You're looking at a blurry photo scanned onto a Web site. A boy is standing next to a tall, bearded man. The kid wears giant eyeglasses, like welder's goggles, and a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket. He's grinning like there's no place else he'd rather be. The man is sitting, leaning toward the youngster, and smiling in a practiced way. He's wearing a western-style plaid shirt with a wide collar and, just maybe, pearl-finish buttons. The caption lends some context but understates the enormity of the moment for the boy: "1979 Picture of John Kuczaj (age 10) and Dave Kingman."
Twenty-three years later, Kuczaj has no trouble recalling the precise circumstances. "That's the boat and RV show at McCormick Place. It was December. He was signing autographs at a Kawasaki snowmobile booth."
Kuczaj is a 33-year-old research manager for the Tribune Company and a resident of west-suburban Harwood Heights. He was raised in Portage Park and graduated from Columbia College in 1992. In recent years the unmarried Kuczaj has become a habitual Internet publisher, the proprietor of a growing (if unprofitable) collection of Web sites that began with davekingman.com, a shrine to the former Chicago Cubs all-star. "It was 1996. I decided to take advantage of the free Web space you got with an AOL account," Kuczaj says. "At first I thought, 'I'll put up my home page and everyone can learn about me,' but it's like, who cares? So then I thought of what I knew a lot about--Dave Kingman. At the very least I had all his baseball cards."
Dave Kingman is part legend and part antihero in Chicago. He spent only three years with the Cubs--1978-'80. His defense was substandard, he struck out regularly (leading the National League in 1979, one of three times in his career he did so), and his relationship with the local media was often ugly. But his single attribute--power--was enough to excite Cubs fans and ruin the swings of a generation of Chicago Little Leaguers, who grew up wanting to kill baseballs, not merely hit them. Kingman was the first player to hit the roofs of the Houston Astrodome, the Metrodome in Minneapolis, and Montreal's Olympic Stadium; during a 23-22 loss to the Phillies in 1979, he hit a ball that cleared Waveland Avenue and landed 100 feet down Kenmore. It was easy to fall for Kingman, and young John Kuczaj fell hard. In a section of his Web site titled "Why I Like Dave," Kuczaj writes, "I always pretended I was Dave Kingman at the plate, striking fear into not only the opposing pitcher, but the pedestrians outside the stadium who might be hit by another mammoth dinger."
Typical Web sites designed by fans to celebrate sports heroes offer minimal content and few revelations. Not so with davekingman.com. Kuczaj has meticulously created a layered time line of not merely the slugger's baseball career but his life. The Web site is updated whenever Kuczaj encounters a heretofore undocumented Kingman detail. His access to such minutiae became practically unlimited after the intensely private Kingman, now retired and living quietly with his family near Lake Tahoe, encountered davekingman.com for the first time.
"About six months after the site went on-line," says Kuczaj, "I got an E-mail out of the blue. 'Hey John, I just found the site. Wow. Thanks a lot, Dave Kingman.' And at that time I'm going, 'Is this really him?' I sent an E-mail back and said, 'Wow, gee, thanks. I've been a big fan most of my life.' And then he E-mailed back and said, 'I just realized that you can't be sure this is really me. I wonder how we can remedy this situation?'
"I thought of an idea. If he could give me the answers to three very obscure facts, maybe then it would prove it's him. Keeping in mind, of course, that it could be someone else who just really likes Dave Kingman. And so I wrote, 'I've got three questions for you: One, what was the name of your dog when you were with the Mets in 1982? Two, what was the name of your boat when you were with the A's? Three, what company did you work for in the off-season in the 1970s?'"
Kingman responded quickly. "One, I had a Labrador retriever named Brodie. When I was with the team in 1976 I had another Lab who would bring me my bat. Two, the boat was called Designated Hitter. Three, I worked for United Airlines. Mostly publicity. My dad worked for United all his life."
A partnership between celebrity and celebrant was formed, and davekingman.com became the "official" Dave King-man site. Was Kingman flattered or amused? Probably both (he has not responded to an E-mail sent via the Web site). "He doesn't really enjoy talking about his career and the past that much," says Kuczaj.
Apparently he can appreciate talking to a truly obsessed fan, though. Not long after the pair first communicated, Kuczaj and Kingman arranged a face-to-face meeting. "Dave E-mailed that he'd be in South Bend at a minor league game signing autographs. I met him at the game, then we went out to eat for about an hour. It was strange. It was really scary because I was afraid of him not living up to the expectations. Thankfully that wasn't the case. He's a real nice guy." A picture documenting this meeting appears on davekingman.com just below the one of their first encounter. In both Kuczaj has the same ecstatic grin.
Eventually, Kuczaj was invited to the Mount Prospect home of Kingman's mother, Captola Kingman. "Sometime in '99 Dave said, 'You know, my mom's got a couple boxes of stuff. Do you want to go over there and just take a look through it?' I was like, Ye-aaaaah! His mom, she was great. She just passed away this past Christmas. She didn't really understand the Internet, but she knew Dave's kids loved the site." Kuczaj dutifully collected the old articles and photos from the Daily Herald and the Mount Prospect Day, scanning or transcribing the pieces onto his evolving site. Each season of Kingman's major league career was soon commemorated with a page on the site, and today each page is congested with images, article excerpts, and season-specific facts.
