Dave Kingman, who has been wagging a long-running war with the print media, has infiltrated the enemy camp.
It's called fighting fire with fire. Or headlines with headlines.
On weekdays he's a mild-mannered (sometimes), tight-lipped (always) slugger for the Chicago Cubs. But each Sunday he's a Chicago Tribune sports columnist.
"Talk baseball With Dave Kingman," the column is called, which baseball writers find funny. Kingman doesn't talk baseball with any of them.
The column, which began April 6, is by most accounts a smash, a home run for the man who hit 48 homers last year for the Cubs. Readers have responded with letters by the thousands.
Dave Kingman, who shuns the media, has become a media event. He was given a big splash in the Wall Street Journal. Nbc and Newsweek called. Heady stuff for a fledgling sportswriter.
Dave Kingman, who doesn't talk to writers covering the Cubs and who dumped a bucket on an unsuspecting writer this spring, talks to, and about, writers in his column. He dumps on them in this forum as well, calling them mostly "frustrated players at heart, and this exposes itself in their writing."
And Chicago writers come back at him in print, even some of those on the Tribune.
It's been called "Front Page" journalism. It's been called checkbook journalism (Kingman, who makes $225,000 a year, is paid $200 a column).
"Hi, I'm Dave Dingdong and you're not," wrote Mike Royko, a (nonsports) columnist for the Sun-Times. "Most of my teammates are nothings. Not one of them is as tall, or as handsome, or can hit the ball as far. So nya-nya to them!"
"The Cubs' childish boor wears out his welcome" was the headline over a column by David Israel, Kingman's colleague on the sports page of the Tribune.
"Kingman is not wanted," Israel wrote. "He does not belong here. He acts as if he feels he does not belong anywhere. Unless someone can prove that Kingman got lost on the way home from nursery school one afternoon and wound up playing major league baseball, he has run out of acceptable excuses for his boorish, childish behavior."
"The response has been unbelievable," Tribune Sports Editor George Langford said. "We've gotten about 10,000 pieces of mail and about 99 percent of that has been pro-Kingman."
Langford says he can't remember now who approached whom but that Kingman submitted four sample columns, and Langford approved, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of a high-profile athlete. However, Langford had not anticipated such response.
"For a sportswriter," he said, "it's a humbling experience."
And Kingman has done his best to humble them. In fact, in his first five columns, he wrote more about writers than almost anything else, with the possible exception of himself. A five-paragraph attack on Dick Dozer, who covers the Cubs for the Tribune, was deleted from one Kingman column. "There were some things in there that we didn't feel were accurate or fair," Langford said.
Some Kingman assessments which were printed:
"For years the press has dogged my steps so closely I began feeling like the mother duck leading the seven ugly ducklings around."
"We assume Israel's mind runs in different channels than our own."
"If there is a strike it will be interesting to see what type of 'creativity' the baseball writers can come up with to fill the void."
The antipathy is as clear as is is deep-rooted. Kingman has warred with the press for years and became a virtual recluse (from the writers' standpoint) last season after the Sun-Times reported his teammates considered him the Cubs' sloppiest dresser.
When he played in New York he had periods when he didn't speak to the press. In Chicago, he has limited his interviews to television -- one medium, he says, in which he can't be misquoted.
In his opening column, Kingman explained what moved him to write one.
"I soon began playing with the idea of what it would be like getting quoted accurately for a change," he wrote. "Most of my fans undoubtedly realize that I'm extremely apprehensive in regards to interviews and quotes given to the press, since they invariably turn out slightly different than originally presented."
What especially rankles many Chicago writers is that Kingman began his journalism career so soon after the infamous "prank" (Kingman's lone written word on the subject) on April 3. He poured a 10-gallon bucket filled with ice cubes and water on Don Friske, a soon-to-be colleague who covers the Cubs for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
"Now you've got something to write about for two days," Kingman said as he walked away.
Kingman was angry about a report (accurate, it turns out) that he was the lone absentee from a team meeting held after the players voted to strike the remainder of the exhibition season. Friske had written it, but so had everyone else. It seems that Friske was the first writer Kingman ran into the next day.
Kingman drew a reprimand from National League President Club Feeney. But that was the extent of his punishment, except for some nasty words from the Chicago press corps and a few more from Manager Preston Gomez (who says of the column: "It's not hurting anybody").
Now some of the original anger has been replaced by humor. When Kingman left a game early last week, one press box observer said Kingman must have come down with writer's cramp.
When Friske walks into a bar he orders "ice water for the house -- on me."
And a joke making the rounds among the Chicago media: "What's a Kingman cocktail? A tall glass of ice water. Absolutely tasteless."
Among writers, the column itself is a joke. Certainly Kingman is no threat to win a Pulitzer. Royko suggested in one column that Gerald Pfeiffer, who delivers Kingman's columns to the Tribune (no direct contact with the enemy, of course), acts as Kingman's ghost writer.
Kingman denies it, as does the Tribune's Langford. Pfeiffer lays low. "He doesn't want to get involved," Langford said.
Probably, he wouldn't want to take credit for it. An editor's touch seems to be lacking. Kingman's construction is often awkward; his metaphors are often mixed. For instance:
"Constant press reports referring to player dissatisfaction, injuries or salary disputes are not what the doctor ordered, and the team as a whole must sweep all these mentally distracting cobwebs out of their minds and concentrate on nothing but winning, which after all, is really the name of the game."
He once thanked Cub fans for their support in helping the team "pull two cliffhangers out of the fire."
Nor does the column seem to have a focus. Kingman promised insight into the Cubs, but all he has provided is review and a good measure of the expected -- cheerleading. He asked for letters and said he would present his "thinking on any subject relating to our national pastime."
But either he receives no hardhitting letters (most unlikely) or he prefers to ignore them. Some sample questions he has chosen to answer:
In what order do players take batting practice? What does a team do during a rain delay? Kingman calls this "a good question and one asked by many fans." What do AB and RBI mean? Do the flags on the Wrigley Field scoreboard have any significance?
Said one Chicago writer: "Kingman writes the way he plays left field. And he plays left field the way you'd imagine Steve Martin would play Hamlet."
Other athletes-turned writers have received better reviews. Bill Russell was an effective columnist for the Seattle Times. John Curtis wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and Richie Ashburn writes for the Philadelphia Bulletin.
But Kingman probably is less concerned with media critics than with how his column is received by the public. In fact, one of his teammates said: "Dave really gets off on the idea that he's got all you guys (writers) upset. He figures you deserve it."
Said Cub Bruce Sutter: "Some writers are jealous because they can't do what Dave can, but he can do what they can."