The subject of a sports documentary, James 'J.J' Kingman relives a night of record-shattering, glorious fame atop a high school baseball diamond…
Let the 'Game' Begin:
Segment Format: One on One interview (random outdoor shots)
Subject: J.J Kingman
With his ankle-length ‘Raiders’ coat and black cowboy hat with matching boots, I recall thinking he’d resembled an old western gunslinger in search of a steed.
The stadium perimeter consisted of shoulder-high rod iron fencing, giving one a clear view of the upper bleachers.The field itself set lower than the outer grounds, sitting at the bottom of a rather steep valley.I couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities of constant flooding before noticing the concrete drainage ditches positioned at each corner of the grounds.
“Nice.I’ve seen Double-A digs that couldn’t match this.Check out the press box…’ J.J had said, pointing at the top portion of the ‘home’ bleachers, ‘…you’d think the team from Monday Night Football called it home.”
“You mean you haven’t seen this before?” I’d asked after a quick shot of the visitor’s bleacher area and the field itself.
“Virgin territory for both of us, Matt.I’d heard they finished construction on it ‘bout four years back.C’mon, let’s go check out what really mattered.”
A few minutes later, we exited a back gate just past the visitor’s end zone, and stepped directly onto what had been the original Comet Field.Surrounded by chain-link fencing that was only partially intact, the field itself was little more than a pasture of overgrown weeds and gnarled shrubbery.What had served as the pitchers mound and infield was still mostly intact, identifiable as a wide bare spot with a large rubber trash can posed at its center.A rusty metal sign hung from a single hinge behind what had been the backstop, the letters ‘…OMET FIEL…’ still readable in splotchy red lettering.
With my tennis shoes planted firmly atop the slightly elevated pitchers mound, I had zoomed in on J.J as he took up position where home plate once sat.
“So this is where history was made, huh?”
Scooting his massive boots from side to side as to clear away bothersome debris, I couldn’t help but picture this hulking brute of a man as the gawky young teen he had been the day his entire life was altered forever.
“Yep.Same exact spot.Almost makes me wish I’d brought a bat.You could toss me a few hangers,” he’d said cheerily, his voice cracking with emotion I’m sure he’d tried hard to suppress, ‘…truth be told, I’d probably hit nothin’ but air.Been a loooonnnng time.”
“How about a play by play, Mr. Kong Sir?” I chided, instantly regretting my words.The last thing I’d wanted at that point was to drive J.J into a self-conscious shell.
“I mean, if you don’t mind re-living a little history…”
After a brief pause, wherein he stroked his beard with one hand while tapping his fist against his thigh with the other, J.J squinted into the camera and nodded.
“Why the hell not? Might as well do this thing right if we’re gonna do it. After all, that is what ya came here for, am I right?”
I couldn’t help but instinctively shrug, instantly ruining a few frames of the final shot.
“Well…that, and to meet the person behind the feat,” I’d replied, resetting my angle as J.J turned towards the backstop and began searching the weeds as if he’d lost a contact lens.
A moment later he’d stood and turned, gripping a narrow board perhaps three feet in length and propping it atop his right shoulder.The stance he then displayed was identical to the ones I’d seen in the framed photos from twenty-five years earlier, save the added bulk to his once slim, youthful frame.
“It ain’t the magic wand, but it’ll do for dramatic effect, I reckon…” he’d said, taking a few warm-up swings.
“Talk to me, J.J.Directly from the mouth of the Kong…” I’d replied, falling to one knee for a ground level shot.
I swear I could almost smell the aroma of fresh-roasted peanuts and hear the cheering of the crowd.
The “Night of Little Kong” was thereby regaled….
