Decades of Royals (Kauffman) Stadium memories

20 10 2014

The only place I’ve ever attended a post-season baseball game has been Royals Stadium. Tonight I’ll attend my fourth, scattered over 37 years, with a 29-year gap.

I call the ballpark Royals Stadium, not Kauffman, because that was its name when I saw my first three post-season games in 1977 and 1985. I respect the contributions of Ewing Kauffman, the pharmaceuticals tycoon who brought baseball back to Kansas City in 1969, and I’ll try to remember to call it Kauffman Stadium or the K in referring to tonight’s World Series game. But for most of the games I’ve watched, it was Royals Stadium.

The only place I watched baseball in my childhood and youth was Wrigley Field. Mom was a Cub fan who grew up in Chicago. When we visited Grandma and Aunt Helen in Oak Park, Ill., during the summer, Mom would take us out for an afternoon (of course) game. In a possible foreshadowing, she utterly failed at making me a Cub fan. We lived in Utah, so I had no local team when I first started following baseball during the 1960 World Series. I was fascinated with geography and knew I was born in New York (Sampson Air Force Base in the Finger Lakes). That was a long way from the Bronx, but they were on the same 50-states flash card, so they Yankees were my team before Mom ever took me to Wrigley. I quickly fell in love with Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson, Whitey Ford and the other Yankees. Bill Mazeroski broke my heart that year, but the next year was a great season to be a young Yankee fan, as Mantle and Roger Maris chased and Maris eventually broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. I was hooked for life, even for the Horace Clarke years.

But in those days before inter-league play, the Yankees never came to Wrigley, so I’d only ever seen them play on TV (or in my imagination when I played for them in our back yard).

When we moved to Shenandoah, Iowa, in the 1970s, I was close enough to drive down to Kansas City to watch my Yankees play. But life was busy with school and summer jobs, and I didn’t make it to Kansas City during baseball season for a few years.

When I was managing editor at the Evening Sentinel in Shen the summer of 1977, my daily stack of mail invariably included press releases about the Royals. We were an all-local paper, so we never published them. But, as a Yankee fan (whose team beat the Royals in a five-game playoff in 1976 to make our first World Series since the glory years of the ’60s), I was keenly interested in the Royals, who were even better in ’77. So I always glanced through the Royals’ press releases.

The Royals thought of us as Royals country. Radio KMA in Shen carried their games, helping my Mom become a fan (second place, after her beloved Cubs).

Well, one day in late September, the press release had instructions for ordering press credentials to cover the post-season games in Royals Stadium. I showed it to our sports editor, Mike Williams, and we agreed we should go. We applied for credentials for both of us. And we got them. (I’ve lost track of Mike over the years and his name is common, making Internet searches difficult. If you know Mike, please send him a link and invite him to get in touch.)

League championships were decided in five games or fewer then, and the teams had split the first two games in New York. The Royals won Game One, 7-2. In Game Two, Ron Guidry, who had become the Yankees’ pitching star in his first full season in the majors, pitched a complete game, winning 6-2. One of the Royals’ runs had scored on a Hal McRae slide at second base where he took out Willie Randolph and ended up about 15 feet beyond the bag. I can’t embed the video here, but 35 years later, CBS’ Daryn Perry called it the “mother of all takeout slides.” Click that link and watch the slide. It set the tone for what followed then and follows here.

A few players with good or great careers are still remembered for single plays that stood out because of their importance, their timing or just because they were amazing: Willie Mays for a catch, Mazeroski, Kirk Gibson and Bucky Dent for homers. McRae’s takeout slide may not be quite as famous as those, or as Pete Rose taking out Ray Fosse at home, but Royals fans and baseball fans from the 1970s probably remember Mac for that slide more than anything else.

