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IT TURNED INTO A ROYAL OCCASION

Sept. 05, 1977
Sept. 05, 1977

Table of Contents
Sept. 5, 1977

Cosmos
Royal Occasion
Come To Pass
Baseball
Horse Racing
Golf
Suited To A T
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

IT TURNED INTO A ROYAL OCCASION

With four teams bunched tightly at the top, the American League West was in the midst of its hottest race ever. But as last week's games showed, the heat could be off Kansas City if the pretenders don't find a way to dethrone the defending champs

The first half of the season in the American League West belonged to those economy-model teams from Chicago and Minnesota, but in recent weeks two clubs—Kansas City and Texas—that were expected to be near the top all along have moved into the battle. During a five-day stretch in mid-August, each of the four teams was in first place at one time or another, and as the leaders headed into last weekend's action every game became important. SI's Joe Jares (White Sox), Larry Keith (Rangers), Peter Gammons (Twins) and Jim Kaplan (Royals) dogged the contenders as they prepared to enter their stretch drives. Their reports:

This is an article from the Sept. 5, 1977 issue Original Layout

THURSDAY

ROYALS

"Who gets the gong?" is the name of a Royal ritual. After each Kansas City win Equipment Manager Al Zych hangs a gold gong in the locker of the player who made the most conspicuous blunder. Of late it has been difficult to find gongees. The Royals have tied a team record—and moved from fourth to first—with eight straight wins. They are getting power—their 110 homers are exactly twice as many as they had at this time last season—and superb relief pitching. The latest bullpen hero is palmballer Doug Bird, who has two wins and six saves in his last 10 outings.

"Am I going to pitch tonight?" Bird asks Manager Whitey Herzog. "Having a hell of a week. Maybe to some right-handed batters?" Herzog shrugs. "Perhaps in the ninth," he says. Sure enough. Bird faces Milwaukee's Jim Wynn, who is the potential winning run, with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth. Bird induces him to hit a ground ball, and KC beats the Brewers 9-6.

The gong? It goes to starter and winner Paul Splittorff, who pitched seven innings. "I guess I was supposed to go nine," he says.

WHITE SOX

"Darnedest team I ever saw" is how Texas Manager Billy Hunter has described the White Sox. "They give you five outs an inning about three times a game, and then they hit so well that it doesn't do you much good." Not only have the Chicago fielders been fumble-fingered, but the pitching has also given up more earned runs than any non-expansion staff in the league. Tonight in Baltimore it is their pitching that the White Sox hitters have to overcome.

Lefthander Ken Kravec, 0-4 for August, gives up 12 hits and four runs in 4‚Öì innings, but the Sox are rescued by some Scandinavian sock from two players owner Bill Veeck picked up cheap. Third Baseman Eric Soderholm (a $50,000 free agent of Swedish descent) hits a home run in the second, and strapping Outfielder Wayne Nordhagen (a 29-year-old Norwegian obtained in a minor league trade) drives in four runs with the first and second homers of his brief major league career. Chicago wins 6-4 and moves into second place.

Surrounded by reporters in the locker room, Nordhagen savors the attention.

"Many times I thought of quitting," he says, "but I kept having good years. I never doubted that I could hit major league pitching. I thought Triple A pitching was tougher because of poorer playing conditions."

There was one other surprise in the game. With newly acquired Don Kessinger at second in place of Jorge Orta, Chicago turns three double plays, a minor miracle.

TWINS

The Twins' bus ride from the New York Sheraton to Yankee Stadium is devoted to sightseeing. The players check out Madison Avenue ladies and the 125th Street carnival. As they ride past a soft-ball game on a playground near 140th Street, someone yells over the loud blare of a Chuck Mangione tape, "Don't slow down, Bussie, or Calvin'll get out and sign one of those guys."

Minnesota's players are proud of being in contention and of being members of owner Calvin Griffith's recycling center. Except for Rod Carew, this is largely a team of the very young, of veterans who have spent too much time in Triple A and of releasees named Thormodsgard and Serum whose signings cost Griffith about $1.75. "I'm surprised how little tension this team feels right now," says Second Baseman Bobby Randall, himself retrieved last year, at age 29, from the Dodger system. "It just feels like the same game we've played all our lives."

