Thursday, August 14, 2008

Yankees vs. Royals: This Matters Again

Yesterday's loss, making it 2 of 3 against the Twins in Minneapolis, wouldn't have been so bad if we'd won a couple of the winnable games of the last week. Darrell Rasner wasn't terrible, and except for Dan Giese getting hurt the bullpen was fine.

But Giese getting hurt? That's not good, even if he does turn out to be okay. And Wilson Betemit getting 2 hits isn't a good thing if the entire rest of the team only got 3.

So we come home for Kansas City. Advertising my age, I can remember when that meant a great matchup. But I don't think either of these teams matches up well with the 1976-81 Yankees or the 1976-81 Royals.

Let me refresh everyone's memory of the New York-Kansas City relationship:

1936: The Kansas City Blues of the American Association are purchased by Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees, and are made a Yankee farm team, sharing top-level status with the Newark Bears. (Both names, "Kansas City Blues" and "Newark Bears," have been used for other teams, including pro football teams, and the current independent Atlantic League defending champions, the Newark Bears.)

The Blues had already won Pennants in the leagues they were in for the seasons of 1888, 1890, 1898, 1901 and 1929, with their '29 team being considered one of the greatest minor-league teams ever.

1938: Muehlebach Field, the stadium that had hosted the Blues and the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs since it opened in 1923, is renamed Ruppert Stadium after the owner. The Blues win another Pennant.

1939: "Colonel" Ruppert dies. Ownership of the Yankees and Blues goes to his heirs.

1940: Blues shortstop Phil Rizzuto is named Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. When he is promoted to the Yankees the next year, the result is a pay cut, as Yankee general manager Ed Barrow wasn't willing to pay him as much as the Blues' GM was. Had there been a Rookie of the Year award in 1941, the Scooter probably would have won it.

1943: The Ruppert heirs take their name off the ballpark, and rename it for the team: Blues Stadium.

1954: The Philadelphia Athletics are sold by the family of Connie Mack to Arnold Johnson, a Chicago-based trucking executive, who moves them to Kansas City. Blues Stadium is double-decked, increasing capacity to 35,020, and renamed Kansas City Municipal Stadium. The Blues farm club is moved to Denver, where they are given the name of the team that had been there, the Denver Bears.

(The Yankees moved their Triple-A affiliation to the Richmond Virginians in 1959, the Toledo Mud Hens in 1965, the Syracuse Chiefs in 1967, the Tacoma Yankees in 1978, the Columbus Clippers in 1979, and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees in 2007.)

1960: Arnold Johnson dies, and his heirs sell the A's to another Chicago-based businessman, insurance tycoon Charles O. Finley. This pretty much ends what came to be known as "the special relationship" between the A's and Yankee owners Del Webb and Dan Topping, in which the Yanks essentially treated the A's as what the Blues had been, their top farm team, trading prospects to Kansas City in exchange for the A's' best players, including one made in the 1959-60 off-season, netting the Yankees slugging right fielder Roger Maris.

Maris was named to the All-Star team in 1959, and won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in 1960 and 1961. You may have heard about Maris' home run exploits, the "61 in '61."

Finley ends the special relationship, but the A's, who hadn't finished in the 1st division (what the top 4 spots in each major league, then 8 teams, was called at the time) since 1948 (when they were still in Philly), get no better.

1964: Finley decides that the reason the Yankees have won so many Pennants was the 296-foot distance to right field at Yankee Stadium. (After the 1974-75 renovation, it became 310; in 1988 it became the present 314.) He set up a 296-foot fence in right field, fronting a tiny bleacher section, and called it the "K-C PENNANT PORCH," even having the words painted on the fence.

Two preseason exhibition games were played in the freshly-configured Municipal Stadium, before the American League office contacted Finley and informed him that a 296-foot foul line distance was in violation of the major league rule, adopted in 1958, that held that no ballpark from that point on could introduce a foul line dimension of less than 325 feet. Yankee Stadium had been grandfathered in, but Municipal Stadium wasn’t allowed to copy it in 1964. (Since then, some new ballparks have gotten around this, including both the Kingdome and Safeco Field in Seattle, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and Minute Maid Park in Houston. I guess they only applied the rule to Finley because they didn't like him.)

