Winning three short series in April does not automatically a contender make in the major leagues, particularly when the team that does so is the Kansas City Royals and has just achieved the grand old age of five. Nevertheless, this week the Royals were atop the standings in the American League's once innocuous West Division and they were hitting, running and gambling as if they harbored notions of making themselves known to baseball fans everywhere as Murderers' Row West. Kansas City was turning up runs in clumps—an average of seven a game—and its team batting average of .281 was exceeded in the league only by marauding Boston.
Not only did the Royals play well, they also opened a splendid new $35 million baseball-only park that should become the most talked-about stadium in the nation. It was 39° when the first game played in Royals Stadium began last Tuesday night, 9° colder than it was in Juneau, Alaska, but the largest crowd ever to see a game in Kansas City (39,464) came out and looked in amazement at the biggest scoreboard in sports. That structure alone cost $2 million. Among other things, it can put a picture of a ballplayer up in lights 12 stories high. It also gives out-of-town scores on an inning-by-inning basis, flashes information about what is happening in other games or other sports and provides up-to-the-minute batting averages.
More important, Royals Stadium is the first American League park to be fully carpeted with an artificial playing surface. (Six National League stadiums have artificial fields, but in the American only the infield at White Sox Park is so covered.) And the Royals intend to take advantage of what they have. "It could mean 15 games to them in the standings," says Texas Ranger Manager Whitey Herzog. "A team will come into Royals Stadium and take a couple of days to get adjusted to playing on the stuff. By then it will be time to move on. The way the schedule is set up, we opened the park but don't come back until the end of June. I hope we don't forget what we learned."
If the Rangers may be used as a legitimate example of what might happen to visiting teams, Kansas City certainly has a built-in edge. The Rangers had all kinds of problems during their first two games on the Tartan field. Balls jumped up and slammed against their bodies, rolled swiftly between outfielders and caromed off the high outfield fences for extra bases. Only the pitcher's mound, batter's box and sliding areas around the bases are made of dirt.
Fortunately for KC, three Royals in-fielders are former National Leaguers who have had experience on artificial surfaces: Shortstop Fred Patek, Second Baseman Cookie Rojas and First Baseman John Mayberry. Patek, while the smallest player in the big leagues at 5'4", has a very strong arm. For a shortstop to function on such an infield he has to have a strong arm. Most of the time he is playing the hitters so deep he looks as if he is usurping half of the leftfielder's territory. Rojas is one of the game's smartest players and an excellent hit-and-run man. "This park should certainly help us," Cookie says. "We hit down on the ball and don't strike out too much." And while the 6'3", 220-pound Mayberry is better known as a hitter, he led the league in five of seven defensive categories last season.
In a euphoric mood over getting the stadium built at last after many delays, Owner Ewing Kauffman has promised the fans "five pennants in the next 10 years." Kauffman bought the Royals as a civic gesture. In contrast to Charles O. Finley, who took his Kansas City Athletics to Oakland, Kauffman is a popular man in town. At the opening ceremonies he received round after round of applause, and when he trotted onto the field with his wife Muriel they were dressed in royal blue from head to toe. Nearly everything about the Royals is done in blue, including the road uniforms, the shoes and even the mitt of First Baseman Mayberry.
Recently turned 23, Mayberry is the blossoming young long-ball hitter in the league. Says Dick Allen of the White Sox: "He moves the Royals up 10 lengths by himself. He is strong, real strong. I don't give KC much of a chance without John Mayberry in the lineup. I really wish I had more time to study him as a hitter. But because I play first base and he hits left-handed there isn't a lot of time to look at him unless I want to have my head taken off by one of his line drives. By the time he's through he will break a lot of records. He hits down on a ball as well as anybody I've seen."
As the week ended, Mayberry was leading the majors with 14 runs batted in and Manager Jack McKeon was leading his cheering section. "Mayberry," he said, "is the perfect man to have on a ball team because he has an excellent sense of humor and doesn't get down on himself or let the other players get down. He loves to play baseball." Rookie Manager McKeon has gotten little publicity outside Kansas City, but he will. He got to the major leagues by way of South Amboy, N.J., Holy Cross, Seton Hall and Elon colleges and 15 years of managing in the minor leagues, where his teams finished in the first division 11 times but still occasionally turned McKeon's thoughts to other lines of work.
"I am a firm believer in TTP," says McKeon. "Total team performance. All the individual numbers in the world don't mean a thing unless the team plays well. I like to make things happen. I don't believe in a lot of that stereotype, traditional stuff in baseball. People say you shouldn't steal a base when you are ahead by something like 6-1. Nonsense. If you can steal it, steal it. We are going to run into a lot of outs on the bases, but we'll pick up more than we'll lose because once you start running things happen. In our first six games this year I had our hitters swinging on 3-0 counts five times. What did we get? Two homers, two doubles and a line-drive out.
"I ask the players to play for the team. You'd be amazed how hard it can be to convince some people that it has to be done. I figured out once in the minors that a man had to give himself up as an out to advance a base runner into scoring position on the average of only 2½ times a month. That comes down to 13 times a season. If everything went wrong and the batter was out every time, his average would drop only five points over the season. But a lot of times a ball hit to the right side to move a runner from second to third will go through for a hit and a run batted in. If you win, your salary will go up a lot higher than it will if you don't, and nobody will ever remember that you dropped five points on your personal average."
One player brimming with TTP is Amos Otis, an exciting centerfielder who has speed, power and a fine batting eye. Otis is hitting the ball consistently to the right side and making surprise bunts to move runners ahead so that Mayberry and Lou Piniella can drive them home. During batting practice one day Mayberry stood behind the cage shouting through the ropes at Otis: "Your name was Amos Otis. Now it's Amos Otis, MVP." If Otis continues to follow another of McKeon's laws—"Know where you have been; know where you are; know where you are going"—he could make May berry's prophecy come true.
Selfless to a fault, the Royals took two of three games from the Rangers, then flew into Chicago to put on one of the gaudier batting displays of the new season in a 12-5 victory. Every Royal who came up got a hit and Otis ran amok, going four for six at the plate, scoring three runs and stealing a base. The next day Wilbur Wood threw a three-hitter at the Royals. But Paul Splittorff threw a two-hitter right back and the Royals won 3-0. On Sunday the Royals loosed the batting thunder again, connecting for 14 hits in another 12-5 victory to sweep the series—something no divisional opponent was able to do to the White Sox at home all last year. Four Royals belted homers—Mayberry, Patek, Hal McRae (the designated hitter) and Ed Kirkpatrick—and Big John had a double, too, as did Otis.
If Whitey Herzog's judgment of Kansas City is anywhere near the mark, the Royals will be serious contenders for the division title.
"We have a chance," says Outfielder McRae, who played last year for the Cincinnati Reds. "Maybe we don't have the big names that some other clubs have, but we are playing the game the right way. If I had to bet, I'd say that we will hit as many home runs as Cincinnati, if not more, and that we will steal as many bases. But nobody is calling us the Big Blue Machine."