The Sporting Life

Photographer Ron Kuntz has been ringside with Ali, on the green with Nicklaus and in the end zone with Reggie Rucker. But he has a special place in his heart for the Tribe, the team he's been shooting for five

Brian E. Albrecht
The Plain Dealer

Several thousand Tribe fans patiently sipped their suds as a 69-year-old man ambled to the pitcher's mound and scanned Jacobs Field with a long, nervous gaze.

Ron Kuntz had one chance, one pitch, to either set the crowd cheering or flop like a fool -- his worst nightmare on this field of dreams.

He eyeballed the long, long distance stretching from the pitcher's mound to home plate where Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel crouched, smiling back at Kuntz, ready to catch his toss.

It was Vizquel's idea to have Kuntz hurl the first, ceremonial pitch to open the September 16 game against Detroit, as a way of honoring the North Olmsted photographer who has chronicled the Tribe since 1953.

He and Vizquel, good friends as both reached the twilight of their careers in Cleveland, shared a camaraderie Kuntz developed with other players on local teams going back to the glory days of Municipal Stadium.

Kuntz always packed a quick smile and funny story with his camera gear; unreeling yarns for players, coaches or anyone who'd listen about his past encounters with athletes, celebrities, judges and felons.

But this night at Jacobs Field -- when he was in the spotlight for a change, the center of all attention focused on that lonely island in the baseball diamond -- Kuntz was worried.

His shoulder ached from a worn rotator cuff in need of corrective surgery. The pain was the possible price he'd paid for lugging a heavy bag of cameras and lenses to sports events around the world for United Press International
and the Reuters news agencies.

Samples of his work glowed in the electric frame of the stadium scoreboard behind him as Kuntz curled his fingers around the horsehide. He'd been to more than 2,000 Indians games, almost always as a photographer, occasionally as a spectator, never as a pitcher.

Kuntz had exercised his throwing arm at home before coming to the field that night, just to be sure he could cover the distance. He had a pretty mean knuckleball -- a sizzler that seemingly headed straight for the batter's face,
then dropped at the last second into the strike zone.

Over the years he'd learned from some of the best hurlers on the mound. The players' tips and fellowship were perks of the job for a guy who loved sports but was too short and slight to compete on varsity teams at Brooklyn
High School. Photography became his way of being part of the action, his ticket to the big leagues.

kuntzKuntz stole a quick glance at the stands behind the Indians' dugout, where he usually sat with other photographers in an area that would be named for him and marked with a plaque in 2005.

He'd dodged a number of foul balls batted into those seats, and been hit by more than a few.

The risk was nothing like the old days at Municipal Stadium when he'd run out on the field to shoot a close play, hoping a player chasing the ball wouldn't flatten him. Occasionally -- inevitably -- a player would.

Those also were the days before cameras came with motor drives and autofocus features that enabled shooters to just point and fire off a burst of a dozen or more frames like a photographic machine gun.

Kuntz only had one shot to do it right.

He became a master of anticipation, waiting to capture the essential moment of time and action, with the click of a shutter. ("F8 and wait," as the old photographers' aperture-adage went.)

Now, out on the mound, he had only one pitch to do it right.

One shot, one pitch. It couldn't be that different -- could it?

Kuntz took a deep breath and coiled into his windup.

In a ninth-grade essay on what he'd like his life's work to be, Kuntz listed astronomy, archeology and photography.

kuntzReaching the stars or digging into the past were not options. Both would have meant college, an impossible dream for a child of the Depression, raised with his sister in hard times.

So he grabbed a camera, to the dismay of his stepfather who dismissed the interest as a passing fancy that would fade when Kuntz found a more lasting job and career.

Undeterred, Kuntz bought his first camera, a Speed Graphic, for $250 he'd earned delivering newspapers, and joined his high school photo club.

After graduating in 1952, he went to work as a copy boy for the Cleveland News, where his stepfather was district manager. Kuntz made a point of hanging out in the photo department, soaking up the heady fumes of darkroom chemicals and the sometimes intoxicating lifestyle of a newspaper photographer.

Kuntz seized the opportunity to live that life when an opening came up in United Press International's Cleveland bureau in 1953, and he started capturing the world with a camera.

He froze the frigid Arctic on film during a 1958 visit while serving two years in the Army, and further iced what would become a lifetime love of polar frontiers with a 1986 trip to the South Pole for UPI.

