Tonight is the calm before the storm in Kansas City. In 24 hours, the Royals will take the field in Baltimore for their first American League Championship Series game since October 16, 1985, when the Royals somehow erased a 3-1 series deficit to the Toronto Blue Jays by winning 6-2 at Exhibition Stadium.
It’s all over the media–TV, radio, newspapers. Kansas City can’t get enough of the Royals. I figured if the Royals ever got good again it would be like this, because for all of the talk about the Chiefs, Kansas City is first and foremost a baseball-mad town. The city was home to one of the most successful Negro League teams for nearly 50 years and saw many a legend pass through, and sadly, many of those legends never saw action in a single Major League Baseball game due to segregation.
One of the Negro League legends who got to the Majors, Satchel Paige, made his last appearance in Kansas City. He pitched three scoreless innings for the Athletics on September 25, 1965 vs. the Red Sox, probably the highlight of the Athletics’ 13 seasons in KC. The Athletics were in tatters when they moved from Philadelphia in 1955, and then went into the toilet when Charles O. Finley bought the club in 1961.
To put it mildly, Finley was an asshole. BIG ASSHOLE. He tried to dick around with the dimensions at Municipal Stadium, and in 1964, he ordered the right field fence to be angled to a point where it stuck out exactly 296 feet from home plate, the same distance it was from the plate to right field at Yankee Stadium. The American League told him to immediately cease and desist. He then moved the fence back to the bare minimum of 325 feet, and the he tried putting a roof hanging 29 feet over the field so it would be effectively 296 feet. Nope. Even with the right field fence at 325 in 1964, Municipal Stadium allowed the most home runs of any park in American League history up until that time. The next year, FInley went 180 degrees in the opposite direction and erected a 40-foot fence in right field. Not surprisingly, Municipal Stadium allowed fewer home runs than any park in the Majors in 1965 and 1966.
Finley was even worse with his Mule, Charlie O. Charlie O. was treated far better than his players and staff, and he was known to poop all over the field, and he his lackeys were expected to pick up the poop.
Kansas City was beyond angry to see the Athletics leave in 1967. So angry, in fact, U.S. Senator Stuart Symington threatened to revoke baseball’s antitrust exemption if Kansas City was not given an expansion team by 1971. Kansas City was not on the list of expansion candidates for 1969, but commissioner Spike Eckert and owners, fearing the loss of the antitrust exemption, buckled to Symington’s threat and awarded KC a replacement AL team for ’69.
Luckily for KC, the man who stepped up to own the Royals was 180 degrees from Finley. Ewing Kauffman grew up Kansas City, loved baseball, and had deep pockets to spend the money to attract talent to the Royals. He also was forward thinking in player development, beginning the Royals Academy in 1970. The Academy is long gone, but its legacy will never be forgotten, for it produced dozens of men who one day wore the Royals uniform, most famously Frank White, one of the best defensive second basemen to play the game. White is one of only two Royals players to have his number retired; you can guess the other.
In July 1975, the Royals hired Whitey Herzog as their new manager. Herzog previously managed the Texas Rangers in 1973 before he was fired by another terrible owner, Bob Short, who moved the second incarnation of the Washington Senators to an oversized minor league ballpark halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth in 1972. Arlington Stadium was never suited for Major League Baseball; the only reason Short left DC for north Texas was the only reason any owner moves his or her team: MONEY.
Herzog’s authority in Arlington was undercut by Short, never more so when Herzog was forced to start 18-year old left-handed pitcher David Clyde only three weeks after he was drafted out of Houston’s Westchester High School. Clyde was 18-0 with an 0.18 ERA during his senior season, but no man, no matter how much he dominates in high school, is ready for Major League Baseball without at least getting some seasoning in the minors. Now college players might be ready right away, but high school, no way. Short was desperate to draw people to his crappy park–the Rangers were averaging less than 8,000 fans per game–and so he brought Clyde up immediately. The Rangers had their first sellout when Clyde pitched against the Twins on June 27, 1973, and although Clyde was wild, he won, and Short continued to
When Billy Martin was fired by the Tigers in September 1973, Short put Herzog out of his misery by firing him and hiring Martin. Even though Texas was just 47-91 under Herzog, the White Rat had the Rangers playing much better fundamental baseball, and the team did not get shutout through the first 80 games of that season after being shut out 26 times in 1972, when Texas’ manager was the greatest hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams.