Game Three, 1977 playoffs

The game was on a Friday afternoon. Mike and I finished our work for Friday evening’s paper early and headed down to Kansas City. We got there too late to get down on the field for photos during warmups. Our seats in the “auxiliary press box” behind home plate and below the actual press box were great for watching the action. But they sucked for shooting photos. The screen that protected us from foul balls also protected us from shooting any decent photos. What we needed (but didn’t have) were on-field credentials for the photographers’ boxes just past the dugouts.

But we were in the park. We settled in to enjoy the game.

The Yankees came to Kansas City tied, having split the first two games at Yankee Stadium. They needed to win two of three in Kansas City. It didn’t start well for a Yankee fan, but the crowd at Royals Stadium loved it.

Dennis Leonard, who tied for the American League with 20 wins that year, held the Yankees to four hits and two runs. Mike Torrez, who would take a special place in Yankee lore the next year when he pitched for the Red Sox and served up the Bucky Dent homer, gave up five runs in less than six innings. Sparky Lyle, who would win the Cy Young Award that year, replaced Torrez in the sixth and finished the last two and a third innings.

We didn’t have money for a hotel and hotels were outrageously expensive because of the playoffs, so Mike and I drove back to Shen after the game. I worried that I’d see the Yankees eliminated the next day.

Game Four, 1977 playoffs

Mike and I got down to KC earlier for Saturday’s Game Four. We encountered a phenomenon that was new to me: a pre-game press buffet. This was a few years before journalists began to consider such “freebies” unethical (or perhaps before Mike and I became aware that journalists viewed them as unethical). Anyway, we chowed down on the buffet with a lot of other journalists, noticing Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek (shortstop on my beloved ’61 Yankees) in the buffet line as well. They would be calling the game for NBC.

Mike and I spent a little too long eating free food. As we made our way down to the field to shoot some photos during warmups, we could see that photographers were being cleared from the field. We hurried through the gate between home plate and the Royals’ dugout, hoping for a few photos before they could throw us out. But we had barely entered the field when a security guard told us no media were allowed on the field now.

“You need to go up there,” he said, pointing toward the seats behind home plate where we had sat the night before, “or over there.” He pointed to the photographers’ pen on the field, just past the Yankees’ dugout. Mike and I headed toward the Yankees’ dugout, knowing full well that our small-paper credential did not entitle us to access.

As we passed the dugout to the photographers’ pen, we saw chairs behind the waist-high wall, each with a sign identifying the media photographer assigned to the seat: Kansas City Star, New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Kansas City Times, Newsday … Past all the chairs was a stool, with no media sign. Mike and I looked at each other and said in unison, “Shenandoah Sentinel.” We laughed and hopped over the wall into the photographers’ pen.

We shot a few photos of third basemen in infield practice right away, certain we’d be caught and tossed out before the game started. Sure enough, before long a security guard came along. We prepared to get scolded and sent back to our seats, but the guard just asked for the stool. He lifted it over the wall and set it down outside the wall at the end of the pen. We chatted him up. We presume that at some point he realized we didn’t belong there, but decided to let us stay.

We had basic 35mm cameras with no special lenses. Everyone else in the pen had lenses. Soon we saw a Yankee walking past all those cameras in our direction.

“That’s Ron Guidry,” I told Mike. As a Yankee fan, I had followed Guidry’s breakout season that year. After two brief stints with the Yankees in 1975 and ’76, he made the team in 1977. After six relief appearances, including a save, he made the starting rotation, winning 16 games and finishing fourth in the American league in ERA (2.82) and second in shutouts (5). I had read enough stories and seen enough Yankee games to recognize him, and of course, I’d watched the Game Two victory on TV.

Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Ron Guidry with his daughter

Guidry walked past all these professional photographers with their huge cameras and came down to the two guys with cameras that looked like they were made for snapshots. He extended his hand to introduce himself and I said I knew who he was. I introduced Mike and myself, and he asked a favor: This was the first time his daughter, Jamie, had been to a Yankee game, and he wanted a photo of him in his uniform. He made a self-deprecating joke about not being sure how long he’d be around. (Over a nine-year stretch, he was the American League’s best, a career that should have landed him in the Hall of Fame.) I said sure, I’d shoot a photo. I’m sure Mike would have, too, but I was all over this and he let me shoot it.