He has photographed every president starting with Eisenhower, and covered such Page One news stories as the 1954 murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, and the 1970 anti-war demonstrations at Kent State University.

His photo of a KSU student hurling a tear-gas canister appeared in publications across the country. But Kuntz made a wrong turn in following demonstrators around a building, and didn't see the shootings.

Years later, he'd recall, "It bothered me for a long time to realize that I'd missed the whole thing."

Most of his work, however, thrust him into a whirlwind of action and color at sports events across the country and around the world. Kuntz photographed 10 Olympics and 38 Kentucky Derbies despite a deathly fear of horses -- the
result of a wild ride as a youth on a panicked steed.

He scored some of his favorite and most memorable photos at tracks, fields, stadiums and boxing rings. He seized the exact second when boxer Larry Holmes smashed Renaldo Snipes' face into Silly Putty, with flying droplets of sweat and spittle petrified in midair. He nailed the swing when Hank Aaron tied Babe Ruth's record with home run No. 714. And his follow-the-action shot of Sandy Alomar's head-over-heels catch of a foul ball now hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Baseball was a particular favorite of the photographer, and Kuntz was in an element he'd always followed with a passion.

Kuntz was hard to beat when it came to action on the diamond. "He knows more about baseball than the players," says Larry DiSantis, 75, of New York, who was Kuntz's photo editor at UPI.

The shooting part was almost instinctual, he adds. "You either know it or you don't. You can't make a good photographer, and Ronnie does it as well as it can be done. I'd put him up against anybody."

Lenny Weiss, of Lakewood, a close friend who once joined and sometimes assisted Kuntz at sports events, says the photographer has a natural skill for making friends with the players, and an even greater talent for seeing a good
picture. "His ability to capture the moment is just incredible."

Weiss remembers one shot that Kuntz took at a bitterly cold Browns game. "The offensive and defensive lines were lined up facing each other, and it was so cold that every time they exhaled there was a cloud of steam going
up between them. Ron was counting -- when they inhaled and exhaled -- so he had the timing down and got the shot."

Mark Duncan, of the Associated Press in Cleveland, also vied with Kuntz on the photographic field. According to Duncan, the most important ingredients of capturing a good game photo are knowing the sport, having a little luck
and being alert -- all the time.

Yet he says that in Kuntz's case, "when he's out there, he doesn't look like he's really paying attention to what's going on. But he always seems to come up with the picture."

Duncan says that when he started working in Cleveland 24 years ago, Kuntz extended a helping hand, even if Duncan did work for the competition. "One tip he gave me right off the bat was. 'Don't watch the ball, watch the
player,'" he notes. "If you get out of the way, you'll be OK."

The advice worked for Kuntz -- most of the time.

Life isn't always a Kodak moment, even for a professional photographer. Sometimes you're a lens on the world. Sometimes you're photographic road kill.

During a 1960s game at Municipal Stadium, Kuntz dodged a wild throw on the field but was bulldozed by Washington Senators' right fielder Fred Valentine. As the dazed photographer was helped to the Indians dugout to regain his bearings, Kuntz heard a fan shout, "Put him back in!" As Kuntz sat in the dugout, shaking off the hit, Indians outfielder Leon Wagner passed over a bat and joked, "You shouldn't go out ththere

At the 1975 World Series, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk was chasing a foul ball and dove into Kuntz, nearly knocking him unconscious.

The Indians' Joe Carter once smacked a foul straight into Kuntz's mouth, loosening the photographer's teeth and giving him a fat lip. Kuntz also was once winged by a flying piece off the broken bat of the Tribe's Julio Franco.
However, not all the hard knocks happened on the field. The Kuntz household also took a few hits from his job.

Kuntz was photographing the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow when Josh, the last of his five children, was born.

Driving Mom to the hospital for the delivery fell to another son, John, who was a high school senior at the time and remembers that early-morning dash as "pretty strange."

John, now 41 and a Plain Dealer photographer for six years, says the family took his father's work trips in stride.

"When he was home, he was very involved with us," John recalls. "He did more when he was home than a lot of the neighborhood fathers did who had 9-to-5 jobs."

There were a few small benefits, too, in growing up as the son of a globetrotting photographer. In grade school, John gleaned a tidy profit from selling copies of his father's photos of famous athletes to classmates for 50 cents.

