirby won 75 major league games while losing 104. His earned run average was a stellar 3.84. In 1,548 career innings pitched, Kirby struck out 1,061 batters.
On dismal Padres teams, Kirby had records of 7-20 (1969), 10-16 ('70), 15-13 ('71), 12-14 ('72), and 8-18 ('74). Although his win-loss record was not good, that was mostly a reflection on playing for San Diego clubs which lost 99 games in 1970, 100 in '71, 95 in '72, and 102 in '73. The 6-foot-3 inch, 185-pound Kirby, pitching for a perennial loser, was San Diego's ace and led the Padres in victories in both 1971 and 72. In his 15-win season in '71, he struck out 231 hitters, fourth most in the National League, for his last place team.
IN ONE MEMORABLE outing for the Padres, Kirby, in a game versus the Astros in September of 1971, fanned 15 batters in 15 innings of work in a game Houston eventually won 2-1 in 21 innings.
Perhaps the best game he ever pitched for the Padres came in July 0f 1970 when Kirby had a no-hitter in the late innings of a game versus the Mets. But with the Padres trailing 1-0, San Diego Manager Preston Gomez elected to pinch-hit for Kirby in the eighth inning of the game, ending his shot at a no-hit bid.
One person who remembers that day is Pat Franklin, who's son, Jay, was good friends with Clay when the two were growing up in Arlington. Jay, five years younger than Clay, became a star pitcher at Madison High School in Vienna and would ultimately be the second player chosen overall in the 1971 Major League Baseball Draft. Ironically, Franklin's brief major league baseball stint came in 1971 with the Padres where he was a teammate of Kirby's.
Pat Franklin was livid the day Gomez, the Padres' skipper, took Kirby out of the ball game versus the Mets despite having a no-hitter going.
"I was upset," said Pat, who currently resides in Vienna. "I think a lot of people were."
When Kirby was traded to the Reds following the 1973 season, he instantly went from a losing team to a perennial winner. The Reds, under Manager Sparky Anderson, were loaded with talent in the likes of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Joe Morgan.
In Cincinnati, Kirby became part of the renowned `Big Red Machine,' one of the greatest baseball dynasties in the history of the game. In his first season with the Reds, Kirby went 12-9 with a 3.28 ERA in 1974. Cincinnati won 98 games that season but still finished second in its National League West Division.
The following year (1975), the Reds won 108 games and won the World Series. Kirby went 10-6 with a 4.72 ERA that season. He was one of six Reds pitchers to finish with double digit wins.
But during that offseason, Kirby was dealt to the Expos for Bob Bailey. That following season ('76) — Kirby's last in the big leagues — he was just 1-8 for Montreal.
EVEN AS A YOUNGSTER, Kirby was the talk of the town for his baseball prowess within the Arlington Little League, which played its games at Barcroft Park.
"Even then he was like a legend," recalled Bill Carter, former Yorktown High football quarterback. "He was 12 or 13 when I first came [to the area from Texas]. Clay Kirby was all I heard about. He played youth sports before he went to Washington-Lee. He had a long, lean body and incredible whip [on his pitches]. Nobody had seen anybody like him."
Doug Adams, who also was growing up in Arlington at that time, was a member of W-L's JV baseball team when Kirby, two years older, was on the varsity.
"I just remember to us in the baseball program, he was like God to us," recalled Adams, who today is Athletic Director at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria. "He threw B-B's. By the time he got to Washington-Lee, he was a phenomenal pitcher."
Adams recalled a Washington-Lee season opener when senior Kirby, in a surprise move by coach Norwood, did not start on the mound. Instead, then-junior Mike Slade (W-L Class of '67) got the nod. Ultimately, Kirby pitched an inning of relief in the game, striking out the side.
Adams said standing at the plate with Kirby on the hill was a tough challenge.
"I do remember standing in there one day [during practice] when he was on the mound," said Adams, who played outfield and first base during his Generals playing career. "I was scared to death. I didn't get a loud foul."
Carter said a Washington-Lee baseball game became a truly big event when Kirby was that day's starting pitcher.
"Any time he would pitch, a couple extra 100 people would show up," said Carter. "The three Arlington schools had real good baseball programs. [Kirby] was fantastic. For all of our [Arlington] area, he was way ahead of anybody we'd seen."
Pat Franklin recalled Kirby and Jay Franklin, as youngsters, lining up her backyard into a baseball field for Whiffle ball games. Clay and Jay would steal cans of Ajax from Pat’s cupboard and spread the white powder across the backyard, drawing out the lines of a baseball diamond. During those backyard whiffle-ball days, Kirby and Franklin, who were neighbors in Arlington before the Franklin's eventually moved to Vienna, never knew that their baseball futures would intersect as both made it to the major leagues with the Padres. Kirby was Franklin’s best man at his wedding.
"They used to flip baseball cards and things like that," said Pat. "Clay and his family lived next door to us in Arlington. He was my son's best friend. They grew up together. We spent a lot of evening's together. Clay was a great guy.
"I remember going to [Clay's] games over there in Arlington at Barcroft Park and seeing him pitch at Washington-Lee under coach Norwood," she said. "I just watched him grow up. He was always charming and always joking. He was just a great kid. He always seemed to be happy. He was always special in our lives."
She recalled Kirby updating the Franklins about his major league career through letters he would write them while with the Padres.
"It was just exciting," said Pat. "We were just so happy [for him] and try to follow [his career] through the papers with what he was doing out there. He'd come visit in the offseason."
Following his baseball career and in the years leading up to his death in 1991, Kirby was acting tournament chairman for the annual Major League Baseball Players Alumni (MLBPA) Washington Metropolitan Area Charity Golf Tournament. The event, which benefited the American Lung Association, was part of the `Swing With the Legends Golf Series.' It was held at Hidden Creek Country Club in Reston one year.
"Everyone there knows baseball and it's fun for the [former players] to participate," Kirby said prior to that tournament. "Former players are pretty good guys and know how to get everyone to have a good time. From my standpoint, it's a day of relaxation."
Clay Kirby is 85 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.