Guidry’s wife brought Jamie down from the stands. She looked about the same age as my son, Mike, who was 10 months old. I snapped a few shots of Guidry and his daughter, then he wrote his address in my notebook and asked me to send him a couple prints and a bill. I would send him three extra prints to autograph, one each for Mike Williams and Mike Buttry and one for me. No charge. I wish I’d anticipated having a couple more sons. I’d have sent him two more photos.

The game was memorable, too. We had a great view of the Yankees’ Graig Nettles charging hard into Frank White at second base, breaking up a double play, allowing the Yankees’ first run to score and giving a bit of payback for the McRae slide, though Nettles ended up much closer to the bag.

The Yankees jumped out to a 4-0 lead, then a 5-2 lead, scoring in each of the first four innings. But starter Ed Figueroa and reliever Dick Tidrow struggled. Yankees Manager Billy Martin surprised everyone by turning to Lyle with a 5-4 lead and two outs in the fourth inning. And Lyle finished the game, winning 6-4. Since the starter didn’t go five innings, Lyle was the winning pitcher. He went 5 1/3 innings, giving up only two hits and no walks. Closers weren’t one-inning pitchers back then, but that was still an amazing outing, maybe the best post-season relief outing ever, especially by a closer. It’s certainly the best relief outing I ever saw. With 137 innings in a league-leading 72 games, he averaged less than two innings per appearance. And with the Yankees’ season on the line, he went more than five innings, the day after going more than two.

In the post-season press conference, which Mike and I had access to (we didn’t get access to the locker room), Lyle explained that his slider was sometimes better when he was tired because he wasn’t “overthrowing” it. I don’t know what that means or if it was true, but the Royals couldn’t hit him. Fred Patek singled in the sixth and Lyle left him on base. George Brett singled in the seventh but Lyle got Al Cowens to hit into a double play to end the inning.

Another notable play happened in the seventh. Reggie Jackson loafed going down to first base on a ground ball. Martin had pulled Jackson from a game during the season for loafing on a ball in the outfield, replacing him with Paul Blair (as I recounted in a post last year when Blair died). The move triggered a televised dougout scuffle where coaches had to restrain Jackson and Martin from going at each other. In this game, Martin sent Blair into the outfield for Jackson in the bottom of the seventh. Blair was the ultimate late-inning defensive replacement, an eight-time Gold Glover who could protect the lead better than Jackson, a defensive liability even when he hustled. But, given the history, I wanted to ask Martin about it at the press conference. (Sure, I was a Martin fan and a Yankee fan, but I was there as a reporter, so I acted like one.)

“Why did you take Reggie Jackson out?” I asked.

“To put Paul Blair in,” Martin snapped. “Next question!”

Blair did come up to bat in Jackson’s spot in the ninth, following a Thurman Munson sacrifice fly that made the score 6-4. Blair singled but was left on base. Lyle retired the side in order and the Yankees pushed the series to Game Five.

Mike and I had credentials for Game Five as well. Back then the team with the better record didn’t have home-field advantage, hosting the first two games and the deciding game, as is the practice for five-game series today. Divisions just alternated hosting the first two games or the last three of a five-game series. So Game Five was in KC. But I had recently launched an entertainment page for which I wrote a weekly column. And something lame (I can’t remember what) was going on Sunday that I wanted to cover for the entertainment page.

Guidry would be starting on two days’ rest, and I desperately wanted to go, especially now that I was his personal family photographer. But I had promised reporter Gary Plummer that he could go if the series went to five games. I kept my promise, and Gary and Mike had a great time at the game. (Gary’s Chamber of Commerce exec in Wichita. I’ll be emailing him a link and invite him to expand on Game Five.)

