The Kansas City Royals encapsuled a season in an inning Sunday—a crazy season, a crazy inning. In the top of the ninth in a game at Royals Stadium, K.C. and the Seattle Mariners were tied 4-4, having exchanged early-inning leads before lapsing into a seemingly irreversible deadlock. Pinch runner John Moses was on third for the Mariners with two out and pinch hitter Larry Milbourne was at bat, confronting Royals reliever Mark Huismann. Huismann, 26, is one of the Royals' "young arms," a fourth-year professional who had pitched well—three saves and a 2.75 ERA—since his recall from the Omaha farm team on July 2. Although he hadn't pitched in a week, he had shut out the Mariners for two-plus innings since replacing another "young arm," 22-year-old Danny Jackson. Here, in the ninth, he had given up a hit to Steve Henderson, leading off, and had watched Henderson's runner, Moses, advance to third on a stolen base and a throwing error by catcher John Wathan. But Huismann had struck out pinch hitter Ken Phelps and third baseman Jim Presley. He had a 3-2 count on Milbourne when disaster struck.
Milbourne slapped a routine grounder back to the mound. Huismann fielded it cleanly and, because the ball was well hit, he had time to take a few lazy jog steps toward first and to hold the ball in theatrical contemplation before throwing it. He wasn't fooling around, mind you. This was a critical game. The Twins, with whom the Royals had been tied for first in the American League West at the start of the day, had already lost and a win here would put K.C. alone on top, a spot the Royals hadn't occupied since May 3, 1983. No, Huismann was simply indulging in the pitcher's Yorick's-skull routine which habitually precedes such undemanding throws. When he finally got around to making the throw he was maybe 30 feet away from first baseman Steve Balboni, a distance which wouldn't challenge the firepower of a 10-year-old. But Huismann's lob toss went about two feet above Balboni's desperate grasp and landed a good 40 feet behind him. Moses sped home with the go-ahead run and Milbourne steamed into third. Huismann, mortified by this monstrous gaffe, pulled himself together long enough to strike out Spike Owen to end the inning, but he left the field with head hung low as an angry crowd booed him.
All right, this was the downside of the inning. The Royals had a downside of the season, too. On July 18 they were in sixth place, eight games out of first with a 40—51 record in their mediocre division. Entering Sunday's game, they had been 32-18 since that low point, a winning performance in that period exceeded only by the Cubs (34-17) and the Yankees (33-17). The Royals had come back on guts, daring and Dick Howser's clever managing. They did the same in the last half of Sunday's symbolic inning.
They loaded the bases with no outs on two hits and an intentional walk. Then Darryl Motley hit a high but shallow fly ball to right field. Nevertheless, pinch runner Onix Concepcion scored the tying run. The winning run was scored by Willie Wilson on Don Slaught's conventionally deep sacrifice fly to left. The Royals had won their third consecutive one-run game from the Mariners and their fifth (including two from the Twins) of the week. At long last, they were alone in first place.
It hadn't been any easier getting there than that ninth inning had been. As early as last winter, general manager John Schuerholz and Howser had elected to, as Schuerholz delicately put it, "alter the character of our club." That seemed a commendable notion, because in the eyes of the baseball public, the 1983 Royals, four of whom, including Wilson, had gone to jail on drug charges, didn't seem to have much character anyway. But Schuerholz wasn't motivated, he said, exclusively by malfeasance away from the ball park. "We also didn't like being beaten by 20 games by the White Sox," he said. So changes had to be made. The biggest of these was in the pitching staff, which had been composed of tried and apparently tired veterans. Schuerholz and Howser wanted to get those "young arms" in motion.
All of a sudden, lefty Bud Black, 27, was the ace of the staff. Black had won 10 games in '83 after spending part of the season in Omaha. This year, he says, "they gave me the ball. I wanted to prove that I was a durable pitcher, someone who could take his regular turn like Carlton, Morris and Stieb, pitchers I really respect." Through Sunday, Black had started 31 games and pitched 226 innings, third in the league in both categories. He had won 14 and lost 11 and had an ERA of 3.31. Black has at least been around for parts of three seasons. Mark Gubicza, 22 last month, had never pitched an inning in the major leagues. He's thrown 168‚Öî now, with 10 wins and 11 losses. The third starter, Charlie Leibrandt, 27, wasn't even on the 40-man roster at the end of spring training. He began the season in Omaha. "Pitchers who aren't power pitchers tend to get overlooked," he says charitably. "I began to feel that Kansas City didn't like the way I threw." He was called up by the Royals in May and, for a change, was immediately installed in the rotation. "Leibrandt shows what a genius I am," says Howser. The lefthander is now 9-6 with a 3.38 ERA.
