Reluctant King by Joe Posnanski

Joe Posnanski is a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, a longtime columnist for the Kansas City Star, author of three books, and winner of numerous accolades (which you can learn more about here). Posnanski blogs at Joe Blogs, and he’s on Twitter, @JPosnanski.

One thing I think about sometimes is how it must feel to be really good at something you don’t enjoy doing at all. Take Josh Groban. I obviously don’t know Josh Groban but I suspect there’s at least a chance that he does not love the kind of music he records. I suspect this because he’s not 55 years old. Anyway, maybe he does like his music, maybe he doesn’t, but either way he will make many, many, many millions recording these kinds of songs.

Best I could tell, Jeff King did not like playing baseball. I can never remember seeing a player who seemed so miserable on a baseball diamond. King was a near-legendary player at Arkansas, where he twice tied the school record for home runs, and he was the first pick of the 1986 draft. He had a pretty good career in the big leagues. His numbers would have looked better in a lower-scoring era, but even in his era he did hit 24-plus homers three times, he drove in 110 RBIs in back-to-back years, and he was a very good defensive first baseman, as converted third baseman often are. He was nimble enough to have played 11 games at shortstop early in his career.

But I’m not kidding about how much he disliked the game. His manager in Kansas City, Tony Muser, used to tell a story about how he heard King moaning one day about the National Anthem. Muser, a former Marine, was shocked but King explained: “Every time they play this song, I have a bad day.” King hit 30 home runs and 36 doubles in 1996, his best year, and followed with 28 homers, 30 doubles and 89 walks in Kansas City in 1987, but he generally looked like he would rather be anyplace else on earth.

On May 21, 1999 Jeff King suddenly and shockingly retired. He seemed healthy, and he seemed to be having a reasonably successful year — he was on a little six-game hitting streak at the time. It didn’t make a lot of sense … unless you realized how much he despised playing professional baseball. He couldn’t wait to get out. Later someone told me that he had, only the day before he retired, secured enough service time to guarantee his MLB pension. With that, he went off to a ranch in Wyoming or some such place.

One postscript: King’s replacement at first base was a pretty good player named Mike Sweeney who would go on to have several spectacular years for the Royals and make five All-Star teams. He is also one of the great guys ever so he used to check in on King. Once, for fun, he called King and said: “Hi Jeff, this is Joe Posnanski from the Kansas City Star I just wanted to ask you a few baseball questions …”

And Jeff King hung up on him.

This entry was posted in 1990s First Baseman Week. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Reluctant King by Joe Posnanski

  1. Josh Thurman says:

    I was unaware of King’s disinterest in baseball. Interesting that he played at Arkansas with Kevin McReynolds (I think), who famously said one season that he didn’t care if he made the all-star team because he would prefer to return home to Arkansas. McReynolds also played at KC.

  2. BH says:

    If I recall the McReynolds story correctly, his “rather go hunting” quote came around the NLCS.

  3. Elliott says:

    I am absolutely loving the Royals love on this site.

  4. Eric says:

    Were you around for unofficial Royals week in March? It was great.

    Starts here:

    http://pitchersandpoets.com/2011/03/28/will-they-suck-sure/

  5. leefoo@verizon.net says:

    Royal fans were lucky. His ‘best’ years were as a Royal vice the Bucs. However, we long knew of his dislike for baseball. I often wonder how good he would’ve been had he loved the game.

  6. Charles Wood says:

    Who is Josh Groban? Seriously, never heard of him… and that’s a
    rhetorical question, don’t care who he is either.

  7. richard says:

    When he played for Pittsburgh he always looked miserable. He never looked happy and rarely showed any emotion. I would have surrendered a few body parts to be as talented a baseball player as King and he can’t get away from the game. If you hated it so much Jeff, why did you play in the first place?

  8. Brian says:

    Ah, the good ol’ days as a Royals fan. Thank goodness for Jeff’s timely retirement however. Joe can back this up, but the Royals were shoping Mike Sweeney @ the time because they had no place to play him. If not for Jeff hitting that magical pension gate, Sween-dog may be remembered as long term member of the White Sox.

  9. bob the dog says:

    pirates broadcasters past & present often have spoken of the lower back & spinal pain king experienced & medical minds could not help him alleviate. this had to have contributed to his general distaste for the game

  10. clem says:

    …hmmm….I thought he was just dissatisfied with being married to Miss Alabama….bring back Richie Hebner

  11. Daryl says:

    Yes, I remember too hearing about the back problems that Jeff King had while a Pirate. I also seem to recall that during the 1990 season, Barry Bonds not being pleased with Jeff King because I think King had to miss at least one or more NLCS games. Bonds basically was questioning King’s love of the game.

  12. James says:

    You assume a lot for not knowing someone. That’s why players hate the press, and no wonder King hung up on Sweeney’s prank call. As someone who knew Jeff King once, I know he loved the game. Ever watch him in spring training games? The weight of the season pressure was gone, and he loosened up and enjoyed it. It was the limelight and big-league pressures he didn’t like, in addition to his severe back pain. He was a family man too; any of you ever think how hard pro sports are on families? The wives of professional athletes spend half the year as single parents, and the kids hardly ever see daddy because he gets home late and then has go to the ballpark early, if he’s not gone on a roadtrip. The cocky, loud-mouthed Barry Bonds had it all, fame, money, talent, and he has had two rocky marriages both ending in divorce, his oldest son assaulted his own mother and was charged with 5 misdemeanors, and Bond’s entire career is shrouded with steroid scandals. See where Bond’s “love of baseball” got him? The humble King had a successful, honorable career, and is still happily married to the bride of his youth, enjoying life with their seven children, by the grace of God. There’s so much more to life than baseball.