But after the night's 6-4 loss to the Yankees, Manager Gene Mauch paces around his office, rubbing out one cigarette after another, shredding a pile of papers on his desk. "I'd give $10,000 for that run, and it was ours, dammit," he says, referring to a fifth-inning fan-interference call on which Mauch felt the umpires should have allowed Larry Hisle, who had been running on the pitch, to advance to home plate. It had been a game during which the Twins had thrice rallied to tie, had left 12 runners on base and had lost in the eighth.

As Mauch seethes, the clubhouse is silent. On the bus to Newark Airport not even Chuck Mangione is heard, and on the plane to Boston the beer is consumed in nervous sips. But Mauch, with his theatrics, has taken some of the heat off his players, who have just lost two games to the Yankees and now face the perils of playing in Boston. He knows these are just the sort of games his players have not been playing in all their lives.

RANGERS

Six flags have flown over Texas, but none of them has been the American League pennant. The Rangers think they can change that. Since June 27, when the team set a major league record by making Billy Hunter its fourth manager of the year, it has won 37 of 56 games. Two weeks ago the Rangers even took the division lead for a day. During his 13 seasons as a Baltimore coach. Hunter turned down five managerships while waiting for his two sons to grow up. As soon as he arrived in Texas he invigorated the talented but moldering Rangers by conducting a series of "mini-spring training" sessions to reemphasize fundamentals.

Like Hunter, most of the Ranger players were developed in more successful organizations—14 were on division winners elsewhere. But not everyone is a Texas Stranger. Among the home-grown are First Baseman Mike Hargrove, the Rangers' top hitter (.310), and Catcher Jim Sundberg, who has raised his average from .222 to .303 and tripled his RBI total since Hunter took over.

There is plenty of hitting tonight but Texas loses to Boston 9-6 when the relief pitching sours in the seventh. Hargrove has a chance to tie the game in the eighth but takes a third strike that creates a furor and leads to the ejection of Hunter and two bench jockeys. Says Hunter, "The pitch to Mike would have been a strike only in a bowling alley."

FRIDAY

ROYALS

A ballplayer's hassles never end. "A guy with an accent calls me up this morning," Pitcher Jim Colborn says on the bus to Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. " 'You want some actions?' he asks me." Colborn's teammates crack up. " No,' I say. I don't want any actions.' "

At Memorial Stadium the grass is lush, the wind gentle and the temperature 77°. It is the perfect setting for Friday night baseball, and the Royals and Orioles play a near-perfect game. There is a beautiful pitching duel between Jim Palmer and Dennis Leonard, superb fielding all around and even an instance of one of baseball's most enduring clichés coming to life. "Hey, isn't it odd how often the guy who makes a great play in the field leads off the next inning?" is the bromide in this case. Leftfielder Hal McRae throws out Oriole Mark Belanger at the plate to end the second, and then he opens the third with a homer. That ties the score at 2-2. A few batters later another run—the game's last—scores on a double-play grounder by John Mayberry. The run has been inconspicuously set up by the second of three singles by Al Cowens, the bespectacled rightfielder who has displaced Mayberry and Amos Otis in the cleanup spot. Leonard (14-10) retires 20 of the last 21 batters he faces for his 10th victory in his last 12 decisions. In all, the Royals' 10th straight win sends the crowd of 21,511 home frustrated but entertained. They have seen plenty of actions.

WHITE SOX

Despite an afternoon downpour that left the field soggy, 28,221 fans showed up at Comiskey Park to welcome the White Sox home for the start of a three-game series with Milwaukee. Though the Sox have blown a division lead that was once 6½ games, their fans seem deliriously happy that this band of low-paid no-names is still in contention as Labor Day approaches.

Because the Brewers start righthander Moose Haas, Chicago Manager Bob Lemon benches last night's hero, Nordhagen, in favor of left-handed Oscar Gamble, who has hit a home run every 12.1 times up this season. He belts his 26th in the first, doubles in the third, singles in the seventh and drives in three runs. Nordhagen pinch-hits in the eighth and doubles home Chicago's final run in a 4-2 win.

Astoundingly, the White Sox get three more double plays and six innings of good pitching from Steve Renko. "Our hitting up to about a week ago was carrying us," says Lemon. "Now we're getting the pitching, but we're not scoring our eight runs a game. We haven't played a lot of pretty ball games but we're winning." Unfortunately, for the Chicago fans, so are the Royals.

