Sunday, August 13, 2017

Cali Coda: Kingman's Career Flickers Out in Phoenix

FOR DAVE KINGMAN, THE END CAME SUDDENLY, unceremoniously and ignominiously. When he played his last game for the Oakland Athletics in 1986, nobody eligible for baseball's Hall of Fame had hit as many home runs as him, 442, and been denied induction. And nobody had ever hit so many homers in a single season, 35, and not played again in the majors.

1979 -- Kingman's Peak
.288, 48 HRs, 115 RBIs
Surely, there would be another chance for the rangy slugger whose long-limbed upper-cut swing could seemingly send horsehide spheres rocketing into orbit. Besides, when he'd signed with the A's just two years earlier, Kingman had one of his best years, batting .268, blasting 35 homers and driving in a career-best 118 runs.

The home runs kept coming, precisely 100 over three seasons in the East Bay, but that's where the good news ended for the man variously known as Kong and Sky King. As the A's primary designated hitter in '86. he'd batted just .210 and, while he drove in 94 runs, he'd struck out 126 times and had an on-base percentage of just .255.

Kingman, who had a history of stormy press relations,  also sent a live rat, in a pink box, to a female sportswriter. Unamused, the A's fined him $3,500 and threatened to release him if he ever did something like that again. When his contract expired at season's end, Oakland opted to let Kong go, replacing him with another aging slugger, Reggie Jackson, who starred for the A's in the early 1970s.

Surely somebody was in the market for his occasionally electrifying displays of power. But Kingman -- turning 38 and just 58 homers shy of the 500 mark that could potentially punch his ticket to Cooperstown -- had no takers.

Before there were Arizona Diamondbacks...
His 16-year-career, bounding from the San Francisco Giants to the New York Mets, to the San Diego Padres, to the California Angels, to the New York Yankees, to the Chicago Cubs, back to the Mets then to the A's, appeared over.

But not quite yet.

In early July, he signed a minor league contract with his original team, the Giants. Sky King would DH and play first base for their AAA affiliate, the Phoenix Firebirds. There he'd try to rise from the ashes for one more shot at the bigs.

Kong's last call would last about three weeks, during which he'd bat just .203 -- against minor leaguers on the way up and retreads trying to prolong their careers just as he was -- with two homers and 11 RBIs. In 59 at bats, he fanned 12 times.

On Sunday night, Aug. 2, he played first base for the Firebirds as they took on the Los Angeles Dodgers' top farm club, the Albuquerque Dukes, losing 6-5. In what may have been his last at bat as a pro, against former big league reliever Pete Ladd, mighty Kingman struck out. Two days later, having not played again due to a toe injury, he exercised an escape clause in his contract and released himself.
No rising from the ashes on this night.


Except for this: It was later adjudged the the 86-87 off-season was one in a series where Major League Baseball's owners colluded to hold down salaries and deliberately avoided bidding against each other for free agents.

Though in retrospect, Kingman's career appeared to end on its merits, he was only in Phoenix because no big league team offered to sign a man who'd just finished second in the American League and third in the majors in home runs.

His Firebirds fadeout followed the conspiracy that consigned him there.

In 1995, eight years after his career was euthanized by Pete Ladd in the Arizona desert, arbitrator Thomas Roberts awarded Sky King $829,850 in damages.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Devon White, Breakfast of Champions

CANNIBALISM CAN RUN THE GAMUT from tribal to survival -- think the Donner Party, or Alive! by Piers Paul Read --  to the sci-fi horror of Soylent Green.* It seldom comes up** in conjunction with baseball.

Breakfast of A.L. West Champions
Leave it to the California Angels to fill that void.

In 1987, the defending American League West champs had a new star. His name was Devon White, and he played one of the virtuoso glamour positions in baseball: centerfield, that place rhapsodized in song by John Fogerty. Centerfield, that verdant expanse manned by men like Tris Speaker and Joe DiMaggio, by Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

And now White, a 24-year-old Jamaican-born switch-hitting blend of defense, speed and some offensive pop who grew up in New York City, cheering for Mays and the New York Mets

Going into action on July 31, the Angels' newfound phenom was hitting a solid .284, with 18 homers, 22 steals and 64 runs batted in. That night, against the visiting Seattle Mariners, White would bat clean-up just behind the prior year's phenom, Wally Joyner, who'd finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting to the Oakland Athletics' Jose Canseco.

