The 20-game loser club

Sunday, June 15, 2003

To say Brian Kingman is alarmed might be overstating the situation. Let's just say that baseball's last 20-game loser is aware of what's going on with the woeful Detroit Tigers and poor Mike Maroth, and he's a tad concerned.

"What'd he have? Ten losses by Easter?" Kingman cracked.

Not quite. Maroth just missed making it by Memorial Day, an impressive feat. He was the first pitcher in 110 years with 10 losses before June 1. Now he has turned that corner into the backstretch on the road to 20 losses -- and membership in Kingman's exclusive club.

This is an organization that hasn't admitted a new member since 1980, when Kingman qualified by going 8-20 with the Oakland Athletics. The Tigers have almost 100 games still to play and Maroth personally accounted for one-quarter of their first 44 losses. That turns heads.

So has Glendon Rusch, who lost his 10th game Friday night.

Defending his title

Kingman is fiercely protective of his status as baseball's last 20-game loser. "He can keep that distinction," Maroth said. "If he's proud of it, that's great. It's not something I want to be included in."

Still, the man has promise. Heading into the weekend, Maroth was on a pace to lose 29 games.

"I'm not going to give in," Maroth said. "My options are to give in, or keep going, and I'm definitely not going to give in. I can still win plenty of games because it's a long season. It's made me stronger to go through this."

Kingman has gone to great lengths to hold off 20-loss bids, even resorting to the occult when interlopers such as Jose DeLeon, Scott Erickson, Omar Daal and Albie Lopez made uninvited runs at his club. Each fell short.

"I'll bring out the voodoo dolls if Maroth gets up to 18 or 19," Kingman said.

You don't believe in that stuff? Todd Ritchie of the White Sox was at 15 losses and closing last year when Kingman reached for the doll. The next thing Ritchie knew, he developed a sore shoulder that ended his run.

"He doesn't have to win," Kingman said of Maroth. "He just has to stop losing."

This is not easy to do on a Detroit team that has turned bad results into an art form.

Losing 20 is a tricky proposition.

"It's something that just happens," Kingman said. "You couldn't do it if you set out to. You need a special combination of things to fall in place.

"You need to be on a team with a poor offense. You have to pitch good enough to stay in the rotation. And it helps if you have a spotty bullpen."

Maroth and the Tigers would seem to qualify on all counts.

"Losing 20 is just the reverse of winning 20," Kingman said. "Almost everything has to go wrong."

Kingman offers evidence that losing 20 is not as horrible as it sounds. After all, there are 19 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who managed the feat.

Kingman's personal hero is Pud Galvin, a 19th-century pitcher, who lost 20 games an impressive 10 straight times. It should be noted, however, that Galvin also was baseball's first 300-game winner.

One of Galvin's contemporaries, 300-game winner Old Hoss Radbourn, also had five 20-loss seasons. The great Cy Young, whose award Kingman never won, lost 20 three times, but made up for it with 511 wins. Kingman promises one day to create a Pud Galvin Trophy, a sort of accompaniment to the Cy Young Award.

Then there was Vic Willis, who lost 20 games in 1902, 25 in 1904 and an impressive 29 in 1905. Then in the classic reversal of fortune, he got traded from Boston to Pittsburgh the next year and won 21 or more games for four straight seasons.

It takes talent to lose 20

"You have to be good to lose 20 games because they have to keep giving you the ball," Roger Craig observed after he lost 24 and Al Jackson lost 20 for the expansion New York Mets in 1962. Just to prove it was no fluke, Jackson lost 20 again in 1965.

Kingman was pretty good when he lost his 20. He had 10 complete games, threw 211 innings and operated with scant run support from the Athletics, who scored less than three runs per game for him. His earned run average was 3.84. The next lowest ERA in the American League was Dennis Leonard's 3.79. He was 20-11 that year. "I have been baseball's last 20-game loser for going on 23 years," Kingman said proudly. "I hope no one makes it."

Then he brightened. No matter what happens the rest of the way with Maroth, Kingman will always have one distinction.

"I was the last 20-game loser of the 20th century," he said. "And I always will be."

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