This column appeared in The Star on Sept. 9, 2007.
Ballplayers didn’t hide their true feelings in 1977. These days, as you probably know, there’s a lot of cap-tipping going on in major-league clubhouses. Anytime a game ends anywhere in America, ballplayers stand with their backs to their lockers, they squint into the camera lights and say, “Well, you’ve got to tip your cap to the other guy.”
Also: “They’ve got good players over there.”
And: “Well, we were just lucky.”
This is SPC -- sports political correctness -- and it just wasn’t a part of life in 1977.
“It won’t take us long to win it this year,” New York manager Billy Martin said to reporters the day before the Yankees and Royals played in the American League Championship Series.
“We might sweep them,” Royals first baseman John Mayberry said. “We can sweep anybody.”
“They’re not even as good as Baltimore,” Yankees outfielder Reggie Jackson said.
“They beat us last year because we didn’t know what we were doing,” Royals third baseman George Brett said. “We know what we’re doing now.”
That’s how one of the angriest, craziest, fightingest playoff series in baseball history began. Only three things were clear. The Royals despised the Yankees. The Yankees despised the Royals. And no one was tipping his cap.
Game one, Yankee Stadium: Royals win 7-2
This is the last time that two 100-victory teams played each other for the right to go to the World Series. Their seasons were very different. Those were the “Bronx is Burning” Yankees, with the constant fighting between Martin and owner George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson. The day before this game, Martin demanded a new contract. That’s how it went with those Yankees.
The Royals, meanwhile, started slowly, but as the weather warmed they came alive like few teams before or since. On Aug. 16, they were two games back in the American League West. They went 35-4 over the next six weeks -- in the last 100 years of baseball, the 1977 Royals are the only team in to win 35 of 39 games.
At the end of their amazing stretch, the Royals had run away in the division.
“We want to put Kansas City on the map,” shortstop Freddie Patek said. Those Royals played aggressive ball for manager Whitey Herzog. They led all of baseball in doubles and triples, and they stole about twice as many bases at the Yankees. They also had the league’s best ERA. The Yankees -- this may sound familiar -- had the biggest names and largest payroll. The two teams had split their 10 games during the season.
The Royals dominated game one. They led almost instantly. Patek led off (this was a surprise move by Herzog), and he walked on four pitches. Hal McRae followed with a home run off Yankees starter Don Gullett. Next inning, Patek hit a two-run double. Next inning, Big John Mayberry hit a two-run homer. It was 6-0. And that was that.
“I’ll match us up against anybody,” said starter Paul Splittorff, who pitched strong baseball for eight innings, though he was not as good in the field. He fumbled the ball a couple of times, inspiring the Royals to give him the gong, a $20 metal plate that George Brett had found in a pawn shop. This was in the heyday of “The Gong Show.”
“We only give out the gong when we win,” Brett said.
“We’re going to beat those ($#&$#%),” Billy Martin said.
Game two, Yankee Stadium: Yankees win 6-2
The big blow was a two-run error made by Brett, but all the talk after the game revolved around Hal McRae’s slide into Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph. It wasn’t so much a slide as a body block. “That was a vicious clip,” Martin said.
“Is there bad blood between the teams?” a reporter asked Martin.
“I don’t think there’s good blood,” he replied.
The slide allowed Patek to score and tie the game at 2-2. The Yankees then took the lead on Cliff Johnson’s double -- remember Cliff Johnson, he will play a key role later on -- and then Brett could not come up with Randolph’s grounder, which allowed two runs more to score. Yankees starter Ron Guidry dominated from there.
Afterward, all everyone wanted to talk about was McRae’s slide.
“It was a cheap shot,” Munson said.
“It inspired us to play harder,” Randolph said.
“I would have thrown the ball into his face,” Martin said.
McRae was unapologetic. He said that’s the way the Royals played ball -- the way he had learned to play from Pete Rose and others on the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine. When someone asked him whether it was the hardest he’d ever hit anyone, McRae said: “I don’t rate them. I just try to do my job.”
And then this: “My wife and my kids love me,” McRae said. “That’s enough. ... When you are nice you lose a lot.”
The Royals, overall, were happy with the split in New York. Various writers (most of them from New York) speculated that McRae’s slide may have awakened the sleeping Yankees giant. The Royals shrugged. “We’re better than they are,” Amos Otis said.
Game three, Royals Stadium: Royals win 6-2
Royals starter Dennis Leonard was the dominant figure on this day. He allowed just four hits and one earned run. He overpowered the Yankees. Meanwhile, the Royals played their style of offensive baseball -- they rapped three doubles, stole two bases and scored two runs on ground-outs.
The key offensive play happened with the Royals up 3-1 in the sixth. There were Royals on second and third when left-handed-hitting Tom Poquette stepped up. Yankees manager Billy Martin went to the mound and yanked unhappy righty starter Mike Torrez and replaced him with lefty reliever Sparky Lyle.
This inspired Herzog to bring pinch-hitter Amos Otis into the game. Herzog’s move worked; Otis doubled to score two runs, put away the game and move the Royals to within one victory of the World Series. This sparked an angry Torrez after the game to tell reporters he should never have been pulled: “If I can’t get Tom Poquette out,” he said, “I should quit this game.”
The most telling quote came from Martin, who was so enraged after this loss that he guaranteed the Yankees would win. Not only that, he publicly mocked Royals game-four starter Larry Gura.