But how best to market the multi-talented Mr. White? The Angels solution was to make him a commodity. Big league slugger Dave Kingman once said athletes were pieces of meat. California went to a different trading pit and came back with cereal. On the cover of the Halo Magazine game program, they would sell their outfielder not as an image on a box, but as the food itself. White as Wheaties, breakfast of A.L. West champions.

Friday night, lights.
"The crunchy whole wheat flakes breakfast of the Angels," boasted the box-mocking magazine cover. "Power, speed, defense from 100 percent whole wheat."

Start your day right, with a bowl of Devon White.

Net weight, 170 lbs. Kind of big to lug home from the Kroger or Safeway, but a good fit for the fully-enclosed Anaheim Stadium shared in that era by the National Football League's Rams.

That night the Angels tattooed the Mariners, 8-2, before 32,471 people. White and Joyner hit back-to-back homers off Seattle starter Scott Bankhead in the third inning and after a Mark McLemore sacrifice fly scored Bob Boone in the fourth, Bankhead exited with Anaheim ahead, 4-0.

The Angels' nutritious outfielder finished the night 1-4, with that round-tripper and two runs batted in. He was also caught stealing because, well... it happens.

Allowed to play out the season without being devoured by teammates, opponents or fans, White finished with slightly soggier stats than that end of July snapshot: a .263 average with 33 doubles, 24 homers, 87 RBIs and 32 stolen bases. He finished fifth in A.L. rookie of the year balloting won by the A's Mark McGwire.
The original scoreboard,
exiled to the parking lot post-enclosure

California would tumble to 6th place in the seven-team division, finishing 75-87, ending the career of veteran manager Gene Mauch.

White played three more years in Anaheim, winning two gold gloves for defensive excellence and being selected to the A.L. all star team once before being traded to Toronto in a lopsided trade where the primary return was outfielder Junior Felix, who'd be out of the majors by 1995.

White won five more gold gloves with the Blue Jays while making the remarkable seem routine, qualify for the all star team again and be part of two World Series winners, proving more champion than breakfast.

He won another title in 1997 as a member of the National League's Florida Marlins and retired in 2001 after spending his last year with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was 38. Today, he's the hitting coach for the Blue Jays' AAA affiliate Buffalo Bisons.

* Spoiler alert!
**Seldom, but not never.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Go Ahead... Make My Sundae - Gone Cali '87, Part VI

TWO YEARS AFTER MAKING "CITY HEAT," Clint Eastwood told an entire town to cool it.

Clint Eastwood: mayor. ice cream vigilante
The place was Carmel by the Sea, on the south shore of California's Monterrey Peninsula, a berg famous for its setting, its arts scene and -- for a time -- its prohibition on the sale of ice cream cones on its streets.

Eastwood -- an actor, director and Carmel resident -- changed all that in 1986 when he ran for mayor of the tiny coastal municipality and won. Then the man famous for playing Dirty Harry, decided to mess up the town.

He'd take out the ice cream ban.


To be sure, the reason behind the rule wasn't just some case of absurd nanny-state fastidiousness run amok. According to a contemporaneous Los Angeles Times story, the denial of an ice cream stand permit -- and all of the resultant publicity it occasioned -- was prompted by concerns about water consumption in a time of drought.

But that wasn't all Eastwood did. Sixteen months into his term, the New York Times reported, the actor-turned-mayor had, "provided more public toilets, built new stairways to the town beach and expedited previously stalled efforts to expand Carmel's library."

Still, Eastwood served just a single two-year term as mayor of the mile-square city, population 4,000 or so, before returning to the serious work of acting and directing.

During his tenure though, local artist Jim Miller had made up a commemorative poster, which then became the cover of the Carmel tourist guide. The poster's tagline, not included on the guide's version, promised, "Law, Order and Ice Cream."

