If you have not heard of Hoyleton, IL, you aren’t the only person. Hoyleton’s population barely exceeds 500. To be exact, it was 531 at the 2010 census. It is the home to a Lutheran grade school, a small bank, a bar and grill, and 13-year Major League Baseball veteran Kirk Rueter. The Wikipedia page for Hoyleton is by no means extensive. In the main paragraph at the top of the page, it states the population, the county it resides in, and its loyalty to Rueter. Behemoth buildings are nowhere in sight, places to eat are few and far between, and “heavy” traffic consists of a few cars at the same intersection. Leaving a small town like Hoyleton and moving to a huge city is quite the adjustment for anyone. “Having to take probably thirty minutes to go five miles in San Francisco, where if you are in Hoyleton and you got five miles, you’re getting there in five minutes,” said Rueter on the differences.
Rueter’s upbringing has had a long-lasting effect on who he is today. It is the reason he is so humble and gives back to his community quite often. But you are on a much larger stage and held to a much higher standard when you do what he did for a living. When kids came to games or ran into him elsewhere, Rueter always did his best to sign every autograph possible. He never tried to talk about himself or his accomplishments. He believed if he was good enough, his talent and achievements would speak for themselves. According to Dave Fischer, Rueter’s high school coach, people around his hometown say he has not changed at all. The person Rueter had always been is who he continued to be.
Even when Rueter was in high school, people knew he was the real deal. Fischer said that people would ask if Rueter had what it took to make the big leagues while he was still in college. Fischer never answered with anything other than a resounding “yes.” Rueter has always been disciplined and committed, and his parents and older brother provided him with a fantastic support group.
Entering the 2002 MLB season, hopes were high for the San Francisco Giants. They had just come off a 90-72 record, had reigning NL MVP Barry Bonds, and they returned a large majority of their starting lineup and rotation. These Giants were not to be taken lightly, especially due to the presence of Bonds. That season, he went on to set the single season home run record with 73 and it still stands today. “If we had a bad stretch early on, we didn’t really panic. Dusty would always tell us the baseball season was a marathon not a sprint. We knew if we were close in the division in August, we would give ourselves a chance,” Rueter said. The marathon went almost exactly how they wanted; they improved their record and clinched the postseason, but they failed to win their division in back-to-back seasons. This postseason, though, would shake out differently than in recent years.
San Francisco drew the first seeded Atlanta Braves in a best of five series. These teams had squared off across two series and seven games in the regular season. Miraculously, the season series was a dead split. According to Baseball Reference, a baseball statistics and history database, they ended one of these games in a 3-3 tie. Games one and two were held in Atlanta. The Giants took game one and Kirk Rueter took the mound for game two. Things did not go well for Rueter, as he allowed six earned runs and one unearned to cross the plate in a mere three innings of work, and the Braves took the contest to even the series. Luckily, the Giants would have Rueter’s back, and they won games four and five to clinch an appearance in the National League Championship Series.
In college, Rueter’s accomplishments were impressive, to put it plainly. He played baseball at Murray State University and is one of the all-time greats for the program. According to Murray State Athletics, Rueter ranks fourth all time in wins, and tenth in strikeouts, and ranks in the top ten in several other categories. His dominance at Murray State led to his selection in the 18th round of the 1991 MLB Draft to the Montreal Expos. This would be one of the first changes to Kirk’s life throughout his playing career.
Rueter worked his way quickly through the Expos’ farm system and found his way into the major leagues in 1993 at the ripe age of twenty-two. Despite being a big leaguer, Rueter was still a young adult trying to figure out life. Fischer said, “When my family got to Montreal, we saw Kirk and he said, ‘hey coach what should I do with these?’ He pulled two checks out of his pockets, each worth around twenty thousand dollars. I almost had a heart attack, so I took him to a bank next to the hotel and he started a savings account.” His rookie season was one of the best of his career. He did not win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, but he did receive more votes than future hall of fame inductee Pedro Martinez. After his rookie season, Rueter never quite experienced that level of success again in Montreal.
Eventually, he was traded during the 1996 season to the San Francisco Giants. “I was kind of hoping I got traded. My time had run out there. The pitching coach and I were butting heads and I was just happy to get out of Montreal,” said Rueter. Between college, Minor League Baseball, and Major League Baseball, Rueter had made stops in Murray, KY, Sumter, SC, Rockford, IL, Harrisburg, PA, Ottawa, Ontario, Montreal, all since 1991, and was now on his way to San Francisco. This was quite the change of scenery for a young man who had spent the first 18 years of his life in a town a fraction of the population of these cities.
The man most of San Francisco knows as “Woody” wasted no time getting acclimated to his new team and new setting. Rueter was given this nickname because people saw the resemblance between him and the character from Disney’s Toy Story. Although he only pitched in four games the rest of the season after being traded, he pitched to a sub two earned run average. Giants fans grew to love Woody, and he became a part of the team’s core that would stay together for multiple years.
