The New York Mets Encyclopedia|
by Peter C. Bjarkman
Sports Publishing, Inc., 2001 | Buy the book
1976: THE SLUGGING OF DAVE KINGMAN
Dave Kingman would have fit much better on the New York Mets ball clubs of
1963 or 1964 than he did on the ones he toiled for in the mid-seventies and
early eighties. Here, after all, was a ballplayer cut from a truly lopsided
mold. He was a genuine baseball "character," if not exactly a shining role
model, and was always good for more than his fair share of negative press. He
often created more headlines in the clubhouse with his abrasive personality
than he did on the field of play with his booming fly balls, and once he took
the field, his slugging prowess was always considerably muted by the fact that
he was a huge defensive liability and owned both a minuscule batting average
and mountainous strikeout total.
But all that aside, Kingman arrived in Shea Stadium in the bicentennial year custom designed to be one of the biggest gate
attractions the franchise would ever boast. The Mets had been showcasing great
pitching for the better part of the decade. Tom Seaver was a superlative mound
ace and as big a hometown hero as could be found anywhere in baseball. But
even a quarter century ago, it was home runs, especially mammoth home runs,
rather than shutouts or other displays of mound artistry that guaranteed to
put hordes of fans into the grandstands.
When it came to a ticket-selling slugger, Kingman certainly filled the bill.
His blasts were usually mammoth and awe inspiring, the kind only Mark McGwire
is now providing. And he supplied fans with large numbers of such entertaining
missiles, 36 in his first New York season and 37 in his second (with 30 by the
All-Star break before a torn thumb ligament wiped out much of the second half
of his season). It was a huge boost the weak-hitting club needed at the time,
coming off its worst season in seven years. Thus it didn't take King Kong long
to start winning over the Gotham fans. In spring training, he stroked one
memorable blast off Catfish Hunter that immediately took on the aura of
legend. The titanic smash hugged the left-field line and, in Roger Angell's
words, "left the park five feet inside the foul pole and three palm trees
high." Even Mickey Mantle, who was working the game as an instructional coach
for the Yankees, said he never saw a ball hit quite so far. The prodigious
blasts continued to come in clusters all summer long, as King Kong banged out
a homer every 13.94 visits to the plate. It was a frequency rate good enough
to wipe out Frank Thomas's 12-year-old Mets record for single-season homers.
And the onslaught also continued for a second year, even though Kingman played
an injury-reduced season in 1977. He again set a club record for slugging
percentage, as well as another new homer milestone. One of his mid-season
blasts in Wrigley Field reportedly traveled an astonishing 630 feet. It was
enough fireworks, in the end, to earn a starting spot on the National League
All-Star squad, and in such a lean franchise period, that in itself was quite
a significant prize. Yet, if the strapping slugger turned on the fans at Shea
Stadium, he just as quickly turned off the media assigned to cover the club.
Hot in pursuit of Ruth and Maris, and also threatening Hack Wilson's NL home
run record by mid-season, Kingman turned a cold shoulder on press attention to
his feats and became increasingly sullen and reclusive in the clubhouse.
third season in New York was only half over before King Kong was requesting
another trade. That was not all bad news to disillusioned Mets management.
Once Kingman was injured and missed much of the second half of the 1976
campaign, it was clear that the Mets' "home run or nothing" offense was dead
in the water with or without him. Kingman's trade to San Diego in mid-June
garnered relatively little press attention and spurred few fan protests,
coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of the more earthshaking deal only
hours earlier which banished Tom Seaver to Cincinnati.
From The New York Mets Encyclopedia by Peter C. Bjarkman.
Copyright © by Peter C. Bjarkman. Excerpted with permission.