Before he came along, the buildings facing Wrigley Field on Waveland Avenue had been nice places to live in. Pleasant and safe. People came and went as they pleased on hot summer afternoons, sometimes sitting on the roof in deck chairs watching their beloved Chicago Cubs take another licking. Then, in 1978, Dave (Kong) Kingman joined the team and began using the buildings for target practice. He initiated his own urban-renewal project by trying to knock them down. And—boom! BOOM! BOOM!—there went the neighborhood.
The houses lining Waveland Avenue have become pillboxes in which families sit trembling in their cellars as Kingman bombards their facades. Last week there was a nervous quiet on Wrigley Field's northern front as Kingman took his act on the road to St. Louis. Nobody outside Busch Stadium had to dive for cover when Kingman hit two home runs in a doubleheader on Friday against the Cardinals; the place is just too big, even for a long-ball buster like Kong. Those blasts tied him with Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt for the major league lead at 39—career highs for the two sluggers, who are taking dead aim at Hack Wilson's National League record of 56 homers in a single season.
Kingman, a rangy 6'6" righthander, has struck 67 home runs since signing with the Cubs last season. Thirty-six have been hit at Wrigley Field, where the ball carries like a rocket and where the bleachers beyond the leftfield power alley are only 368 feet from home plate. But it is not merely the number of Kingman's home runs that makes him such a prodigious batsman. It is the awesome length, the astonishing trajectory of his missiles. Diane and David Reyes, a sister and brother who reside on Waveland, roughly 500 feet from the batter's box, have lost three of their windows to Kingman home runs. The Reyeses now have screens on their living room windows to prevent Rawlingses from whistling through their quarters.
"The Cubs pay for the broken windows," says Diane Reyes, "but they take the balls back. It would be nice to have something to remember Kingman by besides a pile of busted glass."
It will not comfort the Reyeses and their neighbors to know that Kingman believes "You don't have to hit it good at Wrigley Field to hit it out." And yet, "hit it good" is usually what Kong does. There are other hitters in the major leagues—notably George Foster of Cincinnati, Schmidt and Greg Luzinski of the Phillies and Jim Rice of Boston—who can occasionally give the ball a ride the way Kingman does. But no one else does it as consistently. "I thought Luzinski was extremely strong," says Cub Second Baseman Ted Sizemore, who played with the Bull in Philadelphia, "but Kingman is stronger. Every time he hits a homer it's a long one."
Met Catcher John Stearns, Kingman's former teammate in New York, adds, "Foster and Schmidt can hit a lot of home runs, but powerwise Dave is in a class by himself. I've seen him hit balls out one-handed that most guys couldn't hit at all. He can get fooled on a pitch and still hit it out of the park. He's frightening." Kingman has hit two balls out of Wrigley Field that carried an estimated 600 feet on the fly. That's frightening.
This season Kingman has been averaging a home run every 10 turns at bat and has twice hit three in one game. He has reduced his once abysmal strikeout ratio encouragingly, a factor that has also contributed to his home-run production. Kingman's bat control has been so good, in fact, that he has hit 12 of his 39 homers with two strikes against him. This is also an important reason why he is batting .296, 64 points higher than his career average.
"He used to just whale at the ball," says St. Louis Catcher Ted Simmons, "but he doesn't seem to be doing that anymore." He certainly wasn't doing it recently when he came to the plate with two men on in the fourth inning to face Cardinal Pitcher John Denny. The righthander tried to keep the ball off the plate and fell behind in the count, 3 and 1. Kingman backed away for a moment to let Denny consider his predicament, then stepped back in and planted his feet nearly the full width of the batter's box. Until this season Kingman stood with his feet closer together, causing him to overstride when he swung. Often he was so out of control that he looked pathetic when a pitch fooled him badly. Even though he fell down a lot, Kingman was never a pleasant sight from out on the mound. "With his height," says Bruce Sutter, the Cubs' ace reliever, "when he strides he looks like he's stepping on you."
Kingman's willingness to change his stance is a reflection of his new maturity. "After eight years of experimenting with stances and talking to a lot of hitting coaches," he said on TV the other day, "I'm finally putting it all together. I guess the key was learning about myself, learning what type of pitches I can handle and what type I can't. Now I go to the plate looking for pitches I know I can hit, and I'm waiting on the ball better than I ever have."
As Denny looked in for his sign, Kingman drew his 36-ounce bat upright and dipped his left shoulder. The ball came toward the plate rotating fast—indicating a curveball—and it quickly dropped from eye level toward Kingman's left foot. "When I'm in the batter's box," he says, "I don't think about anything else except seeing the location of the ball. Most of the time I don't even know what kind of pitch I'm hitting."
In this instance it was a pitch too low to be a strike but one well within the reach of Kingman's long, powerful arms. "I would have liked the pitch better if it had been farther out over the plate," Simmons said later, "but it was down out of the strike zone where he shouldn't have been able to do much with it. The ball never hung at all. If it had hung he would have hit it over the roof of one of those buildings on Waveland Avenue. He just reached down and golfed it out of the park."