They saw, and I missed, Act Three of the series’ hard-slides drama, Brett’s slide into Nettles at third, and the ensuing brawl:

Guidry didn’t last long, and the Yankees trailed 3-1 after seven innings (I watched on TV after my entertainment event ended). Blair started the game in right, but Jackson delivered a pinch-hit single in the eighth. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Martin turned to Lyle again.

The Yankees rallied for three runs in the top of the ninth off three Royal relievers, two of whom were usually starters: Leonard, Larry Gura and Mark Littell. Lyle gave up a single in the ninth inning but got Patek to hit into a game-ending double play. It was Lyle’s second win on consecutive elimination games. He set a post-season record with his third straight post-season win in Game One of the World Series, pitching the last 3 2/3 innings of a 12-inning game. In four appearances over five days, Lyle pitched 12 2/3 innings with the game on the line, giving up only one run (though he allowed an inherited runner to score in the World Series game, sending the game to extra innings).

Game Two, 1985 World Series

I left Shenandoah about a month after the 1977 World Series, so I was unable to use Sentinel credentials to attend the 1978 playoffs, the third straight season the Yankees and Royals played for the American League championship. But in 1985, my first year at the Kansas City Times, Editor Mike Waller sold me two of his extra tickets for Game Two. As I explained in a previous post, I took Mimi, my wife of 11 years at the time (40 now).

The Cardinals had won Game One, held to one run by John Tudor (similar to Madison Bumgarner‘s Game One performance last night). But in Game Two lefthander Charlie Leibrandt, who was 17-9 in the regular season, looked dominant for eight innings, shutting out the Cardinals on two hits and a walk.

I expected Dan Quisenberry to pitch the ninth. Quiz was baseball’s best reliever at that time, having led the American League in saves for four straight seasons and five of the last six. His sidearm motion was daunting for righthanded batters, who hit only .236 off him that year and struck out 37 times, walking only twice. Lefthanders, on the other hand, hit .317 against Quiz in 1985, walking 14 times and striking out 17.

Lefthanded designated hitter Al Oliver, a masterful hitter concluding a career of more than 2,700 hits, had helped the Blue Jays take a 3-1 lead in the American League Championship Series (which was seven games long for the first time in 1985) with his late-inning heroics against Quiz. Royals Manager Dick Howser, who had no left-handed relievers, outmaneuvered Jays Manager Bobby Cox in Games Six and Seven, starting righthanders, then pitching lefthanded starters Leibrandt and Bud Black (now managing the Padres) in the middle innings. Cox, who platooned his DH’s, started Oliver both games, then pinch hit righthander Cliff Johnson, leaving Oliver out of the game and unavailable for pinch hitting when Quiz came in to close.

But in the World Series, the Cardinals had switch-hitters Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith due up, so both would bat lefthanded against Quiz. Leibrandt had retired 13 straight batters, so Howser left him in.

McGee led off with a double. Leibrandt got Smith to ground out. OK, four straight righthanded hitters coming up: Tommy Herr, Jack Clark, Tito Landrum and Cedar Cedeño. Time for Quiz, right? Howser, apparently fearing Andy Van Slyke as a lefthanded pinch hitter, stuck with Leibrandt.

Herr flew out to right. Two outs. Shutout still preserved. Still no Quiz. This was Leibrandt’s game to finish. We were on our feet, with everyone else in the stands, cheering every pitch. Until Clark singled to left, scoring McGee. Still, the Royals led 2-1. Time to bring in Quiz to close. But Howser stuck with Leibrandt to face Landrum, apparently sure that Cardinals Manager Whitey Herzog would counter with Van Slyke. (Landrum was a backup outfielder himself, starting because speedster Vince Coleman was injured by an automatic tarp roller in St. Louis.)

Landrum worked the count to 2-2. Leibrandt was one strike from a complete-game victory. The Royals fans cheered and stomped, trying to will one more strike from our weary pitcher. Or a ground ball or a popup. Landrum doubled, advancing Clark to third. Still the Royals had the lead and the chance to close out the game.

