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Kong of the Tropics

Could it be true that Dave Kingman, Sultan of Sullen, had popped up in Florida, playing the game it appreared he couldn't wait to walk away from? I had to get down there and see for myself.



The last time I saw him he was lurching around the outfield at Wrigley Field, injuring himself as he stumbled after a fly ball to left. Dave Kingman mashed 48 King Kong-size homers for the Cubs in 1979, but it seemed he left town in shame. He was remembered less for his homers than for the dead rat he mailed to a reporter he didn't like and that awful column he "wrote" for the Sun-Times.

But I always liked "the Kong." He was just a shy guy who didn't have much to say. You know, walk softly and carry a big stick. His timber just happened to be a 50-ounce Louisville Slugger.

He always struck me as the oddest of ball players. An awkward six-foot-six, he looked uncomfortable doing anything but swinging a bat. And he always seemed to be in such a foul mood. He sported an unmistakable "take the money and walk" attitude.

Even his towering homers failed to bring a smile to his game face. He ignored the fans, even the all-forgiving Cub variety, and maintained a virtual cold war with the media. Maybe those 1,816 major-league strikeouts bummed him out beyond repair.

Anyway, I was surprised to hear that Kingman had popped up in Florida, playing the game it had appeared he couldn't wait to walk away from. The word was he was swinging his mammoth lumber for the West Palm Beach Tropics in the new Senior Professional Baseball Association.

I had trouble imagining mean-faced Dave signing autographs for tots who didn't even know his name, or giving his all for the older set in south Florida. I just had to get down there and see for myself. It turned out that Dave was indeed playing in this 35-and-older league, whose wry motto is: "It ain't over 'til it's over." How could the mad masher be playing in this old-timers' game that won't end, this trial balloon for pro ball in the citrus state?

I set out one breezy afternoon to meet Dave as his team squared off against the Saint Lucie Legends. The game didn't matter much since the Tropics--their roster stocked with journeymen ex-Cubs (Ray Burris, Tim Stoddard, Rodney Scott, Jerry White, Pete Broberg, Doug Capilla)--had already clinched their division. I figured I had a good chance of meeting Kingman, since this day he was just a designated hitter.

Kingman, who's 41, looks like a hulking Lee Majors on steroids. He walks with a slight hunch in his shoulders. Stalking the dugout in his aqua-and-orange Tropics uniform, he looks a bit like a caveman drunk on pina coladas.

First time up against an unknown right-hander named Roy Branch, Kingman swings mightily but hits only a roller to short. Lucky for him there's a guy on third, and as Kingman--in a cross between a limp and a lumber--is put out at first, he is credited with an RBI.

The Tropics are up 3-0 after one inning. My mind drifts from baseball. The sound of birds chirping overwhelms the silence made by the 1,233 sleepy fans gathered at the West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. Little monkeys romp in a tall tree over the right-field wall.

My mind refocuses when I hear the pop of Ray Burris's still-lively fastball. But unfortunately for him, in the second inning he lays one over the plate for Saint Lucie's Clint Hurdle (remember him? the next Johnny Bench?). Hurdle launches the ball over the right-field fence and I swear he knocks a monkey out of a tree.

I spy Bill Madlock, the former Cubs hitting star, now a Saint Lucie DH, stretching his bloated body near the visitors' bullpen. As I move toward him I'm intercepted by Lynn Clouse, a 62-year-old ball girl acting as a security guard. Senior baseball is full of surprises.

She stops my progress and starts dropping names. "Two weeks ago I ran in the outfield with Bert Campaneris," she tells me. "I warm up with the guys but I don't do any bending because I don't want to pull anything."

Next time up, in the third, Kingman hits a pop-up on the infield that's up there so long he's already back in the dugout when it's caught. He emerges in the bottom of the fourth with his team leading 4-2 and walks slowly, bat on his shoulder, toward the home team's bullpen. I run up from the other side of a short chain-link fence and yell, "Dave, you got a minute?"

He glares at me and delivers a rebuff: "Don't talk to me now. We got a ball game going on."

Kingman comes up again in the fifth and this time a few beer-soaked fans start chanting "Kingpin." Kingman grips his once-lethal bat and swings, sending a dribbler toward second base. He moves slowly toward another putout as the fans chant "same old hustle." Kingman doesn't even look up at his taunters.

The game is really starting to drag in the seventh. I notice a bunch of the visiting players' wives perched behind the backstop twirling their jewelry and seductively calling out encouragement to the "younger" players.

In the eighth Burris is relieved with an 8-2 lead and the Tropics bring on Al Hrabosky, the "Mad Hungarian." It's getting hot and people want to go home. But Hrabosky walks Madlock on four pitches, and as Madlock plods slowly down to first base--his flabby legs bulging out of his uniform like bags of Florida grapefruits--Hrabosky yells after him, "Swing the bat!"

Madlock, who in his free-swinging Chicago days earned the nickname "Mad Dog," steps toward the mound for what senior-league experts will tell me is the one and only near-brawl of the season. "I'm going to kick your ass right here!" Madlock insists. Both benches empty but nary a punch is thrown. Kingman stays on the outskirts of the skirmish, his bat resting unthreateningly on his shoulder.

In the bottom of the eighth Kingman gets his last at-bat against a fatherly looking reliever named Tom Moore. He throws a slow curve to Kingman, who connects with the thick part of the bat. The ball towers out toward center field. The man who hit 442 major-league homers puts his head down and steps into his home-run trot.

But times have changed. The ball hits the plywood base of the center-field wall, sending a dull thud reverberating around the stadium. Kingman walks into second with a double. A few fans wake up from their siesta and clap calmly.

Hrabosky continues to walk and taunt the Legends, but he finally nails down an 8-3 victory and I sprint to the Tropics' locker room. By the time I get down the short tunnel Kingman is at his locker. His bat is in one hand and a Miller Lite is in the other. He is stripped down to his big-league jockstrap.

I am surprised when he smirks in my direction, nods, and then beckons me over. I step toward him shyly, dwarfed by this man a full foot taller than me. I inquire: What are you doing playing in this league?

"I love baseball," he says."I've never felt so relaxed. My wife Mary Jane is down here with our two-year-old girl, Anna. My bat is as quick as ever and I'm sneaking in some good fishing. You want a beer?"

I decline, intent on continuing my interrogation. So Dave, do you have anything to say to the media or the fans back in Chicago?

"Chicago is a great town with great fans," he says, almost dreamy-eyed. "I've always been a Cub fan. I'm pulling for them this year. I just built a new home in Lake Tahoe, but Chicago is still something of a home for me. My mom still lives there."

But how about the Chicago media?

"All the guys who gave me a hard time are probably retired, too," he says, smiling. "Retirement is great. I'm enjoying life."

How about whacking a baseball? Still a thrill?

"It's still fun to hit the ball hard," he assures me. "I'll keep swinging the bat as long as this league will have me."

I thank him for his time. He offers the beer again but for some reason I decline. How about a photo?

"Sure," he says, putting down his beer and hoisting his bat on his shoulder. "Do you want me to smile?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barnaby Dinges.

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