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

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.

"I was just thinking about it the other day, and I realized that my won-loss record right now is the best record I've ever had," King said. "Little League, high school, the minor leagues, everything. That's pretty weird, huh?"

Perhaps. But in interviews with his former Moorpark teammates, weird is about right when you're talking about King.

"He was a little on the nutty side, no question about it," said Larry Lee, who also pitched for the 1983 Moorpark team. "He was always screwing around, always having fun. Some guys worry about pitching, but he never worried about it. He showed up for one game he was pitching in with a skateboard under one arm and his glove on the other hand. He was just a long-haired hippy kid who'd shuffle onto the field and say, 'OK, gimme the ball.' Mendoza told him to cut his hair once, so the next day he shows up with his hair cut about one inch. It was still way past his shoulders."

Mendoza said that much of King's problems that year stemmed from a back injury.

"He was my No. 1 pitcher most of the year, but then he hurt his back and I had to stop using him," the coach said. "He felt frustrated, I guess, because his back was bothering him. That's when we started having disagreements. Then he shows up wearing the wrong uniform for a game, and he argued with me about that, too. I told him, 'Eric, maybe you're right and the other 23 guys who wore their away uniforms are wrong.' He was like that. Kind of spacey."

King said he doesn't recall ever having a back injury.

"I had my problems at Moorpark, but it was nobody's fault," said King.

"I was young and we were all having a good time. I guess I wasn't all that serious about baseball. I didn't work very hard at it. But last year, when I was in Shreveport, I decided it was time. I knew I couldn't ever make any money in the minor leagues, and I figured that was the time to make or break my career. I decided I'd been goofing off long enough."

Shreveport is the San Francisco Giants' Double-A affiliate in the Eastern Division of the Texas League.

"There's a time in your life when you start thinking seriously about things, about your future. I decided late last year it was time to get things done. And when I went to spring training this year, I went there to open some eyes. I guess I did that."

King was sent back to the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate in Nashville, but he was told, in essence, to get a short-term lease on an apartment. On May 14, King was called up to the major league club. And in the first week of June, veteran starter Dan Petry was placed on the disabled list and King got his first major league start on June 5 against the Toronto Blue Jays in Tiger Stadium.

"I was real nervous," King said. " Real nervous. I was thinking about so many things and just trying to keep my nerves under control. When the game was over and I had won it, I just couldn't believe it.

"It all seems to have happened so fast. Sometimes I have to stop and sit down and see if I'm dreaming. I've got to be the most surprised person of all at how quickly it's all happened, but on the other hand I always felt I had a real strong arm and knew how to pitch. With the coaching I've gotten in the last couple of years, I guess I've gotten a lot better."

Anderson guesses so, too.

"He's got great velocity and a good breaking ball," said the Tigers' manager, who lives in Thousand Oaks. "He's a good pitcher, period. King is a legitimate major league starter on any staff. There's 26 pitching staffs in the big leagues, and King starts on any of 'em. Any of 'em."

King hears Anderson's words of praise from time to time, and each time a shy smile etches its way across his youthful face. He has come a long way in the three years since his battles at Moorpark. Even his ear-to-brain connection now functions flawlessly.

"Now," King said with a smile, "when someone tells me to run, I run."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World