When the ball leaped off Kingman's bat, the 30,224 fans gave voice to hosannahs, a cry that has become the most exciting sound in baseball. Hit too high in the air to threaten the Reyeses', the ball landed in the leftfield stands, where one of Wrigley's bare-chested Bleacher Bums hauled it in. Because Kingman is the Cubs' regular leftfielder, he has become the favorite of this self-consciously motley crew, and the Bums await his projectiles with a particular pride. After all, these are the very seats into which Hack Wilson, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo deposited so many of their homers. There is a tradition to uphold and Kingman is keeping it raised on high.
The secret of Kingman's power is not brute strength, but rather a lightning-quick swing with a natural home-run uppercut that is remarkable for its compactness. "Dave is not a muscle hitter," says Stearns. "His bat is so quick that he doesn't hit to the opposite field the way Reggie Jackson does. He's the only guy in the league who can pull a ball that's off the plate away from him for a home run."
Kingman's psyche has proved to be as brittle as the glass he shatters on Wave-land. His prowess with the bat has brought him precisely the kind of attention he wants to avoid. "Dave has the personality of a tree trunk," says Stearns. "He's not a bad guy, but if you try to talk to him, about all he does is grunt. He's not really the kind of man who wants to be in the public eye, yet here he is the longest hitter in baseball."
Kingman, 30, was a star pitcher and hitter at USC. He spent only two seasons in the minors before joining San Francisco in 1972. After three full years with the Giants, he was traded to the Mets, where he hit 73 homers in two seasons. When he tried to renegotiate his contract, the Met fans sided with management in one of the most amazing displays of misplaced loyalty in the history of free agentry. As his contract dispute became more bitter, the already shy Kingman became extremely introverted and he began to develop bad feeling toward the press.
Early this season the Chicago Sun-Times printed a compendium of Cub "bests" and "worsts," and Kingman's teammates unanimously designated him the "worst dressed." When he heard about it, Kingman angrily explained that he usually came to Wrigley Field in the clothes he wore to go salmon fishing on Lake Michigan. And with that, he declared himself off limits to all interviewers without video cameras or tape recorders. At first the Chicago press corps worked around the ban in the finest Front Page tradition—eavesdropping on Kingman's radio and TV interviews and cribbing quotes from people with cassette decks. Through it all, Kingman seemed to take a churlish pleasure in the discomfort he could cause in the press box simply by letting his bat do all his talking. From time to time he would confer off the record with reporters, but then only to explain why he wouldn't talk on the record.
When Kingman first joined the Cubs, his personality quirks—a certain aloofness, a penchant for canine company in the clubhouse—made him an oddball to some of his new teammates. He has only recently overcome that stigma by emerging as one of the team's foremost practical jokers. When squirt guns were the rage in the Cubs' clubhouse, it was Kingman who provided the weaponry. When cigarettes started exploding unexpectedly in players' faces, the trail of pellets led to Kingman. However, on days when he is not engaging in these antics, he is free to go his own way. "If he comes in and he doesn't feel like communicating that particular day," says Pitcher Lynn McGlothen, "we just back off. No problem."
In this special season Kingman hit his first home run on Opening Day and has kept right on clubbing. At times he has been well-nigh impossible to stop. The Phillies discovered that in late June when Catcher Bob Boone bobbled a routine foul-tipped third strike, then watched Kingman kong the next pitch more than 400 feet into the rightfield bleachers. As of last week, Kingman had missed only 10 games because of illness or injury. Never before has he played more than 135 games in a season.
Besides hitting monster home runs, Kingman has also been playing the outfield smoothly, even hitting cutoff men. As he once said, "I'm paid to hit, not to play defense. If I was paid for my defense I'd go hungry." But that attitude is a thing of the past as he patrols leftfield with new authority.
Kingman's prowess has tended to obscure the fact that the whole Cub team has done surprisingly well. There it was at week's end, only 4½ games behind Pittsburgh in the National League East. Everybody knows that the Cubs flower and then wilt. But the el foldo, if there is to be one, is taking its own sweet time coming.
Kingman, of course, has been the power behind this modest glory, but as First Baseman Bill Buckner says, "It's not a one-man team." Chicago batters have made their hits timely ones, the starting pitchers have been solid, if not overpowering, and the relief pitching is first-rate. Dick Tidrow, a Yankee castoff, has found new life in the Chicago bullpen (he has an 8-3 record), and Sutter's darting split-fingered fastball has carried him to 28 saves, tops in the majors.
But if the Cubs are to make a run at the pennant—they last won one 34 years ago—Kong will have to lead them. "He can carry that club," says Met Pitcher Dock Ellis, "and he's going to have to. I don't believe you can win a pennant playing day games in Chicago. It's going to get hot and those guys are going to get tired. But Kingman will still be hitting them out."
It remains to be seen whether Kingman can keep body and soul together for an entire season. "Baseball is an uncertain life," he has said. "I don't think people know how hard it is to get to the big leagues. They don't understand the pressures of this job. They don't know what it's like. They don't know what I'm like. They only know what they read."
But they know how you can thunder-crunch a baseball, Dave, and windows or no windows, they don't really want you to stop. Train the gun on Waveland Avenue and let loose the cannonade.