The program director at Kansas City's KCFX radio station has this great idea for Opening Day. He wants to fill Royals Stadium with Buddy Biancalanas. Not real Buddy Biancalanas—anyone who watched Buddy's 1985 World Series heroics or his standout guest spot on Late Night With David Letterman knows that there's only one Buddy Biancalana. It's just that in Kansas City, the real Buddy Biancalana is so beloved that the radio station is ready to print 10,000 masks of what Royal teammates have come to call "that cute little face."
There is only one problem. The real Buddy Biancalana isn't sure this promo is such a good idea. The fact is, it could be a Royal embarrassment. Biancalana, a veritable hitting machine during the Series, may be sitting on the bench on Opening Day.
And he's such a hot commodity. Biancalana made more off-season appearances than George Brett. He modeled expensive clothes for Esquire, dedicated several shopping centers, taped commercials, lectured to IBM executives and even rode in a Christmas parade. The guy is so popular in Kansas City he can't visit a mall without protection. Twelve-year-old girls go nuts over Buddy.
Here's a man who has everything going for him—looks, smarts, self-deprecating humor, a big raise, a wife who loves him—everything, except perhaps hitting. Save for the World Series, Biancalana has never been much of a hitter, and now that he's famous, he's still not. Royals management doesn't know what to do about that. "If I knew, he wouldn't have hit. 188 last season," says hitting coach Lee May.
At training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., 26-year-old Roland Americo Biancalana Jr. is fighting for the starting shortstop position with Onix Cardona Concepcion, 27. If the criterion for the job was length of full name, Biancalana would have it nailed, but this is mainly a hitting contest. In 1985 the two shortstops with the cold bats played hot potato with the job while manager—and former shortstop—Dick Howser sought an answer. "Neither one of us could hold on to it," says Biancalana. "Dick was so frustrated he was probably thinking of reactivating himself." It was never a question of who was hitting well at the time, but of who was hitting less poorly. By season's end, Biancalana had the hot—so to speak—hand.
In the Show Me Series, the little switch-hitter hit 90 points above his season average, had the game-winning RBI in Game 5, outplayed the best shortstop in baseball, Ozzie Smith, and had a higher on-base percentage (.435) than any Cardinal. He even got an intentional walk, his first in the majors.
All this was heady stuff for a guy with three career homers and a .194 lifetime average. Playing 81 games last season, he had more errors (10) than RBIs (six). "Now everybody wants to know who's the real Buddy Biancalana—the season .188 hitter or the Series .278 hitter?" one of these Buddys was saying recently in Fort Myers.
Howser is wondering the same thing. "I look at the position as a defensive one, but a guy can't hit .180 and keep it," he says. Going in, Biancalana has a slight edge defensively with his speed and range, but Concepcion figures to have the hitting edge, if only on the basis of his 1984 performance when he hit .282. Last year, however, he hit only .204. So far in spring training, Biancalana, batting .231 (3 for 13), is trailing Concepcion, who's at .250 (3 for 12). But Biancalana took the Braves' Bruce Sutter to the fence the other day.
The fact that Biancalana could be on the bench doesn't seem to upset the people at KCFX radio. They have a slogan: "If you can't be a Royal, Biancalana." Says promotions director Lorri Stanislav, "Buddy has made his name off being an underdog."
Biancalana realizes that his fame may have had something to do with his raise from $72,000 in 1985 to $165,000 this year. He never considered filing for arbitration. "To win, you've gotta prove that a lesser player is making more money," said Buddy. "I couldn't do that."
He appears to be made of the same stuff as another famous .200 hitter. Bob Uecker. At a $300-a-plate dinner in Biancalana's honor near his hometown of Larkspur, Calif., Buddy was asked, "Who is the toughest pitcher in the American League?"
"Well, now," he answered, "how many pitchers are there in the American League?"
When Biancalana isn't making fun of himself, someone else usually is—like Letterman. In the wee hours of Aug. 22, as Buddy slept soundly in Chicago, Letterman introduced the Buddy Biancalana Hit Counter, a fancy—and inaccurate—device that kept track of how many hits Biancalana needed to catch Pete Rose. The counter said Buddy had 11 hits when in fact he had 45.
Biancalana handled it like a pro. "I may be 4,000 hits behind, but I'm a lot closer to Pete Rose than Dave is to Johnny Carson," he shot back. By September, the last man in the Royals batting order started hearing chants of "Buddy! Buddy! Buddy!" Says Buddy, "It's amazing what a .188 average will do for you."
When the season ended, Biancalana decided to do his usual—nothing much. But then he realized, "This doesn't happen to everyone. It won't happen ever again to me, so I've got to take advantage of it." He hired a booking agent, made a swing through New York ad agencies and appeared on the Letterman show. "This lady who dresses up turtles took up all my time," says Biancalana. Letterman did show a Buddy highlight film, to the accompaniment of Nobody Does It Better. The clips were all of Biancalana taking pitches.
Not long ago, a student at Buddy's alma mater, Redwood (Calif.) High, wrote to the "Sports Fantasy" segment of NBC's SportsWorld, saying his dream was to pitch to Buddy Biancalana. NBC arranged a showdown between Buddy and the kid, Cory McPherson, age 17, who has never played organized baseball.
When Royals second baseman Frank White heard about the stunt, he advised Biancalana not to go along with it. "It's just another attempt to embarrass you," said White. "If you must do it, then strike out on purpose. That way you'll get more mileage out of it." Buddy wouldn't dream of that. When Cory McPherson delivered a 2-and-2 pitch. Buddy Biancalana swung mightily. He lifted a pop-up to short leftfield.
And what is Buddy's own sports fantasy? "That's easy," he says. "I want a home run in the World Series. It's the bottom of the ninth—boy, I'm really getting picky now—and it's the seventh game."
Buddy, Buddy, wake up. All you have to do is hit .250.