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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."