Next up in the 2002 playoffs, the Giants faced Rueter’s hometown St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals and Giants matched up six times over the regular season with the Cardinals winning four of the six times. On October 9, Rueter was handed the ball for game one and recorded the win. Although his stats were not particularly eye popping, he did what was needed and his team won 9-6. The Giants followed their game one victory with another in game two, bringing the series back home up 2-0. After two games in San Francisco, It was Rueter’s turn in the rotation again with the Giants up 3-1 and in a potential series-clinching game. This time around, Rueter was lights out. Six innings of work and no runs allowed which allowed his offense time to get going as they did not score until the eighth inning.
On that Monday night in chilly 62 degrees weather and fourteen miles per hour wind, San Francisco cemented their place in the 2002 Fall Classic on the back of Kirk Rueter.
Following Rueter’s first taste of San Francisco, he was finally ready for a full season in the bay. He grew increasingly accustomed to the area as he was there, and it is where his family was started. His first daughter, Hope, was born in San Francisco in 2000. Rueter said that his kids and his wife, Karla, traveled with him when possible, but it became increasingly difficult the older they got. Rueter knew San Francisco was where he wanted to play, and it was shown in the contract extension he signed in the 2000 season. It was the final year of his deal and he signed on for three more years.
Being a part of the Giants organization was all Rueter could have ever asked from the baseball gods. He played multiple seasons with a handful of his teammates. They formed the core of that Giants team from the late nineties and early 2000s. Not often do you see a core that large and that good stay together for so long. Rueter also spoke of the wisdom that manager Dusty Baker handed down to him and his team. Baker was always quick to remind the team not to panic when things hit a rough patch. Rueter said Baker gave him the greatest compliment he ever got while playing. “If I had a good game or a bad game, the next day when I came into the clubhouse, you wouldn’t have known what I did.”
Kirk started his tenure in San Francisco hot, but he slowed down a step over the next few seasons. He still threw well and never threw less than 180 innings in any season from 1997-2002, but runs were coming around to score more than he would have liked. Although he was giving up more runs, Rueter was still winning his team games. He recorded at least eleven wins every season over this six-year stretch. In 2002, Rueter threw the best he had since his first half in San Francisco; he logged over two hundred innings, had his lowest ERA in a full season as a Giant, and had fourteen wins that season.
Finally, on October 19 in the City of Angels, the final games of the 2002 campaign had arrived. The San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Angels squared off for their second series of the year. They had met up in the regular season so both teams were familiar with each other. Game one ended in a Giants victory to take an early lead of the series. A dogfight ensued the following night with the Angels tying it back up with an 11-10 victory. Both teams had to hit the road and head to San Francisco for the next three games. Despite the Giants playing in front of their home crowd, the Angels slaughtered them to take game three.
On the heels of back-to-back losses and facing the threat of going down 3-1 in the most important series of the year, Dusty Baker turned to Kirk Rueter for game four. Rueter knew the weight of the situation and he could not let his team go down 3-1. He had to get his team the win but decided to treat this like any other game. Nothing had changed in his pre-start routine and Rueter knew what he needed to do. Rueter took the mound hoping to let his work speak for itself.
After a scoreless first inning, the Angels chased home a run in the second off Rueter with a sacrifice fly. In the following inning, Troy Glaus extended the lead with a two-run blast. These were the last runs Rueter and the Giants would allow for the night. Down three to nothing, the Giants eventually added runs of their own, tying it up in the bottom of the fifth. Rueter left the game after six strong innings and handed it off to his bullpen. They did their part and kept it scoreless, allowing their offense to score the eventual winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning. Rueter did his job and extended the series another game.
After the Giants squeaked out a victory in game three, it was time for a blowout of their own. They scored in five different innings and put up at least two runs every inning they had a run cross the plate. It equaled out to sixteen runs, a whopping twelve more than the Angels had that night. The penultimate game six was back in Los Angeles where the Angeles capitalized on their home field advantage and took the series to game seven. Rueter did not start game seven but was eventually handed the ball. He took over in the fourth inning already down 4-1. He threw four innings of his own allowing no runs in a gutsy performance out of the bullpen, but his efforts were moot. The Giants did not score again, and the Angels won the World Series. Rueter has said that he has no regrets on his playing career, but that winning the Fall Classic would have been his crowning moment.
After playing three more seasons after the conclusion of the World Series and having his second daughter, Halle, Kirk Rueter retired in 2005. Although he almost signed on to play another season with the St. Louis Cardinals to be closer to home, he knew it was time to hang up
his cleats. Now, Kirk has brought memorabilia back home and stores it in his famous shed at his house. He has hosted family and friends since his playing days and is a welcoming guest. Now, he and his wife help those in need by buying Christmas presents and running charity auctions to raise funds. Rueter is giving back to the community that raised him and that he loves so dearly.