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King-size phenom for the Giants

Six-foot six-inch Dave Kingman of the San Francisco Giants is the sort of baseball player who calls to mind the kind of hyperbole that has been all too infrequent in spring training prose since the celebrated appearance so many years ago of another Giant giant, Clint Hartung.

Hartung? Yes, great big fellow. Burst on the scene right after World War II. Ran like a greyhound. Could throw balls through armor plate and hit them beyond the horizon. A cinch for the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, there just didn't seem to be any position for him to play. And there was the little matter of the curveball. His career, alas, was brief and lamentably undistinguished.

Kingman? Yes, great big fellow, only 23 years old. Tremendous throwing arm. Hits home runs that are conversation pieces wherever he plays. Fast? Why, the only man on his team he can't beat in a footrace is probably the fastest man in the game, Bobby Bonds. And though it is true the Giants are having trouble finding a place for him to play and that he has been known to swing at and miss a curveball, all comparisons with the earlier "phenom" seem inappropriate, if tempting. For in Kingman the Giants are convinced they have the next great power hitter in baseball.

There can be no question about his power. Last year, in New York's Shea Stadium, Kingman hit a ball that cleared the bullpen in left field and struck the Giants' team bus parked outside. On a rare windless day in Candlestick Park, Kingman broke his bat on a pitch and still hit it over the right-field fence. While playing for the Giants' farm team in Phoenix, Kingman in batting practice hit a ball over the 55-foot-high fence in dead center field, 430 feet from home plate. In Little Rock, Ark. one of his home runs broke a window in the National Guard armory across the street from the ball park.

In his first major league game he pinch-hit a grand-slam homer against Pittsburgh. The next day, in his first official start, he hit two home runs off the Pirates' Dock Ellis. His first hit after returning to the lineup after spending 12 days in a hospital recuperating from an appendectomy was a triple. His two-run homer against San Diego on the last day of the season clinched the Western Division championship for the Giants. Eighteen of his 32 hits as a late-season player were for extra bases. Before he was summoned to the aid of the parent team, he hit 26 home runs and drove in 99 runs in only 105 games with Phoenix. And Phoenix plays in a ball park about the size of a Los Angeles suburb.

Ah yes, but where to play him? Kingman was drafted by the California Angels as a pitcher after he finished high school in Mt. Prospect, Ill. He went instead to the University of Southern California, where he pitched his freshman and sophomore years and was moved to the outfield his junior year to take advantage of what Coach Rod Dedeaux considered near-Ruthian potential. He was an outfielder his first year as a professional at Amarillo, a first baseman for Phoenix part of last year and both a first baseman and an outfielder for the Giants the rest of it. And now San Francisco Manager Charlie Fox wants him to be a third baseman.

"It's really crazy," says Kingman, who will happily play anywhere for the privilege of swinging his bat. "I've never been on a team before that needed a third baseman."

For that matter, the Giants are not all that desperate for a third baseman. In Alan Gallagher they have one who hit .277 last season. But as Fox says, "I've got to get that bat of his in the lineup someplace." If the experiment works and Willie McCovey's fragile knees hold together long enough for him to play a season at first base, the Giant infield will be, at least physically, head and shoulders above the opposition. And if Kingman can play third, he will bat third, just ahead of McCovey, whose ominous presence in the on-deck circle could protect the inexperienced Kingman from the junk pitches that cause him trouble.

"You do not take a chance on walking the man who hits ahead of Willie McCovey," says Fox.

The question remains: Can Kingman do it? He certainly doesn't look like a third baseman, but Coach Joey Amalfitano, who has been tutoring him, regards him as an apt pupil. "He learns fast," says Amalfitano, "and his biggest asset is his quickness and agility. He has fine lateral movement and he can come in on a ball. I say he's gonna make it."

Kingman admits he has difficulty moving in quickly enough on slow ground balls, but he feels this is a defect that can be cured with experience. Besides, he would rather play in the infield than the outfield.

"Actually, I'm just happy to be on the ball club," he says. "In college, Rod had trouble convincing me to make the shift from pitching. The real selling point was being able to play every day. Now I'm looking forward to playing just one position, but I suppose I'll have to put up with the idea of moving around a little." Chances are he will, since Willie Mays and the habitually infirm McCovey cannot be expected to play every game and Kingman can substitute in both the outfield and the infield.

Kingman himself has never played a full season in any one place as a professional. He joined Amarillo after USC won the college World Series and hit 15 home runs in 60 games there. He was called up from Phoenix two-thirds into last season and had been with the Giants about a month when he "woke up one morning with a gut ache." It was, in fact, acute appendicitis, and it was feared he might be lost to the team for the rest of the season. Instead, he was back in the lineup, "taped up pretty good," within two weeks.

There are those in the Giant organization who think Kingman might profit from another year in the minor leagues. But Kingman is not among them and neither, apparently, is Fox, a manager who won his division championship last year by placing faith in his younger players—notably Chris Speier at shortstop. Kingman has no illusions about instant stardom, however.

"I have many, many weaknesses as a hitter," he acknowledges. "I have trouble with off-speed pitches, and I'm working on that. I have always been aggressive at the plate. Now I'm learning more about waiting for my pitch. Screwballs bother me. I'm still not sure who had the advantage the first time around—the pitchers or me. But we'll see."

Indeed, Kingman is seeing an inordinate number of slow-breaking pitches this spring. And there have been occasions when he has been made to look awkward.

Fox expects a hitter who swings with Kingman's gusto to strike out often, but he also looks forward to those occasions when contact is made. "Sure, they'll get him a few times," says Fox conspiratorially, "but then watch out."

If Kingman has them watching out often enough, he can be an enormously popular athlete in San Francisco, a community that loves new faces. It may be true, as the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen has suggested, that when a San Franciscan thinks of the name Kingman, he thinks of the water-colorist Dong, not the slugger Dave.

But the way slugger Dave is being talked about in these fanciful days of spring, when "phenoms" are cultivated, that too could change.