The image of a bearded, six-gun wielding, western hat-wearing Eastwood, was apparently inspired by promotional art for films like A Fist Full of DollarsHigh Plains Drifter, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, but with a twist -- or more appropriately, a triple scoop -- vanilla or perhaps butter pecan ice cream cone in his left hand.

Do you feel like sprinkles today, punk?

Inside, the publication promising directions, maps and essential information, included not one but two articles on where to find ice cream, together with a conspicuously placed ad to underscore the point.

As the man said, "go ahead, make my sundae."

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Reggie, The Original Bash Brother, Comes Home

REGGIE JACKSON CAME HOME in the summer of 1987. Not to Wyncote, PA, where he was born 41 years earlier and grew into a prodigal multi-sport star at nearby Cheltenham High School, but to Oakland, CA, where that star became one the biggest, brightest and brashest in the nation, while playin' for the Swingin' A's.

Between 1971 and 1975, he'd led them to five straight first place finishes, and from '72 to ''74, three consecutive championships, then he was gone, traded just before opening day 1976.
Reggie Jackson of the 1987 Oakland Athletics.

Now he was back, at the end of a career that saw him play for a total of 12 division winners, six pennant winners and five World Series winners (though an injury kept him out of action in the 1972 tilt against the Cincinnati Reds).

Home, after four American League home run titles and the 1973 AL Most Valuable Player award.

Home, after 14 All Star Game selections and two World Series MVP awards, the second of which came after he crushed the Los Angeles Dodgers, hitting three round trippers in three swings to close out the 1977 fall classic.

Home after a year in Baltimore, five in the Bronx and five more in Anaheim, playing for the argumentative Earl Weaver, the tempestuous Billy Martin, the calming Bob Lemon, the defiant Dick Howser and the luckless Gene Mauch. Home after playing for Charlie Finley, George Steinbrenner and Gene Autry.

Home as Mr. October, as the self-proclaimed "Straw that Stirs the Drink." Home as a candy bar.   "When you unwrap a Reggie Bar, it tells you how good it is," his Hall of Fame teammate Catfish Hunter once said. Now, in his final season, Reggie no longer needed to be the bonbon, the straw or even a main ingredient in the Oakland Athletic's potent cocktail, he just needed to be in the mix.

Managed by future Hall member Tony La Russa, the A's franchise was on one if it's periodic upswings, if not yet at its peak. First-baseman Mark McGwire, 23, was in the midst of a freshman campaign that would see him hit .289 with 49 homers and 118 runs batted in, winning Rookie of the Year honors. Behind him, 1986 AL Rookie of the Year Jose Canseco, just 21 and on his way to belting 31 round-trippers and driving in 113. Together they were The Bash Brothers.

McGwire, Canseco and Reggie, men who would combine for 1,608 home runs over their careers, together in one Athletics line up. Surely somewhere Jimmie Foxx was lacing his cleats.

Joining them: 1979 co-RotY shortstop Alfredo Griffin and 1981 AL batting champ Carney Lansford, starting pitcher Dave Stewart -- embarking on the first of his four consecutive 20-win seasons -- and Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley.

"I think the ingredients are all here for me to have a good year," Jackson, bash brother emeritus, said in one of two features about him in the game program for July 27, 1987, when his team hosted the California Angels at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum.

The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum,
July 27, 1987

The A's, behind Stewart, cruised to a 6-1 win that night. Only catcher Terry Steinbach homered for the home team. Shortstop Gus Polidor struck a blow for the visitors.

Jackson -- batting sixth -- struck out four times (a drop in his MLB-record bucket of 2597 Ks, which still stands today). He ended the night hitting a discouraging .203. For the year, he batted .220 with 15 homers and 43 RBIs. In 336 at bats over 115 games, he struck out 97 times.

Though La Russa's squad would go just 81-81 that year, the table had been set, the appetite whet. Starting in 1988, the franchise strung together three straight pennants, repeating the feat accomplished by Jackson's A's of the '70s, and win the 1989 World Series.