Kuntz's daughter, Rebeccah Dangelo of Indianapolis, remembers the souvenirs and stories her father would bring back from visits to exotic locales, which she says enriched their cultural sense of different peoples and places.

kuntzHe also provided his kids with a silent example of a solid work ethic, she says. "Just this dedication to what he does and thoroughly enjoys. He eats, sleeps and breathes doing the stuff he loves doing. How many people can say they can do that?"

Stephen Kuntz, 40, of Vermilion, also remembers tales his father told of travels abroad. "From the funny stuff to the tragic stuff, like seeing the choppers explode at the '72 Olympics [the result of a terrorist attack]."

John was the only one of the Kuntz kids to follow in their father's profession. All of them agreed that Ron Kuntz neither encouraged nor discouraged them to become photographers.

The oldest of the kids, Ron, is now 44 and lives in Garfield Heights. He says that eventually nearly all his siblings wound up in the basement darkroom, watching their father and learning. Ron tried his hand at photography until
music became his chief interest.

"I enjoyed it," he recalls, "but maybe, as a teen, when I saw how involved he was with it, that might have taken away a little bit from it. It isn't as glamorous as it might seem to an outsider."

John notes, "I think he was trying to keep us from it. It's a profession you have to love because typically it's not a big moneymaking venture.

"When I started getting into it, he was like, 'Are you sure you want to do this? '" he adds. "I still hear it today."

John's mother, Nancy, confides, "Ron doesn't say too much about it, but I know he's thrilled that John is carrying on the Kuntz name in Cleveland." After high school, John occasionally would work with his father, shooting local sports events as a freelance photographer. Later, when John ultimately landed a photographer's job in Cleveland, the father-son duo often covered the same events, sometimes teasing each other about who grabbed the
better shot.

John says his father also taught him to treat the subjects of his photos with patience and respect. He recalls joining his father on some feature photo assignments and watching as the veteran photographer sat and talked to people, getting to know them, putting them at ease, before taking a single photo.

Even when John's father isn't there, he's still with him in a way. Sometimes other photographers will slip and call John by his father's name. "It's Ronnie this and Ronnie that, which is OK," John says. "It's a compliment. I'll take that."

Kuntz's ceremonial first pitch and honors at Jacobs Field were supposed to be a surprise to the veteran photographer on the night before his seventieth birthday. But it was hard putting one over on a master prankster who used to wake fellow soldiers with the sound of bagpipes for reveille, and screwed old photo flashbulbs in regular light bulb fixtures just to chortle at someone's shock at the resulting pop when they flicked on the switch.

In the days before pro golf became serious, Kuntz shared gags with such legends of the fairways as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino -- including the time Kuntz dropped a rubber snake in a high-weeded rough at the U.S. Open for Trevino to "kill" and brandish, draped over the end of his iron, which he held aloft for Kuntz to photograph.

Eventually his family had to tell Kuntz about the honor, just to guarantee that he'd be at the ballpark on the night when the Indians honored a long-familiar and respected "player" on their field of dreams.

Bart Swain, the Tribe's director of media relations, says, "He's a true professional and just a joy to be around. He always has a smile on his face. He's got great rapport with people. He knows when it's a good time to talk to them and when to give them space."

Several years ago in Cleveland, when Red Sox fielder Jose Canseco had the mortifying experience of chasing a fly ball, having it bounce off his head and sail over the fence for a home run, Kuntz not only captured the shot -- forever immortalizing the "head-homer" -- but later coaxed Canseco into autographing a print of it for him.

Tribe shortstop Omar Vizquel recognizes fellow talent on the field when he sees it, saying, "Ron Kuntz is the kind of guy who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He has an amazing ability to capture the important, defining moment at the exact time it happens."

For Kuntz, the respect and admiration is mutual. Of all the teams and athletes he's covered, Kuntz says, "I have a special place in my heart for the Indians, I think maybe because of getting to know the players at a personal level."

Yet it was a football player who opened the door 30 years ago for Kuntz to apply his photographic skills to his strong religious faith, as a volunteer with the Bill Glass Prison Ministry.

Kuntz knew Glass when he played for the Cleveland Browns and kept in touch after the former defensive end retired and started the prison ministry. One day in 1973, Glass asked the photographer if he wanted to join a group
of ministry counselors visiting the old Mansfield Reformatory.

