KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Paul Splittorff worked just about every Father’s Day, a streak that put Cal Ripken to shame. If it happened to fall during a Royals home stand, “Splitt” liked to round up the family, take them to church, then circle back to the park.
“I’ll miss his grilling,” recalls Jennifer Splittorff, the eldest daughter of the late Kansas City Royals pitcher-turned-broadcaster. “He was a grill master. I’ll miss his burgers. He could grill one heck of a burger.”
Father’s Day is about burgers, beer and baseball, not necessarily in that order. It’s about putting the cares of daily life on the shelf, turning on the game, and rocking hard to the soundtrack of summer. If not hearing Splittorff’s voice on a sunny Sunday afternoon seems strange to you, imagine how it must feel for Jennifer and Jamie, Paul’s kids.
“The first several months after his passing, you’re kind of in a daze,” Jamie says of his father, who’d pitched for the Royals from 1970-84 and who’d passed away May 25, 2011 due to complications from melanoma. “And then the holidays come up and that kind of hits you. This spring, it comes up and you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s May.’ It doesn’t seem that long (ago), quite frankly.”
It’s been 13 months. Some days, it feels like 13 years. Other days, it feels like 13 weeks.
“Last year, we were just trying to get through and stay busy,” offers Lynn Splittorff, Paul’s widow. “But this year, I think, it’s even, I want to say, more raw.”
And this weekend figures to be especially bittersweet. The St. Mary’s Medical Center Foundation is slated to host the first annual Paul Splittorff Memorial Golf Classic — formerly the St. Mary’s Medical Center Golf Classic — at the Adams Pointe Golf Club on Monday in Blue Springs, Mo.
“Last year, we in the family knew what was happening (with Paul),” Lynn continues. “It seemed last year we were more prepared for his death than our friends and the whole fan base (in greater) Kansas City. Because nobody knew. So they kind of fed us and kept us going through that time.
“And then this year, it’s kind of like, ‘Wow, it really did happen?’ Even though they renamed the tournament and it’s now in his name, it just brings it home a little bit more. And people are (speaking) very nicely about him and it brings up a lot of memories last year that they were kind of evading. It’s been a little tough this year and it’s a little emotional.”
Some of Splittorff’s closest pals, dating all the way back to days at tiny Morningside College up in Sioux City, Iowa, are slated to hit town to play for one of the ex-Royal’s favorite causes. Over the years, the classic has raised roughly $50,000 annually for the medical center’s foundation. That part is awesome.
Of course, it’s also Jennifer’s birthday. And that part is a kick in the gut.
“She was just really close to her father,” Lynn continues. “And Father’s Day being the day before and (then) her birthday, and all the accolades that people (say) about him so much at the tournament and remember stories (about him) … she’ll cover for it. But inside, she’ll be a mess.”
Outside, though, you’ll never know the difference. Jennifer’s been blessed with every inch of her Dad’s bulldog tenacity, especially when it comes to keeping the classic sailing along smooth waters. Over the past seven years, she has been the tourney’s rock and its engine, its spine and its spirit, whether pushing buttons in an official or unofficial capacity. It’s a labor of love. In the truest sense.
“My mom and sister put a lot of time into it and its kind of neat that (Jennifer) is kind of running the thing, and that’s nice to see,” Jamie adds. “Looking at it now, (her birthday is) nice timing. It probably means more now than probably ever before.”
This is the first time the tournament has been officially named in honor of its most frequent celebrity patron. Splitt, the franchise’s all-time leader in career victories (166) and a longtime Blue Springs resident, helped get the event off the ground back in the early ’80s; the ex-lefty hurler had either been participating in or stumping for the tourney, on and off, in the three decades since.
“(He) was, in my mind, a little ahead of his time, just in terms of charity fund-raising through a golf tournament — and that basically just got the hospital going,” Jennifer says. “I think he wanted to just help the community that he lived in.”
Thanks to the tournament, a new birthing ward saw the light of day. It helped to get a fitness path up and rolling. This year’s proceeds have been earmarked for the cardiology center. Paul Splittorff worked just about every Father’s Day. Walk through St. Mary’s, and you’ll realize he’s never stopped.