1ST INNING (none on, one out): Cobras 0, Comets at bat)
I step up and shoot Coach Barrett a quick glance.He flashes the ‘swing away’ sign and I dig in.As is usually the case, I shut out the crowd noise and focus solely on the man holding the pill.Skinny little runt has a decent heater.Struck me out twice earlier this year before I managed a weak pop up my third time up.The whole squad has more than just a birth in district on their minds on this night.The fact these smug weasels smacked us around like red-headed step kids just a month back underlines the revenge factor.A thirteen to one butt-kicking is bad enough in itself, but the post-game hand shake just added insult to injury.We all remember the smirks they wore; the cocky gleam in their eyes.Well, payback is sure gonna be one enraged bitch this night, fellas.
The ball resembled a floating grapefruit in batting practice.If I get one in the ol’ wheelhouse, she’s definitely going for a ride.Ain’t ‘touched four’ in five games, and I’m itchin’ to take that casual jog around the diamond.
First pitch sails high and outside, and I back away and tap my cleats with the fat end.Despite my best ‘noise-cloaking’ efforts, I hear a few of the crowd scream out ‘Kong…Kong…Kong…’.Can’t say it don’t juice me a bit.Seems the whole blasted town is present and accounted for.Stadium holds two thousand or so….not an empty seat in sight.My heart skips a beat.Is there a better feeling?
Second pitch runs in and barely avoids nipping the inside of my right elbow.That was one red hot BB.Not real sure I could’ve gotten around on it even if he had placed it straight down the pipe.
Evans takes his lead at first.Little too wide for my taste.Jackass better not get tossed out ‘fore I get in a few hacks.
Weasel boy winds and fires.I jack my left foot and bring my hands forward.Knee high and just a tad inside.Just the way I like ‘em.Impact barely jars my wrists and the crack of the bat is sharp and quick; like the retort of a twenty-two repeater.The cowhide ascends, more a liner than a true moon-shot.For a split-second before beginning my trot, I think it might hook foul.Two steps into my patented ‘long-stride’ jog, I can tell its trajectory is unchanged.I see it bounce off a seventh row bleacher rail, then sail over the fans below and back onto the field just as I round first.I hear the weasel cursing himself from the mound, although I never glance his way.Rounding third, I leave my ‘sound proof’ booth and allow the crowd back in.‘Kong…Kong…Kong’…they chant.Evans and I slap palms at home, along with Jackman, who was waiting on deck.Coach Barnett runs over and pats my shoulder.
“Way to smoke ‘er, Kong,” he says through a jaw full of Redman.
I high-five it all the way to the water cooler, then take my seat on the bench, all the while fighting to maintain the icy, stoic expression that is my trademark.
3rd INNING (Two on, Two Out; Comets 2, Cobras 2):
With Barker and Evans drawing walks, it looks like ol’ Skeletor is losing his control.Seems like his velocity has really took a nose dive since last inning.
Stepping in, I see Coach Barrett isn’t even bothering to flash me a sign.Translation: see a pitch to hit, come outta your shoes, Kong.
Scarecrow turns and tosses to second just to keep the B-Man honest.Again, I’m just hoping no one gets picked off before I get in my hacks.
Looking out into the left field stands, I see some folks holding up a handwritten poster board that reads ‘HIT IT HERE, KONG!’.My plan exactly. There ain’t anybody in the whole blamed county who doesn’t know this boy is a dead-red pull hitter.
First offering is two high and at least a foot outside.It’s obvious the boy don’t want anything to do with me this go round.
Second bounces twice before reaching the catcher’s mitt.I resign myself to the ‘unintentional’ intentional walk.
To my surprise, the third is a waist high strike that freezes me cold.I glance at the mound with my mouth hanging open and I swear Skeletor shoots me a wink.
He won’t catch me napping again.
I take a wild cut at a shoulder-high heater and foul it sky high and straight back into the stands.
The ‘Kong’ chorus revs back up as my cleats dig twin grooves at the outer edge of the plate.
Hard to believe he throws the same exact pitch, same exact velocity, same exact spot.I kid you not, the ball seemed to hang in mid-air.Like hitting off a tee.Gave me time to administer the full swing, what Coach Barnes and Pete Woods call ‘the unhinging’.
