The sport was baseball when the New York Yankees defeated the Kansas City Royals in a five-game American League playoff last week, but more often the action on the field resembled a Jets and Sharks rumble. For once the Yankees took their fight out of the clubhouse and onto the diamond. They came from behind in the series and they came from behind in the final game, and when they had won 5-3, tears of agony and frustration flowed from the center-field fountains of Royals Stadium.
In Game 5 Kansas City scored all its runs in the first and third innings off Yankee starter Ron Guidry. He had beaten the Royals with a three-hitter in Game 2, and now he was pitching with only two days' rest, because he was the best that remained of an injury-riddled staff. But three runs would not be enough, and Kansas City scored nothing at all in 5‚Öì innings against Mike Torrez, who had been the loser two nights before, and in 1‚Öì against the nearly indefatigable Sparky Lyle, who got his second straight win while appearing in his third straight game.
Royal starter Paul Splittorff had not been seen since his opening-game victory on Wednesday. Confident and well rested, he sailed into the eighth with a 3-1 lead. When Yankee Second Baseman Willie Randolph lined a single to center to open the inning, Splittorff was removed. He had done his job. Now it was just a matter of setting New York down in the last two innings.
Five men tried and, in effect, five men failed. While they struggled to get six outs, New York got four runs on four hits, including a clutch pinch single by Reggie Jackson. Jackson had started the game on the bench, the proper place for a man who had looked so bad at the plate (one for 14) and in the field, where he forever seemed to be trying to play basketball with the baseball, during the first four games. But Jackson is a dramatic player, not a bad one, and this was a moment not to be missed. He drove home Randolph to make the score 3-2.
In the ninth, New York scored three more times on RBIs by Mickey Rivers and Randolph and a throwing error by Third Baseman George Brett.
Lyle allowed one runner to reach base in the Royals' half of the ninth, but then he induced Fred Patek to hit into a memorable 5-4-3 game-ending double play. Afterward, the gutty little shortstop suffered alone in the dugout while the Yankees celebrated, hugging and praising each other and forgetting for a moment the antagonisms that had kept them apart for most of the season.
This was the second straight year in which Kansas City and New York battled to a climactic fifth game. For all their differences in style and personality, they remained finely matched; indeed, until Sunday, they were able to display distinct hitting and pitching superiority only on alternate days. The Royals took Game 1 in New York 7-2 and Game 3 at home 6-2, while the Yankees won 6-2 and 6-4 to twice pull even.
None of these games was close. Only once, in Game 2, did a lead change hands. Taken together, though, they reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the teams. As the opener in New York proved, the Royals are aggressive and opportunistic, quick to take advantage of an opponent's mistakes, whatever form they may take. On this day the Yankees provided two of special importance and originality. Starter Don Gullett made the first error by not letting anyone know that his arm had bothered him while he was warming up. The initial indication that something was wrong was the four straight balls he threw to leadoff batter Patek. The second indication was the home run that Hal McRae, who batted right behind Patek, powered into the leftfield seats. Gullett allowed two more runs in the second inning while still hoping the pain would go away.
Meanwhile, poor judgment of another sort was being exercised by Leftfielder Lou Piniella, who thought he saw an umpire signal a ground-rule double on a ball hit by Patek in the second inning. While Piniella leisurely tossed the ball back to the infield, the third and fourth runs of the game scored and Patek wound up at second base. Home runs by John Mayberry and Al Cowens took care of the rest of the Kansas City scoring, while lefty Splittorff and the defense took care of the Yankees.
Clearly, the Yankees would have to do better, and in Game 2 they did. Guidry's tight pitching and Cliff Johnson's homer, double and two RBIs highlighted the victory, but it was a skirmish at second base between McRae and Randolph that got most of the attention. The aggressiveness of McRae on the base paths has been well documented for years by injuries to himself and his opponents. Depending on your allegiance, he is either dirty or hard-nosed. In the sixth inning he was a little of both when he went far beyond the bag to bowl into Randolph with a perfect belt-high cross-body block. McRae was seeking to break up a possible double play and allow the ubiquitous Patek to score from second. He succeeded, but not without enveloping both teams in controversy.
"That was a no-no, a cheap shot," said New York Manager Billy Martin. "When that happened to me as a player I put the ball in the man's face. Randolph didn't do that because he's a gentleman."
The Royal camp held another point of view. "Martin is full of it," said Manager Whitey Herzog. "That was a clean slide." McRae, who has heard similar complaints before, had a ready defense. "I'll do whatever is conducive to winning," he said. "If I was trying to hurt a guy, I would cut him around the knees."
Not only did the slide, as Thurman Munson insisted, "turn the whole game around"—the Yankees scored three runs in their next time at bat to break a 2-2 tie—but it also pointed up the profound difference in the styles of the clubs. As McRae said, "Martin is mad because it cost him a run, and his guys don't get many by making plays like that."
The advantage of aggressive play is that it forces the defense to hurry itself into mistakes. In Game 3 the Yankees made plenty, including bobbles by Jackson in right, Chris Chambliss at first and Torrez on the mound that all led to runs. With the Royals' 20-game winner, Dennis Leonard, throwing a four-hitter, New York could ill afford such largesse.
The Yankees were wanting in other significant ways, too. While Royal Catcher Darrell Porter described in glowing terms the scouting report that had helped thwart New York's left-handed power hitters (Jackson, Chambliss and Graig Nettles had only six hits and no homers in the series), several Yankees complained that their scouts' reports had been virtually ignored. "I can't understand it," said Torrez. "I looked at it on my own, but there was no meeting for the pitchers to go over the hitters, no meeting of any kind."
Another Yankee said Martin was not doing all he should to motivate his players. "We could be knocking down some people ourselves," he said. "Our pitchers shouldn't let their hitters lean over the plate. We need to show them we mean business, swing some elbows like they do in basketball."
The Yankees needed no special intelligence or intimidating tactics for the fourth game. In fact, Martin was so confident of beating Royal lefthander Larry Gura that he said, "We blocked all the highway exits to prevent any accidents that would keep him from coming."
Gura arrived safely at Royals Stadium, and Rivers banged his first pitch off the right center-field wall for a double—the first of four hits he would get this day. Nettles followed with an infield single, advancing Rivers to third, and Rivers scored when Munson's grounder forced Nettles at second. On the same play Nettles busted into K.C. Second Baseman Frank White, clearly in retaliation for McRae's block. "It showed we're not going to just lay down and let them beat us," Nettles said.
New York never trailed, but it took superb relief work by Lyle to keep the Royals, who had cut a 4-0 deficit to 5-4 by the fourth inning, at bay. In Game 3, Lyle had been hit hard, but on Saturday he allowed only two singles in 5‚Öì innings. "I pitched better because I was a little tired," he said. "When I have too much rest, I become too strong and I muscle the ball, which straightens out my slider."
Lyle's hard breaking pitches left Kansas City with no choice but to look ahead to Game 5. And they could do so with extra confidence because Gullett's sore arm made him unavailable. "With only two days' rest, Guidry shouldn't have his normal live fastball," said Brett. "If he has to go with his breaking stuff, we'll pick up the pattern very quickly."
It seemed an unfair assignment for the inexperienced, 158-pound Guidry, and an imposing task for the Yankees. "I don't care," said Piniella. "I still think we're going to win. The Royals haven't won anything yet, and they have to remember we beat them in the fifth game last year. Now it's up to them to beat us."
Because, for once, the Yankees were not about to beat themselves.