On Tuesday night, the Kansas City Royals will host a World Series game for the first time in almost exactly 29 years.
The last time such an occurrence took place was on October 27, 1985 when in Game 7 the Royals demolished the St. Louis Cardinals 11-0 to win their first and only World Series title. Bret Saberhagen, the Royals’ 21-year old ace who would win the AL Cy Young that season, hurled a complete game, five-hit shutout. Saberhagen got Cardinals outfielder Andy Van Slyke to make the final out by hitting a fly ball into the glove of rightfielder Darryl Motley. I will always remember Saberhagen and George Brett embracing on the mound.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that many a Cardinals fan considers the Royals’ lone World Series title tainted by virtue of a botched call in the ninth inning of Game 6 by first base umpire Don Denkinger. With the Cardinals leading 1-0 and three outs away from winning the World Series, pinch hitter Jorge Orta appeared to hit into a routine ground out, but Denkinger ruled that Orta had beat Cardinals closer Todd Worrell to the bag. But the replay clearly showed that Orta was out by a mile, but there was no instant replay in those days. The call stood and the Cardinals’ implosion began. Steve Balboni singled and was pinch run for by Onix Concepcion, Jim Sundberg failed to make a sacrifice bunt, Worrell threw a passed ball and intentionally walked pinch hitter Hal McRae. Pinch hitter Dane Iorg singled home Concepcion and Sundberg and the Royals came back from the dead and ready for Game 7. Denkinger became Public Enemy #1 in St. Louis that night and 24 hours later the Royals became champions of the world.
In the intervening three decades, the Royals have had precious little to cheer about. They would endure 20 losing seasons with eight last place finishes. If you’re under 30 and you hear Royals you’re probably thinking of a hit song by a teenager from New Zealand named Lorde. Believe it or not, she was inspired to write the song because she saw a picture of George Brett in a Royals uniform signing autographs circa 1976 in an old issue of National Geographic. The two would meet earlier this season in a uniting of the generations. I do wonder, however, if Lorde has seen this image of Brett after he was told by home plate umpire Tim McClelland that he had too much pine tar on his bat after hitting a home run off Goose Gossage in old Yankee Stadium one hot July day in 1983.
The Royals of the past three decades were a far cry from the Royals of 1976-1985 who made the post-season seven times with two AL pennants and one World Series trophy. During much of that time, the greatest rivalry in baseball was between the Yankees and Royals, not the Yankees and Red Sox. What with names like Brett, Hal McRae, Willie Wilson, Frank White, Amos Otis, Paul Splittorff, Dan Quisenberry, Dennis Leonard, all five foot six of Freddie Patek, and U.L. Washington, who would come to bat with a toothpick in his mouth.
Then there was the ’85 team that was managed by Dick Howser. Fired by George Steinbrenner following the 1980 season guiding the Yankees to 103 wins only to be swept by the Royals in the ALCS (exacting revenge from three straight ALCS losses to the Yankees between 1976-1978), Howser was hired by the Royals during the middle of the following season and he would reward Ewing Kauffman’s patience. Sadly, Howser was diagnosed with a brain tumor the following year and would die in 1987 at the age of 51.
Howser managed a team that was anchored by a starting rotation of Saberhagen, Charlie Leibrandt, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza and Bud Black. Aside from winning a World Series ring and the first of his two AL Cy Young Awards and would become a father hours before Game 7. The team would also include Gold Glove catcher Jim Sundberg, outfielder Lonnie Smith, who would earn his third World Series ring with three different teams, and shortstop Buddy Biancalana, with whom David Letterman would have a great deal of fun.
So which current Royal should the soon to be retiring Letterman make fun of? It’s pretty hard to make fun of a team that has gone 8-0 this post-season, dispatching the Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Angels, and Baltimore Orioles with confidence. But I’d put my money on third baseman Mike Moustakas. Although he hit only .212 during the regular season and at one point was demoted to Triple-AAA Omaha, Moustakas has come on like house of fire hitting four home runs and making several sensational plays including flipping into the Royals dugout seats to make a death defying catch off the bat of the Orioles’ Adam Jones in Game 3 of the ALCS. Then again, what can Letterman say that Royals fans already haven’t? The Moose is Loose.
Perhaps a more interesting story for Letterman would be Sung Woo Lee, a Royals fan from South Korea who has been following the team since 1995. He received a royal welcome in K.C. back in August as four local TV crews broadcast his arrival live and the team invited him to throw out the first pitch. The Royals responded regally by winning nine out of ten games during his stay, including a three-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants. Needless to say, Lee will be back for the World Series. The Royals even have fans in Israel. Could the Royals become a global brand like the Red Sox and the Yankees, the Dodgers and the Giants?