Herzog preferred an aggressive style of baseball, one which emphasized speed. Hit-and-run wasn’t just a novel ploy; it was a means to score runs. And Royals Stadium was perfect for Herzog’s style, with the old, hard artificial turf and power alleys 385 feet from home plate.
Indeed, Herzog had the Royals in the playoffs in his first full season of 1976, winning the first of three consecutive AL West titles in 1976.At that time, only the Mets had experienced more success that soon, winning the 1969 World Series in their eighth season. However, the Mets were The Royals very nearly got to the World Series on their first postseason try, but Chris Chambliss broke the Royals’ hearts by hitting a home run off Mark Littel on the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth in the fifth and deciding game to give the Bronx Bombers a 7-6 victory. The Yankees would again win the ALCS in five in 1977, but this time, New York won games four and five in Kansas City. There were rumors the Royals’ slugging first baseman, John Mayberry, partied all night after the Royals won game three and was too hung over to play game four. In 1978, George Brett hit three home runs in game three at Yankee Stadium, but this time, the Yankees needed only four games to close the ALCS.
After the Royals’ pitching went south in 1979, Herzog was fired and replaced by Jim Frey.Herzog wouldn’t have to wait long to find another job, hired in June 1980 by the other Major League Baseball team in Missouri, the St. Louis Cardinals. He was also the Cardinals’ general manager at first, but relinquished those duties in 1982. As GM, Herzog quickly rebuilt the Cardinals, trading for Bruce Sutter and Ozzie Smith, both of whom are now enshrined in Cooperstown.
KC returned with a vengeance in 1980. Brett was flirting with a .400 batting average deep into August before finishing at .390. Willie Wilson came of age as the Royals’ leadoff man, and Amos Otis enjoyed a renaissance in center field, complimenting a strong pitching staff led by Dennis Leonard, Larry Gura and new closer Dan Quisenberry. The Royals easily won the AL West, then swept the Yankees, who won 103 games under future Royals manager Dick Howser, in the ALCS. Brett’s three-run home run in the eighth inning of game three into the right field upper deck at Yankee Stadium off of Goose Gossage put an excl
Getting to the World Series and winning it are two distinctly different quests. The Royals found that out the hard way against Philadelphia. The Phillies, led by Pete Rose and one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time, Steve Carlton, won the first two games in the City of Brotherly Love. Brett was hampered in game two by a bad case of hemorrhoids, which he had surgically removed when the team returned to Kansas City. Brett was healthy for game three, and KC won that game, and game four as well to even the series.
Philadelphia won game five 3-2, and then took it back home, where the Phillies won game six and the series.
The Royals slipped below .500 in 1983, with the season’s highlight being the Pine Tar Incident at Yankee Stadium. Yankee manager Billy Martin tried to get a ninth inning home run by Brett disqualified because he had too much pine tar on his bat. At first, the umpires called Brett out because the pine tar was higher on the bat than the legal 18-inch limit. Instead, Brett was out and the Yankees won 4-3. Two days later, AL president Lee MacPhail reversed the umpires, upholding the Royals’ protest and ordering the game to resume three weeks later, with Brett’s home run on the board. Brett did not take part in the game following his home run, since he was ejected for attacking the umpires, as was Howser, by now managing the Royals. When the game resumed, it took all of NINE minutes for the Royals to close the game out.
In 1984, the Royals won a weak AL West by holding off the Angels and Twins. They were no match for Detroit in the ALCS, as the Tigers, who started the year 35-5 and won 108 games by time it ended, swept the series three straight. The Tigers would pummel the Padres, Kansas City’s 1969 expansion brethern who did not make the playoffs until that season, in the World Series.
Then came 1985. The Royals and Angels engaged in an exciting season-long race for the AL West title, with KC finally overcoming the Halos late. Nobody gave the Royals much of a chance against the playoff newcomer Blue Jays in the ALCS, and Toronto proved the experts right by winning three of four games.
In past years, the Blue Jays would have been on to the World Series. Not in 1985.
Starting that season, the league championship series were epxanded by commissioner Peter Ueberroth from best-of-five to best-of-seven, largely to increase contributions to the players’ pension fund, which received a cut of the gate from every postseason game.
