Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Thursday, May 16, 2013

35 Years Ago...A Rant for the Ages.

I’m kicking myself for missing the anniversary.  I knew it was coming up, but for some reason, I failed to mark May 14th on my calendar.  Shame on me.

35 years ago on May 14,1978,  Dodger manager Tom Lasorda blew a gasket.

It was the epic Dave Kingman tirade that will forever be remembered as the”opinion of Kingman’s performance” rant.  It was Mother’s Day, 1978.  The Dodgers, the defending N.L. champions and sitting a half game back of the San Francisco Giants at the time with an 18-13 record were facing a mediocre Chicago Cubs team that was 15-15 going into the final game of a three game weekend series at Dodger Stadium.

Tommy argues point with umpire Lee Weir.  Classic photo by by Leo Jarzomb (courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library)

This Dodger team was stocked with talent.  The historic infield with Garvey, Lopes, Cey and Russell was intact.  Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith were in their full prime covering the corner outfield slots.  There was a solid pitching staff with Sutton, Hooton, John, Rau and Rhoden in place.  Up and coming stars like Bob Welch emerged.  The bench was solid with Mota and Davilillo serving as a valuable righty/lefty pinch hitting tandem and Lee Lacy was a super sub.

The Cubs?  Their only .300 hitter was former Dodger Bill Buckner.  They weren’t the worst hitting team in the league, but there wasn’t much to write home about with this team that finished the year with 79 wins.  Only one of their starting five had a record over .500 that year.    But they had “Kong” that year.  “Kong” as in “King Kong” Dave Kingman.

Kingman was 29 years old and a major league veteran of seven years.  He could hit the ball a country mile, but if he didn’t, he’d strike out in memorable fashion.  Signed as a free agent in the off season, Kingman had spent the 1977 season wearing four uniforms in one year.

He started ‘77 as a New York Met,  only to be traded to the San Diego Padres on June 15th for Bobby Valentine.  The Padres released him in September and he was claimed by the Angels who had him on their roster for nine days before trading him to the Yankees on September 15th.    As a Yankee he played in eight games, hitting four homers for the eventual World Series champs, but as a late season acquisition he wasn’t eligible for post season play.  He got a World Series ring (the only one of his career) through 8 games of contributions to the Yanks as he homered in his first three games in pinstripes.

Of course, when the season ended, Kingman was granted his free agency and the Cubs snatched him up.

That leads us to May 14, 1978.  Kingman entered the game hitting .221, with 4 homers and 10 RBI.  His “performance” that day came close to doubling those numbers on the season.  It was an epic display of power.  Three homers, 8 RBI,  3 runs, 4 hits, 1 walk, 13 Total bases.  The Cubs scored 10 runs and he accounted for 8 of them.  The kicker in all this was that the Dodgers nearly won this game, but Kingman tied it up in the 9th with a two run homer off of Mike Garman.  Then in extra frames, in the 15th inning he hit a three run shot off of Rick Rhoden, which proved to be the game winner.

It was a five hour marathon that left both teams pitching staffs depleted.    Each team used up 21 players in the afternoon affair.  Rhoden was scheduled to start the next day, and he had to be used as the Dodgers ran out of pitchers.

Lasorda argues with Frank Pulli in the '78 World Series after Reggie Jackson stuck his hip into a throw from SS Bill Russell. (AP photo)

So it wasn’t a pleasant site in the Dodger manager’s office after the game.

Paul Olden, a young writer for the Associated Press, was covering the Dodgers at the time.  Their exchange went as follows:

Olden: Can you give us just a few basic comments about your feelings on the game?

Lasorda: Well, naturally I feel bad about losing a ball game like that, there's no way you should lose that ball game. An', it, uh, just doesn't make sense.

Olden: What's your opinion of Kingman's performance?

Lasorda: What's my opinion of Kingman's performance!? What the BLEEP do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was BLEEPING BLEEP. Put that in, I don't BLEEP. Opinion of his performance!!? BLEEP, he beat us with three BLEEPING home runs! What the BLEEP do you mean, "What is my opinion of his performance?" How could you ask me a question like that, "What is my opinion of his performance?" BLEEP, he hit three home runs! BLEEP. I'm BLEEPING pissed off to lose that BLEEPING game. And you ask me my opinion of his performance! BLEEP. That's a tough question to ask me, isn't it? "What is my opinion of his performance?"

Olden: Yes, it is. I asked it, and you gave me an answer...

Lasorda: Well, I didn't give you a good answer because I'm mad, but I mean...

Olden: Well, is wasn't a good question...

Lasorda: That's a tough question to ask me right now, "What is my opinion of his performance." I mean, you want me to tell you what my opinion of his performance is...

Olden: You just did...

Lasorda: That's right. BLEEP. Guy hits three home runs against us. BLEEP.

Where are they now?  

Paul Olden is the public address announcer for the New York Yankees, having replaced their legendary P.A. announcer Bob Sheppard.  Following his writing gig in the late 70s, Olden, an L.A. native (Dorsey High and LA City College grad) became involved in sports broadcasting, doing play by play for numerous teams in several sports including the Tampa Bay Rays, Philadephia Eagles, California Angels, Los Angeles Rams, New York Jets and the New Jersey Nets.  He was the NFL’s PA announcer at 12 different Super Bowls before landing the Yankee position that he currently works.

Dave Kingman is retired from baseball and lives off the shores of Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side.   His 16 year major league career ended in 1986 with 442 lifetime homers and a .236 batting average.  Always a reclusive type during his playing days.  Kingman now appears periodically at card shows and has been very giving to his fans in retirement, something that was seldom seen while he was an active player.  When I met Kingman at a minor league event in Stockton, CA in 2011, I asked him what his opinion of Lasorda's performance was when he pitched to him that day.  He didn't answer, he just chuckled and signed the baseball I had handed him for signature.

Tommy Lasorda remains with the Dodgers as Special Assistant to the Chairman.  He has come to poke fun at his Kingman tirade.  For years it was a sore subject to him.  Now, he can talk about it.  "I'm not proud of it...when that guy talked to me, I was as low and depressed and dejected as you can get.  I mean, we lose the game in 15 innings, I have to go into my starting pitchers, and it knocked the daylights out of me.  Then this guy comes in at the very moment I sat down and asked me 'what is your opinion?'  So I proceeded to tell him what my opinion was."   He later said, "I ran into Paul (Olden) a few times when he was announcing for Tampa Bay.  I told him you didn't do anything wrong.  I was the guy who did something wrong.  Eventually it got all over the country and I think now it's in Japanese."

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