Finley pitched his typical fit, but moved the fence back -- but only to the 325-foot limit, and dubbed the revised setup the "K-C One-Half Pennant Porch." Later he tried the ruse of putting a canopy over the little bleacher, which just happened to have an extension that reached out 29 feet over the field, to 296 feet from home plate. The League again ordered him to take it down.

So Finley tried one other thing: He had a chalk line painted in right field, at 296 feet from home plate, and when a fly ball was caught between that line and the fence, he had the public address announcer say, "That would have been a home run in Yankee Stadium." Not to be outdone, the next time the A's went to New York to play the Yankees, an A's player hit a fly ball out to the "Death Valley" in Yankee Stadium's left-center, which Mickey Mantle easily caught, and Yankee PA announcer Bob Sheppard said, "In Kansas City, that would have been a home run."

Did the shortened fence -- though not as shortened as Finley would have liked -- help? No, because opposing players ended up hitting more homers there than the A's did, the A's fell to last place again, they had a worse record at home than on the road (which doesn't happen often, even for bad teams), and their attendance dropped. In 1965, the previous right-field distance of 353 feet was restored.

1967: Finley, fed up with the failure of local government to build him a replacement for Municipal Stadium, had been threatening to move for a while, publicly citing Dallas as a possibility, then Louisville, and privately talking to officials in Atlanta, Milwaukee, New Orleans, San Diego and Seattle, finally gets permission to move the team, to Oakland, California.

Senator Stuart Symington, although from the opposite end of Missouri in St. Louis, was furious, and threatened to have Congress revoke baseball's antitrust exemption if Kansas City didn't get a new team. It got one in the round of expansion announced in 1968.

1969: The Kansas City Royals begin play, at Municipal Stadium, while a bond issue is passed by Jackson County voters, allowing for new stadiums for both the Royals and football's Kansas City Chiefs, who have been playing at Municipal Stadium since coming to Kansas City in 1963.

1971: In only their third season, the Royals have a winning season, finishing 2nd, though far behind the Oakland Athletics. In the last few years in Kansas City, Finley had been told that building up the team's farm system was the way to go, and by the time the team arrived in Oakland they'd developed Reggie Jackson, Jim "Catfish Hunter" and Rollie Fingers, all future Hall-of-Famers, along with future All-Stars Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris and Rick Monday. The A's finish 1st for the first time since their 1931 Pennant in Philadelphia.

The Royals stay competitive, but can't break the A's' strangehold on the American League Western Division until free agency causes the breakup of "the Swingin' A's."

1973: Royals Stadium opens. It is renamed Kauffman Stadium in 1993, shortly before the
impending death of team founder-owner Ewing M. Kauffman, a pharmaceutical kingpin. It is the first ballpark in the American League that has artificial turf from the start, and the Royals develop a team tailored to their park, based on contact hitting, speed and defense.

1976: With the A's losing just enough talent to fall to 2nd place, the Royals win the AL West for the 1st time, in only their 8th season. To celebrate, infielders Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek dive into the fountains that were build beyond the outfield fence.

But they Royals lose the Pennant to the Yankees in a tough 5-game American League Championship Series. The Yanks lead 6-3 in the top of the 8th in Game 5, but 3rd baseman George Brett, having just won his 1st of 3 batting titles, hits a long home run off Grant Jackson to tie it up. Leading off the bottom of the 9th against reliever Mark Littell, Yankee 1st baseman Chris Chambliss hits one over the right-center fence, winning the Pennant, and barely makes it around the bases as fans pour onto the field.

1977: With the A's now having disintegrated, as Finley wouldn't try to re-sign any of his stars in order to save money, the rising California Angels dealing with injuries, and the Chicago White Sox "South Side Hit Men" fading after the Royals swept them 3 straight in early August, the Royals win 102 games to lead the majors, and take 1-0 and 2-1 leads in the ALCS against the Yankees, knowing they have Games 3, 4 and 5 at Royals Stadium.

