That lonely band of strangers jumping and hugging under the glare of 56,588 New Yorkers in Yankee Stadium last Friday at midnight was the Kansas City Royals, the best team in the American League, the best team in baseball. The Royals beat the Yankees fairly, squarely and, in case nobody noticed, for the 11th time in 15 games this year. As a result, George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' 12-year-old owner, took his ball and went home. The Royals went to Philadelphia to start the World Series.
The Yankees played as if they had heard too many choruses of New York, New York this year. King of the hill, top of the heap, indeed. Steinbrenner blamed his players for the opening 7-2 loss, and they blamed the sun. Steinbrenner blamed the third-base coach for the 3-2 defeat in Game 2. Manager Dick Howser blamed dumb luck for the third and final 4-2 loss. "I still think we're the better team," said Howser. You would've thought the Yankees had lost three straight to the Seattle Mariners.
There are some very good reasons why the Royals won the first pennant in their 12-year history and their first Championship Series with the Yankees after galling defeats in 1976, '77 and '78. They won because Frank White, their ninth-place hitter, batted .545 and charted new territory at second base. They won because their pitchers held the Yankees to two runs apiece in the three games. They won because of more speed, better fielding and better managing. The Yankees came into the Championship Series willing to concede Willie Wilson his stolen bases and George Brett his hits. The Royals are so well-balanced that they won even though Wilson had zero stolen bases and Brett had only three hits.
But, oh, that last hit. Kansas City was trailing New York 2-1 in the third game, with two outs and none on in the top of the seventh. After Wilson doubled into the rightfield corner off Starter Tommy John, Howser summoned Rich Gossage, figuring that the Red Adair of baseball would make the bat in U.L. Washington's hand about as useless as the toothpick in his mouth. But Washington got his bat on the ball, chopping it to Willie Randolph at second, and just beat the throw to first. "That 80-foot single, that's what beat us," Howser said later.
This set up a classic confrontation between the most overpowering pitcher in baseball and the best hitter. Brett, of all people, was due; his playoff average was 190 points below his season average of .390, and he was batting .241 lifetime against Gossage. Gossage's first pitch was out over the plate, and Brett launched a shot of at least 450 feet into the upper deck in rightfield. Said a champagne-soaked Brett later, "I was delighted to see Gossage. I didn't want to face John again."
Brett may have won the pennant with his record sixth homer in American League Championship Series play, but White was the MVP. In the fifth, White hit a fair-sized homer himself off John into the leftfield seats. In the bottom of the sixth, he leaped improbably high to grab Bob Watson's line drive off Paul Splittorff. Then Reggie Jackson, who was looking like Mr. February after striking out twice, followed with a double down the line in left. Royal Manager Jim Frey responded with the same underhanded move he's been making all season: he brought in submariner Dan Quisenberry. Howser countered with pinch hitter Oscar Gamble, who rapped the ball up the middle. White made another fine play to reach it, but he threw wildly to third in a rash attempt to get Jackson. The ball went into the dugout and Jackson scored. Gamble wound up at third and scored on Rick Cerone's single.
New York had one more hope after Brett's homer. Watson, who batted .500, tripled to the wall in left-center to lead off the eighth. Then, after getting ahead of Jackson 0-2, Quisenberry threw eight straight balls, walking Reggie and Gamble. "I had 12 unintentional walks all year, and there I was walking two in a row," said Quisenberry. "I let the crowd affect me. It was awesome. I tried to turn the volume down, but it just wouldn't go down."
Frey showed remarkable cool by leaving Quisenberry in to pitch to Cerone. After throwing his ninth straight ball, Quisenberry evened the count at 1-1. On the next pitch Cerone hit a line drive to the right of Washington, who raced a couple of steps to catch the ball. Jackson, running as soon as the ball was hit, was easily doubled off second. It was not a dignified way to go.
"When Washington caught that ball and doubled off Reggie," said Cerone, "it was like I was standing there watching somebody slap my mother. That's how bad I felt."
The atmosphere was more pleasant in the other clubhouse, where some of the players were covered in milk because the Royals have several teetotalers. Frey hugged Brett and said, "You're the greatest." Brett said, "The people in Kansas City are going to feel that we won the World Series. For us to beat New York is the ultimate for them."
