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That Kingman, what a loser!

By JOHN ROMANO
Published August 17, 2003

History, it should be noted, never lifted a finger to help Brian Kingman. So, given time, Kingman elected to lift his middle finger at history.

Not in anger, but rather in jest.

He thumbed his nose at convention, stuck his tongue out at acclaim. Having been assigned to the more ignoble pages of baseball lore, Kingman embraced his infamy rather than be humbled by it.

For Kingman, you see, is the last major-league pitcher to lose 20 games in a season. And, he is proud of it.

Okay, maybe proud is not the right word. But he is okay with it. It took him years to realize, but Kingman came to understand he has nothing to be ashamed of and a lot to be thankful for.

He was a major-leaguer for five seasons, and who among us hasn't had similar dreams? And, because of his 8-20 record for Oakland in 1980, Kingman isstill is remembered nearly two decades after his last pitch.

So if he is recalled more for folly than excellence, Kingman can handle it. He can even, as you may have guessed, have fun with it.

"Too many players take themselves too seriously," Kingman said. "People start to believe their personality is part of their statistics. They really do think they're some type of immortal.

"So, I figure, if they can cling to their records, why can't I cling to mine?"

Which brings us to today. To Kingman's mock fear. And to a couple of Detroit pitchers getting perilously close to 20 losses.

"Maybe I should run for governor of California," said Kingman, who owns check-cashing companies in Southern California. "I could pardon myself from this death row of trivia."

I should mention, he is only joking.

At least, it seems like he's joking.

Maybe he's not joking, after all.

Kingman, 49, has gradually taken his fanciful ideas to further and further extremes. He began merely by defending his 1980 performance. Pointing out, maybe, that he had a similar ERA (3.83 to 3.86), nearly as many complete games (10 to 11) and more strikeouts (116 to 114) than teammate Steve McCatty. The difference was run support. And records. Kingman was 8-20, McCatty was 14-14.

Eventually, Kingman began poking fun at himself. He threw parties after each season to celebrate his continued stature as the game's last 20-game loser. Then he began having Memorial Day parties to identify that season's hard-luck pitchers who might challenge his mark.

By the time Omar Daal was closing in on 20 losses in 2000, Kingman was using a voodoo doll his wife found in Louisiana. He put the doll on the TV in his Phoenix home and pointed it in the direction of whatever city Daal was pitching in. Instead of the typical evil intent, Kingman was trying to channel positive vibes. Hoping to compel Daal to pitch better.

"I'm sort of a novice at this, so I just appeal to whatever powers the dolls have," Kingman said. "I ask, "Why should anyone else have to go down this evil path? All the powers that be, please, do we really need another 20-game loser?' I don't necessarily ask for them to win. That would be too greedy. A no-decision is fine with me."

Daal had lost seven decisions in a row before Kingman tapped into Daal's mojo. His final two starts were a no-decision and a victory.

Daal had done it. Or maybe the doll had done it.

The next season, Daal got off to a hot start. Someone asked Kingman if the voodoo doll was still on his television.

"I realized I hadn't deactivated the thing," Kingman said. "I said, "I don't want to wish anything bad on Omar, but I can't be wasting all of this positive energy on him.' "

The voodoo dolls have started to pile up. So have the jokes. Kingman is thinking of getting someone to stitch little jerseys for the dolls. ESPN will be at his home today to film a segment on them.

He has buried a doll at the top of a mountain and another in Death Valley. He got one for Albie Lopez in 2001 (a no-decision and a win in his final two starts) and now has them for Detroit's Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman.

Bonderman probably is safe. Though he is 6-15, and should start today in Anaheim, the Tigers have talked about limiting his innings.

Maroth, an Orlando product, is a tougher challenge. The left-hander is 6-17 and should have eight or nine more starts. Manager Alan Trammell said last week Maroth would not be coddled if he came close to 20. Trammell then backtracked a bit after Maroth lost No. 17.

Kingman is not entirely sarcastic in hoping Maroth - or anyone else - avoids the 20-loss stigma.

He was never a great pitcher, but he believes the 20-loss season hastened the end of his career. It put pressure on him the next season and made every bad start seem that much worse. By 1983, a bad back finished him. Just two years earlier he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the rest of Oakland's rotation, as the heroes of Billy Martin's Billy Ball.

"I wasn't necessarily bitter when I left baseball, but I just didn't want to have anything to do with it anymore," Kingman said. "I'd look at that cover and it would remind of things I didn't want to remember. I didn't hang it on a wall; I kept it in my garage. How bizarre is that? You make the big leagues, make the cover of Sports Illustrated and not even want to see it.

"Over time, I came to accept it. I was like a lawyer for my own cause. Rationalizing what went wrong. I didn't get offensive support. That was what I was trying to get across when I started this. If I become a senator, that's the bill I'm going to push through. Next to every pitcher's ERA, it should be law that his run support is listed, too."

The list of 20-game losers before Kingman is long and impressive. Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro had 20-loss seasons in the 1970s. Luis Tiant did it in the '60s and Don Larsen in the '50s.

Baseball never has gone so long - 23 years - without a 20-game loser. Going from a four-man to a five-man rotation is the big reason. Avoiding the stigma also has become a factor in recent years.

Whatever the explanation, Kingman is happy to have his meager slice of celebrity.

"I'm a bit of a sarcastic wise---, so this works for me," Kingman said. "Besides, being the next-to-last 20-game loser doesn't have the same ring."

[Last modified August 17, 2003, 01:32:33]


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