The Royals' fan base, which includes western Missouri and chunks of Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma -- and, of course, anyone, anywhere, who hates the Yankees -- is sure the Bronx Bombers are about to be conquered by this exciting young bunch of upstarts.

There are incidents. Hal McRae, trying to break up a double play, kicks Yankee 2nd baseman Willie Randolph almost into the outfield. (Maybe the Mets should hire McRae; he has managed since.) In the bottom of the 1st in Game 5, Brett hard slid into 3rd base, and got into a fight with Yankee 3rd baseman Graig Nettles. The benches clear. Things settle down.

The Royals lead 3-1 going into the 8th. But the Yankees come back, and win the game, 5-3. The last play is a double play grounded into by Patek, at 5-foot-4 the shortest player in baseball at the time. As the Yankees celebrate, Patek cries in the dugout -- not for himself, but for his dear friend Rojas, who had announced he was retiring after the season, after a career that included the devastating collapse of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964. (To make matters worse, the Phillies had their own monumental collapse in the 1977 National League Championship Series, but that's a story for another time.)

The photo above is from this series: Mickey Rivers sliding into 2nd base, guarded by Frank White.

1978: Again, the Royals win the AL West -- since the Division was established in 1969, there had been 10 titles, and the count was A's 5, Royals 3, Minnesota Twins 2. And the Royals were confident that, this time, they were finally going to beat the Yankees. They were convinced that it was the bullpen, led by Sparky Lyle, who had flummoxed the Royals in Games 4 and 5 of the '77 ALCS, that made the difference. So the Royals signed free agent reliever Al Hrabosky, the flamboyant lefty known as the Mad Hungarian.

In Game 1 of the ALCS, Hrabosky warmed up in the bullpen, and Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto, always a worrier despite all the Pinstriped success he'd seen, said, "Uh-oh! The Mad Hungarian!" A few minutes later, Hrabosky pitched to Reggie Jackson, and, well, you know why the man is called Mr. October: Rizzuto soon found himself saying, "That's gone! That is gone! Holy Cow!" The Yankees won Game 1.

The Royals took Game 2, and the action shifted to Yankee Stadium. Brett hit 3 home runs off Catfish Hunter (whom the Yankees had signed after the 1974 season), and led 4-3 in the bottom of the 8th. But Doug Bird, part of the KC meltdown in 1977's Game 5, hung a curveball to Thurman Munson, who hit the longest home run of his career at the time when the Yankees most needed a homer from him, into Monument Park. The Yanks won, 5-4, and with Ron Guidry and the Yanks' own new bullpen signing, Rich "Goose" Gossage, mowing 'em down, the Yanks clinched the Pennant in 4 games.

In 3 seasons, the Royals had won 284 games, an average of nearly 95 per year -- 289 counting the postseason -- but had no Pennants to show for it.

1980: After both teams had down years in 1979, the rivalry resumed when the Yankees and Royals won their Divisions again, setting up a 4th NY-KC matchup in 5 years. As they had in 1977, the Royals won Game 1. But Game 2 turned the tide of the rivalry, with Yankee 3rd-base coach Mike Ferraro sending Randolph home when he shouldn't have, and Randolph being tagged for a key out. In Game 3, the Royals completed the sweep at Yankee Stadium, with Brett hitting a long home run off Gossage into the upper deck in right field.

It was one of the most humiliating moments in Yankee history. The Royals went on to lose the World Series to the Phillies, but the disappointment was tempered by their finally having slain the Pinstriped dragon. Like the 1950 Phillies, the 1951 New York Giants, the 1961 Cincinnati Reds, the 1965 Minnesota Twins and the 1967 Boston Red Sox, it almost didn't seem to matter that they had lost the World Series: What they won was more important. (This would later be true of the 1984 and 1998 San Diego Padres, the 1991 Atlanta Braves, the 1995 Cleveland Indians and the 2007 Colorado Rockies.)

1981: The strike forces a split-season format. The Yankees won the AL East in the 1st half, the Royals won the AL West in the 2nd half, and so both made the Playoffs again. But while the Yankees held up their part of the bargain, beating the Milwaukee Brewers to advance to the ALCS, the Royals didn't hold up their part, losing to the A's, preventing a 5th New York-Kansas City battle in 6 years. 