Now we had to see Quiz. But Howser left Leibrandt in, issuing an intentional walk to Cedeño to load the bases for another switch-hitter, Terry Pendleton. OK, I know Pendleton would hit left-handed against Quiz, but Leibrandt was clearly gassed. Howser had to get him out of there. Nope. Pendleton doubled down the left-field line. Three runs scored. Cardinals led 4-2. Finally Howser came out to get Leibrandt.

Quiz walked Darrell Porter intentionally to load the bases. Then up came Van Slyke, pinch-hitting for the pitcher. Quiz got him to fly out to center. I would have loved to see that in Landrum’s spot.

Steve Balboni singled with one out to bring the tying run up in the bottom of the ninth for the Royals. But Jorge Orta hit into the double play. Game over.

The Royals appeared headed for a possible sweep. But Bret Saberhagen pitched a complete game to win Game Three 6-1. After a 3-0 loss to Tudor in Game Four, the Royals were on the brink of elimination. But then they started the incredible 11-game post-season winning streak that ended last night.

Game Two, 2014 World Series

My sons and I will be attending Game Two tonight. More on that tomorrow.

Regular season memories

You can tell your sons about the glories of the New York Yankees, but if you take them to Royals’ games year after year, they become Royals fans. We lived in Kansas City from 1985 to 1991, watching 25-30 games a year. I was content to be a Royals fan unless the Yankees were visiting, but the boys were Royals fans, period. Most of my memories of Royals Stadium (and a few of Kauffman) are regular-season memories. They are too numerous to recount in full here, but I’ll share a few:

Once some friends visited and we took their son to a game with our kids. It was a great game, with a couple homers, a couple plays at the plate and some future Hall of Famers playing (it was Royals-Angels, so they saw Jackson, Brett and Rod Carew). When we got home, the boy excitedly told his mother, “Mom, we got to do The Wave.” I never did The Wave. And never will.

I saw Brett get thrown out of a game for arguing with an umpire. I don’t know what he said, but the umpire had a quick trigger. Brett wasn’t in his face, and he got a standing ovation after being tossed.

Bo Jackson was just incredible to watch. When I watched a batter hit the ball, my eye would follow the ball briefly, then to back to the batter as he ran. Bo was always ahead of where my eyes thought he should be. I never saw a faster or more powerful baseball player. I wonder what that talent could have done with some polish and experience if he’d stayed in baseball and not played football. But I don’t blame him (even though he played with the Raiders). I think if I had all that ability, I’d try to see what and how much I could do.

Saberhagen was a Hall of Fame talent who didn’t stay at his peak long enough to make it to Cooperstown. But his 1989 season was better than most of the pitchers in the Hall. And his 1985 and ’87 seasons (and ’85 World Series) were pretty awesome, too. I loved watching him pitch when he was on his game. But he was bad in even years and lost his magic after being traded to the Mets in 1991. He had one decent season for the Mets and Red Sox. But for those three wonderful seasons, he was a joy to watch.

We lost Quiz (in 1998) and Howser (in 1987) too early, both of them to brain cancer. Game Two of the World Series aside, they were the greatest relief pitcher and manager in Royals history, and I enjoyed watching them both.

I saw Tommy John‘s last major league win against the Royals on April 27, 1989. He was 46 and held the Royals to two runs over eight strong innings and looked like he might have another year left in him. That win raised his record to 2-3 for a bad Yankees team that would finish in fifth place. But that was all he had. After losing four more games, he retired.

We’ve returned to the stadium several times since leaving, sometimes on family road trips, sometimes while visiting my mother, who moved to Lee’s Summit, Mo., in the 1990s, once on a road trip with friends from work.

On one of those trips, in 1993, we missed another epic fight by just a day. We saw the bullpens empty for an argument in a game with the Rangers. The next day the Rangers hit Royals batter Brian McRae (yep, Hal’s son). Instead of charging the mound, McRae headed straight for the Rangers’ dugout to take on Manager Kevin Kennedy.