I had just crossed first as it cleared the top row of bleachers and sailed outta view, no doubt landing somewhere between the Ag and Home Eck buildings.
Once I reach home plate, Jake ‘The Snake’ Barker climbs my back piggy-back style.By the time I get to the edge of the dugout, it feels like half the dugout have joined ‘im.Despite the chaos, I do manage to hear the coach yell ‘Way to grove, Kong, way to grove…’
Now even my teammates are joining in the ‘KONG…KONG…KONG..’ rant.As I take re-take my spot on the pine, my scalp is tingling like somebody poured itching powder into my batting helmet.
One thing for sure, the famous Kong poker-face is getting harder and harder to hold in check.
5th INNING (bases loaded, one out; Comets 5, Cobras 3):
Skeletor is history.They weren’t about to let him toss me another meatball heater with absolute zero movement.Wise choice, I gotta say, though it pains me to see ‘im walk off the mound.If nothing else, his trademark smirk has long since taken the high road. Looks more like he wants his mama bout now.
Relief meat is Skeletor’s direct opposite.Boy is the definition of ‘Baby Huey’.Bout five feet tall and two-hundred plus pounds of daily Big Macs and large chocolate shakes.I watch his practice tosses.Kid throws Marshmallows, and he’s facing a man swinging a blazing hot poker.Don’t think my head’s ever been clearer.It’s almost supernatural, man.
As I step in, I ain’t thinking about another tater.Just wanna make contact.Hard contact.Hit ‘em where they ain’t.
The crowd, as well as a few of my teammates, begin to chant. I turn on the magic cloak and eye the mound.
Baby Huey’s first offering sails over my head and to the backstop.Seventy mile an hour soup can.Lord, I hope he tries the middle of the plate.I’m liable to crack some rib bones trying to check swing on one of those floaters.
Whoever said selfish prayers never pay off? Tubby serves up a knuckle-ballin’ grapefruit that was more than likely supposed to travel low and outside, but instead hangs over the plate like a big old ripe melon swung on a rope.
Even though I do manage to uppercut it more than I wanted, it still finds the sweet spot.I toss my lumber away and watch her sail towards the left field foul pole.The ball continues to rise as it leaves the infield and by the time I get to first base I’ve lost her in the lights.It had ‘tater written all over it; as long as it stayed fair.I see Baby Huey waiving his hands to the left, as if to direct it foul by sheer force of will.As I near second, I see the third base ump signal ‘fair ball’ just as Coach Barrett pumps his fists into the air.My first ‘Grand Salami’.Never even hit one of those in T-ball.
It wasn’t until the game ended that I was told that Mr. Spalding had shattered a second story window out of the Auto Shop building, which sits a good seventy feet behind the left field fence. Guess that little extra uppercut action didn’t hurt after all.
May sound cornball, but I swear my cleats are floating about two inches off the ground as I round third.The team starts mugging me at home plate ‘til Coach Barrett shoves ‘em all out of the way and bear-hugs me ‘til my ribs ache.I’m slapped and shoved into the dugout, and I can hear the crowd screaming my name.Not ‘Kong’ or ‘Little Kong’, but ‘J.J….J.J….’.Talk about one of your ‘chill-bump’ moments.Like the old saying goes, ‘if this is a dream, don’t dare wake this boy up’.
7TH INNING (one on, two out; Comets 9, Cobras 5):
Baby Huey has settled in since my slam.If not for the third baseman booting Jake’s slow rolling grounder, I’d be leading off next inning.As it is, I don’t really expect to see a pitch to hack at this time around.Might even get the old free pass.
The crowd is going ballistic…a mix of ‘Kong….Kong…Kong’..and ‘…Four…Four….Four…’.Larry Wilkes, our official scorekeeper, was telling everybody my three homers had tied a twenty-seven year old district record held by sixteen other players.No one dare doubts ‘Book-worm’ Wilkes when it comes to facts and figures.Boy may be Juniper’s unofficial King of the Nerds, but he usually knows of what he speaks in terms of stats.