Reggie finished his illustrious career with a .262 batting average, 563 homers and 1,702 runs batted in. He also had 18 round-trippers and 48 RBIs in 77 post-season games, 10 of those clouts in the series. He made the Hall in 1993.

The Coup

Two weeks before my visit, stop four on my California/ballpark tour, the Coliseum had hosted Major League Baseball's All Star Game, further proof the sometimes moribund A's, whose attendance had dipped to 306,763 for the entire 1979 season, were on the rebound. For those of us who care, the All Star Game program -- in this era before eBay -- was a trophy worth hunting.

The trophy
Mid-game, I chatted up one of the souvenir stand vendors about the ballpark -- better than its reputation -- and the stadium food -- more adventurous than I'd seen elsewhere -- and finally rounded to the subject of the A-S program.

He said he had none and directed me down the concourse, past the first aid station and through a door where I found myself in a souvenir stock room.

"Hi. Mike sent me," I told a woman behind the counter, feigning a casualness I didn't feel. "I'm looking for an All Star Game program."

She dropped back into the steel shelving behind her and reappeared moments later, program in hand.

"Do you work here?" she asked, looking me over.

"No," I replied.

"Five dollars," she said. I handed over the money, suppressed a smile and walked out. Quickly.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Humm... Baby, The Thrill and One Flap Down, And Then "Where's Our Car?" -- Gone Cali 1987, Part IV

WILL "THE THRILL" CLARK never made baseball's Hall of Fame. Neither did Jeffrey Leonard, he of the notorious home run trot, "one flap down."

But those men,  a white southerner and black northerner who openly clashed with each other in 1987 made the San Francisco Giants into a team to be reckoned with.

Humm, baby. Humm, baby? Yes. Humm, baby.

A mid-summer day's twin-bill.
It had been 16 years since the Giants made the post season, a quarter century since their last World Series appearance, a seven-game loss to the New York Yankees.

Despite the presence, at various times, of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, of Garry Maddox and
Gary Matthews, of Dave Kingman, of Bobby Bonds then Bobby Murcer, of  John Montefusco and Vida Blue, the Giants had long languished in baseball's shadows.

Across San Francisco Bay, the Oakland A's had a string of five straight playoff appearances and three consecutive championships. Within the National League West, the Giants had been totally eclipsed by the long-time rival Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. In fact, every NL West team had finished first at least once since the San Franciscans had last managed the feat: the Reds in '72, '73, '75, '76 and '79,  the Dodgers in '74, '77, 78, '81,'83 and '85, the Houston Astros in '80 and '86, the Atlanta Braves in '82 and the San Diego Padres in '84.

The title merry-go-round was spinning and the Giants weren't on it.

Change came midway through the disastrous 1985 season when a 62-100 record landed them in the NL West basement. After 144 games, they fired manager Jim Davenport and hired sagacious Roger Craig. The pitching anchor of the original and terrible New York Mets, Craig suffered through back-to-back 20-loss campaigns. He knew about adversity. His approach: stay positive.

Candlestick Park, July 26, 1987. Announced attendance: 41,256

At spring training 1986, he called journeyman catcher Brad Gulden "humm baby," for still giving 110 percent effort in a career nearing its end. According to legend, the phrase was a contraction and corruption of the sandlot shout of encouragement, "C'mon, baby!"

By 1987, the Giants had a team full of humm babies led by the veteran outfielder Leonard, 31, and Clark, 23, who'd starred at Mississippi State and -- as the Giants were bottoming out in '85 -- won the Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur ballplayer in America.

Humm, baby indeed.

By July 26, though just one game over .500, the 49-48 Giants trailed the first place Reds by just a single game. On that day's schedule: a double-header with the NL East-leading St. Louis Cardinals at windswept Candlestick Park.

They were about to ignite.

Rallying back from a blown 2-1 lead, the Giants took the opener in 10 innings on a walk-off, three-run homer by The Thrill. Then, though the Cards struck first in game two, they were decked, 5-2, with Clark clubbing his second round-tripper of the afternoon.

