- Pirates rookie Nick Kingham astonished the baseball world by almost throwing a perfect game in his MLB debut. That his family was all together to witness it was pure serendipity.
Roxane Kingham has never been so happy not to see her son. They had big plans for Monday—breakfast, lunch and dinner in Pittsburgh, plus hours of sightseeing and maybe even some shopping—but Nick had to cancel. He’d thought he would have three days to report to the Triple A Indianapolis Indians, but after a historically-impressive major league debut Sunday afternoon, the Pirates told Nick Kingham he was sticking around. He would be spending Monday in the visitors’ dugout at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. Ever the devoted son, he apologized when he found out.
Kingham did not have much reason to be sorry this weekend. He treated Roxane; his dad, Don; his younger brother, Nolan; his fiancée, Logan Justice; and the other 14,374 fans at PNC Park to 6 2/3 perfect innings against the Cardinals in his first big league appearance. The 20 straight batters he retired were the most by a pitcher in his debut since at least 1961—when the league expanded from 16 teams—and he became only the second pitcher in a century to allow one hit, walk no one and strike out nine in his first appearance.
That Kingham, 26, turned in the performance he did was something of a miracle. That the people he loves most were on hand to see it was, they say, providence. Every moment of the weekend seemed sent from above: Nick learned of his call-up on Wednesday, which gave his parents time to book flights from Las Vegas, and his fiancée from North Carolina. The appearance came in April, outside of Don’s busiest season as the owner of a pool-servicing business that keeps him tethered to home during the summer. Nolan, a junior righthander at Texas, would be playing a series at West Virginia, 75 miles south of Pittsburgh. Even the bright red cardinal that caught Don’s eye in Morgantown—the first he’d seen in his life—felt like a sign.
“It was unreal,” says Don.
Don insists he never wavered. Even as his son’s minor league career stretched into its ninth season, he says, he knew Nick would make it here.
“I realize now I was kind of naïve to the reality of it,” Don says. “I realized the last two years that I shouldn’t be expecting this.”
He was alone in his certainty. Kingham, a high school teammate of Bryce Harper’s in Las Vegas, had been a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 and hit Triple A in ’14, but a poorly-timed torn UCL the next May cost him more than a year of development. He finally returned late in ’16, then rolled an ankle in spring training last year and missed another five weeks. He lost so much development time that this fall Pittsburgh requested a fourth option year from the league—essentially a redshirt.
Even the normally stoic Nick began to wonder. He was being lapped by younger prospects. What if the team forgot about him?
So Nolan’s reaction to his brother’s news was one of relief. Finally, he thought. Logan, who hadn’t even cried when Nick proposed to her, wept so openly that her co-workers thought someone had died.
Roxane hung up, then called back. “Really?” she asked. “Are you sure you heard ’em right?”
Once the arrangements were made, the family tried to leave him alone to prepare, but Nolan kept tabs on Nick’s whereabouts through the Find My Friends function on his iPhone. He was delighted on Saturday to see that the blue dot representing his brother hovered over PNC Park.
They will remember the weekend as a blur interrupted by occasional clarity. The rain delay Friday night at West Virginia’s Monongalia County Ballpark before Nolan threw five innings … the moment at the end of breakfast Saturday when Nick admitted to the excited café owners that he was attending the next day’s game not as a fan but as the starting pitcher … the joy in his voice after he warmed up as he told his father he’d never been happier. Roxane spent most of the trip sobbing; Don tried to figure out how to silence the constant buzzing of his iPhone.
This was supposed to be a spot start made necessary by a rain delay that had forced a doubleheader, which is why they all planned to spend Monday together. Nick was supposed to return to Indianapolis afterward. He still may, in a week or two. But once the game was over and the Pirates told Nick to get on the plane, he scrambled to have his parents bring down his luggage from their hotel room, where he had left it. They got it to him just in time to give him one last hug in the hallway outside the clubhouse. “Time to go!” someone called. Nick headed toward the door to his right. “O.K.,” he said. “I gotta go to work.”
“Hey, dumb-dumb,” a veteran said, chuckling. “You’re going the wrong way.”
Everyone burst out laughing. Nick beamed as he pushed open the other door and walked out into the night.
The only dent in their golden weekend came near the end, when Nolan realized he had to get to the airport in time for the Longhorns’ flight. He bid his brother a quick farewell on the field. “Already?” Nick said. “I don’t know when I’ll see you next.” Then Nick remembered the MLB draft, for which Nolan is eligible this year, in June.
“I’ll see you on TV!” Nick said.
A little under two hours later, Nolan boarded the charter, looked out the window and couldn’t help but laugh. He called Nick. “Dude,” he said, “I’m looking at your plane.”
And then the final moment of serendipity in the best 48 hours of the Kinghams’ lives: The Texas flight waited. The Pirates climbed off their bus at the adjacent gate. Nolan raced down the stairs and onto the tarmac, shouting at security, “He’s my brother!” The Kinghams got their real goodbye. Then Nick headed toward the plane, toward D.C., toward his second major league start. His family will see him on TV.