Dave Kingman, Sunday columnist for the Chicago Tribune, does not use a tape recorder when he conducts interviews. "Nah," he said. "I make it up like everyone else."
Last week, with the major league trading deadline approaching, Kingman wrote a column suggesting which Chicago writers he felt were expendable. Perhaps he could arrange a trade: Chicago's Pultizer prize-winner Mike Royko for New York's Red Smith?
The column was, as they say, in the business, spiked.
"We couldn't make a lot of sense out of it," said George Langford, the Tribune's sports editor. "And besides, he missed his deadline."
Dave Kingman, the 31-year-old left fielder for the Chicago Cubs, has writer block. Last week he agreed to an interview, his first in three months. "To keep 'em guessing," he said. "Does he or doesn't he?"
Kingman likes writing almost as much as he likes writers. He writes the column, he explained, "to prove some points . . . . Just about anyone can be a sportswriter, I guess. If I can do it, anyone can do it."
"The only real joy I get out of it is the reaction I get from writers," he said, grinning under his droopy mustache, a small smile for such a big man. Even those he keeps to himself.
"I think he thrives on some of it," said Cub catcher Barry Foote, Kingman's best friend on the team. "I've seen him react to something going on with one or two of the writers and than go out and have one of his best games."
"Yep," said Kingman, "it gets the blood circulating . . . I play some of my best jokes on writers."
The column first appeared on April 6, the week he dumped a bucket of ice water on reporter Don Friske of the Arlington Heights Herald.
"It was a prank," Kingman says.
Friske did not get the joke. He got wet. He thinks the incident had more to do with Kingman's column than the one he wrote himself reporting Kingman's departure from spring training with a fishing pole over his shoulder.
The Cubs have a rule barring reporters from the dugout and field 20 minutes before each game, a rule Kingman wanted extended to spring training, Friske said.
"The day his column was announced, I asked him if it meant he could no longer be on the Cubs because he had to be off the field," Friske said. "Then some of the players picked up on it and started ribbing him."
That was on a Monday. On Thursday, Friske took a cold shower. "As he walked away," Friske recalled, "he said, 'There's two days' stories for you. I left my fishing pole at home."
This was serious business: front page in the Wall Street Journal. "Sensationalism," said Kingman. "Amazing what a bucket of ice water can do." He now gives away Chicago Press T-shirts with a picture of a drenched reporter to six readers each week.
The Kingman joke in Chicago: What's a Kingman cocktail? A glass of ice water, bitters, and it's totally tasteless.
David Israel, Kingman's colleague on the Tribune, describes Kingman's writing as "what Cream of Wheat is to haute cuisine." He has charged his own paper in print with checkbook journalism. But at about $200 a week, it might be called petty-cash journalism. Or just petty journalism. In the column, Kingman has disclosed such trade secrets as the length of his bat and the meaning of RBI.
"Quite honestly, I expected more controversial stuff," said Cub pitcher Mike Krukow. "At the time when we talked about it, i was 100 percent in favor of what he was proposing to do -- shake things up, the conditions in our organization. That was going to be the main topic, the enigma of the Cubs."
"It's a long season," said Kingman.
Neither writer nor editor expects the column to last beyond this season. The first week, Kingman received 4,000 letters, many telling him "not to give in." But no one complained to the paper when the column failed to appear last week.
He is slouched in a booth in a coffee shop in Philadelphia, fiddling with an empty container of half and half. There is no ambiguity in what he says.
"Most young players feel they are obliged to talk to writers. The press is there, they can harm your career, unless you cooperate 100 percent."
Kingman feels no such obligation. Many players agree with him.
How does he perceive his role with the press?
"It is an insult to be called a writer," he says.
Does that include Ernest Hemingway as well as Dave Kingman?
"Baseball writer," he says. "That was a bad thing to do. Being a writer, you have to be explicit."
"There was nothing ever like them. He hits the longest ball I have ever seen." -- The Old Man and The Sea
It is too bad Ernest Hemingway did not live to see Dave Kingman.There is nothing like a Kingman home run. Last year he led both leagues with 48 of them.