Well, if they continue to play the way they have this year. This is a team that has learned how to play solid, fundamental baseball. Alex Gordon came up with the Royals in 2007 as a third baseman and was tapped as the next George Brett. After struggling at the plate and in the field, the Royals wisely moved Gordon to left field where he has become one of the premier defensive outfielders in the game and has come into his own as a hitter. Also in this outfield are ALCS MVP Lorenzo Cain, Nori Aoki, and Jarrod Dyson, who usually pinch runs for Aoki and comes in to play center, moving Cain to right field. Actually, Royals fans can thank the Milwaukee Brewers for a good deal of their success. Cain along with shortstop Alcides Escobar was acquired from the Brew Crew for 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke prior to the 2011 season. Aoki was acquired from Milwaukee this past off-season. I’m sure Brewers fans are wondering if their team would have collapsed this year had Cain, Escobar, and Aoki still been with them.
Like Gordon and Moustakas, first baseman Eric Hosmer, catcher Salvador Perez, and DH Billy Butler are all homegrown products. Perhaps the finest moment of the Royals’ post-season came when the slow footed Butler stole second during Game 3 of the ALDS. Seven different Royals had stolen bases in the AL Wild Card game against Oakland and Butler wanted in on the action. Butler was even forgiven by a local K.C. church for his transgression. As Dyson is fond of saying, “That’s what speed do.”
One top Royals prospect they didn’t hold on to was Wil Myers, who they dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the 2013 season. Myers would win AL Rookie of the Year in 2013 on a team that would win the AL Wild Card. But the Royals would get a bona fide ace in James Shields and the hard throwing Wade Davis, who has emerged as the middle part of a bullpen triumvirate of Kelvin Herrera and closer Greg Holland. The Royals aren’t much for high profile free agents, but they did sign ex-Detroit Tiger Omar Infante in the off-season. With a maturity that belies his name, he helped Escobar solidify the team’s defense up the middle.
Despite being unbeaten in this post-season, the Royals will have their hands full with the San Francisco Giants who won the World Series in both 2010 and 2012 and are determined to maintain this even-year pattern of winning championships. The Giants cannot be mistaken for the 1927 Yankees. Murderers’ Row they are not. But they are at their most dangerous when their backs are against the wall. Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence lead a team that does not give up until the last out is made. They are a team that has gone through the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals, and the St. Louis Cardinals despite not having Angel Pagan at the top of the order, without Matt Cain throwing a pitch, and two-time NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum being relegated to the role of spectator. Others have emerged such as new ace Madison Bumgarner, rookie second baseman Joe Panik who plays fearlessly, Gregor Blanco who has filled in for Pagan, and journeyman Travis Ishikawa who returned to the Giants this year and thrown into unfamiliar terrain in left field responded by doing his best impersonation of Bobby Thomson to get San Francisco into the World Series.
The common denominator for the Giants, though, is their manager Bruce Bochy who is now managing in his fourth World Series (he also managed the San Diego Padres to a NL pennant in 1998). Bochy is now being spoken of as a Hall of Fame manager. No such adjectives have been used to describe Royals manager Ned Yost. In 2008, with two weeks left in the season, Yost was unceremoniously fired as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers and replaced by third base coach Dale Sveum, who guided the Brewers the rest of the way to the NL Wild Card and their first post-season appearance in 26 years.
Yost was hired by Royals in the middle of 2010 after the dismissal of Trey Hillman, becoming the 11th manager of the franchise since Howser’s departure. Respect has been hard to come by. On Memorial Day Weekend, when the Royals were 24-26, 5 ½ games back of the Tigers, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and the MLB Network called for Yost to be dismissed. Rosenthal wrote, “[I]f ever a team appears in need of a fresh voice, it’s this one.” By June 1, the Royals were in last place in the AL Central. Sixteen days and 10 consecutive wins later, they were in first place and the race was on.
Yet even after the Royals’ astounding 12-inning AL Wild Card triumph over Oakland, Yost still got second guessed. Future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez eviscerated him for pulling starter James Shields in the sixth inning in favor of hard-throwing Yordano Ventura, who promptly gave up a go-ahead three-run home run to Brandon Moss. Martinez called Yost’s decision “a panic move” and said that if the Royals had lost that Yost would have been “the ugly goat.”
Well, there’s nothing ugly about Ned Yost or his team. He is safe on his throne — for now. But Yost is only one bad decision away from being fitted for goat horns and baseball infamy. In baseball, there is a very thin line between genius and stupidity.
For the moment, Kansas City is a baseball town again. Kansas City, here we come!!!
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