Just when you thought they were going, going....
Gone. Dave Kingman's Bunyanesque swing began way up in wine country, washed across the California coast, smoothed over the San Andreas Fault, cooled Death Valley and was somewhere over Lake Tahoe when his bat connected with the hanging curveball thrown by Minnesota pitcher Al Williams.
"Uh-oh," said Twins catcher Jeff Reed to himself just before the clap of thunder. "As soon as I heard it, I thought, gee, he must like the American League," said leftfielder Mickey Hatcher, who swiveled his head to watch Kingman's shot play in the sky. The ball finally came down two-thirds of the way up the concrete steps in the leftfield bleachers of Oakland Coliseum. "I was expecting a fastball, so I got a little out in front of it," said Kingman of his second-inning, two-run homer that helped the A's beat the Twins 7-0 last Saturday. For Kingman, it was his 10th home run, one shy of the major league record for April, and he also had a league-leading 26 RBIs (and a .244 average). Uh-oh.
Earlier in the week, in Boston, another slugger was making noise. The headline on the back page of Tuesday's New York Daily News shouted, REGGIE BLASTS 'RACIST' YANKEES. Reggie Jackson was upset at the paper for quoting parts of his new book Reggie ($15.95, Villard Books/Random House) out of context. He was miffed that the excerpts of the book, due out later this summer, didn't include his latest revisions. He was angry with the Angels' beat writers because one of them had questioned manager John McNamara about playing Jackson the night before, when he struck out three times, against Red Sox lefthander Bob Ojeda. He was ticked at writers asking him about his otherwise fast start: five homers, 19 RBIs and a .281 average as of Sunday. "It's too early," he said. "Everybody keeps asking me what I did over the winter to get off to such a good start. What are we talking about, 67 at bats? Hell, if I had Jim Rice's stats [.159, 0 HRs, 5 RBIs at the time], you wouldn't be asking me what I did over the winter. You'd be asking me what I planned to do this summer, when I'm out of baseball."
Jackson was upset, miffed, angry, ticked—and loving every minute of it. Tuesday night, after a pregame reading of his collected work—"Here's a nice passage about Lou Piniella," he said, leafing through his manuscript—Jackson hit a solo homer in the fourth and started the Angels' winning rally with an opposite-field double in the ninth, as they beat the Red Sox 8-7. Author, author.
Yes, they're back. Reggie is driving in runs again, dazzling his legion of followers, turning on crowds. Kong is lacing the air with rainbows, confounding his army of detractors, terrorizing the opposition. At week's end the A's were atop the American League West, half a game up on the Angels. The fact that Jackson and Kingman are two of the more intriguing psychological studies in the game makes their starts all the more fascinating.
And they're not baseball's only renaissance men. Phil Niekro, at 45 the game's oldest player, was 4-0 with a 1.19 ERA for the Yankees through Sunday; in teasing American Leaguers with his knuckle-ball, Niekro has symbolically ridiculed the Braves for letting him go after 20 years of service. The three oldies the Phillies couldn't abide, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Tony Perez, are helping the A's, Expos and Reds, respectively. And respectably. Who said Milwaukee's Rollie Fingers (three saves) and Mike Caldwell (4-1, 1.96 ERA), Cleveland's Bert Blyleven (3-1, with a league-leading 31 strikeouts), K.C.'s Larry Gura (3-0, 3.33 ERA) and San Diego's Garry Templeton (.338) were through?
"Baseball is a much better game when guys like Dave Kingman and Reggie Jackson succeed," says A's president Roy Eisenhardt. "I know he's an opponent, but I thought it was a real downer last year when Reggie had a bad year. We don't want to see our heroes fail, to hang on too long. And what these players are doing now is especially great fun for those of us who are in our mid-40s."