The Royals' fourth and fifth starters are anyone's, Howser's included, guess. At various times this year, he has started Larry Gura (now relegated to the bullpen), Jackson, Mike Jones, Bret Saberhagen, Frank Wills, Joe Beckwith (now the middle-inning relief ace) and the now departed Paul Splittorff. All usually do duty in the bullpen, where a bemused Dan Quisenberry has observed the passing parade. Quisenberry, the one constant in the changing scene, has a league-leading 39 saves, and should break his major league record of 45 set a year ago. "I look around our bullpen and I don't know who's there half the time," says "Quiz." "I know we have a lot of kids. We call them our puppies."
The rest of the lineup is scarcely more settled. Hal McRae, once a DH mainstay, is platooning with Jorge Orta. Howser has used six shortstops. George Brett, the team's star, hasn't played since Aug. 20 because of a pulled hamstring, but Brett's absences are so frequent they're virtually expected. He has missed part or much of every season since 1976; he sat out the first 33 days of this year following knee surgery. His "regular" replacement has been Greg Pryor, a journeyman utility player and all-around nice guy whom both Quisenberry and second baseman Frank White suggest, perhaps seriously, should be elected the team's Most Valuable Player. Pryor, who had played in the grand total of 188 games the past three seasons, had been in 105 through Sunday and was hitting .270 with two game-winning homers.
This is a team of comeback players. Balboni, five times a minor league home run champion, had never been given a real shot by the Yankees, who finally traded him to the Royals for two minor-leaguers last December. The Royals needed a power hitter to replace Willie Aikens, who'd been traded to Toronto, and though Balboni has been injured off and on all season, he has often come through when needed. His 23 homers and 63 RBIs lead the team, as do his 115 strikeouts. In one stretch he hit 10 homers in 14 games; in another he struck out nine consecutive times. But last Friday and Saturday he won games against the Mariners with tape-measure sixth-inning, three-run homers. Balboni is so shy and soft-spoken his listeners must all but rest their heads on his massive chest to catch his noisiest utterances. "I always try my best," he'll say, "but I don't always do my best." The K.C. fans enjoy bringing Balboni out of the dugout for curtain calls after his homers. He will reluctantly oblige and doff his cap to reveal, to the crowd's amusement, a pate as barren as the balls he propels into the night.
Another comebacker of sorts is the stumpy (5'9", 196-pounds) Motley, whose career has been as varied as his surname would suggest. "I was once a pretty hot prospect around here," he says. In fact, the Royals thought enough of him to bring him up at the end of the 1981 season, but after an unimpressive '82 spring training, he languished in Omaha, where he hit a meager .254. He was so far down the list of outfield candidates for '83 that the Royals loaned him out to the Tigers' Triple A farm team at Evansville, where he hit .281 with 16 homers. The Evansville experience left Motley confused. "I was just on loan, but I began to feel like a Tiger, which is understandable because I was wearing that uniform. I'd pick up the paper and look first to see how Detroit was doing."
Wilson, of course, is an established star, but he had the most difficult comeback of all—from 81 days in minimum-security confinement and more than six weeks under suspension. He didn't join his teammates until May 16, the day after his suspension was lifted. On the field, it has been as if he'd never missed a day. After 463 at bats, he was hitting .305 and leading the Royals in hits (141), runs (67), triples (9) and stolen bases (38).
Although it's the same old Willie Wilson on the field, off it, he's a changed man, cooperative with fans and press alike, a frequent speaker at young persons' gatherings, a lecturer against the evils of drugs. "I'm proud of what I've done this season, especially with what happened to me over the winter," he says. "I've tried to let the talent take over, not the mind. I knew I had to give the fans a good reason to forgive me. I knew also they wouldn't forget. But it's all up to me now. It's something I'm willing to live with. It's funny to say you're maturing when you're 29, but for some of us it takes a little longer, I guess."
They are scarcely the '27 Yankees or even the '80 Royals, these kids and comeback artists, and they're in a tough race with both the Twins and the Angels in a cockeyed division. It's now a question of whether their young players can take the heat. They have no doubts about that. "Pressure?" says Motley. "Why, I've been under pressure the last four years just trying to get where I am now. I think I know what pressure is."