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Morton College was Bob Kairis’ only offer coming off an all-state baseball season at Morton East. But his decision to go there 31 years ago still is paying dividends.
The 51-year-old resident of Chicago’s South Loop was inducted into the Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference Hall of Fame in June in recognition of his two standout seasons during the 1985 and ’86 seasons.
Morton College gave Kairis the opportunity to build his baseball resume. He ended up with a scholarship to an NCAA Division I school and was part of an eight-year run (1986 to 1993) where at least one Morton College baseball player got the call during the MLB’s First-Year Player Draft. His turn came in 1988 when the Cleveland Indians took him in the 23rd round.
Cicero could claim a pitching pipeline to professional baseball during the 1980s as town sons Kairis, Frank Thomas and Tony Ariola all were drafted and signed pro contracts. Interestingly, Kairis and Ariola were drafted three rounds apart in the same year with the Oakland Athletics selecting Ariola, a Fenwick graduate, in the 26th round out of Northwestern.
“I have a lot of good memories of Morton College,” said Kairis, a physical education teacher the past 16 years at John Spry Community School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
Kairis, the oldest of seven children, grew up on 19th Street and 49th Court in Cicero’s Grant Works. His great-uncle was Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, a Cicero native from St. Anthony’s Church who went on to run the Vatican Bank. He remembers looking out his bedroom window and seeing Christmas decorations on the iconic Hawthorne Works tower when it represented an industrial giant and not a shopping center.
In high school, Kairis remembers the Chicago Bears using the Morton East field house as a practice facility when the weather got cold. He recalls seeing the likes of Walter Payton, Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary and Mike Ditka. He appreciated having the chance to talk with Gary Fencik, the team’s all-pro safety.
He cut his baseball teeth playing in Cicero’s Valentine Little League, an early powerhouse at the Roy A. Overholt Little League Invitational. Kairis attended Cicero School, spent one year at St. Joseph before transferring to Morton East where he played quarterback on the football team and pitched on the baseball squad.
“I really didn’t have any offers coming out of high school,” Kairis recalled. “My biggest offer was Morton College. My father wasn’t able to pay for a four-year school with seven of us. Morton College was a place to get the core courses out of the way. Plus, it was close to home. I came to Morton College and I felt like I fit in.”
Morton College’s baseball coach at the time was Wally Reynolds, who also doubled as the athletic director.
“Coach Reynolds recruited me fairly actively,” Kairis recalled. “I had a summer job on the paint crew at Morton East and he’d come over to talk to me.”
Reynolds just arrived from Harper College the year before and had the task of rebuilding Morton College’s program, which had fallen on hard times since its runner-up showing in the 1977 state tournament.
“He was so positive with everyone,” said Kairis of Reynolds. “He was very meticulous, very prepared and exacting. He definitely had a plan. I remember his big thing was, ‘You’ve got to have execution.’”
It was a no-frills program. Kairis didn’t own a car and his dad was his only form of transportation from their home in Countryside. So Kairis’ dad would drop off him on campus at 6:30 in the morning on the way to his job at Kropp Forge in Cicero. Kairis would head to the cafeteria and do homework prior to his 8 a.m. class.
The Panthers took off in Reynolds’ second season, winning the first of two sectional champions during his seven-year stint at Morton College. Kairis received Honorable Mention All-Skyway honors as a freshman.
As a sophomore, Kairis was the Skyway’s MVP in leading the Panthers to a share of the league crown. He is just one of two Morton College players to receive this award in the last 31 seasons.
Kairis was an all-around standout, splitting time at pitcher, catcher and third base during his two seasons.
On the mound, Kairis was 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA in Skyway play. He was 8-5 overall with a 2.62 ERA, striking out 72 and walking just 13 in 79 innings.
At bat, Kairis’ .415 average was the seventh-best in Region 4. He collected 51 hits in 123 at-bats, belting four home runs and driving in 38. Kairis, a second team all-Region 4 selection, represented Region 4 in the NJCAA All-Star game against Region 24 at Wrigley Field.
Kairis then received a scholarship to NCAA Division I Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La., where he ranks among the all-time leaders in shutouts and strikeouts.
“I always wanted to play down South,” Kairis said. “My vision of the country at the time was there was no winter and you could play year-round.”
Northwestern State was 14-37 in Kairis’ first year, but he had a hand in half the team’s wins with two victories and five saves. He also batted a team-high .304.
The Demons improved to 23-28 the following year and so did Kairis, who earned all-Southland Conference First Team honors. He was 7-4 with a 3.72 ERA. Get this line – four shutouts, a now-today unheard of eight complete games in 11 starts and 103 strikeouts in 81-plus innings.
Twenty-nine years later, the Minnesota Twins led the majors in 2017 with six complete games through 116 games played. Kairis had two more complete games alone than the Twins’ entire pitching staff.
“My senior year was better than my junior,” Kairis said. “We turned it around and we were able to ruin some teams’ seasons.”
While he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education, getting to “The Show” definitely was at the top of Kairis’ goals.
“I was very driven to make it to the major leagues, somehow, someday,” Kairis said. “I had confidence in my ability that we had a chance to win games when I was on the mound. Baseball was my passion.”
When the Indians drafted Kairis, it was a no-frills deal. He met the Tribe’s representative at Midway Airport to sign his contract, which included a standard $1,000 signing bonus. A week later, Kairis reported to rookie camp in Clearwater, Fla. Shortly after that, it was boarding a bus for a 13-hour bus ride to Burlington, N.C., the location of the Indians’ Rookie League team.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid! But it was a season to remember. Kairis was the team leader in wins, ERA, games started, strikeouts and innings pitched in leading Burlington to the Appalachian League’s Northern Division title. Kairis also picked up what would be his last award in baseball as team MVP.
His arm was giving him problems, though.
“I already had an arm injury,” Kairis said. “I probably was a little frustrated things didn’t work out, but I was leaving the game on my free will. I was happy where I was. I got the opportunity to do something not many people get the opportunity to do. I took it as far as I could.”
Kairis went back to Northwestern State to complete his degree, but he hopped around a number of jobs unrelated to his major during his 20s and 30s. It wasn’t until Kairis was in his mid-30s that he found a career match that provided the same degree of satisfaction as baseball did.
He looked back on his educational journey and discovered what Kairis should have been doing all that time was right in front of his face.
His positive experiences of school came from the interactions with his coaches or those involved in sports, whether it was his dad, Robert, Ron Bucemi, LeRoy Felcman in Little League; Bill Lepsi at Cicero School; John Unterfranz, Len Zabroski, Bob Hertel, Dave Chierico, Bob Vashinko, Wayne Porod, Wayne Carpenter, Bert Barbahan, Joe Belcaster and John Stanko at Morton East; Reynolds and Bob Burke at Morton College; or Johnnie Emmons at Northwestern State.
“They were a big part of my life,” Kairis said. “They were people I associated with. All of them had a great influence in my life. Plus, this (education) is what I went to school for. This is where my heart is. This what I should be doing.”
t was Kairis’ turn to do the same for future generations. Kairis got hired by the Chicago Public School system and was assigned to teach physical education at John Spry, a K-8 school in the Pilsen neighborhood. He’s proud of attaining National Board Certification in 2007 and renewed his 10-year certificate last year. The organization defines and recognizes accomplished teachers.
“There comes a time in your life where you have to step away from the game and it won’t be a part of your life,” Kairis said. “We teach the importance of being physically active. We try to incorporate what the kids want to do in the lesson plan. It’s fun to see them excited when they learn a new skill. Hopefully, they realize the importance of taking care of themselves.”