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.