To everyone’s shock and surprise, yours truly was apparently persuasive enough to wrangle a few media credentials recently for a AAA game on a hot, sticky Saturday night in Round Rock, Texas. My baseball buddy (the female version, not the one that looks like Cheech) had a good laugh at this and was comparing me to the baseball writing equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson.
“They’re going to be wondering, who the hell is this guy affiliated with?” she said with a snicker, glaring at my cut-off jean shorts and general casual appearance that bordered on “depraved homeless guy” entangled with a little “divorced dad who stopped giving a shit” vibe–the only thing missing was the cigarette holder and flask of vodka in the breast pocket.
I assured her that this wasn’t the old-school baseball writing world of cigar-chomping old guys wearing Hawaiian shirts with an Olivetti typewriter tucked beneath their arm. No, my friend, these weren’t newspaper and media hacks who didn’t use nuance or subtext and who hadn’t read anything remotely literary since the ink on a copy of The Old Man and the Sea was fresh. These were modern, good ‘ol All American tech-savvy baseball promoters with hipster haircuts, toothy smiles and finely trimmed beards looking to climb the ladder in a billion-dollar industry by foisting fake opinions for clicks and sponsors.
“Wow, now you look even worse.”
All the internal hype was for naught. (This was, alas, the minor leagues) I was asked, indeed, what outfit I was with, but the overall Press Box atmosphere seemed sort of relaxed and lethargic as I put on an authoritative and seasoned air meant to mirror professionalism. A nice man, Leonard, answered a few questions, told us we couldn’t go into the TV room, and gave us some tickets for free tacos. There was a snack spread and we took a few bags of chips and soda and decided to go down and find a few empty seats on the first baseline with the rest of the fans: we needed that feeling of symbiosis that had been missing since our weakened empire unequivocally turned divisive politically, went mentally unhinged and rehearsed a zombie apocalypse drill. I was also told that under no circumstances could someone media affiliated receive the Nolan Ryan bobblehead giveaway that night. Well, shit.
Overall, it was a humid, syrupy, sweat-inducing pleasant time. The atmosphere was lively (the crowd sang “Deep In The Heart Of Texas” during the 7th inning stretch) and my new favorite player, Curtis Terry aka “Scary Terry” hit 2 massive dingers while my baseball buddy made a sugary mess eating a funnel cake. A major highlight was the hilarious stampede for dollar hot dogs when the “Hot Dog Batter” struck out in the bottom half of the 7th–a kindly older gentleman felt the need to wildly instruct everyone in our section of this fact while other fans returned triumphantly with ghastly amounts of their pink, mustard-laden prize…I love minor league baseball.
And as I crossed the Sacramento River towards the stadium, perhaps the baseball gods had a message for me with their semi-divine detachment?
I’ve been to 100’s of baseball games in my life, but perhaps the “miraculous strangeness of life” came into play recently as I recently attended a minor league AAA game between the Sacramento River Cats and the Reno Aces. (both teams are affiliated with a N.L. team, I am unpledged to any N.L. team except the Dodgers.)
It was Sunday; there there were hordes of annoying children and even more annoying non-baseball fans out for a sun drenched day–unable to simply figure out the Dewey Decimal system and standing around awkwardly with blank stares, metaphorically taking us back to the primeval seas as protozoa. Kudos to the drunk guy yelling “down in front!” to the yuppies, completely unaware that they had breached the unwritten baseball rule of finding your seat quickly and getting your ass out of the way.
Game facts: there was a grand slam. An event I can’t remember ever seeing live. I had also never come close to a foul ball, instantly disappointed as I dropped one, (bare and one-handed) that had such an unexpected force that my right hand was bee-stung for a few minutes afterward. I had to watch an old guy from the post-war generation two seats in front of me take a picture with my ball. That said, I still cringe when I see a grown man try to catch a ball and recoil like a cowardat the last moment. I had just tidied myself with a 12 dollar beer in the 5th when the game was stopped because of a small snake on the infield. This is something I have never seen and perhaps will never see again.