The Royals took full advantage of the expanded LCS, winning game five in Kansas City behind a Charlie Liebrandt shutout, then going back to Toronto and stunning the Canadians by winning games six and seven at frosty Exhibition Stadium. Hours before the Royals won game seven in Ontario, the Cardinals finished off the Dodgers in six in the NLCS.
The Show-Me Series was here. It was pure euphoria for Missouri sports fans at a time they needed it most. The Chiefs were in the midst of a long, dark period which saw them make one playoff appearance between 1972 and 1989; the football Cardinals relapsed into irrelevance after coming within a missed field goal of winning the NFC East division in 1984 (they would be in Arizona by 1988); the University of Missouri was mired near the bottom of the Big Eight Conference on the gridiron, saved from the cellar only by the pitifulness of Kansas State and Kansas; the Blues would get to the NHL playoffs and flame out year after year; and the state lost the NBA the previous March when the Kings packed up and left Kansas City for Sacramento.
Most expected the Cardinals to win the series. They were there only three years earlier, where St. Louis defeated the Brewers in seven games, and they played in a much tougher division, where they needed every one of their 101 victories to win the NL East by just three games over the Mets. The Cardinals had NL MVP Willie McGee, who led the league with a .353 batting average, and two 20-game winners in John Tudor and Joaquin Andjuar, although the latter won only once in Septebmer and not at all in October. The Cardinals had a good slugger in first baseman Jack Clark, but not much power otherwise. St. Louis was short-handed, however, as rookie left fielder Vince Coleman, who led the league in stolen bases, was out after he broke a bone in his leg when he was run over by the tarpaulin at Busch Stadium prior to game four of the NLCS.
Kansas City had a strong starting pitching rotation (sound familiar), with left-handers Charlie Leibrandt, Danny Jackson and Bud Black complimenting ace right-hander Bret Saberhagen. George Brett was still a feared hitter, and Willie Wilson gave the Royals the better leadoff man in the Series.
St. Louis won the first two games at Kansas City, but both were close, 3-1 and 4-2. When the series shifted east on I-70, the Royals turned to Saberhagen, and he handcuffed the Redbirds 6-1, although many in St. Louis felt AL umpire Jim McKean squeezed Cardinal pitchers while giving Saberhagen a generous strike zone, a claim which was not totally refuted by Herzog. St. Louis appeared to bounce back by winning game four 3-0 behind Tudor, but the Cardinals were crushed in game five 6-1, sending the series west.
Then came the infamous game six. St. Louis took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth, and it appeared they were two outs away from the title when Jorge Orta hit a soft groudn ball to Clark. Clark’s throw to closer Todd Worrell was in plenty of time, but first base umpire Don Denkinger–American League–called Orta safe. The Cardinals then fell apart, as catcher Darrell Porter, an ex-Royal and the MVP of the 1982 Series with the Cardinals, committed a passed ball, and Clark dropped a catchable foul pop-up. Kansas City took full advantage, with former Cardinal Dane Iorg lacing a two-run single to right field to score the tying and winning runs to force the seventh game.
Game seven was a disaster for the Cardinals. Tudor was ineffective, and after he was taken out in the third, he went into the clubhouse and badly cut his left hand on an electric fan. The Royals took the lead early on a Darryl Motley two-run home run in the second , and kept pouring it on, rubbing salt in the Cardinals’ wounds by scoring six runs in the fifth. In that inning, Herzog was ejected for screaming at Denkinger, telling him “We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t missed the (freaking) call last night!” One pitch later, Andjuar was ejected and had to be restrained from going after Denkinger. Final: Royals 11, Cardinals 0. Kansas City’s finest sporting moment since Super Bowl IV.
Sadly, it all went south right away. Howser was diagnosed with brain cancer in June 1986, and he would die one year later. Brett and Saberhagen would stick around and continue to be productive, but the Royals soon faced the new economic realities of baseball, and by 1994, when the strike hit, they had been relegated to also-ran status. KC fell below .500 in 1995, finished last in its division for the first time in ’96, and by 2002, the Royals would begin a five-year stretch in which they lost 100 or more games four times.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the Royals fully rebounded, going 86-76 thanks to a strong second half. Now, they stand just four wins away from their first World Series since I was 9 years old. If the Royals can make the World Series, Kansas City will go bonkers. If the Royals WIN the World Series, look out.