BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON
Their center fielder introduced me to the beauty of an inside-the-park home run. Their submarine closer seemed to scrape his knuckles on the mound with every pitch. And one of their shortstops played with a toothpick dangling from his mouth.
They were the Kansas City Royals of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a talented and character-laden team that hit, ran and pitched their way to six division crowns in a 10-year span, ultimately winning the franchise’s first World Series in 1985.
Often, these Royals were the last team standing in the way of yet another World Series appearance for the New York Yankees. And as such, in my family, they were a team worth rooting for.
It was a drag being a young diehard New York Mets fan during the Carter Administration – back when Joe Torre was cutting his eventual Hall of Fame skipper’s teeth as the Amazins’ manager. For seven consecutive seasons, the Mets finished last or next-to-last in the National League East.
So come October – certainly if I wanted to stay in the good graces of my grandfather – the team to pull for was whichever team was facing the Yankees in the playoffs.
It certainly didn’t seem like such a good idea in 1976. That was when I watched with my little mouth agape as Yankees first-baseman Chris Chambliss slugged a walk-off homer in the decisive Game 5 win over the Royals in the American League Championship and somehow made it around the bases in spite of the thousands of frenzied fans that had stormed the field at Yankee Stadium.
It didn’t get better in 1977 or 1978. The Yankees eliminated the Royals in the playoffs those seasons too. Kansas City finally defeated the Yankees in a playoff series in 1980 and reached its first World Series.
So embarrassed by the loss was Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that he fired his manager Dick Howser, even after the team won 103 games during the regular season. Stuff like that made it easy to root against the Yanks.
A bit of irony: Howser managed Kansas City when they defeated cross-state rival St. Louis in the 1985 World Series.
I certainly hadn’t given those Royals teams much thought over the last three decades, not with the Royals holding court at the bottom of the American League standings season after season. But the team’s rocket ride through the playoffs this season got me thinking about the players on those consistently good Royals teams.
At the top of the list is Willie Wilson, the Royals fleet-footed center fielder from 1977 to 1986, whose blinding speed turned some games into track meets. I still see him in my mind lacing one in the gap at the then-Royals Stadium and whirling around the bases for a game-winning inside-the-park home run in an extra-inning game with the Yankees. He hit a total of 13 inside-the-park homers.
It’s easy to recall watching reliever Dan Quisenberry – the perennial Rolaids Relief Man in the American League – closing win after win with his submarine delivery.
U.L. Washington was the Royals shortstop who played with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth at the plate and in the field. He switched to a Q-tip when parents of youth players complained.
But who can forget that? I still have baseball cards with U.L. slyly grinning and chomping on a toothpick.
I challenged myself to remember the regulars from the 1976 team. I came up with seven of the nine regulars and managed to accurately name four starting pitchers, Paul Splitorff, Dennis Leonard, Doug Bird and Andy Hassler.
I thought for sure that Darrell Porter was the Royals catcher that season, but my research at mlb.com revealed he didn’t arrive in Kansas City until 1977. As it turned out, Buck Martinez and Bob Stinson shared time behind the plate in 1976.
Right field was the only other gap in my memory for the starters on that 1976 team. Al Cowens, who finished second in voting for the American League MVP award in 1977 was Kansas City’s regular right fielder from 1974 to 1979. Missing his name smarted.
Of course, it was easy to remember George Brett — who hit .390 in 1980 and seemed to win the American League batting title every year Twins and Angels star Rod Carew didn’t — being the heart and soul of the team. He was Kansas City’s third-baseman for 21 seasons.
The 1976 team was solid up the middle with center fielder Amos Otis; shortstop Freddie Patek, who standing 5-foot-five was the shortest player of his time; and longtime Royals second-baseman Frank White.
Big John Mayberry was the slugging first-baseman, Hal McRae was the clutch-hitting DH and Tom Poquette was the journey-man leftfielder for the 1976 squad.
Brett, White, McRae and Wilson, who played sparingly as a rookie in 1976, were still key contributors on the 1985 team that won it all.
Here’s hoping their re-appearance in the World Series this year is an omen of things to come in the 2015 season for my Mets, who won the World Series in 1986.
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