A-Roid’s Puss is bad for Baseball

•April 26, 2011 • 1 Comment

 

Statement on performance enhancing drugs in the Records Room at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Poster of the all-time and active home run leaders in the Records Room at the National Baseball Hall of Fame

A-Roid’s Puss is bad for Baseball’s Image
By Charlie Vascellaro

            There’s a commercial making the regular rotation on the sports television loop for a satellite carrier’s major league baseball package featuring steroid assisted slugger Alex Rodriguez. In the 30-second spot Rodriguez is followed home run-trotting across the country while high-fiving fans along the way before finishing with a tip of his cap on a flat-screen—in YOUR LIVING ROOM! 
            As major league baseball continues the struggle to distance itself from the performance enhancing drug scandal that has permeated the game through the past decade, Rodriguez seems a peculiar choice for the current television campaign.   
            Two years ago Rodriguez grabbed pre-season headlines by admitting to a Sports Illustrated magazine report that he had tested positive for steroids in 2003. Although baseball had not banned the use of performance enhancing drugs at the time of Rodriguez confirmed usage and no penalty was administered, the revelation cast a cloud over both Rodriguez and the game that left a permanent stain.
            A-Roid’s smiling smirk at the end of the commercial spot sets me ill at ease as I would imagine many other fans feel. I had to turn away from the replay of Rodriguez’s grand slam against the Orioles last week that put him one behind Lou Gehrig on the all-time list. I’m repulsed by the thought of him moving into the home run ranks of baseball gods like Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in the not so distant future.
            The steroid era has affected our affection for the game and the use of Rodriguez scarlet-lettered visage serves more as reminder that we are still not quite yet out of the woods. It would not have been any less ludicrous to use Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez or Roger Clemens in the same advertisement.
            Apparently the office of Major League Baseball signed off on the use of Rodriguez image and his appearance in New York Yankees apparel for the commercial conceived by Direct TV’s advertising department or an outside agency. Direct TV’s webpage also features the face of Rodriguez’s rival Boston Red Sox steroid user David Ortiz.
            Aren’t there enough players not yet found guilty or at least not yet implicated to have used steroids that Direct TV could have chosen?
            While A-Rod and Ortiz are definitely high-profile players for baseball’s two most high-profile teams there certainly are a number of other current stars whose faces might bring more positive associations.
            Wouldn’t prospective subscribers be more attracted to a variety of players from a variety of teams? Isn’t that what the package is selling anyway?
            There seems to be enough fresh-faced, presumably innocent, budding superstars out there. Speaking as a hard core fan there’s plenty of current players I would rather see used to promote interest in the game. How about a montage of highlights from last year including plays like Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle’s no look flip through the legs to first base on Opening Dayhttp://danonthestreet.com/news/2010/04/06/mark-buehrle-play-of-the-year-on-opening-day/.
            Or Armando Gallaraga’s incredulous look at umpire Jim Joyce when he lost his perfect game on the umpire’s blown call or his graceful acceptance of Joyce’s apology the next day?
            How about San Francisco Giants reliever Brian “The Beard” Wilson striking out Texas Rangers’ Nelson Cruz to end last year’s World Series?  
            If what they’re selling are 40 different games each week, why not feature some regional up and comers across the country like Colorado’s Troy Tulowitski, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun or Cincinnati’s NL MVP Joey Votto?
            There has got be better faces for Major League Baseball to hang its hat on than A-Rod’s sour puss.

Orioles Open Up a Can of Whoop Ass on Derek Jeter Love Fest at Yankee Stadium

•September 26, 2014 • 2 Comments
With my friend and neighbor Damien Ford before Derek Jeter's last day game at Yankee Stadium (Sept. 24, 2014).

With my friend and neighbor Damien Ford before Derek Jeter’s last day game at Yankee Stadium (Sept. 24, 2014).

