Kansas City Manager Whitey Herzog was sitting in the visitors' dugout at Yankee Stadium early last Saturday evening when the scoreboard showed that Los Angeles had again defeated Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series. Did the Phillies choke, Herzog was asked. "Nah, they didn't choke," he answered, no doubt aware of the possible comparison with his own team. "The Dodgers are just better. The regular season doesn't mean a thing when you get into the playoffs." A few hours later, the inevitable having occurred, the same scoreboard showed that New York had eliminated K.C. in the American League playoffs. Should anyone wonder, the Royals did not choke. The Yankees are just better. The regular season does not mean a thing when you get into the playoffs. Just ask Whitey Herzog.
New York found a different way to win the pennant this year. Instead of pulling it out in the ninth inning of the fifth game, as the Yankees did in 1976 and '77, they won in a breezy four. The rivals traded easy victories in Kansas City, New York winning the first 7-1 and the Royals the second 10-4, and the Yankees took the close ones at home 6-5 and 2-1. "Very little separates these two teams," Royal Darrell Porter insisted. "I just wish somebody would print that."
Happy to oblige, Darrell. Very little does separate the Royals from the Yankees, but that small difference is what makes K.C. a good team and New York a superb one. For the third straight October the Yankees won the tight ones; they are 6-0 in playoff games decided by one or two runs. And they also had almost all of the clutch hits; New York has rallied to win six times, Kansas City only once. No Royal seems to understand the importance of this more than Designated Hitter Hal McRae, who said after the lively and dramatic Game 3, "We had the lead, but just as always they beat us in the last innings. We can play perfect baseball and they still beat us."
This was certainly true of Saturday's final game. The Royals' George Brett, the star of the series, led off the night with a triple, and McRae followed with a vicious single through the middle that almost claimed the dark Cajun head of Yankee Pitcher Ron Guidry. A 1-0 lead would usually have been enough with Kansas City's Dennis Leonard throwing a four-hitter, but two of those hits were home runs. Graig Nettles tied the game with a blast to right center in the second, and Roy White hooked one around the rightfield foul pole in the sixth. That was all the margin Guidry and reliever Rich Gossage needed. Throw in a couple of dazzling Yankee defensive plays—an over-the-shoulder catch by Centerfielder Mickey Rivers in the second and a diving stab behind third base by Nettles in the eighth—and even Porter had to admit, "They are a pressure ball club."
October 15, 1978
The Royals were no match for this kind of confidence and cool. One Kansas City player said privately that he was one of only three men on the roster who were not afraid of the Yankees. Brett, one of the fearless trio, would not go along with a judgment that harsh but he did admit, "Our fans don't think we can win. The Kansas City sportswriters don't think we can win. Nobody in the country thinks we can win."
This was understandable after the Royals' listless performance in Game 1. Kansas City got only two hits off rookie Jim Beattie and an unheralded reliever named Ken Clay. Manager Bob Lemon was forced to use Beattie as his opening-game starter because Guidry, his ace, had pitched in the previous day's playoff against the Red Sox for the Eastern Division title. While the Royals failed to hit, the Yankees were bombing Leonard and three other pitchers for 16 hits. New York's need to start Beattie was supposed to give the Royals a big advantage in the series; instead Game 1 was a windfall for the Yankees. DH Reggie Jackson stirred the air with three hits, including a homer, three RBIs and two runs.
Jackson's hard knocks did not end with the game. Despite an attempt to share accolades with his teammates, he was finally prodded into speaking of himself and his old antagonist, Billy Martin. "I don't want to talk about the problems of the past," Jackson said, warming to the subject. "I had too good a night to drag him into this. I'm tired of making the cat famous. Let him do something of his own. I made Charlie Finley famous. I'll make somebody else famous, too."
For a man who was variously reported to be hunting in South Dakota with a Chinese restaurateur and attending the opening of a shopping center in Oklahoma City, the absent Martin was a big presence in K.C. After Game 2 it was Royal Larry Gura's turn to rap Billy. Martin, who never considered Gura much of a pitcher, ridiculed him during last year's playoffs. After allowing only two runs in 6‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, Gura received credit for the second-game victory and had an opportunity to get in some licks of his own. "If Martin was still here, we'd probably be playing the Sox," he said.
The Royals did plenty of damage at the plate, too, banging three pitchers for 16 hits. Yankee starter Ed Figueroa left without retiring one of the four batters faced in the second inning. "This is the only team in the league I can't pitch against," he said, referring to his 2-9 lifetime record against the Royals. "Maybe they have my number." They have more than that, if Brett is to be believed. "We know what he's throwing," Brett says. "When he goes like this [three-quarter delivery], it's a sinker, and when he goes like this [overhand], it's the gasser."
That may have explained Brett's lead-off single against Figueroa in Game 2 but not his playoff-record three home runs off Catfish Hunter in Game 3. Yet every time Brett would hit one, the Yankees would answer right back. After Brett led off the first with a homer, Jackson did the same in the second. Brett put the Royals ahead again in the third, but hits by Thurman Munson, Jackson and Lou Piniella and an error gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the fourth. Brett tied the game in the fifth, and Jackson untied it with a sacrifice fly in the sixth.
The pattern changed in the eighth when each team scored twice without any more fireworks by Brett or Jackson. With one out in the decisive home half of the inning, White singled to center and Herzog replaced lefthander Paul Splittorff, bringing in righty Doug Bird to pitch to the righthanded Munson. Herzog is always making percentage moves like that. They usually work from April through September, but not all that often in October. Herzog wanted a double play; instead Bird threw a high fastball that Munson launched 430 feet.
Although Munson's homer won the game, the difference between the two teams could be seen in other ways, too. With disastrous frequency, the Royals committed the kind of misplay that can mean defeat in games at this level of competition. There was Fred Patek throwing the ball into the stands in the fourth, allowing a run to score. There were the two runners stranded at third base, in the second with one out and in the sixth with none out. There was Amos Otis forgetting there were two outs in the third and failing to score from first on Porter's double. Ooh, ouch, ow!
Most painful of all was Kansas City's plight after the defeat in Game 3: the Royals trailed 2-1 in the series, with Guidry rested and ready. "Cy Young," Jackson called him on Friday night. "Who could ask for more?" Lemon asked. "Well, he isn't God," someone told Herzog. "He's pretty close," said Whitey.
The only mistake Guidry and the Yankees made was pitching to Brett to start the game. Since moving from second in the batting order to the leadoff spot in Game 2, Brett had singled and homered in his first at bats and had raised his three-year playoff average to .385. This time he tripled and scored, but he did not reach base the rest of the night. Because Brett was so much the heart of Kansas City's offense in the series, keeping him off the bases would have seemed enough for the Yankees to breeze to a clinching victory. But Leonard, who was actually sharper than Guidry, made it a deliciously tense contest, during one stretch retiring 13 Yankees in a row without allowing the ball to leave the infield.
Leonard needed to be every bit this tough, because after the Royals scored in the first, Guidry allowed just five hits and permitted only one runner to reach third. Another who tried, Willie Wilson, was cut down stealing on an incorrect call by Umpire Lou DiMuro that the Royals will be complaining about all winter. When Otis led off the ninth with a double, Lemon called for Gossage, who struck out Clint Hurdle, and got Porter and Pete LaCock on outfield flies. Then, suddenly, the Yankees had no more American League battles to fight and plenty to be proud of. "No matter what happens in the Series, we've had a helluva year," said Piniella.
If some Royals remained unconvinced of New York's superiority, there was nothing the Yankees could do to convince them further. "I want them next year," Porter said. "I want them next year." There is probably nothing the Yankees would enjoy more.