Baseball season represents an infinite cloud of future potentialities, and as I walked in my door and flipped on the tube the Cubs and Yankees were playing an eventual 18 inning affair that broke the ML record for strikeouts in a game. This game has been played professionally since 1876.
I’m zipping at 80 MPH down the I-5 freeway from Sacramento to Stockton on a 2 lane asphalt road littered with tomatoes and dead possum. The smell of cow manure is thick and constant, as it tends to be in California’s Central Valley, and I am on my way to Banner Island Ballpark, home of the Oakland A’s single A affiliate, The Stockton Ports. I had contacted the Ports a week earlier and their representatives were kind enough to give me a free ticket directly behind home plate complete with media credentials. The mixture of early evening and broad anticipation were beautiful, and the sun was burning into my windshield as I daydreamed about life on a farm while they passed by in bunches like failed dreams and time.
Stockton is a city that has dealt with civic bankruptcy, gang-related crime and drugs; and like many other California cities during tough economic times Banner Island Ballpark is incipient of the city’s attempt at downtown revitalization and a catalyst for civic change. Built in 2005 and seating 5,200 the ballpark is a quaint and intimate gem sitting on the waterfront. I was impressed by the amount of fans waiting patiently for the gates to open an hour before the game, many wearing Athletics gear. The fans were lively and animated, a few old ladies were scoring the game and there was even an older gentleman sporting a handlebar mustache with a plastic megaphone heckling the opposing team. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed minor league baseball and was absolutely enthralled by the passion these fans were showing–I half expected Susan Sarandon to waddle by in a tight dress with a sexy Carolina accent and a copy of Walt Whitman tucked beneath her arm.
The past: Dallas “Perfect Game” Braden is somewhat of a legend in Oakland because of his perfect game on Mother’s Day in 2010, but the Stockton native is an absolute God here. The man with 209 (the Stockton area code) tattooed on his stomach had his number retired by the Ports this year and is a dominate presence around the park. I think it’s a shame that his career was cut short due to a “shredded” rotator cuff as he was a solid pitcher and a gamer who once confronted A-Rod for walking on “his” mound. Today he is a talking head for ESPN and the MLB Network and I enjoy him on that platform as well.
The future: Jacob Nottingham, one of two players acquired in the recent Scott Kazmir deal with Houston looks like an absolute stud at 6’3, 227 and despite his baby face has the look of a future big leaguer. (I have read scouting reports comparing him to Mike Piazza) It’s been said that the 20-year-old needs to work on his catching fundamentals but I saw no obvious weaknesses as he seemed in control of the game and the synchronicity with his pitcher, Matt Stalcup, equaled a one hitter through six innings. Nottingham stepped into the box in the first inning and the P.A. announcer told the crowd that everyone in my section would win a free In N’ Out (a California hamburger chain) double–double burger if he, indeed, hit a double. The next pitch was ripped down the third base line for a stand up double and free dinner for me and everyone else on the way home. Thanks, Jacob. You have a new fan here…and will always be known as “Double Double” from here on out as far as The ‘Fro is concerned.
Final score: Stockton Ports 4 Rancho Cucamonga Quakes 0.
This is the first part of what will eventually be a 4 or 5 part series interview with former Athletics pitcher Brian Kingman. I know this is the part where I usually talk incessantly about nothing, but I’ll let the man speak for himself. I will, however, add that Brian was gracious enough to give me some in -depth answers that read like a book. This is good stuff readers! I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
1) Well, I suppose we should start at the very beginning. I have a sort of strange obsession with the life of a minor leaguer. The trials, tribulations and bus rides in the “bushes” always stoked my imagination. Do you have any stories or thoughts about any of your stops in the minors?
LIFE IN THE MINORS
“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it”
Baseball has always been a game of numbers, and some of the biggest numbers are the odds against making it to the big leagues. Less than
one percent of high school players and about five percent of college players are drafted. Less than ten percent of minor leaguers will play even
one day in the major leagues and somewhere between 1-2 percent will actually have a career in the big leagues. I think my first day of spring
training the Director of Minor League Operations said something similar to this in a speech to all of the Oakland A’s minor league players.