Orioles Open Up a Can of Whoop Ass
on Derek Jeter Love Fest at Yankee Stadium

By Charlie Vascellaro

“Start spreading the news…” Their season’s over today.
It sure was fun watching the Orioles mathematically eliminate the Yankees from post-season play right in the middle of Derek Jeter’s going away party at Yankee Stadium yesterday. Now if only he would just go away. I was explaining the phenomena of the season-long, prolonged farewell to some relative laypersons in graphic detail, when the Yankees were here for Jeter’s last games in town a couple of weeks ago. “They’re lining up from the statue of the Babe all the way to Pickles to suck his dick,” I said, and then I heard two women walking in the opposite direction having the exact same conversation. I’m not sure if anyone actually sucked Jeter’s dick while he was in town but Boog Powell did give him the crabs and an oversized mallet made out of Louisville Slugger wood in an on-field presentation before his last game here in town.  While I do think the ongoing celebration has been a bit over the top I couldn’t resist the temptation of going to New York to see the Orioles play the Yankees in Jeter’s final home series at the Stadium and to exorcise some two-year-old demons.
I don’t like the Yankees and I don’t like Yankee Stadium, the last time I was there I had such a bad time that I never wanted to go back. It was game three of the American League championship series; The “Rauuuuuul” game. The upstart 2012 Os were on a roll enjoying the team’s first winning season in 15 years and appeared poised to finally slay their rival beast of the American League east. And so with a trepidatious swagger I sauntered into Yankee Stadium in full Orioles regalia, accompanied by my girlfriend Shannon also wearing an Orioles cap and orange scarf and my friend and upstairs neighbor Damien, a Yankees fan who got us the tickets. On the Subway ride from Manhattan and upon entrance into the Yankees dungeonesque concrete fortress, I was well aware that I had broached hostile territory. My sexuality was questioned because of the briefcase I carried over my shoulder and three old guys sitting behind us at the game kept hitting the top of my hat with the metal button on top of theirs anytime a Yankee batter reached base or a fielder recorded an Orioles out. It was a tense and close affair with the Orioles clinging to a 2-1 lead through eight-and-half innings and when Raul Ibanez hit a moon shot off Jim Johnson to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth (which was the beginning of the end for Johnson) and another majestically arced, gut-wrenching, walk-off blast off Brian Matusz to end the game in the bottom of the 12th it fucking sucked. The walk of shame back to the Subway was like being in an eternal nightmare; heckled and ridiculed to the tune of Frank Sinatra singing New York, New York, from the moment the game ended until we finally disembarked the train in New Jersey. I took it all quite personal and felt nothing but contempt and rage for Yankee Stadium and Yankee fans, (except for my buddy Damien). I never wanted to hear that song again.
But what a difference a couple of years make.
Arriving at Yankee Stadium yesterday the Orioles were already champions of the American League east, a fact which I proudly displayed on my t-shirt. I wore a bright orange and white printed long-sleeve, button-down shirt over the top and fluorescent orange Brooks sneakers stopping first for a beer at the Dugout bar across the street from the ballpark. I was one of two or three Orioles fans in a crowd of about 400 people in the room and was booed when I approached bar, but there was no wind behind it and lacked luster. This season has been a humbling experience for the Yankees, more of a farewell tour for Jeter than a pennant race for the team.
Jeter received a standing ovation and everyone was snapping pictures of him on their cell phones before he grounded out to short in the first inning and again before he struck out in the third. The Yankees moved out to a 3-0 lead after three innings, knocking two home runs off Orioles starter Bud Norris but as it has gone for the team this year I knew it was just a matter of time before we would catch up with their starter Shane Greene which happened when the Orioles batted around the order scoring six runs in the top of the fourth, it was very therapeutic and relaxing. During the lengthy rally I began to acknowledge the comfort of the cushiony $90 seat I was sitting in just to the fair side of the foul pole on the lower level in the right field corner and the $15, 25-ounce of can of Becks was still icy cold in my souvenir New York Yankees 3-D cup. The Orioles scored three more runs in the top of the eighth, the last on a beautifully placed run-scoring bunt single by Adam Jones. When the Yankees scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth and Jeter grounded out weakly to first base in his final at-bat of the game going hitless in four at-bats, it was all over but the gloating.

Jeter grounds out weekly to first in his last at bat during the Yankees post-season elimination loss to the Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014.

Jeter grounds out weekly to first in his last at bat during the Yankees post-season elimination loss to the Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014.

This time when New York, New York started pumping through the P.A. system I started singing along and a stayed until the ushers started ushing me from my section and I pleaded with them to let me take just one more picture. I really didn’t want to leave. I puffed out my chest to reveal my AL East Champions t-shirt and sought out the few other Orioles fans on the concourse for high fives. I proceeded to get drunk and shat my pants on the train ride home (actually it was more of a shart). But overall it was a great day and I’m looking forward to going back the next time the Orioles open up a can of whoop ass on the Yankees at the Stadium.

