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Hardball and Dave Kingman


Well, the new Hardball Times Baseball Annual is out, and of course it has all sorts of good stuff even if they did go slumming this year and have me write up a little essay. Fortunately, there are all kinds of other great things in there -- Rob Neyer talking about the greatest mid-season acquisitions ever, Craig Calcaterra on the Mitchell Report, Craig Brown on Pete Rose the free agent, well, I can't list all of the stories. I will say that one of the most fascinating bits in there is about Dodger Stadium and how it's actually an excellent home run park ... if you are a home run hitter. Interesting stuff. You should check it out.

One of my favorite pieces in there was written by John Walsh. It's called The Sweet Taste of Revenge. Walsh basically wanted to answer the question: Do batters hit better after they have been dissed? That is, do hitters outperform themselves when someone is intentionally walked in front of them? In a way, I think that he was asking: Is anger a positive emotion in baseball? Or: Does motivation make someone a better hitter? The whole article is excellent and the conclusions are interesting, but I'm not going to go into those -- you need to buy the book.

No, the point here is that the study made me think a little bit more about one of my favorite players: Dave Kingman.

I readily admit that I am disturbingly fascinated by Dave Kingman -- more fascinated than anyone should be about a man who famously sent a live rat to a reporter. Mostly it comes down to my theory: I think Kingman could have been a great player, only it seems to me he did not particularly want to be a great player.

My main proof for this is the 1979 baseball season. Kingman was playing for the Chicago Cubs that year. And I had always heard that in the months before that season, Kingman decided he finally would show everyone just how great he could be if he actually tried. Up to that point Kingman had been one of the most absurd players in baseball history -- he hit a lot of home runs, he struck out an obscene number of times, he got hurt a lot, he only played defense in the loosest definition of the word and he was traded and waived three times in the same year (and released at the end of that year). He also seemed to have a unique ability to make everybody really despise him.

Dave Kingman (1971-78): .232/.299/.485, 204 homers, 110 errors, 964 Ks in 3052 at-bats.

Now look, you would need a whole team of psychiatrists to figure out what happened to Dave Kingman. He was a remarkable athlete. He actually began his college career as a pitcher at USC and he had a very strong arm throughout most of his big league career. He was 6-foot-6, he was freakishly strong*, and in his younger days he could run. In 1972, his first full year with the San Francisco Giants, he hit 29 homers in 472 at-bats -- sixth in the National League -- he stole 16 bases, he was not yet unwilling to draw walks, and according to news reports of the time he even showed some defensive promise at third base. He was just 23.

*In 1994, when the Cincinnati Bengals were a struggling football team -- good thing that has changed -- they drafted Dan Wilkinson, a defensive tackle out of Ohio State with the first pick in the draft. As soon as Wilkinson was drafted (and people started sacrilegiously calling him "Big Daddy"), the strength coach announced that Wilkinson was "freakishly strong." We would often talk about the meaning of that bold quote in the press box when watching him get shoved around. How could this happen to a man of freakish strength? Could it be that other teams had offensive linemen who were freakishly stronger? Mutantly strong? Whimsically strong? Or was Wilkinson's freakish strength only observable in non-football ways -- could Wilkinson, say, pick up school busses? Could he tear the doors off of refrigerators? Could he lift a sled with all of the presents and food in Whoville?** It remained a mystery. After a while, Wilkinson called Cincinnati a racist city and got himself traded to Washington, where he played for some years and was released, signed with Detroit, played for two years and was released, signed with Miami, played one year and then could not be located when the Dolphins wanted to trade him. So they released him.

**Meaning he would have the strength of 10 Grinches, plus two.

It's hard to say what happened then. Maybe it was his personality -- Kingman, by all indications, did not like people. I've always suspected he did not like baseball either -- or at least many parts of baseball. I think he liked hitting 500-foot home runs. It was the other stuff that seemed to bore him or irritate him or whatever. He just did not seem wired for a game that demanded he play well with others and pay attention when he was not swinging for the fences and perform for fans who seemed to demand quite a lot for the price of their ticket. Kingman talked often about fishing; that was the sport that suited his temperament. He could do it alone. And if he had a bad day, he would eat sandwiches.

But maybe there were other things involved beyond Kingman's personality quirks. It seems to me that the Giants turned on him fast. I don't know all the details, of course, but it seems to me that 1972 was a year to build on -- instead, Kingman started '73 on the bench, was mostly a pinch-runner or pinch-hitter. Twice the Giants put him in games to pitch. That does not seem like a team that had much faith in a man's talents.

