The last time the Royals made the ALCS, I was 13 and living in Wichita. The team was larger than life and we all assumed they would make the playoffs forever, which they had done for as long as I could remember. But I was the only kid in class who rooted against them.
I did so for petty 13-year-old reasons. These included Steve Balboni’s shiny bald head, the infuriating way Mark Gubicza never bent the brim of his cap, and George Brett’s expression, which included a grating fanaticism and a shit-eating smirk and nothing in between. These things mattered to me—far more than anything they did on the field or how they acted off it. When four Royals got imprisoned for attempting to purchase cocaine a couple years earlier, it barely registered on my radar because I was too busy hating Quisenberry’s mustache.
So when the Royals beat the Cardinals—who I also hated, mostly due to Darrell Porter’s glasses and Jack Clark’s teeth—in the ’85 World Series, I did not celebrate. (Nor did I punch an electric fan like the Cards’ epic tightass John Tudor or vandalize a toilet at the old Royals Stadium, as did the unhinged Joaquín Andújar.) Mostly, I watched polite Missourians and Kansans clap in their seats, various Royals jump up and down on the field, and fireworks explode over the Kansas City sky. And I shuddered in fear, for right in the middle of it all, smiling in his chilling approximation of happiness, was the most frightening man on earth, a dark force of evil known as Hal McRae.
A designated hitter and outfielder for the Royals since 1973, by 1985 McRae was near the tail end of a very good career (2,091 hits, .290 average, 484 doubles) that had made him a mainstay of the team. He famously lost the batting title to Brett on the last day of 1976, possibly due to the racist Minnesota Twins and was something of a legend among Royals fans.
To me, McRae was also the scariest motherfucker in baseball. Most kids growing up in Wichita at the time had nightmares about BTK, the serial killer who had been terrorizing our town and was still out there. But a man who strangled, hanged, stabbed, or suffocated 11 women then sent letters to the Wichita Eagle describing the killings didn’t creep me out half as much as Hal McRae.
Every time I saw McRae on TV, he seemed to be screaming. At players. At fans. At the little water fountain at the end of the dugout. His fury represented exactly what was turning me off to little league baseball at the time: the intolerance for weakness, the bullying disguised as dedication. And while McRae screamed, he also seemed to be smiling, a toothy furious grin that told me he had lost the line between love and anger.
McRae was the kind of old-school player who loved the game, pulled up his stirrups, and ran the bases like a man possessed—so hard that the rule requiring a runner to slide into second base when breaking up a double play is still called the "Hal McRae Rule" because of the epic piledriver he did on Willie Randolph in the 1977 ALCS.
Even the most benign McRae-related details took on ominous undertones. At some point in the ’70s, Hostess put baseball cards on the back of boxes of chocolate cupcakes, and I got Hal McRae. He was holding his bat in a half-assed batting stance, but looked more like he was a couple seconds away from clubbing someone with it. A shadow fell over his maybe-smiling, maybe-plotting face in a way that always chilled me. I couldn’t look at the card, especially at night. I was the kid in Poltergeist and the Hal McRae Hostess Cupcake card was the toy clown.
This all came to a head in 1982. My father took my brothers and me to a Royals meet-and-greet at a place called Buck Alley Lumber in Kechi, Kansas. Two Major League players showed up that night to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. One was Frank White, a mild-mannered guy who had won countless Gold Gloves as the Royals second baseman. The other was Hal McRae.
One long line filtered into both men, who sat in chairs side by side. White smiled and chatted. McRae scowled in silence. Younger fans sat on the players’ laps while a Royals employee snapped a Polaroid, which sounds creepy if you imagine any modern player other than David Ortiz doing it. You didn’t get to choose which player’s lap you ended up on, and the ones who got McRae were shitting bricks. I said a little prayer.
Both my brothers got Frank White. Their photos with him were classics: beaming smiles, big hugs, dreams realized.
When I realized I was not about to sit on the lap of Frank White but rather of Satan in gabardine pants, I froze. If McRae didn’t eat me first, I would surely pee all over his leg and he would snap my spine with his bare fists.
"Get up here," Hal McRae barked. "Come on."
The kid behind me, who believed I was stalling long enough to get Frank White, pushed me forward. I stumbled into McRae, who smelled strongly of cologne I could not identify but have smelled many times since and have always felt the urge to curl into a fetal position. He roughly pulled me onto his lap and shot his thick biceps around my neck. My windpipe nearly collapsed on itself.
A guy snapped the photo, and that was it. McRae said nothing more, I kept my bladder in check, and if I ever rooted for the Royals before that, I certainly never did again.
Years later, when he was managing the Royals, McRae had one of the most famous meltdowns in baseball history: the infamous "Put that in your fucking pipe and smoke it" incident in 1993. While others saw it as hilarious—a grown man in long underwear throwing a tantrum—to my eyes it was the unleashing of decades of burning McRaesian wrath that I’d been dreading for decades. Scariest moment in baseball history.
When you watch the Royals take on the O’s in the ALCS, you may see a scrappy, long-suffering underdog playing a game stacked against them. You may think a World Series berth is a win for old-school baseball. Small-market baseball. That may be so. I want to feel the same, but when I look at the cursive blue lettering on the Royals jerseys, same as it was all those years ago, I see something far darker, something that kept me awake at night for much of my teen years. I see a Polaroid faded to yellow, probably in an old shoebox in my parents’ garage in Albuquerque, of a small Kansas boy stiff with terror, sitting on the lap of a man whose face is forever frozen in a toothy grin.