Orioles celebrate Yankees post-season elimination at Yankee Stadium, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014.

Orioles celebrate Yankees post-season elimination at Yankee Stadium, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014.

Baltimore and the Babe Occupy Center-Stage at Baseball’s All-Star Break By Charlie Vascellaro

•July 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment
Signed Ruth photo at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum

Signed Ruth photo at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum

With the New York Yankees in town for the Orioles’ most significant three-game series of the season, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s major league debut (he may be a former Yankee and Red Sock but he’s still Baltimore’s favorite son and a former Oriole too), the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards hosted the largest ever auction of Ruth memorabilia, where one of the Bambino’s early professional contracts sold for the staggering sum of $1.02 million; the highest amount ever spent on a sports contract eclipsing the $996,000 paid in 2005 for the agreement that sent Ruth to the Yankees from Red Sox in 1919.

A pair of the Babe's old pants offered at auction.

A pair of the Babe’s old pants offered at auction.

Sixty-six years after his death and 79 years since he last played, the Babe continues to be the game’s most omnipresent character. The great Bambino’s birth in Baltimore on February 6, 1895, and his emergence from the city’s St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys as the most spectacularly talented ballplayer of his or any generation sparked a confluence of events that would forever tie together the American League’s eastern division cities of Baltimore, Boston and New York.

1914 Babe Ruth Rookie Card and Scorebook

1914 Babe Ruth Rookie Card and Scorebook

The contract purchased at auction was a four-year deal calling for $5,000 salary in 1918, signed by Ruth prior to his fourth season with the Boston Red Sox and extended into his first two years with the New York Yankees after Red Sox owner Harry Frazee infamously sold him to the team in 1919. Ruth was previously sold to the Red Sox by Jack Dunn, owner of the International (minor) League Baltimore Orioles in 1914, and made his big league debut with the Red Sox on July 11th that year. A recently unearthed bat discovered in a 150-year-old house in Boston, that Ruth used sometime between 1916 and 1918 also sold for $215,000. Another game-used and signed bat (circa 1918-1920) fetched $420,000 and a dirty pair of Babe’s old wool flannel pants sold for $90,000. The auction was conducted by Goldin Auctions of West Berlin, New Jersey and also included many non-Ruth items as well; live bidding took place Saturday night in the Gentleman’s Waiting Room at the Sports Legends Museum as well as on-line and by telephone with auction house reps fielding calls on-site (on-line bidding for items still not sold remains live through Friday at http://goldinauctions.com/catalog.aspx).

The Babe Ruth auction in the Gentleman's Waiting Room at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards

The Babe Ruth auction in the Gentleman’s Waiting Room at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards

A new exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, “Babe Ruth: 100 Years,” recognizes not just Ruth’s big league debut but also the anniversary of the Babe becoming a professional baseball player with an emphasis on his first minor league season here in Baltimore after he was discovered playing ball for St. Mary’s. The exhibit includes fantastic early photos of Ruth during his brief minor league stint in Baltimore, as well as his 1914 rookie baseball card, considered by Forbes magazine to be the most valuable card in the industry. Another one of the same cards was sold at the anniversary auction for $390,000! According to memorabilia experts there are approximately 10 of the Ruth rookie card in existence. There’s also a great listening station where you can hear the Babe tell a story about prank played on him by his teammates the first time he ever rode on a train in his rookie season.

Babe Ruth 100 Years Exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum

Babe Ruth 100 Years Exhibit at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum

Like the Bambino himself, the exhibit is fun, and with the Yankees in town the museum had its biggest weekend of the season. The symbiotic relationships that both Yankees’ and Orioles’ fans share with Ruth, each claiming him as their own, is in stark contrast with the teams’ historic rivalry. The same feeling almost holds true for Red Sox fans visiting from Boston, if not for the infamous “Curse of the Bambino,” which resulted in an 86-year World Series-less drought that began immediately after Boston sold Ruth to New York in 1919. As if visiting Red Sox fans need another reminder, another exhibit at the Birthplace Museum “O Say Can You See,” a short documentary film on the history of the Star Spangled Banner’s involvement in baseball, highlights Ruth’s appearance on the mound as a pitcher for the Red Sox in the 1918 World Series.

There’s no “Curse of the Bambino” here in Baltimore, and in fact, the Babe’s anniversary seemed like the team’s good luck charm as the Orioles took two of the three games against the Yankees over the weekend. A century later, George Herman Ruth is still just one of us.