This year, despite missing 10 games with a shoulder injury, he has 10 home runs, 32 RBI and is hitting .298. Kingman has hit 262 home runs in his career, a number of which settled onto the front porches of homes outside Wrigley Field.
"He is a home run hero in the national pastime, and he can't understand why they won't leave him alone" -- lyric from a song written for an NBC tevelison special on Dave Kingman.
"I had no part of it," he said.
Kingman does not want to be a hero. He had no heroes growing up. He cannot remember the name inscribed on his first glove.
He does not like to talk about himself and he does not like to talk about baseball. He will talk about fishing, a subject which ebbs and flows throughout the conversation.
Why is the old man's fish devoured before he gets to shore in "The Old Man and The Sea?"
"All eaten by sharks," he said. "All that effort for nothing."
He remembers the movie, not the book. He does not like to read.
For Kingman, it seems, public life is fraught with dangerous waters. Sharks lurk everywhere, writers and others, who will devour him by the end of his career if he does not protect himself.
"Baseball is very cutthroat," he said.
Kingman is an intensely private man in an intensely public job. "My opposition (to the press) came from when they started talking about my personal life," he said. "Things off the field. When that was not honored . . . some guyes like it. I don't. When that was violated, I stopped talking."
Friends say Kingman is a sensitive man who was burned early in his career by reporters who misquoted him.
"He became gunshy," said Cub outfielder Mike Vail, who played with Kingman on the New York Mets. "He got introverted and afraid to say things. He is mellower now."
The battle in Chicago was joined last year when the Chicago Sun-Times published a poll of the city's players that named Kingman as the worst dressed Cub.
Bill Nahorodny, then his counterpart on the White Sox and now with the Braves, bought a new wardrobe. Kingman stopped talking.
"He's never been outgoing with the press," said Rod Dedeaux, his coach at Southern Cal, "and I think he just said the heck with it."
But Dedeaux says, "This just isn't the real Dave Kingman. I'll tell you. what kind of person he is. He called me from Japan last winter, where he was on tour with the all-stars, and said, 'I have bought you a ticket, it's at the travel agency. I want you to come over and travel with the ballclub.'"
There were four former USC players, including Kingman, on the team.
Others know a different Kingman.
"He's the most two-faced individual I've ever met," says one Cub frontoffice employee. "He bitches and moans about going into the autograph booth, but when you finally get him there, he's charming and the fans love him."
One morning while the Cubs were in Philadelphia, a little boy approached Cub shortstop Bill Buckner at the hotel newspaper stand and asked if he was a player. Buckner said no.
"Oh, well," said the boy, "I got the important ones, I got Kingman."
"Real exciting guy, isn't he," said Buckner.
Later, standing around the batting cage, Buckner was asked what kind of person Kingman is.
"A teammate," he said.
At the beginning of the season, Kingman called a team meeting in New York "and asked us to restrain ourselves on commenting on his personal life," Krukow said. "He said 'Anything said about my private life can be misconstrued and distorted.' As a personal favor to him, I'll respect it."
"It's hard for him to get close with his teammates on a personal level," said the Phillies' Tug McGraw, who became friendly with Kingman last winter in Japan. "He's a little reluctant to be awful close. This is a good example. He doesn't want to talk about himself so you have to go to his friends. He doesn't want to put me in that situation. I have to be real careful not to say anything to betray his confidence."
"Maybe," Foote said, "he wants the protection of knowing as long as people don't know him, they won't bother him."
Kingman says he "thinks and talks baseball 2 1/2 hours a day, the time I'm at the ballpark." He wants no part of the game once his career is over. He likes the simple things in life": hunting and fishing, woodwork and photography, his dog.
After every game, Kingman takes to his boat to collect his thoughts and a few fish for dinner. During the season, he likes to be alone. "You're around so many people," he said. "When you're around a lot of people, they always get around to talking about baseball."
He has extended an invitation to any Chicago writer to join him on his boat for a day. None has taken him up on it.
