'King' won't be forgotten

Brian Kingman no longer rules over 20-Game Loserville, but his reign was long and proud for 23 years.

Originally Published: September 8, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We won't be seeing Brian Kingman traveling around North America with his voodoo dolls anymore. We'll leave it up to you to decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Brian Kingman
Brian Kingman, in the stands three years ago for an Omar Daal start, warded off many attempted coups.

Whatever, Brian Kingman's 15 minutes of fame are over now. It's a testament to the depth of his one-liner assembly line, his keen sense of self-deprecation and a minor case of insanity that somehow, he managed to milk his 15 minutes for 23 years.

But this is it -- the last story you will ever read about one man's nutty little quest to be The Last of the 20-Game Losers. It seems safe to predict this is one crusade that the new holder of that title, Mike Maroth, won't be continuing.

Maroth was 3 years old when Kingman lost 20 games for Billy Martin's 1980 Oakland A's. How fate ever drew these two unlikely souls together, we'll never know.

But stuff happens. And Friday night, in a ballpark north of the border, it happened to Brian Kingman.

For the ninth time since Kingman lost No. 20, a pitcher with 19 losses went to the mound with a chance to end Kingman's reign as everybody's favorite Human Trivia Answer. Somehow, every one of the first eight avoided losing -- a fact right up there with Leon Spinks Over Muhammad Ali among the greatest sporting upsets of all time.

But on Friday, Mike Maroth couldn't make it nine for nine. He and the Tigers blew a 5-2 lead in Toronto, and that "20" finally appeared next to Maroth's name on the stat sheet. Not even Kingman or his previously undefeated voodoo doll, The King, could change that.

"I'm still trying to figure out what happened," a dazed Kingman told us afterward. "I don't know if it was Mars being so near or the Tigers being so bad."

Maroth
Maroth

Aw, doesn't matter. At least there was never any doubt that Kingman would try everything he knew to change Maroth's luck. Everybody needs their schtick in life. This was Brian Kingman's.

Ten years ago, when Scott Erickson became the first 19-game loser to summon the courage to keep pitching, Kingman went to a local sports bar to watch in total anonymity.

By 2000, when Omar Daal was on the 20-loss trail in Philadelphia, he was actually getting on planes to watch and pray and cast his goofy spells. Back then, even he was worried he'd just sold the last of his marbles.

"I still remember sitting there in Philadelphia, thinking, `What the hell am I doing?' " Kingman reminisced. "But now, it's like second nature. Now, of course I'm flying to another country to be there with my voodoo doll."

Yeah, this time, of course Kingman flew across the continent. And of course he sat in row 19 of the plane.

Of course he picked out the car in Spot 19 of the Dollar Rent-A-Car lot. And of course, he sat in the 19th row of Skydome watching Maroth get knocked out in the fourth inning.

In his first voodoo road trip, to watch Daal three years ago, he attracted a minor media flurry. But by Friday, he was such a media sensation, he was pretty sure he met every sportswriter in Canada, not to mention a history-minded crew from ESPN.

"It was like in the old movies," Kingman said, "where someone would get executed and they'd send the press to witness it. That was me. I knew I'd have to die a trivial death eventually. I just didn't know how public the execution would be."

Maybe I'll get a shot to make a comeback next year. Me, Maroth and (Jeremy) Bonderman in the rotation -- with Phil Mickelson out in the bullpen.
Brian Kingman

As the outs dwindled Friday, Kingman stirred nervously. With one out to go, he muttered, "Time for a power outage." But after Kevin Witt grounded out to officially pull the plug on his 23-year reign, Kingman had to face that question he never wanted to face:

Now what will he do?

"Maybe I'll get a shot to make a comeback next year," he chuckled. "Me, Maroth and (Jeremy) Bonderman in the rotation -- with Phil Mickelson out in the bullpen."

Or ... maybe not. Actually, Kingman's first order of business was to take his trusty voodoo doll back home to Arizona -- and, as punishment for The King's first loss, refusing to unpack it for a day.

But eventually, Kingman said, The King will "go up on my shelf with the rest of my memorabilia. He'll be like me -- either in retirement, or he can become a consultant. Maybe 20 years from now, he can talk with one of Maroth's dolls."

It's hard to say what Kingman can become a consultant for. But he is the world's foremost expert on 20-game losers. And he does plan to continue maintaining his beloved web site, www.20game-losers.com. So he may well live to be quoted another day.

But it'll never be the same. And maybe it's just as well. Heck, suppose Maroth had gone to the mound four times this month and avoided losing 20. Suppose Kingman and his doll had been there, working their magic, for every game. That might have gotten downright spooky.

"If that had happened," Kingman said, "this would have crossed over to the realm of the paranormal. I'd have stopped getting calls from sportswriters and started getting calls from Psychic World. Maybe George Steinbrenner would have heard about me, and if the Red Sox were catching the Yankees, he'd have signed me to come to the games and cast spells on the Red Sox. Then I'm the psychic-force person."

Hoo boy. We don't think anybody was ready for this voodoo stuff to get that bizarre. The psychic-force person? That's Miss Cleo's department, isn't it?

We don't know where Brian Kingman heads from here. But even though he's taken a lot of abuse from people who think he's some deranged goofball, we're here to defend him.

Of the 50 billion people to step on a pitching mound in the last quarter-century, Brian Kingman had one thing that separated him from the other 49,999,999,999. So if he wanted to hold onto his wacky claim to fame, what's so wrong with that?

"At least I've been able to take something that once caused me pain and actually come to enjoy it," he said. "If we can do that with all kinds of things in life, think how much better off we'd all be. If you can have fun with something that caused you pain, it means you've conquered it."

So Brian Kingman will keep on laughing, even though his reign is over. He's just working on a new reign now:

"It's the reign of irrelevance," he said. "And you know, irrelevance is more important than people think. There's a fine line between reality and irrelevance."

No kidding. Heck, that's practically one of our mottoes in life. So more power to this guy. It was 10 years ago that Kingman tracked us down one day, out of the blue, and called to correct us on a seemingly logical assumption we'd made in one of our columns. We'd idiotically assumed that Kingman was rooting for Erickson to get him off the hook. In reality, he told us then, "I don't want to get off the hook."

We started laughing then. We're still laughing now. We quoted him that day. We've probably quoted about 500 of his demented one-liners ever since. So we know we helped create this monster. But frankly, we don't regret it one bit. And neither does he.

"Thanks for making me whatever it is I am," Kingman told us. "And thanks for listening all these years. It's been a lot cheaper than a psychiatrist. ...

"Except now I've got this voodoo-doll problem."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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