Babe Ruth Underwear at Sports Legends

Babe Ruth Underwear at Sports Legends

Jackie Kept on Fighting Right until the End

•August 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment
Jackie Robinson at the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati

Jackie Robinson at the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati

Jackie Kept on Fighting Right until the End
Pioneering player championed cause of African American managers
in Major League Baseball
By Charlie Vascellaro
On October 15, 1972 in Cincinnati, Jackie Robinson was honored in an on-field ceremony prior to the first game of the World Series between the Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds. Suffering from diabetes, Robinson was losing his sight and walked with a cane; he appeared much older than his 53 years.
“I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon,” said Robinson “but must admit, I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line and see a black face managing in baseball.” It was a sight Robinson would never see. He died nine days later. But even after his death Robinson continued to serve as an inspiration to the next generation of African Americans in baseball.

Two-and-a-half -years later, future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson became the Major League Baseball’s first African American manger.
In a column written with Roy Blount Jr. for Sports Illustrated magazine in October of 1974, Frank Robinson recalled the impact Jackie Robinson’s presence had on his life and chosen career:
“When Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play big-league baseball I was a kid on the Oakland sandlots, already planning to be a ballplayer. I told my mother that’s what I wanted to be and she said, ‘Then that’s what you will be. Being black didn’t seem to be a factor particularly.
“Then after I’d been in the big leagues myself for five or six years I thought, ‘I want to stay in this game,’ and I started looking forward to managing. It didn’t seem to me that the color of my skin would be a problem. By the time I was ready, I figured, baseball would be.”
(To see the entire column click on the link below
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1089128/)
On April 5, 1975 Frank Robinson made his managerial debut on Opening Day and as also wrote himself into the lineup as designated hitter, hitting a solo home run off New York Yankees pitcher Doc Medich in front of a crowd of 56,715 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Indians went on to defeat the Yankees by a score of 5-3.

Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel was in attendance that day to see one of his last dreams come true. Frank Robinson later recalled what it meant to him for Rachel to be there that day.
“I was very proud that [Rachel Robinson] would make the trip over there. … I hoped and wished that Jackie could have been there. The next best thing was having her there. … because it kept me focused.”
Robinson would manage the Indians for the next two-and-a-half seasons and continue as a big league skipper for five different teams over a 17-year managerial career.
Larry Doby who succeeded Jackie Robinson as the second African-American player in Major League Baseball also followed Frank Robinson as the game’s second African American manager, taking over as skipper for the Chicago White Sox on July 1, 1978.
Since Robinson’s delivered his critique at the 1972 World Series Major League baseball has counted just over a dozen African Americans among its managerial ranks; currently there are three (Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Red, Ron Washington, Texas Rangers and Bo Porter, Houston Astros). Do you think this is still an important issue?

The conversation continues on the “42” community page at http://www.kumbuya.com/42-the-jackie-robinson-story/#_

Last Call for number 42

•August 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

 

Last Call for Number 42

 

          By Charlie Vascellaro 

 

Image 

 

 

          It’s been 16 years since Jackie Robinson’s number 42 was unilaterally retired by Major League Baseball in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut as the game’s first African-American player. 
          Robinson’s number 42 is the only one afforded such exalted status. Not even Babe Ruth’s number 3 or Hank Aaron’s 44 have been officially de-activated on the field.
          Every April 15th since 1997 baseball has acknowledged Robinson’s legacy with “Jackie Robinson Day” celebrations in major league ball parks across the country, when every player on every team gets to wear 42, just for one day. 
          Recent MLB All-Star game MVP Mariano Rivera is the last active player entitled to wear Robinson’s number 42 regularly. Players like Rivera, who had already worn the number at the time it was retired were allowed to continue wearing it for the duration of their careers. Rivera’s teammate, All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano was actually named after Robinson, and also wears Robinson’s numbers 4 and 2 albeit in reverse (24) as a means of tribute. 
          Rivera has already announced that this will be his and the number 42’s last season and has spoken about the significance of wearing Robinson’s number on numerous occasions. 
          “Jackie Robinson was a great man,” Rivera said before a game against the Baltimore Orioles this past April.
          “I have always said that wearing this number is a privilege and a great responsibility and to represent what Jackie represented for us, as a minority, and for all of baseball in general, it’s tremendous. For me, it’s just a privilege to wear and to try to keep that legacy. It makes me want to be at my best. And that’s what I tried to do my whole career.”           