From there, the team went 39-24, overtaking the Reds by six games to win the West. Awaiting them in the NL Championship Series: the Cardinals. Now it was Jeffrey Leonard's turn to shine.

The Pride of the Giants, until he wasn't.
Leonard, like Clark, was blunt-spoken. If you liked it, fine. If not? Too bad. The Cardinals were not fans. The St. Louis fans were not fans.

Over the 7-game series, the Giants outfielder torched Cardinals pitchers for four home runs, each punctuated by a somewhat leisurely tour of the bases, his left arm at times deliberately slack at his side. One Flap Down, again and again and again. For the series, Leonard batted .417 with 10 hits in 24 at bats, including those round-trippers. He walked three times, scored five runs and drove in five.

While Leonard's efforts earned him series most valuable player honors, it wasn't enough to carry the Giants past the Cards. They lost in seven games. In mid June of the next season, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for utility man Ernie Riles.

Clark would lead the Giants to the pennant in 1989, where they were swept by the A's in a series mostly remembered for the magnitude 6.9 earthquake that interrupted it. Leonard, by then, had migrated to the Seattle Mariners, but the former teammates' enmity remained.

Long since retired, both men have found other causes for which to fight. Leonard and his wife Karen founded the One Flap Down charity, now known as One Fabulous Day, dedicated to helping single parents battling cancer. Clark and his wife Lisa are combatting autism.

The Giants finally won the series in 2010 and again in 2012 and 2014.

First Person

Where did we park?
That first game of the July 26 twin-bill was the third stop on my 1987 California/ballpark tour. Me and my pal, photographer Chris Stanley, had been running at breakneck speed, seeing everything we could see in between scheduled ballgames. This day was no exception. 

We arrived at the 'stick just before game time and after Will thrilled, we left, only to realize we'd no idea where we'd parked. With most attendees staying put for game two, we roamed the wind-swept asphalt for 45 minutes, searching for our rental car, a gold Chevrolet Corsica. 

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Gone Cali 1987, Part III -- In Which Two Kids Drive Up to a Nuclear Missile Base and Ask for the Tour

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND had a pretty awesome logo. It was a shield featuring an iron-gloved hand clutching three lightening bolts and an olive branch, set against a blue sky with white clouds. Everything about it says "might."

Nothing about it suggests "Welcome."

Naturally, when my buddy Chris and I -- a couple of recently-certified college graduate geniuses -- happened across that symbol of American power affixed to a fieldstone wall near an entrance to the Vandenberg Air Force Base, we had to visit.

It was a sunny July day in 1987. Turning off California's Highway 1 just north of Lompoc, we pulled up to the guardhouse.

"Hi, we're here for the tour," one of us announced cheerfully to a uniformed guard.

"Tour?" came the predicable response (predictable to anyone but me and Chris). "We don't have a tour."

"Oh." Came the reply, "Can we just look around?"

"No," the guard said. "But you can have this map."


Oh clueless innocence. How does one react, 30 years later, to the dawning realization we'd been quickly sized up as rubes too naive to pose any sort of threat to national security? I guess it's better than being surrounded by armed MPs and taken into custody for questioning.

Strategic Air Command -- or SAC, for short -- was the U.S. Air Force Command responsible for maintaining the nation's nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles and its strategic bomber fleet. Remember Atari's Missile Command? Remember that cute Matthew Broderick/Ally Sheedy movie WarGames? This was a combination of those things (minus the WOPR) but real.

Global thermonuclear warfare. The only way to win was not to play. The very existence of SAC -- its effective deterrence -- made that strategy a winning one.

Vandenberg AFB was a key element of SAC and of deterrence, and was used as a testing site for Thor, Atlas and Titan missies, the later two later doing double-duty as launch vehicles for NASA's Project Mercury solo orbital space flights and its two-man Gemini missions.

Vandenberg was also the proving ground for the Minute Man and Peace Keeper ICBMs.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, target audience for all that might and deterrence prompted a reordering of the U.S. Air Force command structure and, in 1992, SAC was dissolved. Vandenberg remains, now primarily used for military space launches.