TWINS

Mauch holds a meeting at 6, 15 minutes before the start of batting practice and 2½ hours after Carew, 0 for 5 the previous night, had finished a special session in the batting cage. Mauch says he wants to talk about "priorities" and the pennant race. "I don't worry about these guys," he says, even though the Twins are now five games behind the Royals in the loss column. "They've got resiliency. We were 15½ back of Kansas City at this time last season and finished five out. We might have won had the season been two weeks longer. A couple of losses or a few games in the loss column now don't mean much. Right now, if they win, players say it was a must game. If they lose, they talk about tomorrows."

After the Red Sox score three runs in the seventh to tie the game at 4-4, the Twins come back for a 6-4 victory. Carew leads off the eighth, picking a near-perfect pitch from Boston's Rick Kreuger off his shoetops and drilling a double down the left-field line. He scores the clincher on Lyman Bostock's single. Tom Johnson, who had been chilled by four straight frozen ropes the previous night, relieves in the seventh and breezes to his 14th win. In striking contrast to the night before, music blares through the clubhouse. "Resiliency," Mauch says again, leaning back at his desk and sipping a VO and water. "That's a big thing in a race like this. I think this club has it. At least I hope so."

RANGERS

Minutes before the start of a three-game series with New York, Hunter tries to rally his team. "All right now, three in a row," he says. "We owe it to them. They embarrassed us in our place last week. Now let's pay them back."

Instead of making New York pay for the three-game sweep in Texas, the Rangers stage a giveaway for the second night in a row, blowing a lead in the late innings and losing 6-5. Two mistakes are critical—an error by rookie Second Baseman Bump Wills on a double-play ball in the seventh and a missed sign by pinch hitter Curt Bevacqua in the ninth. One mistake leads to two unearned runs; the other turns Juan Beniquez into an easy out at second when Bevacqua fails to execute his role in the hit-and-run.

Hunter explodes in the clubhouse, and when he joins plastic pipe magnate and team owner Brad Corbett in the manager's office, there is a crashing sound behind the closed door.

Meanwhile, slumping against a wall in the back of the clubhouse, Sundberg says, "We can't fall too much farther behind."

SATURDAY

ROYALS

George Brett stands in the locker room, expounding on leadership. "We don't need a team leader because everyone gets along," he says.

"The only problem," says Hal McRae, "is Brett."

"You'll be the problem when I beat you in homers," Brett answers.

Their bickering is nothing more than clubhouse japery of the sort pennant winners seem to specialize in. Brett, McRae and the rest of the Royals do indeed get along. And on this happy team, 20 of whose members have signed long-term contracts, Brett and McRae are as invaluable leaders in the locker room as they are on the field. Brett had a hand in acquiring the now-famous gong, and McRae is a celebrated—and merciless—kidder.

Brett and McRae are not competing for the hitting title as they did in 1976, but they are doing everything else well. Brett has hit 16 homers—compared to six at this time last season—and he has struck out only 19 times in 436 at bats. McRae's homers are up from eight to 17, and he is among the league leaders in five offensive categories. "As they go, so goes the team," says General Manager Joe Burke.

Tonight the leaders go, but no one follows. Brett and McRae reach base seven times in 10 trips to the plate, yet the Orioles win 4-2. The rest of the Royals, including Herzog, who is outmanaged by Baltimore's Earl Weaver, deserve to get the gong. Fortunately for them, it isn't handed out after defeats.

WHITE SOX

Regardless of how the White Sox finish, Comiskey Park's Nancy Faust is a sure bet to be the American League's MVO (Most Valuable Organist). When the Sox do something good—or even threaten to—she plays the tune from an old rock hit, Kiss Him Goodbye. Nowadays that immediately provokes a boisterous sing-along by Chicago fans, who chant the song's nonsense lyrics, "Na, na, na, na! Na, na, na, na! Hey, hey! Goodbye!"

"If the White Sox win it," says Chicago columnist Bill Gleason, "Nancy'll be the only organist ever voted a full Series share."

There is a lot of singing tonight as the Sox keep coming from behind. Their third rally beats Milwaukee 7-6. Designated Hitter Lamar Johnson, a former high school defensive end from Birmingham who looks like he could tear apart the SEC, extends his hitting streak to 11 games with a double and a homer. Chet Lemon wins it in the eighth with a three-run homer. Hey, hey! Goodbye!

