STOCKTON, Calif. -- A leisurely afternoon with the Stockton Ports featured the wonderfully corny minor league promotions. There was a furry red mascot frolicking atop the dugout, an Asparagus Race featuring fans dressed as vegetables, and a beer batter -- $2 brews if the designated batter goes down on strikes.
As an added attraction Sunday, the Ports brought in King Kong.
Yes, that was Dave Kingman--the mighty and mercurial slugger--signing free autographs for nearly two hours as part of a Father's Day promotion. (He was dressed in a casual Hawaiian shirt and khaki slacks, unlike the poor sweltering mascot.)
The Single-A team counted on Kingman as a draw because he played for both the Giants and A's during a 16-year career and because an air of legend still follows him nearly 25 years after his last home run.
One by one, fans approached Kingman, 62, and waited for him to pen his signature. Many of the fans recounted their favorite home run. The 6-foot-6 slugger once hit a ball 500 feet against Jerry Koosman. There was also a blast of least 530 feet at Wrigley Field. And a shot (albeit not a home run) that hit a speaker on the roof of Seattle's Kingdome.
"Of course, you can't remember them all," said Kingman, who has 442 career home runs to keep track of. "Fans always say something about a ball I hit at a game they were at. That's what sticks in their mind."
In terms of stature, Kingman looked much as he did during his playing days. He's still fit and imposing, the result of his active outdoors life near his home in Lake Tahoe. Kingman threw out the first pitch and had a smooth delivery that recalled his days as a pitching prospect at USC.
In terms of demeanor, however, Kingman was barely recognizable. Known during his playing days almost as much for his enigmatic personality as his long-ball prowess, Kingman on Sunday chatted amiably with fans, glad-handed season-ticket holders and--gasp! -- was gracious with the press.
(Kingman infamously sent a rat to Sacramento Bee beat writer Susan Fornoff in 1986, wrapping it up in a gift box as an extra-sinister touch. The A's fined him $3,500. Years before that, he dumped ice water on a reporter's head during spring training.)
On Sunday, he was all smiles--even as he talked about what looked like the bitter end. Kingman retired from baseball after 1986 or, as he tells it, baseball retired him.
He hit 35 home runs and drove in 94 runs during his final season with the A's. He never played again. "I'm sure I could have hit 500 (home runs)," said Kingman.
So how did he go from finishing second in the American League in home runs to just plain finished? Kingman points not to the infamous rat incident or his .210 batting average (and .255 on-base percentage) in '86 but instead to the well-documented collusion that followed. Only four free agents switched teams during the '86 offseason, and major stars at the time--Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Ron Guidry and Andre Dawson--had trouble drumming up major offers.
In a series of rulings, independent arbitrators later found that baseball owners conspired to avoid competitive bidding.
"That's all right," Kingman said Sunday. "I'm very happy with (my career). I enjoyed my time in the big leagues."
Kingman made his major league debut 40 years ago this July 30, entering a game against the Pirates as a pinch runner for Willie McCovey. On one of Kingman's first defensive plays, he fielded a ball hit by Willie Stargell and threw to second for an out on Roberto Clemente, then took the return throw to complete the double play.
Legends, legends everywhere.
"I'm breaking at a time when the Giants had Mays, McCovey and Marichal," Kingman said. "That's a huge thrill playing with those three Hall of Famers."
Kingman quickly emerged as a force, too, hitting a grand slam in his second game and adding a pair of two-run homers off Dock Ellis later in the week. He kept on mashing, leading the National League in home runs in 1979 (with 48 for the Cubs) and in '82 (37 for the Mets.)
The toughest pitcher he ever faced? "Well, when you're in a slump, they're all tough," said Kingman, whose 1,816 strikeouts rank 12th all-time. "But I was a fastball hitter. The off-speed pitchers gave me more problems than the hard throwers."
Kingman's best home run total against a single pitcher is the eight he hit against Hall of Fame left-hander Steve Carlton. "He was one guy that challenged you and he had a really tough slider," Kingman said. "He struck me out a fair amount, too."
Kingman watches baseball only occasionally now, but he rooted hard during the Giants' march to the World Series title. Kingman made the playoffs in '71. "Unfortunately, that's the closest I ever got," he said. He never made the postseason again.
Kingman finished his career by playing three seasons in Oakland when the team never topped .500. Does he have a favorite memory of playing with the A's?
"Oh, wow. Let's see "& not really," he said with a laugh. "We didn't win any those three years. But I enjoyed living in Alameda for three years. Really, more than anything, you just appreciate being in the big leagues."