 

          This year’s Jackie Robinson day coincided with the release of Warner Bros. films’ “42-The Jackie Robinson Story.” An open forum discussing the film and Robinson’s unique place in baseball history is available through the “42” community at the Kumbuya social media web site (http://www.kumbuya.com/42-the-jackie-robinson-story/). 
          The “42” community is also a market place where fans can gather to support the Jackie Robinson Foundation with proceeds from items sold within the community donated to the foundation, which provides comprehensive scholarships and support services to minority students enrolled at institutions of higher education. Becoming a member of the “42” community is a means by which fans can show their support for all that Jackie Robinson’s legacy represents.   

 

The King and I

•April 30, 2012 • 4 Comments

The King and I – Remembering and Writing About Dave Kingman
By Charlie Vascellaro

This past March, I saw Dave Kingman at a table signing autographs at a spring training game in Arizona. I introduced myself to him as a fan, and also as someone who has done some writing about him over the years. I mentioned some of the occasions when we had met before, citing very specific times and places that we had been in each other’s company. He was cordial enough, but he acted like he didn’t remember me.
But I think he did.
It’s become a running theme throughout my life, as the occasions increase year after year, each time unfolding exactly the same way every time that we’ve met on the Cactus League autograph circuit for the past four or five years. But it really started more than 30 years before.
Although I did not pay the $20 fee for his autograph, he did agree to be photographed with me. Famously large in his playing days, Kingman was referred to by the nicknames “Kong” and “Sky King” and is still a towering figure who cast a tremendous presence during my formative years as a Mets’ fan.  When I stood next to him for the picture, my photographer friend John asked if I would like to stand on a chair.
My fascination with Kingman was fostered when I was growing up a Mets’ fan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was my first exercise in masochism. The “Ya Gotta Believe” team that went all the way to the seventh game of the 1973 World Series but lost to the Oakland As was only a tease that introduced the masochistic cravings to follow.
There is an inherent fatalism in being a Mets’ fan, which is the defining element of the team’s lovable losers’ charm.
Coming just four years after the “miracle” of 1969, the brief period could almost be described as the franchise’s salad days; two National League pennants and three third place finishes in five seasons with a composite 431-372 win/loss record, the best five year stretch in the team’s brief 12-season history and lofty heights of Mets fandom to date, but during the decade to follow the team would post just two winning records while attendance at Shea Stadium plummeted.
The relatively successful Mets teams of 1969-1973 were mostly the result of a talented home-grown pitching staff, boasting perhaps the National League’s best 1-2, righty/lefty tandem of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Thinking of Seaver and Koosman together evokes some of the most romantic nostalgia available to Mets’ fans.
When Kingman joined the team in 1975, I was an 11-year-old baseball-crazy kid whose every waking thought revolved around the Mets.
With Kingman, the Mets took on a decidedly different demeanor. In his first season with the club he immediately set a new franchise single-season record of 36 home runs, finishing second in the National League behind Mike Schmidt, as the Mets improved to an 82-80 third place finish, rebounding from a dismal 71-91 fifth place in 1974. It was a new kind of excitement for Mets’ fans who usually rallied around and depended upon the team’s pitching corps; now we had the threat of instant offense. With one swing, Kingman could provide the margin of victory or put us back in the game. When I was lucky enough to actually be at Shea Stadium I would stand and cheer with the rest of the Mets’ fans in eager anticipation for every one of his at bats. And while he still struck out with a much greater propensity than he hit home runs, every now and then he came through, and we’d all be laughing and smiling all the way down the ramps after the game and all the train ride home. On the truly lousy teams in the time he was with the club, Kingman provided a glimmer of hope and an object of fascination.  However, as much as we appreciated him for the occasional moments of rejoice he provided, he did not welcome our attention or care to speak candidly with the press—unless it could provide leverage in contract negotiations. Needless to say, Kingman’s relationship with beat reporters during the course of his career was strained at best.


