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A magical season in the big leagues

Atwater man reflects on his ups and downs, and the season when ‘everything feel into place’ 

By Scott Thoma

In the 1994 strike-shortened Major League Baseball season, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres won the National League (NL) batting title with a robust .394 average, followed by another Hall of Famer, Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros, at .368.

Mike Kingery takes a break from teaching kids at his Solid Foundation Hitting School in Kandiyohi to pose for a photo. Played at the major league level for years. His career year came in 1994, when he finished third in the batting race. Photo by Scott Thoma

Finishing third that year in the NL was a 33-year-old journeyman outfielder for the Colorado Rockies named Mike Kingery, who grew up in the small town of Atwater, Minn.

“Everything fell into place that year for me,” said Kingery, who still lives in the Atwater area and now operates Solid Foundation Hitting School. 

The general consensus is that Coors Field is a hitter’s ballpark because of the high altitude, but Kingery actually hit better on the road that season.

“Someone told me that I had the third-highest OPS (On-Base plus Slugging) percentage on the road that season, which is pretty good considering a high OPS usually relates to home run hitters,” he said. 

Kingery has always been known for his hustle more than anything, running hard down the line on an infield popup or a routine groundout, which is rarely seen in today’s game.

“I remember one time when I was playing for the Kansas City Royals and we were playing the White Sox,” said Kingery. “I was on second base after reaching on a bloop double and (the White Sox shortstop) came up to me and said in his broken English ‘You can play on my team anytime’. That was the way I always played. If I hit a ‘doinker’ between shortstop and left field, it was either going to be caught or I was going to try to turn it into a double.”

It was the usual somber Seattle Mariners’ manager Dick Williams’ praise that touched Kingery the most. He told him, “If everyone was like you, coaching would be a lot easier.”

Kingery played for six different teams from 1986-96 in the major leagues, including the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates.

When quizzed, Kingery rattled off the lineups of each of those teams he played for as though he was still coming out of the clubhouse and taking a look at that day’s lineup card.

Kingery sported a .268 career batting average. Included in his 546 hits were 108 doubles, 26 triples, 30 home runs and 45 stolen bases.

On Mike Kingery Day at the Metrodome on Sept. 23, 1986, the left-handed hitter had four hits in front of a large following of friends and family from Atwater.

Kingery didn’t play baseball to compile statistics, though. He played to win and because of his love for the game. 

During one game with the Royals, there was a runner on second base and Kingery intentionally hit a ground ball to the right side to move the runner to third base, who eventually scored.

“George (Brett) came up to me, put his arm around me and told me that if i keep doing that, we’ll get along just fine,” Kingery said. “That meant a lot coming from the best hitter and best teammate I‘ve ever played with.” 

Kingery’s potential was first noticed playing for the Atwater American Legion team that reached the state tournament in both his junior and senior years.

“We were playing at state in Willmar and Art Stewart, a scout for the Kansas City Royals, came up to me during a game and asked me to run as fast as I could to first base the next time that I batted so he could clock my speed,” Kingery said. “He then had me throw from the outfield and liked my arm and offered me a contract.”

Kingery started out in 1980 in the low minors with the Royals farm system at age 19. As he was climbing the rungs of the various levels of baseball’s ladder, he was married to his wife, Chris, in 1982, and they had their first child the next year. He eventually was called up to major leagues on July 6, 1986, which also happened to be his mother’s birthday. 

Among his teammates with the Royals at the time was George Brett, Bo Jackson, Willie Wilson and Frank White.

After batting .258 with the Royals, Kingery was traded the next year to the Seattle Mariners and was assigned to their AAA team. When Ken Griffey Jr. broke his finger in 1989, Kingery was called up to play center field.

He batted .255 in parts of three seasons with the Mariners.

He was eventually released and signed with the San Francisco Giants in 1990 and spent two years with its parent club. He batted .295 in 105 games.

“I led the majors in non-starting appearances,” he said. “I played a lot, but came in to run or pinch hit or for defense.”

He was released by the Giants on the last day of the 1991 season and went to spring training the next season with the A’s, but lasted only three weeks on a roster with superstars Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach, Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco and Dennis Eckersley.

“I hardly played at all for those three weeks and was sent to the minors,” Kingery said. “My mother confessed to me that when I was sitting most days with Oakland, she was praying that I would get to play every day. Then I was sent down and played every day. She told me that next time she would be more specific.”

Kingery said it was after that season that he and Chris decided they wanted to be closer to home.

“So, I went back to Omaha (the Royals’ Class AAA team, where I had been before I was called up to the majors.” he said.

Omaha’s manager. Jeff Cox, took Kingery aside after the season and said “Mike, you can still play in the majors. Go try out with someone else and if it doesn’t work out, come back here.”

Kingery then joined the Rockies in spring training and made the team.

“I didn’t do great in spring training, but I was also learning to play first base. Rockies’ manager Don Baylor wanted someone versatile that he could use in the outfield or at first base,” said Kingery. “I started out as the left-handed platoon in the outfield with Ellis Burks. When Burks got hurt, I was playing against left-handers, too,”

The Kingery Family features Mike, his wife, and several of their children. They perform a several events each year. Contributed photo

Suddenly, Kingery’s bat came alive and he was entrenched in the outfield for the season and his name appeared the National League hitting leaders all season.

Kingery’s magical ride lasted only one more season with the Rockies. After batting .269 the next year, he was again let go and finished his career playing for the Pirates in 1996, hitting .246. 

When asked who was the best pitcher he faced during his time in the majors, Kingery named Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Seaver and Pedro Martinez.

“Probably five of the best 20 pitchers of all time” he said. 

Kingery returned to his roots after baseball. He and Chris have been married 42 years and have eight children and 13 grandchildren. He has run the Solid Foundation Baseball School out of Kandiyohi and St. Cloud since 1992.

“It’s generally for kids 10-18 years old, although I’ve had fathers who were going to fantasy camps down to a six-year-old kid,” he said.

Kingery also coached Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City’s high school baseball team for five years, reaching the section title games twice. He currently is an assistant with the Atwater Chuckers amateur baseball team.

One other endeavor that Kingery is involved in is The Kingery Family, a musical group that includes he and his wife and several of their children. Kingery plays the bass but leaves the singing to others.

“I’d rather face Roger Clemens at Fenway than to sing by myself,” he laughed.

Following one performance, a gentleman came up to Kingery and jokingly told him using a double entendre, “It was enjoyable watching Mike Kingery struggle on bass.” 

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