For the Kansas City Royals this would be, as a measure of the future, a testing series. Here they were last week, driving hard after the flagging Oakland A's, with a new manager who had primed them well enough to win 14 of their last 18 games, but playing now in Baltimore, in hated Baltimore, where many a Royal has bombed. So the first night, not looking like serious contenders, they go out and lose 4-0.
Enough, said Whitey Herzog, who on July 24 had taken command of the team from Jack McKeon. In the clubhouse before the second Oriole game, Herzog called a short meeting. He began, "You are a very good team...."
"...but I've been telling them that since I came," Herzog said the next morning, after the Royals went out and beat the streaking Orioles 4-2 in 10 innings. K.C. would lose that night, but for the moment Herzog was happy with one out of three. "This time I just wanted to tell them that they are a good team in Baltimore. And in Oakland. Back home there's always been a lot of moaning from the fans and the press that the Royals couldn't win in those places. And they had the figures to prove it. You keep hearing that junk, you start to believe it."
Going into this season, Kansas City had won only eight times in Baltimore, while losing 27. And in Oakland the Royals had won just 16 games, while losing no fewer than 38.
"Those records were built against Kansas City when it was an expansion team," Herzog told his troops. "You aren't an expansion team any longer. You are as good as any team in this league. And you can win in Baltimore just as well as you can win at home."
Herzog has brought a lot to Kansas City, but mostly he has brought confidence. When he arrived from the California Angels, where he was coaching third base, the Royals were in second place, 11 games behind Oakland and going nowhere. They had lost confidence in McKeon, a fun-loving guy who had lost communication with them. It hadn't helped a bit that at the end of last season McKeon had fired Charley Lau, his hitting coach and a man respected by the players.
Since 1958 Herzog has made his home in Independence, Mo., just 10 minutes from the Royals' ball park, and over the winter he had heard the players grumbling. One of his first moves when he became manager was to rehire Lau.
"I've always believed a manager should surround himself with the most intelligent, most capable coaches he can find," says Herzog, who spent the 1973 season managing (and building) the Texas Rangers, only to be fired to make room for Billy Martin. "Some managers are afraid to do that."
Herzog also restored the old K.C. starting lineup, which McKeon had been juggling in hopes of getting something going. That meant Freddie Patek, who had been leading off since 1971, went back to hitting first, with Cookie Rojas batting second, Amos Otis third, etc.
"When I was on the other side and the Royals had those guys batting one, two, three, that's when I felt they were toughest," Herzog says. Then he reinserted lefthander Paul Splittorff into what had become an all-right-handed pitching rotation—and Splittorff has gone 3-0. And he began calling each player in for a one-on-one talk.
"I think in the last three weeks I've held more conferences than Kissinger," says Herzog. "Other than that, we didn't do much. People started telling me I was a genius, but I've been down that road before—a genius one day, a dummy the next. It's kind of hard to look bad when you've got a guy like John Mayberry hitting the way he is."
In June, Mayberry was struggling along with only nine home runs. It got so bad that McKeon was playing the 6'3", 220-pound lefthander against such lefthanders as Vida Blue and Frank Ta-nana and resting him against Dick Bosman and Ed Figueroa, righthanders.
"Since I'm a left-handed hitter, I thought it was a strange way of platooning a guy hitting around .210," Mayberry says dryly. "One day I decided I had better get my stuff together."
Since July 1 Mayberry has got enough of his stuff together to leap into first place in the league in home runs (29), and into second place in RBIs (84), walks (84) and in slugging percentage (.563). Over that span and going into the Baltimore series, he had hit .365 with 17 home runs and had driven in 45 runs.
"Right now," says Lau, "he's the best hitter in the American League, and maybe in all of baseball. A hitter like John only comes along once every 10 years."
Mayberry is not the only Royal to wield a hot bat of late. In recent streaks running from 10 to 15 games, Otis hit .385; Hal McRae, who leads the league in doubles, .361; Bob Stinson, .325; and George Brett, .316. Such bopping helped reduce Oakland's lead from 11 to 5½ games early last week. After taking two of three weekend games from the Yankees—Mayberry homering in each—the Royals were six out.
"I told the team I thought we could catch Oakland," says Herzog, "but I didn't expect to be this close quite this quickly. But I told our guys it had to happen sometime. First, we are a darn good team and, more importantly, now we believe it. And I told them, just look at Oakland's lineup. It's a great team. But eight of their guys have played 105 games, and another has played 99. They've got to be tired. And their top three relievers are one, two, three in the league in appearances. Charley Finley keeps making out the lineups, and Alvin Dark keeps playing them. Dark knows they need a rest, but what can he do? And when something does happen, they haven't got any bench."
The Royals have no such problem. When one of his starting outfielders tires, Herzog can substitute either Jim Wohlford or Vada Pinson. In recent weeks Frank White has filled in at second and short and has been outstanding. And should Mayberry need a day off, Harmon Killebrew or Tony Solaita, the designated hitters, can pick up a glove.
"Right now," says Herzog, "the key to the Royals will be what happens after we lose two or three straight games. Last year in August they were four games back, and they lost a couple. Then a couple of more. When it was over, they had lost something like 16 out of 18 and had fallen from second place to fifth. I don't think that can happen again."