Jack Lang, a New York Mets’ daily beat writer since the team’s inception, described an incident with Kingman that pretty much summed up their relationship: after missing a team flight during the spring training season of 1996, Kingman asked Lang if he could hitch a ride with him across Florida from Miami to St. Petersburg. After sharing the ride, including a stop for dinner and exchanging casual and friendly conversation for the duration of the drive, Kingman failed to acknowledge Lang’s presence in the clubhouse the next day.
“I said good morning to Kingman. He never looked at me. He walked right past me as if I didn’t exist. The day before we had spent five hours together in a car and now he didn’t even know me. That was Dave Kingman,” wrote Lang. *(1)
Kingman broke his own franchise record, blasting 37 more home runs in 1976, again finishing just behind Schmidt’s 38, with 86 RBI and a career-high, almost respectable .238 batting average. The Mets were still only good enough for third place. At the end of the season Kingman’s contract with the team had expired and negotiations over a new contract turned sour. An ugly argument between Kingman and the Mets ensued, and was largely conducted in the New York newspapers. Writing for the New York Times during the spring of 1977, Red Smith referenced how Kingman’s contract dispute had unfolded in the New York dailies:  Dave Kingman has committed the unforgivable sin, and if he goes to hell, M. Donald Grant [chairman of the Mets] will be saddened if not surprised. Not only does the most prolific hitter of home runs ever employed by the New York Mets want to be paid twice as much money as his employers wish to spend; he has compounded the sin by taking his case to the press.*(2)
As Kingman continued to spout off to reporters, he was reprimanded in a phone call from his boss:
“He lectured me,” Kingman told The Daily News. “I tried to give my side, but he wasn’t interested. He didn’t let me get in a word.” *(2)
            By the time Opening Day rolled around it was clear the matter would not be resolved.
“I will never sign with the Mets, you can count on that. I want my freedom to go. This club is going downhill rapidly under the present management. I hate to think how lousy they’re going to be in a couple of years.” *(3)
Fifty eight games and nine home runs into the season later the surly slugger was dealt to the San Diego Padres for left-handed pitcher Paul Siebert and future Mets manager Bobby Valentine (Siebert would post a 2-1 record with a 3.86 ERA in 25 relief appearances during the rest of the 1977 season and retire from the game at the age of 25 after going 0-2 with a 5.14 ERA in 28 innings the following season).
In what the New York press billed as the “Midnight Massacre,” on June 15, 1977, Tom Seaver, “The Franchise,” was also sent packing the same day.
Kingman would be selected off waivers from the San Diego Padres by the California Angels on September 6, and be traded to the Yankees one week later, becoming the first player in major league history to hit home runs for teams in each of the game’s four regional divisions in the same season. On November 2, 1977 Kingman was granted free agency and signed a one-year $95,000 contract with the Chicago Cubs at the end of the month.*(4) Without Kingman and Seaver, the Mets quickly reverted back to form and became as lousy as Kingman predicted, finishing dead last, 37 off the pace with a 64-98 record. It was a very difficult time to be a 14-year old Mets’ fan.

While I was not seeking a new team, I had some management issues with my own team.  Almost a year-to-the date that Kingman was dealt, I was traded, as my family packed up and moved from our Long Island home to a small town I’d never heard of called Fountain Hills, Arizona.
During the spring of 1979 I inadvertently caught up with Kingman, whose Chicago Cubs conducted spring training in Mesa, Arizona, where I was attending junior high school.
I was elated to be reunited with my home run hero, and chased him around like a paparazzi with a Kodak instamatic camera, snapping off shots that I would take to the one-hour developing photo booths and bring back to the ballpark for him to sign the next day.

