Diminutive stature never held back Patek
5-foot-4 former Royals shortstop carved out a 14-year career
It has been 31 years since Fred Patek last played in the Major Leagues, but he continues to be a source of inspiration to the undersized ballplayer.
For those kids who have talent and passion but not the prototypical size of a big leaguer, Patek shows that good things can indeed come in small packages. The 5-foot-4 former Royals shortstop carved out a 14-year career in the Majors, including a nine-year run in Kansas City that earned him a spot in the Royals' Hall of Fame.
From the time he started playing ball as a youngster in Sequin, Texas, Patek was told he was too small. But the skeptics were measuring head to toe and never bothered to measure the heart.
"When I played, I didn't perceive myself as being small," Patek said. "I just perceived myself as playing a game I loved. The message I got loud and clear was that I wasn't going to make it. And if I did somehow make it, I wasn't going to last very long."
Patek had everything it took to make sure "5-4" wouldn't derail his dreams. The ability and passion were there from an early age, and Patek prided himself on outworking the players who had more conventional body frames. At 67, Patek is a living example that a smallish kid can make it on baseball's biggest stage.
"If that's your dream and your passion, go for it," Patek said. "Sometimes, a smaller guy just has to be willing to push a little harder."
The Pittsburgh Pirates took Patek in the 22nd round of the 1965 Draft, but the presence of established shortstop Gene Alley prompted the Pirates to package Patek in a six-player deal with Kansas City following the 1970 season. Suddenly, the Royals had their shortstop for what turned out to be a glorious run in the 1970s.
Patek got the news of the trade from Roberto Clemente, his winter ball manager in Puerto Rico.
"My wife said, 'We're going to Kansas City? There are cows and horses in the streets,'" Patek recalled with a laugh. "Her perception was a little bit off. It really turned out to be a blessing for me. We had a great owner [Ewing Kauffman] and a general manager named Cedric Tallis, who put together the nucleus of a great ballclub.
"Our team was truly a team in every sense of the word. We all got along and respected each other. Everybody was a hard worker. I think that's why we had a lot of success."
When Royals Stadium opened on April 10, 1973, it was a ballpark that was tailor-made for the Royals' personnel.
"We had a team that was built for our new ballpark," Patek said. "On that turf, we could outplay teams really easy at Royals Stadium. It was a huge advantage for us."
Manager Whitey Herzog went so far as to say Patek was the best artificial turf shortstop he ever managed. That's particularly high praise when one considers that Herzog went on to manage Ozzie Smith in St. Louis.
Patek had a big role in putting Kansas City on the national baseball map. He was part of three exhilarating playoff series against the Yankees in the mid-1970s and was an American League All-Star in 1972, 1976 and 1978.
Patek led the American League with 53 stolen bases in 1977 and went on to enjoy a three-homer day at Fenway Park when he played for the California Angels in 1979. When a reporter once asked Patek how it felt to be the shortest player in the Major Leagues, Patek had a ready reply.
"I told him it's better to be the shortest player in the Major Leagues than the tallest player in the Minor Leagues," Patek said.
Patek, who recently had a chance to catch up with former teammates such as Hal McRae at All-Star Fanfest, has continued to make his home in the Kansas City area since his playing days. He still follows the Royals intently and is active in youth baseball.
Those kids can look at Patek and see that you don't have to be a giant to make it big in baseball.
"When I talk to kids today, I tell them that you just have to believe in yourself," Patek said. "Do what you can do and then the rest is in fate's hands."
Robert Falkoff is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.