"Not particularly," Kuntz replied.

Glass recalls, "He wasn't real excited about it, but he came because of our friendship."

One visit was all it took. Since then, Kuntz has traveled to more than 2,000 prisons across the country and overseas, sometimes in part at his own expense when not covered by the ministry.

Kuntz, a Baptist, says he uses photography as a way to show inmates that "there's something worthwhile in living a Christian life." During his visits, he shares photos and stories drawn from his encounters with sports stars and
celebrities, and takes pictures of the prisoners, staff and Bill Glass Ministry volunteers.

Glass says, "Ron is very enthusiastic about everything he does, but especially enthusiastic about our mission. He's a committed Christian who realizes these people need help, and he has a terrific rapport with people. He
doesn't hesitate to go into the worst situations."

Sometimes it isn't easy. Sometimes he shares too much, emotionally, as in his friendship that developed with Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed (in 1998) in Texas since 1863. "That was a hard one," Kuntz recalls, "'cause I got to know her real well."

She left him with a message on one of the photos he took of her: "Thank you for being such a brightly lit candle in my life."

As a result of his visits to Death Rows, Kuntz changed his once-strident support of capital punishment to the belief that a spiritually converted inmate offers society a much better example than a dead one.

Photography still pays the bills and offers creative rewards, Kuntz says. But nowadays, "it's more important to see lives change. Of all the things I've done, and people I've met and places I've been, this [prison ministry] is the best thing to happen to me."

Rebeccah Dangelo says her father's spiritual conviction was always "a big part of our family. Not so much religion as a way of life. And the importance of that spiritual relationship is something he passed down to his grandchildren."

Kuntz's dedication to the prison ministry also may be an article of faith at a time in his life when he needs it most.

One of those errant foul balls of mortality hit Kuntz two years ago. He had a heart attack while bicycling his usual 10 miles in the Cleveland Metroparks' Rocky River Reservation.

The photographer who never smoked, doesn't drink and exercises regularly, quips, "I'll have to ask God about that one when I get there." Kuntz underwent triple bypass heart surgery -- by necessity, not choice for a guy who has hated hospitals ever since he had mastoid surgeries for severe ear problems when he was a child.

kuntzOne of the first of many well-wishers who called the hospital to see how he was doing after his heart surgery was Omar Vizquel.

The heart attack was a modest blessing, of sorts, in that Kuntz now says a lot of the old aggravations of his life and job just don't seem as important anymore.

His family has noticed a difference, a perceptible easing off the photographic gas that might be long overdue.

"He doesn't talk much about it," says Rebeccah Dangelo. "He still feels he can do just as much as the younger guys. I don't think he'll let his body know it's slowing down. But in a sense, it's good. He always pushes himself way
too hard."

His wife, Nancy, notes, "He's learning to enjoy his kids and [eight] grandchildren.

"I used to worry when he was younger, when he'd take chances like covering the Hough riots. He used to have the attitude that he'd do almost anything for a picture," she adds. "He hasn't lost that edge, but he isn't as willing to physically take a chance. He's more tempered now."

Don't think he's shot his last frames of life, she says.

"I think Ron is going to take his camera with him into the casket and get a picture of people leaning over him," she quips. "He's still a good photographer, he loves doing it, so why not?"

The recent honor bestowed on her husband at Jacobs Field was something she wished his mother was still alive to see.

"She was very proud of her son and she had every reason to be," she says. "We're all proud of him. He's done a lot and sometimes we, as a family, forget that and take that for granted.

"It takes something like the Indians honoring him to remind us of everything he's accomplished," she adds. "I think even he realized that this was a very, very special occasion."

The September night when the old man scaled the pitcher's mound at Jacobs Field, 60 feet of twilight turf stretching from pitch to plate separated nightmare and dream.

For the first, and perhaps last, time Ron Kuntz would be the focus on the field -- not as the photographer, but as the player he once figured he'd never be. Just for a moment. The time it takes for a ball to fly home.

Kuntz gave it everything he had. The ball spun from his fingers, soaring where so many have sailed before, smacking leather in Omar Vizquel's outstretched glove.

A little low, a bit outside, but drilling the distance from hope to success.

One pitch, one shot.

Good enough for baseball, photography and life.

© 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.


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