Huey glares in and I see the catcher scoot to the right.The pitch bounces three times before rolling three or four feet outside. Jake stays put on first as the catcher makes a solid play to keep it from skipping to the backstop.
Don’t think it really matters though.Looks like I’m taking four and then a walk.The crowd starts booing in-between chants. I hear a few of ‘em start shouting ‘..No Guts…No Glory…No Guts…No Glory..’ and soon it’s a growing choir.Coach Barrett isn’t bothering to flash me signs anymore.
Green light all the way.
Peeking back just as Huey goes into the wind-up, I see the catcher dive to the outside.I take a half-step in just as Huey releases, practically standing on home plate.
Huey spread a bit more cheese on this one.Might have been traveling close to seventy MPH when it impacted.My swing is forceful but straight, with almost no uppercut motion as I try the old ‘go with the pitch’ strategy.
Flipping my lumber away with a quick flip, I take off from the box and damn near allow my forward momentum to send me flying head over heels.After all, it is the first time tonight I’ve been forced to do anything but trot.
The ball shoots over the infield like a guided missile, no more than seven or eight feet off the ground.I see the left fielder backing towards the warning track, trying to draw a bead on it.Boy’s arms are flapping like he’s trying to take flight.I tag first and make the turn, keeping my eyes peeled on ‘Big Bird’ out there, who backs onto the track with his glove raised.It isn’t until I turn my eyes towards second that I hear the crowd noise increase ‘bout ten decibels.The second baseman steps away from the bag as I cross.He’s staring down at the infield and his shoulders are slumped like somebody just drop-kicked his dog.Its not ‘til I get to third and Coach Barrett practically tackles me that I realize that laser beam liner had somehow managed to clear the fence.
Coach Barrett claps my back and shoves me towards home, where my teammates continue the unmerciful beating.A crowd of less than two-thousand suddenly sounds like triple that.They screech and howl and pound the bleachers like maniacs, some tossing pop bottles and articles of clothing onto the field.
In the aftermath…careful that no one was watching…I sit in the dugout and literally pinch myself just to make sure.
9th INNING (two on, one out; Cobras 11, Comets 10):
The Comet’s manager is going nuts.I think the man is gonna blow a master cylinder any sec now.The home crowd gives him the business as he leans in until he and the ump look like their fixing to swap spit.
From my spot on the on-deck circle, I’m in no position to judge.The Jackster had laid down a textbook bunt…a real beauty.Ump called ‘im safe.Nothing else really matters.Man, we needed something to re-light the fire after last half inning.Giving up six runs with two out in the ninth is the stuff nightmares are made of.Bart left the mound bawling like a five year old with a busted toy.Sure, he gave up the bases loaded double that gave ‘em the lead, but the two errors that set it up should’a ended the inning long before he ever threw that last pitch.I hear the Comet’s skipper call the first base ump a ‘blind dumb-ass’, among other select favorites, then march away as soon as the home plate ump tells him ‘he’s one more curse word away from hitting the showers’.
The crowd’s boos turn to nervous cheers as I dig in and take a few practice cuts.The baseball fans of Juniper Plains ain’t boneheads.They realize I stand with odds stacked as high as Mount Rushmore against me.I mean, four homers in four at-bats? Hey, I ain’t exactly due.Well, due to strikeout possibly…or pop-up….or ground out…or roll one to the pitcher for a game ending DP.Plus which, Brad ‘Hoss’ Bowen slings fireballs that consistently reach the low nineties.Faced ‘im earlier this year and he fanned me on three tosses, only one of which I barely managed to foul off.I heard Coach Barrett say that the cocky cuss throws ‘circular lightnin’ bolts’.At about six-four and two-forty with thighs thicker than phone poles, the origin of his ‘smoke launching machine’ ain’t in question.Boys got an ERA so low it barely registers.Never thought we’d see ‘im take the mound with a five run lead going into the ninth.I suck in a series of deep breaths and dig in, suddenly realizing there’s a fine line ‘tween hero and goat, and I might well end up owning both titles before this night is done.No way ‘Vapor Trail’ Bowen is walking me, despite the damage I’ve inflicted so far.
