Judging the Royals

Brett Lawrie’s a villain, Hal McRae is an icon

The Royals’ Hal McRae slid hard into Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph, sending him flying, in the 1977 AL Championship Series.
The Royals’ Hal McRae slid hard into Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph, sending him flying, in the 1977 AL Championship Series. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

If you’re a Kansas City Royals fan the situation is perfectly clear: The Oakland A’s Brett Lawrie is a dirty player whose style of play should not be tolerated — and Hal McRae is a hero.

Let’s face it: There’s more than a bit of irony in Royals fans being outraged by Lawrie hurting Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar with a takeout slide, but revering McRae, a base runner so overly aggressive they named a rule after him.

Truth be told, I’m in the same boat: I thought Lawrie’s slide deserved a fastball in the ribs but have always been a big fan of McRae’s aggressive style of play.

Even before he became a Royal, McRae had a habit of destroying middle infielders while breaking up double plays. McRae would launch himself in the air, come flying in sideways and execute cross-body blocks on any infielder foolish enough to try to turn two with McRae on first base.

Things came to a head during the 1977 ALCS against the New York Yankees. In game two the Royals were down by one run with Freddie Patek on second base and Hal McRae on first. George Brett was at the plate and hit a bouncing ball to Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles, and Nettles had trouble getting the ball out of his glove. The extra time Nettles took to make his throw to second base gave McRae an opportunity to destroy second baseman Willie Randolph.

Watch the replay, and it appears McRae never attempts a slide, steps on or near second base and then launches himself into Randolph. Hal hits the Yankees second baseman so hard Willie loses his hat and the ball — it’s kinda surprising Willie didn’t also lose consciousness.

McRae’s collision was so violent both players wound up well beyond second base, close to the outfield grass. As McRae lies on the ground, tangled with Randolph, he signals Patek to keep running and Freddie does — scoring from second base and tying the game on a ground ball that never left the infield.

After that, baseball decided enough was enough and tried to do something about the flying tackles base runners like McRae were dishing out in order to break up double plays. Umpires started requiring base runners to slide and at least be close enough to second base to touch it — now commonly referred to as the Hal McRae rule.

The “neighborhood” play (allowing a middle infielder to record the first out of double play while being in the “neighborhood” of second base) was a concession umpires were making to middle infielders fearing for their health. The guys in blue weren’t going to require middle infielders to stand in place and get the hell knocked out of them by overly aggressive base runners like McRae.

And the most beloved Royal of all — George Brett — wasn’t far behind McRae when it came to aggressive base running. In game five of the 1977 ALCS, Brett hit a triple, and as he slid into third base he did a pop-up slide and threw an elbow into Nettles. The Yankee third baseman had received the throw from the outfield and Brett was trying to dislodge the ball from Nettles’ glove. Nettles took exception and kicked Brett in the face, and Brett took exception to that and took a swing at Nettles. After that things got kind of rough — all hell broke loose and the teams had a brawl.

Back in those days the Kansas City Royals were known for very aggressive base running, and Kansas City Royals fans were just fine with it — I was, too. Knocking the hell out of middle infielders and trying to dislodge baseballs with hard pop-up slides was considered part of the game.

If you could travel back in time and show those Royals players Lawrie’s takeout slide of Escobar, they’d probably criticize Lawrie for being too timid. Lawrie’s slide did not appear to violate the McRae rule; he did slide, and he slid close enough to second base to make contact with the bag. On the other hand, Lawrie’s slide was late and clearly aimed at taking out Escobar.

Slides like Lawrie’s used to be part of the game, but the game has changed, and so have the fans: What we once revered in our players we now condemn in players wearing the wrong uniform.

So I’ll write anti-Lawrie columns, and you send an email or call a sports-talk radio show or leave a comment on a website criticizing Lawrie, and then we can all go visit the Royals Hall of Fame.

Hal McRae’s in there.

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