|Wednesday, June 25
Could this be the year Kingman becomes a footnote?
By Jayson Stark
Normally, Brian Kingman doesn't start having his annual nervous breakdowns until Labor Day. Normally, he doesn't even have to check the stats till the All-Star break.
But when your goal is to go down as the Last 20-Game Loser In The History Of Humankind, nothing can mess up a good baseball season more than Mike Maroth losing 10 games before June 1. Or five different pitchers losing 10 before July.
So this is it, Brian Kingman's worst nightmare -- three more excruciating months on what he calls "trivia death row." In 1980, when Kingman lost 20 for Billy Martin's Oakland A's, he was the 204th 20-game loser since 1900. Who knew then he would also be the last?
It's nearly a quarter-century later now. Brian Kingman is about to turn 49 years old. He could be just another anonymous owner of a west-coast check-cashing company. But with every year that goes by that nobody else loses 20 games in a season, Kingman's fame seems to mushroom faster than live Pearl Jam CDs.
This year alone, he has been the subject of a major Sunday feature on the Associated Press wire. He's been hunted -- and willingly found -- by newspapers in Michigan, Texas, Arizona, Illinois and California.
He has even risen to No. 16 in baseball-reference.com's exalted list of "most popular players" of all time (i.e., players who have gotten the most hits on the site). Among those trailing him on that list: Randy Johnson, Joe DiMaggio, Cal Ripken and Jackie Robinson. We kid you not.
So it's just short of hilarious to think that once, Kingman wanted no part of this "honor." Then, about 10 years ago, he came across an account of his increasingly unforgettable 20-loss season in a book called "The Worst Pitchers in Baseball" -- on a page opposite (pre-1961) Sandy Koufax -- and he figured it out: Losing 20 may be a lousy claim to fame, but it's better than none at all. So this year, Brian Kingman has his anti-20-loss defense satellite pointed all over the country. At Maroth (2-11), Jeremy Bonderman (2-11) and Adam Bernero (1-10) in Detroit. At Glendon Rusch (1-11) in Milwaukee. At Mark Buehrle (4-10) in Chicago. At John Thomson (4-9) in Texas. At Omar Daal (4-9) in Baltimore. At Brian Lawrence (4-9) in San Diego.
Maroth, Bonderman, Bernero, Rusch and Buehrle all had 10 losses by June 22. Last year, nobody in baseball had 10 losses by June 22. So no wonder Kingman sounds particularly frazzled these days.
"When things look really bleak," he says, sounding downright philosophical, "that's when I have to stop and think, 'How bleak is it, really?' "
Well ... bleaker than the prospect of another "Dumb and Dumber" sequel, actually. But that's when Kingman calls on whatever powers of logic he can still muster at times like this.
He knows Buehrle is too good to lose 20. He doubts that Rusch, Thomson or Daal would stay in the rotation long enough to lose 20. But the three Tigers worry him, because it would almost take a miracle for that team to avoid losing 110 games. Even 120 isn't out of the question. And "someone has to lose those games," Kingman says.
Whatever, it sure is a lot of potential threats to his beloved place in trivia history. At least in 2000, all he had to do was follow Daal across the country for a couple of weeks after he got to 19 losses. Our hero could even handle it in 2001, when Albie Lopez made two late-season starts with a 20th loss on the line.
But this year, the 20-loss candidates are everywhere. So if you think you just drove by a waterfall some day, that might actually be the sweat beads cascading down Brian Kingman's forehead.
For Daal and Lopez, Kingman hauled out special voodoo dolls. But now, he says, "it's too early for that" -- even if Maroth did become the first pitcher to reach 10 losses before June since Dolf Luque in 1922, and even if the Tigers did become the first team with three 10-game losers before July since the 1906 Boston Pilgrims.
But Kingman still won't concede this is The Year.
"I'm almost like that Iraqui information minister," he says. "I'll never admit it till it's over."
At this point, in fact, it's hard for him even to imagine life without his "crown." It's become part of his identity. Which is a very scary thought.
"As long as I've been married, I've been The Last 20-Game Loser," he says. "My kids are 18 and 20, so their whole lives, I've been The Last 20-Game Loser. So at this point, even they don't want anybody else to do it.
"My wife just brought home some books on casting spells. So I'm thinking, either she thinks I'm that crazy, or else she's that crazy now."
And maybe she is. But how can you blame her? And how can you even blame him for trying to hold onto a distinction he still can't figure out how he ever earned in the first place -- in a season when he had a 3.83 ERA (lower than 19-game winner Len Barker's ERA) for a team that finished four games over .500?
"I don't want these guys to do it," Kingman confesses, "because, for me, it's become a social event -- something to talk about, something to laugh about. When I first started to do this, I was just trying to point out the reason I lost 20 -- that I didn't have any offensive support. Then it became sort of a comedic routine."
At one point, Kingman was even talking about getting a trophy made up -- the Pud Galvin trophy, in honor of a guy who lost 20 games 10 times and still made the Hall of Fame. The idea was that he would present the trophy every September to the pitcher who lost the most games.
The only reason he has never gone through with it is some minor fears that the guy he presented it to would then beat him over the noggin with it -- 20 times. "I'd better get that trophy made soon," Kingman says, "before it becomes Mike Maroth's job and he wants no part of it."
And that sums up the big problem with somebody else becoming The Last 20-Game Loser. Guaranteed they won't think of it as any kind of honor. Guaranteed they won't think of it as any kind of opportunity to make the entire country laugh about it every summer. Guaranteed they won't be starting their own web sites (www.20gamelosers.com), or making up any Pud Galvin trophies, or studying up to become America's foremost expert on the art of losing 20.
No, if somebody else does it, it will become just another number. If two or three or five guys do it, it won't even seem like a rarity. And can't we all agree, after all the laughs Brian Kingman has provided us all these years, that would be a crime?
"Suppose I go all this time as the only one to do it," Kingman muses, "and then Mike Maroth does it -- and two weeks later Jeremy Bonderman does it, too. Twenty-three years for me. Two weeks for him."
Well, in a way, that would almost be fitting. But we wouldn't bet on Brian Kingman just disappearing, even if this is the year. As soon as he made it to the year 2000, he pronounced himself the permanent Last 20-Game Loser Of The 20th Century. And he's already figured out a new title:
"I can call myself a 20-game loser emeritus," he chuckles. "I'm a tenured 20-game loser now -- and I probably can't get kicked out for bad behavior."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. A shorter version of this article appears in the July 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.