The place falls as silent as a Sunday Morning Prayer Meeting as Bowen winds up.
It whizzes by…..hums is a better word, and nails the middle of the plate.That is, according to the ump anyhow.Gotta admit, I couldn’t have hit that heated ball-bearing with a canoe paddle.Had to be low nineties…possibly mid.I swear this guy throws as hard as Skeletor and Baby Huey combined.It’s like going from slow pitch softball to facing Nolan Freaking Ryan.I back out of the box to take a few more cuts into the cool night air (delayin’ the inevitable anyone?) and hear the crowd noise begin to build to a fever pitch.
Bowen glares at his catcher and nods, smirking all the while.Jackass can’t wait to show me up after what I did to his cronies.
Sneaking a peek at his battery mate, I see that he’s crept in a half-step towards the inside of the plate.As Bowen winds, I back away a good six inches or so and re-set my stance.
The swing that follows is a looping powerhouse; a majestic uppercut that would surely make my Major League namesake proud.The sad fact that it’s only impact is airspace and possibly an unfortunate gnat or two kinda ruins the overall effect.Think I might’ve shredded a rib cage muscle or two in the process.Backing out to re-set yet again, I see Bowen grin and raise a single finger towards his own dugout,no doubt indicating ‘only one whiff yet to get’.Yeah, he thinks he’s got me over a blimp-sized barrel all right.Listening to the whispers and grumbling from the stands, he definitely ain’t alone in such a theory.Can’t say I’m brimming over with confidence myself.I didn’t so much as see that last offering as waive at a white blur.Yeah, if by divine intervention I’d made contact, that particular piece of cowhide would most assuredly have dented the outer reaches of the ozone layer.As it was, all I had to show for my efforts was one nasty backache and a set of partially separated shoulders.
Setting the bat handle behind my neck, I perform a quick set of neck and shoulder stretches near the on-deck circle, where Jimmy ‘Jimbo’ McIntryeno doubt prays to every God he knows that this game ends with me.
“Slam ‘er one more time, Kong.Just wait for your pitch” I hear him say, his face the color of baseline chalk.No doubt about it, we live or die with yours truly.Ol’ Jimbo’s not a bad hitter when nothings on the line; but grows tight as a bass drum when there is.I can almost hear his knees knocking over the crowd’s building chant.He wants no part of the ‘Vapor Trail’, especially with district on the line.
‘Kong…Kong….Kong….Kong…’ they shout louder than ever, no doubt trying to light a fresh coal or three beneath my rear end.
Stepping back in, I dig a serious trench with my right cleat and brace, focusing on an invisible square drawn directly over the plate.Never been one for premonitions, but I have strong feeling that ol’ Hoss there is just itching to whiff me on three pitches.Don’t think for a second he’s gonna try to waste one here.His ego won’t let ‘im, no matter what sign his pitching coach is flashing through the catcher.
Whatever slight breeze was blowing ceases to exist.Time stands still.Weird ain’t the word.
Hoss smirks.Hoss grins.Hoss winds.Cloaking device on.Crowd noise drops to group mumble.I keep my eyes glued to the ‘spot’.Hoss fires.
Simplest thing in the world; see ball, hit ball.Simple that is, if the ball in question isn’t coming at ya at warp speed and spinning like a pinwheel.