At a game with Tom, I caught a foul ball (picked up a rebound really) and gave the ball to Tom.

On a July 4 game, I took all three boys. Mike was maybe 10 or 11, the oldest. We had our regular two seats together and bought two more tickets together. I let Mike and Joe sit a few sections away by themselves, not my best moment as a parent. But the boys cherish the memory and enjoyed the fireworks. We’ll sit together tonight.

Opening Day was the second-toughest ticket in town on April 4, 1988. The University of Kansas’ “Danny and the Miracles” team played for the NCAA basketball championship in Kemper Arena that night (and won). I did not have tickets to the basketball game, but took in the baseball game. George Bell homered three times off Saberhagen for the Blue Jays and the Royals lost, 5-3 (it was an even-numbered year). As Tom has noted, we also saw Danny Tartabull homer three times in a game.

A few days later, I got to attend an appreciation luncheon for the Royals. Our company bought a table for the luncheon for our sports staff. But breaking news (Larry Brown‘s departure from the Jayhawks) demanded the attention of the sports staff, so I attended with some other news side editors. Frank White sat at our table, but when they served lunch, he declined. Someone encouraged him to have lunch. He smiled and said he wouldn’t have time. Soon people started coming by our table asking for autographs. Of course, none of the journalists asked for autographs. But an autographed Saberhagen ball sat in the middle of the table. At the end of the luncheon, we were told to look for a sticker under the tablecloth. The person with the sticker got the ball. So I got a Saberhagen-autographed ball. That went to Mike after our 1991 July move caused him to miss Saberhagen’s no-hitter, the day he already had “dibs” to go to the game with me. White was kind of shy, but a real gentleman. I’m glad to see his estrangement from the Royals ended this year. I’d like to see him throw out the first pitch tonight.

As long as I’ve ventured away from the stadium, one more memory from 1985: The World Series parade went down Grand Avenue right past the Kansas City Star building where I worked. So of course we went outside to join the throngs cheering our champions. It wasn’t quite a ticker-tape parade, though. Ticker tape had been replaced in the communication world by dot-matrix printers. So the crowds in downtown Kansas City threw shredded printer paper. And the paper clumped up, thumping the players as it fell on them from buildings. The celebratory paper wadded up under the vintage sports cars in which the Royals rode down Grand. And, you know, mufflers get kinda hot. So some of the paper and five of the cars caught fire. The car bearing Willie Wilson caught fire right by the Star building. I never saw him take off for second base any faster than he fled that burning car. I ran into the building to get a fire extinguisher. You’ll see lots of the paper in the video clip below, and at one point you’ll see smoke coming from the parade.

Hall of Famers I saw play in Royals Stadium (in addition to Brett, Jackson, Smith and Carew): Nolan Ryan (sadly, I didn’t see a no-hitter), Rickey Henderson (I did see him steal bases), Steve Carlton (on his last legs, playing for American League teams with nothing left), Tom Seaver (also toward his end), Cal Ripken (I probably saw a half-dozen or more games in his streak), Don Sutton (as I’ve noted before, he was nowhere near as great a pitcher as Guidry), Carlton FiskDennis Eckersley, Frank Thomas, Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Phil Niekro, Kirby Puckett, Jim Rice, Dave Winfield, Robin Yount. Managers I saw manage in Royals Stadium, in additon to Cox and Herzog: Sparky Anderson, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Earl Weaver, Dick Williams.

In an early-2000s visit to Kansas City, I saw Derek Jeter, a certain Hall of Famer, and Roger Clemens, who’ll make it to Cooperstown if they ever start admitting players tainted by suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs.

I’ve been to 28 ballparks, but I’ve had more fun at Royals/Kauffman Stadium than the other 27 combined. And tonight might be the best night of all. You can be sure I’ll blog about it.

Source note: Stats for this post come from Game accounts come from my memories, supplemented by Baseball-Reference game logs.