Kingman's nonbaseball life is presented in excruciating detail too. A page titled "Early Years 1948-1963" presents information so mundane that it's really more intimate than trivial: "Dave was born at St. Anthony's Hospital and was delivered by Dr. Jack W. Grondahl in Pendleton, Oregon.... Dave's father, Arthur, worked for United Airlines and was based in Pendleton from 1943-1951....At 8 years-old, Dave played 10-inch semi-hardball (mainly as a pitcher and sometimes at first base)." Other pages alternate between dry facts and cloying sentimentality, and several argue for Kingman's inclusion in the Hall of Fame (he has the highest home run total of anyone eligible for the hall but not enshrined). The site presents photos of toddler Dave, adolescent Dave, teenage Dave, and finally professional Dave. There's a checklist of collectibles for Kingman hobbyists, and a guest book where many of the site's 47,000 visitors have entered testimonials to Kingman's (and the Web site's) grandeur:
"Dave...442 HR should be good enough for Cooperstown. You should be there! Also want to apologize for booing and yelling at you in '77 when you came into Fenway as a Yankee."
--Scott, Pinellas Park, Florida.
"Sweet website. I thought I was the only one crazy enough to have Dave Kingman as my favorite player.... Back in the 80's, I even bought a pair of Dave's game worn pants from the Sports Collectors Digest. They were Mets pants. I still wear them today to play softball in." --Jeff, Greenwood, Indiana.
"Hey John! I was so thrilled so see this website. Another Dave Kingman fan! Back in 1975-1977 I lived and breathed Dave Kingman. I, too, had a Mets uniform w/ #26. When he was traded to the Padres on that dreadful Jun 15, 1977, I found out while I was at school (I kept calling sportsphone between periods) and I cried my eyes out! See, not only did I love Kingman as a ball player, but I was a 12 yr old girl & I had a huge crush on Dave!! I thought for sure I'd grow up and marry him!!" --Donna, Long Island, New York.
The entries roll on, hundreds of them attesting to Dave's talent, some expressing gratitude for small acts of kindness, others lambasting the media for a collective failure to appreciate him. There is no mention of the episode that hastened the end of Kingman's career: in 1986 he gift wrapped a dead rat and sent it to a female reporter. Despite the 35 home runs and 94 runs batted in he'd compiled that season, Kingman couldn't find a major league job in 1987. This may have had more to do with his .210 batting average, but the dead rat couldn't have helped.
Profits reaped by davekingman.com go directly to Kingman. He'll autograph any item for $8 (except bats--those are $10) if the autograph seeker encloses return postage and appropriate packaging. The price tag might be intended more as a deterrent than as a moneymaker. According to Kuczaj, Kingman is content in his retirement, spending his days in classic ex-ballplayer fashion: hunting, fishing, restoring cars, and enjoying his three children. "There's got to be a pretty decent fee for him to do a show," Kuczaj says. "Otherwise he doesn't have much of an incentive. He's got a pretty good major league pension."
After creating his Kingman cyber-museum, Kuczaj focused his attention on another lifelong obsession: the Chicago media. He's a news junkie, and he's had a lot of time to watch its evolution (or devolution, he'd argue) from the halcyon days of Fahey Flynn and Floyd Kalber to the present. Kuczaj writes from the perspective of a media outsider, though he works at Tribune Tower tracking the popularity of Tribune affiliates. On chicagomediaexaminer.com, an acerbic Web log he updates bimonthly, Kuczaj writes, "Essentially I feel that the Golden Age of Chicago TV News ended when the era of Walter Jacobson & Bill Kurtis at Channel 2 ended."
If he sounds like a man stuck in his youth, that's fair. But he's trying to extract himself. In November 2002, shortly after RedEye and Red Streak debuted, Kuczaj launched chicagoredface.com, a site that parodies the abbreviated style and desperate hipness of the Reds. As a Tribune Company employee, Kuczaj would seem to be in a difficult position. He's critiqued Tribune properties in the past, however, and his Web publishing has been highlighted in the company newsletter, "Tribune News."
"I actually got an E-mail from one of the RedEye supervising editors," Kuczaj says. "They were going to do a full page of 'Here are some things being said about the RedEye.' Criticisms. They asked about using some screen captures from the Web site, and I said, 'Sure, go right ahead.' He said, 'Yeah, we all love it here.' I E-mailed back and said, 'Well, why would you want to do that?' He said, 'There's been a lot of criticism, and at least what you're doing isn't as mean as what other people are saying.' They never did that page."
Given Kuczaj's attachment to the Cubs, it's not surprising that he delights in the sports section of chicagoredface. com. He takes a jab each week at the Sun-Times's Jay Mariotti, writing brief columns as "Jay Merryman" to ridicule what Kuczaj considers two essential Mariotti themes: Chicago sports suck generally, and one Chicago sports team sucks specifically. "I had an E-mail from Steve Rosenbloom at the Tribune saying it's now his ambition to be parodied at some point," Kuczaj says. "Kind of stinks, because his column is already funny."
Despite the demands of his Web logs and his Tribune career, Kuczaj has no intention of abandoning the busy cornerstone of his Internet empire, davekingman.com. "I've got another boxful of articles," he says. "And I've got a printout of every one of his home runs. The date, the final score of the game, the opposing pitcher, where they were at. I'm thinking of doing a calendar-type thing--'Here's what Dave did that day.'"
Compiling Kingman data has become an unending endeavor, and it's kept Kuczaj from exploring the lives of other Cubs. "I was going to do a Bruce Sutter Web site, too, but it's kind of a lot of work."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.