The Yanks beat the A's for the Pennant -- Finley had sold them, and Billy Martin had rebuilt them -- but lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

1983: Neither the Yanks nor the Royals make the Playoffs this season, but, on July 24, a big moment happens in the rivalry. The Yanks lead 4-3 in the top of the 9th, but Brett hits another homer off Gossage, for a 5-4 Royal lead.

Earlier in the game, Nettles had told Martin, again managing the Yankees, that Brett had too much pine tar on his bat, which was illegal. Martin decided to wait for the right time to ask the umpires to enforce the rule. Now was the time, and Brett was called out for violating the rule.

This ended the game as a 4-3 Yankee win. It also sent Brett into a fury, and he charged the umpire who made the call, a rookie named Tim McClelland. (He's the only umpire from that crew still active.) Brett had to be restrained by teammates John Wathan and Leon Roberts.

Naturally, the Royals appealed. AL President Lee MacPhail, though a former general manager o the Yankees, ruled in favor of the Royals, saying that Brett had violated the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law; i.e., he wasn't trying to gain an unfair advantage.

Speaking as a Yankee Fan who remembers this one very well, those of us who were around then were furious. Martin was furious. Team owner George Steinbrenner was furious. MacPhail ordered the game resumed on August 18, an off-day for both teams, from the top of the 9th, two outs, and the Royals up, 5-4. (Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the resumption.)

Steinbrenner decided to open the Stadium and let fans see this travesty for free, and about 1,200 people showed up in the 57,545-seat Stadium. Martin symbolically protested the continuation of the game by putting pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and lefthanded 1st baseman Don Mattingly -- still a rookie and not yet "Donnie Baseball" -- at 2nd base, a rarity for lefthanders (there's been only 1 since).

McRae was the next scheduled batter, and before he came up, Martin challenged Brett's home run on the grounds that Brett had not touched all the bases, and maintained that, since this was a different umpiring crew, there was no way for them to dispute this. But umpire Davey Phillips was ready for Martin, producing an affidavit signed by the July 24 umpires, stating that Brett had indeed touched all the bases. An irate Martin continued to argue with the umpires and was ejected from the game. (No doubt, to the delight of the 1,200 fans who showed up, watching their manager fight for their team.) Yankees reliever George Frazier struck McRae out to finally end the top of the 9th, 25 days after it had begun. Dan Quisenberry then pitched a 1-2-3 bottom of the 9th to preserve the Royals' tainted win.

1984: The Royals win the AL West again, but lose the Pennant to the Detroit Tigers.

1985: Another possible Yanks-Royals matchup looms, but the Yanks tail off in September, and the ALCS is the Royals against the Toronto Blue Jays. For the 1st time, the LCS is a best-4-of-7 series rather than a best-3-of-5. Good thing for the Royals, as the Jays, making their 1st postseason appearance and their only one at Exhibition Stadium, take a 3-1 series lead. But the Royals take the next 3 for their 2nd Pennant. This fold gives Toronto the nickname "Blow Jays," which will be reinforced by collapses in the 1987 regular season final week, near-misses in the 1988 and 1990 regular seasons, and losses in the 1989 and 1991 Playoffs.

The Royals finally win the World Series, beating the cross-State St. Louis Cardinals in a controversial result (which, as I said about the '77 Phils, is a story for another time).

The Royals had won the AL West 6 times in 10 years, and it looked like there was no reason why they couldn't go on winning. But they didn't. In fact, while both teams had been strong in 1985, the Yankees wouldn't reach the postseason again for 10 years, and the Royals have never gotten back.

In fact, since the strike-shortened 1994 season, their 1st after Brett retired, they've only had a winning record once, in 2003, and haven't finished as high as 2nd since 1995, or even 3rd since 2003. They are 54-66 coming into this series, in 5th and last place in the AL Central.

The Royals are not what they once were. But then, neither are the Yankees. The Yankees must reassert themselves in this series to have any hope of making the Playoffs in the final season at Yankee Stadium.

If nothing else, it makes Yankees vs. Royals matter, the way it hasn't in a long, long time.

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