Asked how many people his 40-foot boat in Chicago sleeps (he was another in San Diego), he is reluctant to answer.
"There's no need to go into that," he said. "Crazy things start running through people's minds when you start staying that . . . Just think about it for a second. A stupid, little innocent think like that, a Chicago writer grabs that, and all of a sudden, wow."
The voice is intent. It implores you to understand.
He says he does not care for baseball records and titles. Last fall, he caught a 240-pound marlin, a record fish, in San Diego. It hangs mounted on the wall of his apartment.
What is the difference between catching a 240-pound marlin and hitting a 600-foot home run? He pauses. "You go up and hit a home run and you've got 23,000 people yelling at you. You can hit a home run or strike out. You strike out, everybody sees. If you lose a marlin, no one sees."
He is 6-foot-6 (has been since high school) and weighs 210, dimensions that create expectations.
"He has literally been looked up to and been the focal point all his life," said one teammate.
The only home runs he enjoys are the ones that came in unexpected situations. "If your editor expects an unbelievable column every time, do you get a joy coming through and doing it, when they expect it every time?"
"When he first came up, he was billed as the next Babe Ruth," said Preston Gomez, manager of the Cubs. "This boy got a lot of publicity. People expect so much of him."
Too much, said Dedeaux, from a player who was a pitcher until his junior year in college; Dave's father "called it (the switch) the great experiment. Dave was reluctant."
It would have been one thing, Dedeaux said, if he had no future as a pitcher. But Kingman had "a major league fast ball." Giving up the thing he knew best, the thing he dreamed of becoming, for the vicissitudes of the strike zone, from the hitter's point of view, it was enough to make a person insecure.
"I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed a pitcher," Kingman said.
In 1973, his third year in the majors, he mopped up twice for the San Francisco Giants. His ERA was 9.00. He also hit .202 and struck out 122 times.
Last year, he hit .288 and had 115 RBI (both career highs), although he still struck out 25 percent of the time. He was named player of the month this past April.
"It's taken a few years to make the adjustment from a pitcher to a hitter," he said. "It's finally started to show some improvement."
Once, said Gomez, it was easy to get him out on bad pitches. Now he is more disciplined. Mike Schmidt, the other big home run hitter in the National League, is impressed.
"It's tough for a home run hitter to learn about himself as a hitter. There's so much room for error. You foul more pitches off, you swing and miss more, pitchers pitch you tougher because you can end it with one swing," Schmidt said.
"It's so easy to hit a home run and yet so tough to not go up and start thinking about it."
"Gomez also says that Kingman's notorious fielding has improved. "There are still defensive flaws and big loops in the strike zone," said one teammate, "but nobody stalks like the Big Bird."
Krukow agrees: "Someone once said, 'Trying to throw a fast ball by him is like trying to slip a sunrise by a rooster."
Kingman is now in the third year of a five-year contract with the Cubs that has been estimated at $250,000 a year.
"That's too high," he said.
In 1977, Kingman played for four teams: the Mets, the Padres, the Angels and the Yankees. "Hit a home run in every division. Is that an honor?" he wondered.
That was a "very bad" summer, he says. It made him "pretty bitter. Trying to negotiate a contract with every club you become a part of."
This spring, Kingman asked the Cubs to extend his contract. "All talks were terminated at the start of the season at my request," he said. "At that time, they told me they had no interest in extending my contract. So I have no other alternative than to not expect to be in Chicago."
"Dave wanted a new five-year contract plus a bonus up front to spread over his salary now. So actually, it would be a renegotiation of the contract he now has. We just felt at this time, we would leave the contract go to the end and then try to sign Dave to a longer contract or something else."
Where might he like to play other then Chicago?
"I will never negotiate a contract through a newspaper . . . I'll save it for my own column. Just kidding, of course."
His smile is as broad as the stripes on his designer T-shirt. A true writer, there is a pen slipped between the buttonholes.
What would he do if he was assigned to write about Dave Kingman?
"I wouldn't bother," he said. "Hint. Hint."