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."