Kingman had been written off almost completely last year. He had only 57 at bats after June 15, when the Mets acquired Keith Hernandez to replace him at first base. Once the season ended, the Mets literally couldn't give him away. An interested team would have had to pay only $40,000 of Kingman's guaranteed salary of $675,000, but there were no takers. "I thought we had a trade with the Mariners for a minor league prospect," says Lou Gorman, who was in the Mets' front office last year and now is the vice-president of baseball operations for the Red Sox. "Personally, I like Dave, and I knew he could hit 40 homers in the Kingdome, but then they acquired Gorman Thomas and Barry Bonnell, and the deal died." The Mets released him.
So Kingman sat at home in South Lake Tahoe. "I instructed my agent, David Landfield, not to solicit any offers from teams," he says. "I wanted them to come to me, and if they didn't, I was prepared to go to Japan. I didn't think it was the end of the line, and even if it was, I had a three-page list of things I wanted to do: build a house, fish for marlin, hunt, go boating."
The A's called Kingman in February and asked him to Oakland for lunch and a chat. Both parties came away impressed, and the A's invited Kingman to spring training. Oakland was the perfect place for Kingman in many ways: It's only a few hours' drive from Kingman's home; it's in the American League, which has home-run parks and the designated hitter; and the A's have an enlightened organization. They wiped the slate clean for Kingman and told him they didn't care about his batting average or his strikeouts. They just wanted him to do what he does best: hit home runs and drive in runs. "It was a great situation," says Kingman. "Both of us had nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Near the end of camp, the A's signed Kingman to a one-year contract for $40,000 (the Mets, of course, are paying him $635,000). He has worked hard, dropping 15 pounds since last season. "I feel great," he said last week. "I decided quickness was more important than strength." Kingman didn't hit his first home run until the eighth game of the season, but on the A's recent nine-game road trip, he had eight homers and 19 RBIs. Three of his homers and eight of his RBIs came in one game in the Kingdome. Hal Keller, the Seattle general manager, had said that Kingman was nothing but a mistake hitter. "I now have 351 mistakes," Kingman said last week. Williams served up mistake No. 352 on Saturday.
The way to pitch Kingman is with inside fastballs or outside curveballs. Sounds easy. "The pattern is always the same," says Kingman. "Up and in, low and away." Says Gorman, "Before our series with the A's, I briefed all our pitchers on how to pitch to Dave." So what did Kingman do against the Red Sox? On April 21, against a howling wind, he hit a shot into the net over the Green Monster, and the next day he tagged Dennis Eckersley for two homers—the first an amazing broken-bat home run, the second a drive high over the net that looked as if it were headed for the Canadian border.
If Kingman continues to hit at his present—and yes, unrealistic—pace, which is one home run every 8.4 plate appearances, he will end up with, oh, 67 homers. In addition, he'll drive in about 175 runs. "He hasn't even started crushing the ball yet," says teammate Davey Lopes.
The reputation Kingman brought to Oakland was one of a surly, selfish player who would like nothing better than to hunt New York and Chicago sportswriters in the off-season. "He's been great with us," says Kit Stier, who covers the A's for the Oakland Tribune. "He's been great in the clubhouse," says A's utility man Bill Almon.
Manager Steve Boros really doesn't care if Kingman strikes out a lot—he'll have 128 of those at his current pace. "Striking out is better than hitting into a double play," says Boros, "and Dave has yet to hit into a double play." Boros has been batting Kingman fifth or sixth, to ease the pressure, but he succumbed against the Twins, inserting Kingman into the cleanup spot. "I asked him, and he said he'd love to."
This time around, Kingman—forever the recluse—seems to be making an effort to fit in. Yes, we know, he's been a reformed man before, in both Chicago and New York, but this new, improved Kingman might be the real thing. The A's are doing everything in their power to make him feel at home. At the end of spring training, Kingman hosted a barbecue for the club. He showed he wanted to be one of the boys by tossing pitcher Steve McCatty into the Jacuzzi ("My fault, I got too close to the water," says McCatty) and lifting 235-pound pitcher Bill Caudill over his head. "Dave just needed to stretch out a little," says Caudill.
Kingman truly is a man who can carry a team. But Jackson can carry a nation when he's hot. If you were bored with life last year, it's probably because Reggie hit .194—.004 worse than Kingman—with 14 homers and 49 RBIs. He'll be 38 on May 18, and because power hitters have a tendency to head south very quickly at the end of their careers, Jackson looked to be a goner.
