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A Head of the Game : Eric King Was Just Another Nutty College Pitcher Until the Giants and : Tigers Discovered That His Fastball Screamed Louder Than His Antics

August 31, 1986|RICH TOSCHES | Times Staff Writer

Most of the candidates for the Moorpark College baseball team had already been on the field for awhile on the first day of practice in the winter of 1982. They were standing around talking and playfully unloading streams of tobacco juice onto each other's shoes when they saw a figure approaching from the parking lot.

From a distance, all they could make out was that whatever this thing was, it was carrying a baseball glove and had shoulder-length blond hair. Most of them probably couldn't decide whether to welcome this person to the team or ask it out for dinner and maybe a movie afterwards.

Slowly, with a frustratingly slow and laid-back gait, the figure arrived at the field. Most of the players stared at the long locks flapping in the wind as the new arrival introduced himself as Eric King, a pitcher.

Very shortly, though, the skepticism melted away as King unleashed a few pitches. They were fastballs mostly, fastballs of the type that cause frustrated batters to turn to home plate umpires and argue, "C'mon, ump. That couldn't have been a strike. It sounded low ." He also mixed in a curveball or two, a mean kind of curveball, the kind that makes players look so awkward at the plate that they call timeout and pretend they got a particle of dirt in their eye just as they swung.

"We all knew right away that he had great, great talent," said teammate Bob Nevarez. "He threw that fastball and that curve and we knew what he had. He had all the skills."

King, however, did have one problem. It seemed there was some sort of malfunctioning mechanism somewhere in the complicated link between King's ears and his brain. This faulty connection, it seemed, was triggered by the voice of Moorpark baseball Coach Gil Mendoza.

For example, when Mendoza would scream the words, "Give me five laps around the field," the words became jumbled somewhere between King's inner ear and the brain and King, it seemed, believed the coach had said, "Go sit down in the shade and rest."

Or when Mendoza would yell, "Time for wind sprints," the words would reach King's brain as "Mutter something under your breath, something that will really insult Coach Mendoza."

A Mendoza order to "Quit screwing around," would sound to King like, "Turn your cap around backwards and tell someone a joke."

This problem, it seemed, led to intense friction between King and the coach, who obviously didn't understand such neurological breakdowns.

"Every practice King and Mendoza would get into it," recalled Nevarez. "I mean every practice. Mendoza wanted him to run or go throw in the bullpen, and Eric would do something else. They had big arguments. Eric never took anything serious. He was a pretty funny guy."

Mendoza, however, believed King was about as funny as Legionnaire's Disease.

Midway through the season, King showed up for a game at West Los Angeles College wearing his home uniform. Another argument developed between King and Mendoza. King, who was scheduled to pitch that day, was sent home to get the right uniform. His father drove him back to their home in Simi Valley, and then all the way back to West L.A. College. That's when Mendoza informed King that he was being replaced by another pitcher. Tempers flared, no one was killed, and Mendoza tossed King off the team. As King left the dugout, players recall Mendoza shouting at him, "You'll never amount to anything."

Three years have passed since those angry words were spoken. King, his ear-to-brain connection apparently still malfunctioning, must have thought Mendoza had said something else as they parted company. For once again, King has defied his coach. He's gone out and amounted to plenty.

King, now 22, is 9-4 this season for the Detroit Tigers. His earned-run average hovers slightly above 3.00. He is 5-0 at Tiger Stadium and has been compared to the last brilliant Tiger rookie pitcher, Mark Fidrych, a man, it is worthy of note, who was also accused many times of being something of a flake, of not rowing with both oars in the water.

King was signed by the San Francisco Giants after his partial season at Moorpark and spent two seasons bumping around their minor league system. He was traded last winter to the Tigers, and it seems he has been on his last minor league bus ride.

"I knew nothing about this kid until spring training, absolutely nothing," Detroit manager Sparky Anderson said this week in Anaheim, where the Tigers were playing the Angels.

"But after just a few appearances in spring training, I knew all I needed to know about Eric King. I knew that he could pitch in the big leagues. I just knew it. He's one guy I wasn't wrong about. I'm wrong on about 95% of 'em, but I wasn't wrong this time."

The meteoric rise from being an average pitcher for the Royal High team in Simi Valley to being a huge success in the major leagues has surprised no one as much as King.

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