I am sure virtually all of us were confident that we were among the 1-2 percent. If we weren’t, we probably wouldn’t have made it this far.
Knowing that you will make it to the major leagues makes it easier to endure the grind, which is the grueling schedule of 140 or so games,10 hour
bus rides, cheap hotels, doing your own laundry, missing your girl friend, and crappy food. This was just another obstacle to be over come on the path to the big leagues. You were no longer just playing baseball, you were being paid to play baseball. So what if you made less than $10,000 a year, you
were living the dream. Actually as I always liked to point out, we were chasing the dream. Living the dream would be life in the major leagues.
The fact that professional baseball was different from the baseball you had played up to this point in your life was quickly apparent. There were far more
players in spring training than there were rosters spots in the minor league system. Almost every day a few players would get to their locker in the morning ready to start their day, only to notice that their locker was empty. The only thing in their locker would be a pink slip informing them to see their manager. The pink slip mean that they were released. In the real world it would be referred to as being fired or terminated. For all but a few who might
catch on with a different organization it mean that their days of playing baseball were over. Most of these guys had been playing baseball since Little
League, and had been stars in high school or college.
As the season drew closer and the certainty over roster spots became more clear, it was common for the pranksters to remove the contents of one of
the remaining players locker and place a forged note in their locker instructing them to see the manager. The locker room would be full of somber faces
and condolences regarding the bad news. More than a few guys fell for it hook, line and sinker, some of them near tears as they walked into the managers office only to learn it was all just a joke.
I remember reading in a book (Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell) that one of the elements involved in the development of excellence at performing complex tasks is to have spent at least 10,000 hours of practicing it. In order to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class musician, chess player, baseball player – anything, you basically have to spend at least 10,000 hours working at it. That’s one of the reasons why to excel at something
you need to really like what you are doing, or the odds are you won’t put in the hours. For most of the guys who were cut in spring training, they had
put in 10,000 hours working at something they loved, there just happened to be an excess supply of baseball players competing for a limited number
of spots. The ten thousand hour rule might get you a spot in the minors, but to continue along the path to the big leagues it is just a prerequisite.
My first full season in the minor leagues was spent in the Southern League. The Athletics double A team was the Chattanooga Lookouts.
Kingman in Chattanooga
welanded at the airport in Chattanooga there was a crowd waiting to greet us, and a parade that took us to our home park, Engel Stadium. It had been eleven years since professional baseball had been played in Chattanooga, and the city was elated to have a team once again.
Engel Stadium had quite a history. Satchel Paige made his professional debut at Andrews Field, future site of Engel Stadium, in 1926, playing for the Chattanooga White Sox, a negro league team. Twenty one years latter,16-year oldWillie Mays made his professional baseball debut as a center fielder for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos in the Negro Southern League at Engel Stadium. Harmon Killebrew also played there. He is the only player ever to hit a ball over the centerfield wall which was 471 feet from home plate!
It is 325 feet down the line to left and probably 340 feet or so to the scoreboard, which was over 30 feet tall. I spent the first half of the season trying to fungo balls over the scoreboard before I finally succeeded. No one had hit a ball over the scoreboard in a game, although Dale Murphy almost hit a ball through it one night. The combination of throwing a lot of innings and swinging a bat has hard as I could a countless number of times eventually took its toll on my elbow.
Engel Stadium is no longer used for minor league games, it was however used in the filming of 42, the Jackie Robinson story.
The bus rides in the Southern League were long. Sometimes we would leave after a night game at midnight, endure a 10 hour bus ride which arrived at 10 am in the next city, with a game at 7pm that night. I’d say the average bus ride was6-7 hours, but there were several 10 and 11 hour rides in the mix. Players in the minor leagues spend a lot of time together. In addition to sharing an apartment, you had a roommate on the road, all that time on
the bus, and of course at the ballpark. We also shared a common goal which was to make it to the big leagues.