"As his manager, I wanted him to come back," says McNamara. "But the baseball fan in me also wanted to see him do well, and as his friend, I really wanted him to succeed. The minute he reported to spring training, I could see in his attitude that he would." McNamara and Jackson go back a long way—Mac was Reggie's minor league manager at Birmingham in 1967 and pulled his team out of restaurants that wouldn't serve Jackson—and they have a very strong bond. "I love the guy, and I know that he loves me, but it's nothing we need to say to each other," says McNamara.
One reason Jackson did so poorly in '83 may have been his inability to adjust to his new role as a full-time DH. He never got a handle on the mental part of the task. He may have missed the psychic energy of going out to rightfield, and his fans, every inning. He also played hurt, bothered by a rib injury the second half of the season, and thought too much about reaching the 500 career home run milestone. (He now has 483.) "No excuses," he says. "I don't know why, but I just found it hard to concentrate. I can't do that instinctively anymore. I need to read my flight manual every flight now, follow all the signs.
"I know it's hard to believe, but I don't relish the attention anymore. It's a distraction, and I don't need distractions. Hitting is my life now, my job, my task, my endeavor, my bread and butter, my whole existence."
Jackson reported to camp 10 pounds lighter than the 208 pounds at which he finished the '83 season. "I didn't just go in for a tune-up," he says. "I went in for a total overhaul, engine, style, the works." Automotive metaphors come easy to Jackson, who owns nigh on 70 cars, which he keeps in a warehouse in Oakland under the supervision of his friend Everett Moss. On this particular rainy Tuesday, he's riding east on the Massachusetts Turnpike, admiring every semi on the road.
"When it's over, that's what I want to do," he says. "Get me an 18-wheeler, and carry three of my cars to road shows all over the country. Candy Man is my handle. On the side of the truck, it'll say 'Jax Cars.' "
Jackson is returning from Hartford, where he filmed some commercials for Harvey Lipman, a friend who's the owner of Lipman AMC and Lipman Chevrolet. Reggie trades his services ("Hi, I'm Reggie Jackson, just part of the Lipman team....") for cars and parts. On this day, he has ordered, among other things, an LT1 short block, a dual point distributor and a set of aluminum heads.
"If I was a car, I wouldn't be a Rolls-Royce," he rhapsodizes. "No. I'd be an L-88 Corvette. Nineteen sixty-seven. That's the last year of the true Sting Ray. Five hundred and sixty horsepower. Four-speed. No fuss, no muss, no radio, no heater. Only takes 103-octane gasoline. They don't make them like that anymore. Rare, rare. My friend Everett, when he describes a car as 'nice, nice,' he means brand-new, and when he describes a car as 'rare, rare,' he means totally unique, one of a kind. I may not be nice, nice anymore, but I think I'm rare, rare. I think that probably describes me."
That night the Reggie Jackson Literary Club met before the game. With several writers gathered around his locker, Jackson read excerpts from his upcoming book, done in collaboration with Mike Lupica of the Daily News. He was trying to show how Lupica's paper had wronged him, but the points he was making were less compelling than the pride he showed in the book.
"He's a proud man," says Angel, and former Yankee, teammate Tommy John. "But even if Reggie had only an ounce of pride, he would want to show people who thought he was through that they were wrong. That's how it is for us old guys. You've got to prove yourself early and often."
That night Jackson hit his fifth homer and started the Angels' winning rally. But the true measure of his worth could be seen the night before, during, of all things, a rain delay. He sat in the Angels' dugout, watching a Coopers-town film on the Red Sox scoreboard, wondering if and when he might be elected to the Hall of Fame. And as the rain came down in sheets, soaked kids were leaning over the dugout, imploring him for his autograph.
So we have the old Reggie and the new Kong. Before Friday night's game with the Twins, Kingman could be seen out in leftfield, playing catch with a boy in the stands. The season may be young, but some "washed-up" players have already found their youth.