RANGERS

Texas is swinging too well to take one of Corbett's plastic pipes just now. Hargrove begins the afternoon at Yankee Stadium by hitting his fifth leadoff homer in the last 18 games. Three innings later Wills, who already has an RBI single, puts one in the upper deck. In the fifth Shortstop Bert Campaneris pops a homer barely fair and barely over the right-field fence.

Now it is the seventh. After singles by Willie Horton and Dave May, Third Baseman Toby Harrah hits a liner toward right. Rightfielder Lou Piniella smacks the wall—and so does the ball. Piniella goes down in a heap, and Harrah goes around the bases. After the obligatory hand slaps, Wills sends the next pitch toward deep center field. Mickey Rivers does a rain dance, the ball glances off his glove and Wills touches every base, too. It is only the second time that consecutive inside-the-park home runs have been hit in the majors.

The five homers in the game are a Ranger record and give Bert Blyleven a six-hit, 8-2 victory. After Wills flies deep to center in the seventh, his teammates ask him where he ate last night, because there must have been something in the food that brought on this outburst of raw power. Obviously, Bump did not inherit it from his old man, Maury. Wills tells them: The Good Times Restaurant.

Hunter is having a good time, too. In his office after the game, he takes off his shoes, puts up his feet, opens a beer and declares this "a very lovely day."

TWINS

It is on afternoons like this, when the sun pours down and the wind whips out of Fenway Park, that visiting teams find out why Red Sox scouts are always on the lookout for right-handed hitters who can get the ball up in the air. Four Boston righties homer, and the Sox beat the Twins 7-5. Two of the clouts—not to mention a double good for two other runs—are Fenway wind jobs. With two runners in scoring position in both the eighth and ninth innings, Minnesota's league-leading (102) RBI man Hisle crushes the ball but he fails to put arc on his shots. His two smoking liners disappear into the gloves of Boston outfielders.

Hisle sits and stares into his locker for more than half an hour after the game. Ron Schueler, the pitcher who gave up two of the wind-aided homers, sucks on a beer, gets up and slam-dunks the empty can into a barrel. For 25 minutes Mauch stalks the clubhouse. "I really thought we'd score big today," he says. "Real big." He puts out a cigarette, walks out the door and across the hall, then immediately reappears. "Oh, hell, someday the wind'll be blowing in, and we'll be hitting line drives."

Mauch had used a lineup that looked as if it had been drawn up by a third-grader from Pelican Rapids. Missing were Lyman Bostock, who had a nine-game hitting streak going, and four others who had started the night before. Hisle hit cleanup after having led off the two previous games. But Mauch has used about 100 lineups, with Hisle, Bostock and Butch Wynegar all batting in every position from first to seventh. "I thought this lineup would hit Bill Lee," he says. In a way he was right. The Twins hit Lee and Reliever Jim Willoughby hard enough—but not high enough.

Clearly there is an ill wind blowing for Minnesota. When the day's games are finished, the Twins find themselves in fourth place.

SUNDAY

ROYALS

Watching football on TV last night, Herzog could not get a grim baseball thought off his mind: "If Mayberry and Otis were only carrying their load...."

Had Herzog completed the sentence, he would have said something on the order of "we'd be 10 games in front." Like Brett and McRae, Mayberry and Otis were asked to pull the ball more this year. Unlike Brett and McRae, they have largely failed to hit. Two seasons ago they were a Royal one-two punch. Last year Mayberry slumped from .291 to .232, and Otis was hit on the head by a pitch delivered by Stan Bahnsen. This season Mayberry has increased his homer output from 13 to 20, but his average is again in the .230s. His teammates wince in sympathy as he lunges at pitches and lifts his head while swinging. Herzog seems convinced that Otis is gun-shy because of the beaning, and he often benches his centerfielder against hard throwers Jim Palmer, Dennis Eckersley, Nolan Ryan and Bert Blyleven. Otis is batting only .255 against the pitchers he does face. "I think I can still hit Palmer and the others," he says, "but Whitey's the boss. It wouldn't hurt if I were 35, but I'm 30." Nonetheless, in the judgment of some American Leaguers, Otis is only too happy to sit down against the big heat.

But he can play in big heat. On this 91° afternoon, Otis walks twice, singles and scores on John Wathan's homer. Andy Hassler and Bird five-hit the Orioles. After the 5-0 win, the Royals feast on hard-shell crabs. It has been a weekend worth celebrating.

