1B ∙ 1997—99
After eight up and down years with Pittsburgh, Jeff King was traded to the Royals prior to the 1997 season. The Royals also got Jay Bell, while Pittsburgh picked up Joe Randa, Jeff Granger, Jeff Wallace, and Jeff Martin. It was the Jeffiest trade in history. King and his Fu Manchu took over first base in ’97 and put together a strong season. Rate-wise, his bat was barely better than average, but he managed to stay healthy enough to play 155 games, and his offensive value added up. He belted 28 homers and drove in a team-leading 112 runs. King piled on more value with smart base running and smooth defense. He managed to be a small bright spot while the team floundered their way to a 94-loss season. June was an especially hot month, when he bashed 10 homers, a 1.209 OPS, and was named AL player of the month.
The Royals and King agreed to a two year contract to keep him in KC for ’98 and ’99. Unfortunately King never did recapture his ’97 form. ’98 was decent, but all aspects of his game dropped off slightly, potentially due to health struggles with his back that started early in the year and never let up. The Sporting News reported that King’s back pain started after he felt a “twinge” picking up one of his kids.[i] He battled through it to still get into 133 games and knock 24 dingers.
The back problem was much more than just a twinge, and was still dogging him as the 1999 season started. But there was a bigger problem for King: His heart was no longer in the game. At the end of May, he stunned everyone by suddenly retiring, walking away from around three million dollars left on his contract. Joe Posnanski has intimated that King never liked baseball and retired the day after qualifying for his pension.[ii] Maybe, but I’m not sure it was that simple. King was “fighting back tears” when he told reporters, “My head is here, my heart is not. I played the game with integrity, played hard, and played hurt. I’m ready to turn the page, close the chapter and begin a new one. It comes down to integrity. The struggle I’ve had with it, I think it’s affected the way I’ve played.”[iii] His heart was with his wife and kids on their ranch in Montana. So that’s where he went.[iv]
[i] Luciana Chavez, “Kansas City,” The Sporting News, April 27, 1998, 28.
[ii] Joe Posnanski, “Reluctant King,” http://pitchersandpoets.com/2011/05/11/reluctant-king-by-joe-posnanski/, May 11, 2011.
[iii] AP, “Jeff King Calls It Quits,” May 23, 1999.
[iv] Steve Riach, Life Lessons From Baseball (Honor Books, 2004), 65.