In the summer my parents would send me back to New York, and on June 28, 1979, two friends and I rode the Long Island railroad to Shea Stadium to see Kingman and the Cubs play the Mets. With the sole intention of retrieving one of Kingman’s blasts, we purchased $1.50 general admission tickets, which we used to sit in the left-field mezzanine section.
The cops and ushers laughed when I explained to them why I had chosen such seats; we could have sat almost anywhere in the ballpark. But Kong did not disappoint, knocking three home runs that day, the second of which I grabbed when it landed right by our seats. Somehow I was able to talk myself past the players’ entrance into the ballpark and Kingman reluctantly signed the ball for me after the game.
Two years later when I was asked to write about a significant day in my life for my high school English class, I wrote a descriptive account of that day at Shea called, “Kingman’s Shot,” which received a perfect score. My teacher Ms. Tower even wrote the word, “Great!” on top of the paper.
We had purchased the dollar-fifty grand stand seats, and every time Kingman came to bat, we would stand ready, in hopes that he would hit us a shot. During his second at-bat of the game, my dream was to be fulfilled. As he hit the ball, my eyes followed it.  As it appeared I could sense the people all around me charging for the ball. I leaped over a few seats and grabbed Kingman’s shot on a bounce. As I held the ball in my clutches, I wished the moment would last forever.
Thus began a series of stories I would write about Kingman that would propel me through high school and college, fostering my interest in writing about baseball.
Kingman would go on to lead the National League that year with a career-high 48, on pace to threaten Roger Maris’ then single-season record of 61 before being sidelined by a late-season injury that cost him the last 17 games of the season and continued to nag him the following year.
Amazingly, Kingman was traded back to the Mets in 1981 after an abysmal season with the Cubs. He continued to struggle through the 1981 season, but led the National League with 37 home runs in 1982 while hitting only .204, the lowest average ever posted by a player to lead his league in home runs or by a first baseman with enough plate appearances to eligible for the batting title.
After a miserable 1983 campaign that saw Kingman replaced at first base after the acquisition of Keith Hernandez, he was unceremoniously released from the team in the winter.
After an impressive spring training tryout, Kingman signed as a free-agent with the Oakland A’s, and found a comfortable fit as the team’s designated hitter, posting perhaps the three most productive seasons of his career. But his time in Oakland is most readily remembered for a particularly disturbing incident involving his belief that female reporters should not be allowed in the clubhouse.
“I acknowledged his feelings and agreeably asked where he would like to do interviews, how we should manage the logistics in light of his discomfort. He merely repeated his mantra, ‘Just don’t come near me in the clubhouse.’ I had that strange and disconcerting feeling of trying to communicate on a rational level with someone who is completely irrational. It was worse than maneuvering through Europe speaking only English: Kingman wasn’t even trying to see my point. There was no common Language here, no basis for understanding,” wrote former Sacramento Bee beat reporter Susan Fornoff in her book Lady in the Locker Room. *(5)
After refusing to speak with or even in the company of Fornoff for the first three months of the 1986 season, Kingman had a wrapped package delivered to Fornoff in the Kansas City Royals press box.  Kingman’s gift to Fornoff was a live rat with a tag that read “My name is Sue,” tied around one of its feet. Kingman was released by the A’s at the conclusion of the season.
I discussed the end of Kingman’s career a few years later in a paper titled, “Kingman’s Last Shot,” which I wrote for a creative writing class at Scottsdale Community College. The lead paragraph foreshadowed the collusion damages award Kingman would receive almost 10 years later:
Oddly enough Dave Kingman was without a job when the 1987 baseball season began. It was odd because the big slugger was coming off three of the most productive campaigns of his career and seemed to have found a home as designated hitter for the Oakland A’s.
This paper was not focused on the collusion among major league owners, which had not yet been revealed, but was more of a continuing narrative of my interactions with Kingman and how I happened to be in Phoenix to witness his failed attempt at a comeback with the San Francisco Giants’ minor league affiliate in 1987, and how I asked him to re-sign the home run ball on the last day of his professional career.