“I just hope he doesn’t get in a car wreck coming to the stadium,” Martin said. “I ought to put a bodyguard around his house. We’ll beat him.”
Pregame, game four
Here’s the Cliff Johnson part. Johnson was a 6-foot-4, 225-pound enforcer for the Yankees. He only got 142 at-bats for the Yankees -- he was what managers coldly called “an extra man” -- but he banged 12 home runs and scared the heck out of opponents.
He did not, however, scare Hal McRae.
“Hey, Cliff,” McRae said sweetly at batting practice before the game. “What time do you guys fly back to New York today?”
Johnson was not amused by the line. He said the Yankees would not fly out until they had won game five. Johnson then started berating McRae about his aggressive slide into Randolph during game two.
“The kid has a great future,” Johnson said. “What do you think you’re doing, trying to ruin it for him. He’s just now buying a house. You’re a dirty ...”
McRae interrupted. “I’ve got my house,” he said.
This set off Johnson. He challenged McRae right then and there to meet him under the stands, where they could settle things man-to-man. And this is when Hal McRae uttered one baseball’s all-time comments, one that the 1977 Royals would repeat to one another for the next 30-plus years.
McRae said, “Cliff, I don’t fight extra men.”
Game four, Royals Stadium: Yankees win 6-4
It was a cold autumn day in Kansas City, a biting wind blew, and the Yankees beat up Gura and took a 4-0 lead. Gura only lasted two innings, which made Billy Martin smile.
The game was not over yet, though. The Royals -- again sparked by Patek, who was having a fabulous series -- cut the lead to 5-4 in the fifth. The Royals had runners on first and second with two outs with George Brett coming up.
That’s when Billy Martin called to the bullpen and brought in Lyle. And that, as they say, was that. Brett hit a hard line drive to left, but it was caught by New York’s Lou Piniella. The Royals never came close to scoring again. Lyle shut down the Royals with his great slider -- he went five more innings and allowed just two hits.
“I told you!” Martin shouted after the game.
Now, it was the Royals who were defiant. During the game, Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles had slid hard into second baseman Frank White. The Royals -- who had grown tired of hearing about McRae’s slide -- thought Nettles’ was much more of a cheap shot. They wanted some payback.
“They’re not going to intimidate me,” White said.
“We’re playing at home, and we’re going to win tomorrow,” Splittorff said.
“We’ll come back and win,” Otis said. “No doubt about it.”
Game five, Royals Stadium: Yankees win 5-3
One of the amazing things about this series is that, despite the violent plays, nobody had been thrown out. Martin at one point argued so viciously with an umpire that it would have been considered battery in 39 states. He was not thrown out, either.
Then in the first inning of game five, Brett tripled. When he slid into third, he said, Nettles kicked him in the face.
“What are you gonna do when someone kicks you in the face?” Brett asked afterward. “You gonna just lie there and say, ‘Kick me again?’ “ Apparently the answer -- despite a fairly direct line in the Bible -- was no. Brett popped up and started swinging. All of the anger that had built up over five games spilled out along with the benches.
When the fight was over, once again, nobody was thrown out of the game.
This was, as they say, a time when men were men.
The Yankees, as usual, had all sorts of crazy issues before the game even started. Center fielder Mickey Rivers demanded a trade. Then Martin decided to bench Reggie Jackson against the will of George Steinbrenner. Jackson made his famous statement about how “Eight hundred million people in China don’t even care about Reggie Jackson.” The Bronx Zoo roared.
And the Royals led 3-1 going into the eighth inning. Everyone in the stands could taste the World Series. Then, a lot of things happened. The Yankees scored one run in the eighth when Reggie Jackson hit a pop-up single to center field that scored Willie Randolph. After the game -- and for years afterward -- Royals fans and players would wonder whether Amos Otis was playing too deep on that play.
“Was Otis too deep?” Herzog would ask afterward. “He always plays too deep. I thought he would get to that ball anyway.”
In the ninth inning, the Yankees scored three more runs -- one on a single by the trade-demanding Mickey Rivers, one on Randolph’s sacrifice fly, one on a George Brett throwing error. That gave the Yankees the 5-3 lead. The crowd fell into depressed silence. “I had visualized champagne,” Brett would say.
The Royals had their last chance in the bottom of the ninth, and hope emerged when Frank White singled. That brought up Patek, who had been so gutsy and determined the whole way. He hit .389 for the series. He was the guts of the Royals. He hit a hard grounder to third, and though he ran his heart out, the throw just beat him to the bag for a double play.
And the lasting image of the 1977 series would be a photo of Patek, sitting in the dugout, head down, all alone.
“I just can’t believe we lost,” Patek whispered to reporters.
You know the rest of the story. The Royals had lost to the Yankees in the 1976 playoffs, and they lost again to the Yankees in the 1978 playoffs -- they even lost the game when George Brett hit three home runs at Yankee Stadium. But they beat the Yankees in 1980 to go to their first World Series. The Royals and Yankees were good rivals for a few more years, and then baseball’s landscape changed.
Even now, 30 years later, those Royals of ’77 still despise those Yankees and vice versa. It’s like George Brett says: “I don’t hate those individual guys anymore. But I still hate the Yankees. I can’t help it. That’s just inside me.”