Ball meets lumber and I feel every nerve ending in my hands, wrists, neck and upper shoulders go numb from the jarring aftereffects.I’m pretty sure I shattered a filling or two to boot.There’s a loud cracking sound as I complete my follow-through.Might be a forearm or wrist snapping.Won’t know ‘til the feeling comes back.It’s a true relief once I look down at the jagged bat handle sticking up like a native spear.At least I managed to foul one off.Ol’ Vapor Trail can’t say he sit this boy down that easy.I’m about to head to the dugout to grab another stick, feeling kinda down that ‘old glory’ has swung her last, when Jimbo practically runs over me.Boy is clapping me on the back and hoopin’ and hollerin’ like he just struck oil in the on-deck circle.Right about then I look back out onto the field to see the Cobras walking off the field like they were headed to a funeral, all that is, ‘cept for one.Old ‘Hoss’ Bowen is standing out on the mound with his arms crossed over his chest, shaking his head from side to side with his mouth hanging open like a busted shutter.The smirk is long gone.Long live the frown.
I don’t quite run around the bases this time.Not sure you could call it a trot either.Ya might say I do my best ‘Peter Pan’ imitation and float.Out of the five taters, this was the only one I didn’t see leave the park.Fans are sprinting out onto the field, some of ‘em I have to dodge to reach third base. I look back over my left shoulder and see the scoreboard as it flashes the change.Comets 13, Cobras 11.Lord, I hope this ain’t some cruel mirage and I’m still standing at home plate with a busted bat and a two-strike count.
Coach Barrett is on his knees behind home plate, looking up into the sky with both hands raised.Reminds me of our preacher at the end of a particularly fiery sermon.I reach the plate and the guys proceed to beat the crap outta me.
Man, ain’t no beating ever felt so good.
“J.J…earth to J.J, come in, J.J…” I’d said, dropping the camera from my shoulder.The man had been in one humdinger of a trance, having tossed the board away, then swinging his arms back and forth as if performing his patented homerun trot without ever actually moving his feet.
“J-Jeez….s-sorry ‘bout that, Matt.Talk about zoning out, I was tuned into a cable network all my own for a sec there,” he’d replied, rubbing his eyes like he’d just woke from a year-long coma.
“You get your shot? I mean…did you get everything ya need?”
“Right down to ‘Hoss’ Bowen’s perpetual frown, J.J.Great stuff.You still got the same swing as those old photos, slight uppercut and all. Bet you could still dent some bleachers.”
As we walked towards center field, I began filming J.J as he pointed straight ahead to where the back of the new stadium came into view.
“They say that last tater cleared the centerfield fence by a good thirty feet, rolling to a stop in the Ag buildings back parking lot.I swear to all that’s holy, Matt, I thought I’d fouled that pitch into the stands.I had no idea ‘til Jimbo ran up and started slapping my back that anything good had happened.Hell, I was happy to have gotten a piece of it.”
“That photo of me standing at home with the busted bat was flashed all over the state by the next morning.My face looks all drawn up and intense, but in reality I was one lost- in-space son of a gun.Never admitted that to the teammates or media though.Told ‘em I turned towards the dugout out of sheer amazement that I’d done it again.Honestly, it was a miracle come to life that I made contact at all, much less homered to win the game.Talk about blind luck.The other four I take credit for, no arguments.The last one was God’s merciful hand reaching down and giving me my time in the sun…period.”
We’d taken a last walk around the perimeter of the field before departing.J.J had been growing jittery, afraid that some school official would show up and run us off the property.
On the way back to his place, at around 8 AM, he’d insisted we stop by a local Seven-Eleven type convenience store for beer and smokes (what J.J calls ‘the Life-source’ Twins).He’d fallen back into solemn mode by the time we reached his trailer, no doubt exhausted from all the ‘time travel’ of the two proceeding days.
As J.J had fixed us a brunch of fried bologna, eggs, and a fresh pot of coffee, all the while sipping the first of what would eventually be a full case of beer by nightfall, I took a half-hour or so to reexamine his scrapbook.
The box-score itself was truly a thing to marvel, the sheer magnitude of the numbers awesome enough even without benefit of the story behind them.
Triumph and tragedy, fame and fortune...or lack thereof. This is extremely well penned and shows that Terry Vinson should "step out" of his chosen gfenre of horror more often. He once again proves his talent and knack for catching your emotions and keeping you interested. What a jewel he has written. Hopefully, there will be more...from his treasure chest!