After hours of waiting, [through a rain delay] the game was finally completed and Kingman did not play. I was the last fan in the park it was close to midnight and still raining, but Kingman had not left yet. Besides the ball, I had also brought with me an essay I had written while still in high school…When Kingman came up the steps he had all of his belongings in an Oakland A’s equipment bag. He had to put it down when I started to talk to him. This seemed to inconvenience him. But I think he knew it would be the last time. He actually smiled when I told him the story of the ball. I also asked him to autograph my high school paper and gave him a copy.  
This story served to advance my career as journalist when a classmate, who happened to be on the school newspaper staff, liked it enough to ask if I would be interested in writing about sports for the paper, which led me to enroll in a news writing class the following semester. I continued on as sports editor for the SCC Campus News for three semesters, and later transferred to Arizona State University, where I was fortunate enough to have the famed baseball novelist Mark Harris as a creative writing professor for three semesters. In one of my final semesters at ASU I also took a class in baseball fiction for which I wrote another paper on Kingman titled, “On Heroes.”
Our hope began with the bottom of the ninth. If the Mets could just get a little something going, then Kingman might get to bat. Sure we were down by two runs but we knew “Kong” could take care of that with one swing. The rally cry was faint at first chants of “Let’s Go Mets” were bellowed by small groups, but scattered around the park. We were not yet as one. But after we had a runner, and “Sky King” reached the on-deck circle, we attained a feverish pitch. The pandemonium was so frenzied it was as if the game had already been won. He stirred up a tremendous breeze as he swung and missed, but again we roared. Kingman was not trying to keep the rally going with a base hit. He was intent on ending this thing now! We had trains to catch home and Dave knew it… “From the stretch…Here’s the pitch…A swing and a miss…Strike three, and that’s the ball game.”
In 1993 I parlayed my journalism degree and a referral from Mark Harris into a job as research editor at a new baseball history magazine called The Diamond, which had its offices in Scottsdale. We only put out nine issues before going belly-up in the wake of the Major League players’ strike of 1994, but I still had a nice desk to write from in January of 1995 when it was announced that Kingman would receive $829,849 in collusion damages as a result of his loss of job for the 1987 season. The news happened to coincide with a charity fundraiser Dream Game that Kingman would be participating in a few weeks later in Phoenix.
I converted my “Kingman’s Last Shot” story into a preview piece for the game, and also attended the fundraiser’s gala banquet where I purchased at silent auction the uniform jersey Kingman wore in his last game with the Firebirds. I outbid former Firebirds’ owner Martin Stone for the Kingman jersey, placing my final $135 bid as the auction sheets were being lifted from the table while my good friend Mark Fast set a pick on Stone. During the banquet I was also able to get Kingman to autograph a copy of my story in the local paper.  When the Dream Game was played the next day, I opted to sit outside Phoenix Municipal Stadium on a sloping desert hill, accompanied by nothing but a six pack of beer, in hopes of catching another one of Kingman’s shots. He came close, launching one of his patented long fly balls that hit the wall in left field, right in front of me, but did not make it over.
A few months later I contributed an editorial piece on Kingman and the collusion damages award to USA Today’s Baseball Weekly:
Surely the 6-foot-6 slugger, still lithe at 210 pounds, was on a pace to hit 58 home runs during the next two seasons to reach the coveted 500 mark. He was only 37 when his career came to its abrupt halt…Now that it has been revealed that collusion cost Kingman his job and the magic 500 home run plateau, does it mean it cost him his spot in the Hall of Fame?…Another thing that must be understood about Kingman: His home runs didn’t just clear the fence. They cleared buildings and neighborhoods. They are the stuff of myths and folklore, and that is his greatest contribution to the game.
            About 10 years later, I revisited all of my writing on Kingman and the intersection of our careers in a piece called. “King Kong and I,” for the San Francisco Giants 2006 Spring Training Magazine:
I still think of him often. It’s been 35 years since Dave Kingman’s Major League debut with the San Francisco Giants in 1971 and 20 years since his topsy-turvy career came to a close in 1986. During the time between, the 6’6” free-swinging slugger hit 442 home runs for seven different teams. As a young baseball fan in the 1970s I saw many of them in person and still recall the breathtaking majesty of Kingman’s towering blasts. Kingman put the long in long ball. There are many contributing factors but home runs were not as commonplace back then as they have been over the past 20 years and the lithely built Kingman hardly resembled today’s burly bashers. But his power was awesome just the same.
A couple of years ago I saw Kingman sitting at one of the aforementioned autograph tables during a spring training game at Hohokam Park in Mesa. I introduced myself just as I did this past spring; I mentioned the home run ball from 1979, and some of the writing I had done on him since. He didn’t acknowledge having any memory of our previous meetings, which I thought was kind of peculiar. I thought for sure he must have remembered that last night of his career in Phoenix, or that he may have seen or read the Baseball Weekly piece or Giants Spring Training Magazine story. Perhaps he does know who I am and thinks I’m just another asshole writer.
After seeing Kingman on the first day that I was in Arizona for the Cactus League season this past spring, I caught up with him again, sitting at the autograph table at Scottsdale Stadium on his last day in town. I told him I just wanted to say hello and goodbye and mention the presentation I will be making about the influence he had on my career at the 50th Anniversary of the New York Mets Conference at Hofstra University. He smiled and was polite but he didn’t seem all that interested.

Before it got any more awkward I shook his hand and said goodbye and handed him a copy of the photo of the two of us taken earlier in the month which I autographed it for him at no charge.

Notes
1. Jack Lang, The New York Mets: Twenty Five Years Of Baseball Magic (Henry Holt and Company, Inc.,1986, 181
2. Red Smith, Best Interests of Dave Kingman, New York Times, April 11, 1977
3. Mets’ Kingman Promises To Play Out His Option, Associated Press. April 9, 1977
4. Source: Baseballreference.com
5. Susan Fornoff, “Lady in the Locker Room,” (Sagamore Publishing, 1993)

•April 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment