Sam Mellinger

Royals’ big series with Tigers similar to one in ’85

Catcher Jim Sundberg and the Royals celebrated after winning the World Series in 1985.
Catcher Jim Sundberg and the Royals celebrated after winning the World Series in 1985. 1985 Star photo

By now, you have heard over and over that by any number of measurements we are watching the Royals’ most important and successful season since 1985. This is all true.

You have heard that this weekend, against the first-place Tigers, is the Royals’ most important series since 1985. Well more than 100,000 tickets are sold already, and there is talk on the executive floor at Kauffman Stadium that this will be the team’s best-attended three-game series since 1982. This is all true, too.

The Royals would like you to think they’ve been taking the lead-up to this series one game at a time, but that’s a lie. They’ve been thinking about it for a while now, especially last week when they played three in Detroit. They know they need to win at least two of three — possibly even sweep — to have a chance at winning the division.

“Could make or break us,” outfielder Lorenzo Cain says. “It really could. It’s huge.”

The biggest since 1985, Cain’s teammate Billy Butler points out one more time, and the talk always comes back to 1985, doesn’t it?

The comparisons have been there for some time now. Both teams started slow, got hot after the All-Star break, and clawed back to first place with pitching and defense making up for bad offense. Recently, George Brett said this year’s team is actually more talented than his 1985 World Series champions.

But the comparisons are often framed in the context of that World Series, with the memories of Denny Matthews counting down the outs, Darryl Motley catching the last fly ball, and Brett hugging Bret Saberhagen after the seventh game. Comparisons to 1985 mean comparisons to the champs, but before they got that far, the ’85 team was in an eerily similar situation to what the ’14 Royals now face.

It’s easy to forget that for the ’85 Royals to win the Series — capital S — they had to win a crucial series that has deep parallels to what the ’14 Royals are facing this week.

“Of course I remember that,” says Jim Sundberg, the catcher who had the biggest hit even in a game in which Brett homered. “I remember it well.”

Let’s first set the scene. Sundberg’s Royals were 7 1/2 games out at the All-Star break. They were frustrated. Down. They thought they were better than this, but half a season was showing otherwise.

Ewing Kauffman, the team’s beloved owner, never walked into the clubhouse. That was the players’ space. He made an exception after the last game before the All-Star break. The players sat at their lockers when Mr. K spoke up.

“I believe in you,” he told them. “I want you to forget about the first half of the season. In your lockers you will find an envelope with a few hundred dollars. Take these days off, enjoy it, and let’s go like hell and win the second half.”

The Royals won 11 of their first 14 after the break. They cut the deficit from 7 1/2 to two games in just two weeks. Around that time, Sundberg and Jorge Orta were shaving next to each other.

“Jorge hardly ever said anything,” Sundberg says. “But I remember, in that accent of his, he says, ‘Jeem, we’re going to ween this theeng.’”

In time, perhaps we’ll hear of little stories like that between Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, or Alex Gordon and Greg Holland. What Sundberg and those 1985 Royals did is just so similar to what the 2014 Royals have done, and now hope to do.

The ’85 Royals were leaking oil in September. You don’t hear about that now, but it’s true, even with the occasional struggles of the current team. The ’85 guys lost five of six in September, including one three-stretch where they scored a total of one run. A three-game lead in the division disappeared, replaced by a one-game hole as the Angels kept winning.

The story is strikingly similar to what the Royals have done with the Tigers this year, right down to a late-season series at home against the first-place Angels. Back then, nobody could’ve known the Royals would not play a more important series for at least the next 29 years. All they knew then was that it was the biggest series of a season that only had one week left.

The Royals began the four-game series one game behind the Angels. Saberhagen started for the Royals in the opener, and he was terrific. Doug DeCinces homered in the second, but other than that, the closest the Angels came to scoring was when Craig Gerber was thrown out at the plate by Lonnie Smith. The problem, and this was typical for that Royals team, was they couldn’t score, either. Brett homered in the fourth, but other than that, the Royals had nothing into the seventh.

That’s when Sundberg came up. Even on that team, Sundberg wasn’t counted on for much offense, but he developed a knack for big moments. Fans of a certain age might remember Sundberg’s bases-loaded triple off Dave Stieb in the seventh game of the ALCS that year. Or his head-first slide with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth of game six of the World Series.

But nobody knew that back in September of 1985. Just like nobody knows how this current wild ride will end. Back then, all they knew was that Sundberg was a .241 hitter with just nine home runs facing a former All-Star in a critical spot, tie score in the seventh inning.

Sundberg swung hard, barreled up, and watched the ball fly over the center-field fence. His friend, Don Sutton, pitched for the Angels. Sundberg remembers seeing Sutton tip his cap.

“Just a euphoric moment,” Sundberg says now. “Looking back, that was the start of those special moments that occurred.”

The Royals won that game, 3-1. They won two more games in the series, turning a one-game hole into a one-game lead with just three to play. Five days after Sundberg’s homer, the Royals clinched the division on a walk-off single by Willie Wilson, then staged memorable comebacks in both the ALCS and World Series.

None of that would’ve happened without winning that pivotal, late-season series at home against the division leaders.

Those Royals didn’t know where or how their season would end, just like these Royals now. They didn’t know who the moment would find, who would be the one to hit the home run they’d be talking to the newspaper about nearly three decades later.

Looking back, they’ll tell you that’s one of the best parts of what the Royals now face going into what could be the defining series of this already wild season.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

  Comments