Professional baseball is a way of life. During the season you eat, sleep and drink baseball. It is like a parallel universe to the real world. Players become
totally absorbed in mastering the skills they need to be successful. Almost everyone in the minor leagues was able to dominate the competition in
amateur baseball. Now for the first time many minor league players have to learn how to transcend failure, something they may have never experienced
before. For someone who was never hit below .400 in their life it can be quite humbling when your struggling to hit .250. In order to play in the major
leagues you not only need the physical skills, you need to be mentally tough.
Days off were few and far between but that didn’t stop us from having fun. While it is true that there were very few off days, there was still plenty of time for mischief. Games typically ended at 10pm, bars closed at 1 and you could sleep till noon if you wanted to most of the time. Some organizations,
like the Dodgers were known for their discipline, dress code and curfews. The A’s organization was at the other end of the spectrum. This remained true even when I reached the major leagues. Billy Martin encouraged his players to drink, in fact if you weren’t a drinker he thought there was something wrong with you. In Billy’s view there was no better way to celebrate the thrill of victory, or to drown the agony of defeat than by closing down the bar.
Playing baseball in many ways allows you – for better or more likely worse! – to have an extended adolescence. Teams tend to get more out of control on a road trip. After a game ends players need to unwind. Food, alcohol and women
always seem to go a long way to alleviating, hunger, boredom,
loneliness, horniness and even depression. The good news was the necessities always seemed to be readily available.If left completely unsupervised
I am sure our hotel would have turned into something resembling a party from the movie Animal House.
“Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player
It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in”
~ Casey Stengel
Fortunately for baseball, and minor league teams every where, the minor league manager always seems to be around to keep things from getting
too far out of control. Minor league managers have to be able to manage more than just the game. They also teach how the game should be played
and are instrumental in passing on the oral traditions of the game:
The 1976 was a fun season with a lot of great memories. Matt Keough was still an infielder, and played third base. Steve McCatty was our closer, and Dwayne Murphy was the centerfielder. Bruce Robinson was my catcher and closest friend on the team. Bruce caught for the A’s in September of 1978, and was traded to the Yankees in 1979.
As great as 1976 was, there also was some bad news for me. During the last month of the season I had severe elbow pain which prevented me
from being called up to the major leagues during the month of September when they expand the roster. It also threatened to end my goal of making
it to the major leagues. I spent 1977 with the Athletics triple A team in San Jose. I was no longer able to throw in the mid 90’s, and there was no bite
to my slider. I spent a lot of time in doctors offices, getting cortisone shots and on the disabled list.
I had elbow surgery after the 1977 season, and couldn’t even throw a ball until spring training of 1978. I rehabbed with the triple A team in Vancouver and
was sent to Modesto (A ball) when I was ready to pitch. It was psychologically hard to find myself in A ball two years after being close to making the big
leagues. Watching my teammates from Chattanooga move on to triple A and the big leagues was hard as well. I felt like I was going backwards. Instead of developing as a pitcher I was learning how to pitch all over again. My goal of making it to the major leagues seemed to be slipping away, and even though my surgery was successful, I was a different, less dominating pitcher now. Just a little less velocity, and a curveball instead of a slider, I still
had “good stuff” but the my path to the big leagues was definitely going to be harder now.
Pitching is never easy, but when I was able to start pitching again after my elbow surgery it was a lot harder. It was a long frustrating recovery, but if baseball teaches you anything it is how to deal with frustration and failure. It rewards hard work and persistence. So there was really no other choice
but to claw my way back. On one of those long bus rides, I think it was from Reno to Bakersfield I heard Jerry Rafferty’s song Baker Street. One segment
of the lyrics just jumped out at me. I think I listened to Baker Street a thousand times that summer. It was inspirational for me. I planned on working my
way back, all the way to the major leagues.
Just one more year and I was happy. I was called up to the big leagues in June of 1979.
You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you’re trying, you’re trying now
Another year and then you’d be happy
Just one more year and then you’d be happy
But you’re crying, you’re crying now