In 1973 Kingman did many of the good things he had done in '72 -- he hit 24 homers in 305 at-bats and he was still walking at a pretty good rate -- but you could see that his game was beginning to deteriorate. He struck out 122 times in those 305 at-bats. His defense at third base very suddenly went tragic. Kingman might or might not have responded any better to a positive environment -- no one will know -- but clearly the Giants and Kingman brought out the worst in each other. After an even more frustrating season in '74, the Giants sold Kingman to the Mets for $150,000.

And in New York the much-publicized Dave Kingman character came out -- here was the moody Kingman who swung hard at everything, who almost never walked, who pulled everything, who hit 500-foot home runs and 325-foot pop-ups, who ran the bases like a child coming in for dinner, who played defense not just poorly but with utter disdain. He did mash 36 and 37 home runs his two full years with the Mets, and Shea was a terrible hitters park. Those home runs seemed to be the only things that intrigued him at all about baseball. In '77 the Mets traded him, the Padres waived him, the Angels traded him and the Yankees let him go.*

*It's worth noting that the Yankees were only up 2.5 games when they traded Randy Stein and cash for for Kingman on Sept. 15 of '77. Kong banged home runs in each of his first two games -- both victories -- and hit four homers in eight games as the Yankees held on and went on to win the World Series. The Yankees still didn't want him back.

All of which takes us back to 1979, and this new attitude from Dave Kingman. "Man it sure would be fun to get a full year of baseball in," he told reporters during Cubs spring training that year. And this: "I'm working on a lot of things I've never worked on before." He talked about hitting the ball the other way. He talked about focusing more on each at bat. He talked about staying healthy. He talked about wanting to show people something.

Then Kingman went on to have four amazing months. Here were Kingman's numbers through 85 games:

307 at-bats, 67 runs, 94 hits, 35 homers, 79 RBIs, .306/.378/.691

Now, sure, there have been better stretches than that in baseball history, but I suspect none by a player with the pedigree of Dave Kingman. To give you an idea about that .691 slugging percentage -- it was a few points higher than Mickey Mantle's slugging percentage in 1961. It was unreal.

Now, true, some of this was because of the hitting-convenience of Wrigley Field -- he hit 315 at Wrigley that season -- but much of it just seemed to be Kingman making the point that, sure, if he wanted to be a great player, if such things actually interested him, then he could do that. He proved the point even more convincingly on July 27 and 28 of that season, when he faced the Mets, one of his former teams. Kingman never did say publicly that he wanted to get back at the Mets for trading him or mistreating him or whatever. On a Friday night, though, he hit two home runs against them. On Saturday he hit three more.

Anyway, he cooled off the last couple months of the 1979 season -- he still ended up with by far his best season, a massive offensive season really. He hit .288/.343/.613 with 48 homers and 115 RBIs. He led the league in OPS, which is pretty telling because he never before or since finished in the Top FIFTEEN in OPS in either league. He had made his statement.

Kingman had injuries in 1980, and by '81 he was back to being the same old Dave Kingman. I don't know if it's right, but I always had this theory that Kingman had proved his point, and he grew bored again. He just went back to bashing a bunch of of home runs -- that seemed the be the one thing he liked doing. You know Kingman hit 35 home runs the last season of his career -- that's a record, most homers for a final season. It's a telling record: Usually someone who hits 35 home runs will be brought back by some team. But by 1986 everyone was sick of Kingman, and Kingman was sick of everyone, and it was all best left alone.

OK, so what does any of this have to do with John Walsh's study (no, I haven't forgotten about that)? Well, as soon as I saw what he was doing -- studying how batters do when the batter in front of them is intentionally walked -- I thought of Kingman.

To me Dave Kingman had everything a baseball player needs to be great, everything except a reason. And in those all-to-rare moments when he had a reason -- when he was facing an old team that wronged him, when everyone seemed to have given up on him, when he played at Fenway Park with that beautiful Green Monster out there* -- he was great.

*I've written this before, but Kingman started only 18 games at Fenway Park in his career. He hit 13 home runs.

So, Walsh found that 64 times in his career, a pitcher/manager intentionally walked someone in front of Dave Kingman. How did Kingman do in those angry moments, when once again he was given a reason to be great? I think the numbers tell a whole story.

In those 64 plate appearances Kingman hit .407 with 11 home runs.