Game 1 had begun bleakly for K.C. with back-to-back homers by Cerone and Lou Piniella off starter Larry Gura in the second inning. "I said to myself, 'Here we go again,' " Brett recalled. He probably wasn't the only one. Brett is one of eight Royals who have played in the four Championship Series with New York; the Yankees have four such veterans. After Aurelio Rodriguez doubled, Frey decided to give Gura only one more chance. Gura held on by inducing Bobby Brown to ground to White on a 3-2 pitch.
The Royals came back in their half of the inning to tie the score. With two on and two out, White blooped the ball out behind shortstop. Bucky Dent lost it in the sun, and Piniella, who had twisted his knee making the same play on the previous batter, could not reach this one, giving White a two-run double.
Kansas City took the lead in the fourth when Aikens got a two-out, bases-loaded single off Ron Guidry. In the seventh, Brett hit a Ron Davis fastball over the fence in left-center at about 400 feet—400 being a nice number for George. And in the eighth the Royals got two more runs on Wilson's double.
Meanwhile, Gura was pitching his best game in six weeks. Frey's decision to open with him had been widely debated because he had failed eight times to get his 19th victory. But Gura has always had success against his old team; the win made his record against New York 4-0 this year and 8-1 lifetime.
After the game, reporters tried to dredge up the memory of the three playoff losses, and Brett insisted, "Past history doesn't mean a thing. Doesn't mean a thing. Doesn't mean a thing."
The result obviously meant something to Steinbrenner who whined, "Dent should've caught the ball, Jackson [0 for 4] didn't execute in the cleanup spot, and Guidry sure as hell didn't execute."
Steinbrenner didn't know whom to blame when the Royals jumped off to a 3-0 lead in the third inning of the second game on singles by Darrell Porter and White, a triple by Wilson and a double by Washington. That's all the runs K.C. would get off Rudy May, but that's all they would need. The Yankees scored their two in the fifth on a valiant inside-the-park homer by Nettles and an RBI double by Randolph.
In the eighth inning came The Play of the Series. If it had gone the other way, it might have changed the outcome of the game and, perhaps, the playoff. As it was, it may have cost the Yankees' third-base coach, Mike Ferraro, his job. Randolph, who had singled, was on first with two out when Watson hit a rope to left. "I just ran right to the spot where I thought the ball would come off the wall," said Wilson. "The ball hit the concrete at the bottom of the wall and came back so hard, it handcuffed me."
Randolph, in the meantime, had stumbled between first and second. Wilson was supposed to hit the first cutoff man, Washington, but his throw sailed over the shortstop's head. When Ferraro saw the high throw, he waved Randolph around. Unfortunately for Ferraro's job security, he didn't realize that Brett was acting as the "trailer" cutoff man. "We practiced the play every day for a week in spring training from every single angle," said Brett, "but this was the first time it happened this year."
Brett caught the ball, wheeled and fired a strike to Porter. The catcher got the ball just a few feet in front of Randolph, who tried to jar it loose. Porter held on, and the Yankees lost 3-2.
Ferraro made a calm defense of his decision. "The ball was in the air a long time," he said. "You've got to take a chance with two outs, especially since we haven't been scoring. Brett had his back turned and he has to turn around and make a perfect throw." Howser said, "The throw was so high I thought Brett was going to call for a fair catch. I coached third base for 10 years, and I would have done the same thing."
The Yankees had one more chance in the ninth inning. Jackson led off with a single, and Frey brought Quisenberry in for the starter, Dennis Leonard. Gamble popped up, but Cerone singled, bringing Nettles to the plate with men on first and second and one out. "I knew exactly what would happen next," said Brett, who anticipated a double play. Sure enough, Nettles grounded to White and that was all for the Yankees.
In the Royals' clubhouse after the second game, Owner Ewing Kauffman did a passable imitation of Steinbrenner jumping up and swearing at the final out. Leonard said, "The Yankees are good, but they're not the same team we played in '78. They don't have Chambliss swinging the bat, they don't have Rivers slapping the ball, and they don't have Munson getting the clutch hit. They're just not the same." Neither are the Royals.