WHITE SOX

"We made two mistakes," says Veeck. "We showed up for the game and didn't pray hard enough for rain."

Sitting morosely in the press box waiting for the final Minnesota-Boston score to come in, Veeck is in his uniform of dark slacks and short-sleeved, open-collared white shirt. Usually he gets up and paces when a game gets down to the final outs, but there is no need for that today. Nor is there much for the 42.426 fans to Hey, hey! about.

The weather is August-in-Chicago humid, the wind swirls paper bags and hot-dog wrappers around the field like tumbleweeds, and the Brewers go on a rampage right from the first inning, bashing Sox pitching for 16 hits in a 10-1 romp.

Rookie righthander Lary Sorensen, who has developed into a steady starter for Milwaukee after beginning the season by getting blitzed in Triple A, holds Chicago to six hits. Veeck is wrong. The Sox make a lot more than two mistakes. The Royals are winning still. But now Chicago isn't.

RANGERS

First impressions can be deceiving. After tripling against Yankee Pitcher Ron Guidry in the first inning, Sundberg tells Hunter that the lefthander is not throwing as well today as he did last week. Wrong. Guidry is pitching better. Sundberg's triple and Bert Campaneris' single in the seventh are the only hits the Rangers get, and they lose 1-0.

Hunter does not consider it a coincidence that a black cat appears in the dugout midway through the game, especially when he sees how the Yankees score their run. With one out in the sixth, Graig Nettles lifts a ball toward right center. Rightfielder Tom Grieve backs to the wall and is prepared to make the catch when Centerfielder Beniquez streaks in front of him and leaps. The ball glances off Beniquez' glove, and Nettles winds up at third. One out later, Reggie Jackson loops Dock Ellis' 3-0 pitch off his fists and into short center to drive in the game's sole run. It is only the fifth hit off Ellis, but the damage is done.

As disappointing as the loss is to the Rangers, there is an even more troubling fact. The weekend is over, the season is four games closer to the end, and the Rangers are two games farther from first place than they were Thursday morning.

TWINS

"Don't let anyone in here," Twins Equipment Manager Ray Crump hollers at Clubhouse Guard Bob Sharkey as the Minnesota players file up the tunnel and into the locker room. After a 20-minute wait the writers are allowed into the clubhouse, where they find Mauch's office door half-closed. Behind it is a pile of shattered glass. "We've got to get home and get turned around," he says, dressing quickly to get the bus to the airport for the flight to the Twin Cities. "It's there for us to win for ourselves. If we are a championship club, then we'll beat the other three contenders in the next month. But we can't get too far behind."

In two series in New York and Boston, the Twins have gone 1-4 and dropped three games in the standings. This afternoon they started out playing like the 140th Street playground team. Then they rallied from a 4-1 deficit to lead the Red Sox 5-4, only to lose 6-5 on Carl Yastrzemski's single and a save by former Twin Bill Campbell. He got Carew to fly out and Bostock to strike out to end the game.

A few players pick over the spread of fried chicken and hamburgers in the clubhouse after the doors are opened. One even manages a half-hearted joke. No one laughs.

Carew is one of the last to come out of the shower. Pulling on a pair of bikini briefs that have BASEBALL'S BEST imprinted on them, he says, "I don't care that I got two hits yesterday and today, because two days in a row I've gone out in the middle of ninth-inning rallies. I'm down, and I'm tired. Dead tired. My hands are slow, and I really hate these days when it's 212°. I tried to go to the movies last night and relax. I couldn't. It's been a long trip."

View this article in the original magazine

TWO PHOTOSIn the 9-6 victory that extended the Kansas City Royals' club-record winning streak, Catcher John Wathan cut off a run by laying a sweep tag on Brewer Sal Bando. Like other Royals opponents of late, Bando was left hopping mad.TWO PHOTOSYumping Yimminy, the Orioles were done in by the Scandinavian Sox; Soderholm (top), Nordhagen.PHOTODave May's head-first slide typifies the invigorated style of the Rangers under new manager Hunter.PHOTOHobson's high drive left Twin Dave Johnson low.

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CHICAGO

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TEXAS

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KANSAS CITY

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CHICAGO

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MINNESOTA

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TEXAS

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KANSAS CITY

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CHICAGO

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