Barred from admission that July day, Chris and I took our handout map (I'm guessing we weren't the only ones to get them), took a few snapshots at the gate and went on our way.

Now, perhaps, its time to go back. Apparently they have a tour.

--  Follow me on Twitter

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Darkness on the Edge of (Dodger) Town -- Gone Cali 1987, Part II

BASEBALL'S TAJ MAHAL. It's meant to be a compliment.

The Silver Anniversary logo
When it opened in 1962, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was the newest, nicest stadium in Major League Baseball, far outclassing San Francisco's wind-swept Candlestick Park completed just two years earlier. It was the privately-financed crown jewel of baseball's manifest destiny.

Searching for superlatives, scribes turned to Shah Jahan's edifice on the Yamuna River in India, perhaps forgetting the Taj Mahal was a tomb for his wife. Or maybe they didn't forget, for Dodger Stadium too is something of a monument, a grave marker for the poor mostly Mexican-American neighborhoods wiped from existence during a decade-long battle between liberal and conservative forces over what to do with acres upon acres of hilly land north of downtown, a place called Chavez Ravine.

Stadium construction wasn't how that story started, but that's how it ended, with an ironic coup de grace from the team that integrated baseball.

July 21, 1987, St. Louis Cardinals 6, L.A. Dodgers 1
Winning pitcher, Bob Forsch, Loser, Fernando Valenzuela

I knew none of this 30 years ago this week when I made my one and only visit to Dodger Stadium on the second stop of a two-week, six-ballpark road trip. (Read about stop one here.) Though it the stadium's 25th anniversary season, the commemorative program and yearbook made no mention of what transpired in the years before the stadium opened. It wasn't a story they had any incentive to publicize or perpetuate and, to be fair, for which they were largely not responsible.

Much has been written since about what came to be known as the Battle of Chavez Ravine, including a new book published just this year. It went something like this:

The Joe Friday ticket stub.
After World War II, the U.S. embarked on a rebuilding spree, in Europe under the Marshall Plan and at home in the form of urban renewal, clearing of slums and blighted areas in favor of public housing for the nation's destitute.

Los Angeles was no exception and it was proposed that the Chavez Ravine area be redeveloped into something called Elysian Park Heights. The project would include two dozen high-rise apartment buildings and more than 160 two-story residences.

Though the communities there -- Palo Verde, Bishop and La Loma -- had homes, schools and at least one church, they wasn't seen as worthy of preservation. The city moved by force of eminent domain to begin clearing those so-called slums of the people and their dwellings. But before Elysian Park Heights construction could begin, in 1953, newly-elected conservative Mayor Norris Poulson -- with a push from a group called Citizens Against Socialized Housing (or CASH) -- canceled the project, leaving a handful of hold-out families living in a largely bulldozed region where they'd remain at loggerheads with L.A. for most of that decade.

In 1957, the Brooklyn Dodgers -- after trying and failing to secure a new stadium in their home borough -- won permission to move west with the Giants. They had no home, but Los Angeles had an idea. The city would trade its Chavez Ravine land to the team in exchange for a Dodger-owned downtown minor league ballpark confusingly called Wrigley Field.

Giants' shortstop Jose Uribe
meets Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia
While the Dodgers played the next four seasons at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a gigantic oval built for the 1932 Olympic games, the city forcibly removed the last remaining Chavez Ravine residents to make way for the stadium amid a public referendum and, unsurprisingly, litigation that stopped only at the U.S. Supreme Court door. Among the casualties, the Palo Verde Elementary School, reportedly paved over for a parking lot.

The result: a baseball-only ballpark built into a hillside, facing the distant San Gabriel mountains visible beyond the twin outfield pavilions and scoreboards.

Led by pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, in just their second season there the team swept the American League Champion New York Yankees to win the World Series before about 56,000 home town fans. They'd win the series in '65, '81 and '88 too.

In between, the team that gave America Jackie Robinson, its first black superstar, also gave the nation its first Japanese superstar, Hideo Nomo and -- perhaps in a bit of karmic payback -- its first Mexican one, Fernando Valenzuela.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive