My friend Dennis and I caught the bus from Salina, Kansas to the ballpark. A tour agency out of Salina used to run a great promotion. For something like $25, you got a game ticket and a ride to and from the stadium. Being that we were only sixteen and my parents wouldn’t let me drive to Kansas City for another year, this was a great deal. This Sunday was especially sweet, the hated Yankees were in town for the final game of a three-game set.
The Royals had won the first two games behind strong pitching performances from Paul Splittorff and Dennis Leonard. The two wins pushed the Royals to a two and a half game lead in the American League West. The hated Yankees were holding onto a three-game lead in the American League East. There was also a lot of lingering animosity carried over from the 1976 Championship Series. Plus, it was Kodak Photo day at Royals Stadium. Someone in the Royals marketing department came up with the brilliant idea of letting fans venture onto the stadium turf about an hour before the game to take pictures of their favorite Royals. It couldn’t have been Rush Limbaugh’s idea, as he didn’t start working for the team until the 1979 season.
Regardless, it was a madhouse. For starters, it was over ninety degrees in the stadium. On the turf, it felt well over one hundred. Secondly, thousands of fans poured onto the field and overwhelmed the available staff and the bewildered players. Think about it from the players perspective: in less than an hour you’re going to be playing the hated Yankees. You’d rather be in the cool of the clubhouse, getting psyched for the game. Instead, you’re obligated to stand in the broiling sun and pose for photos and sign autographs. Some players were enjoying the attention. Frank White and Dennis Leonard readily posed for photos with kids. Hal McRae had a huge smile on his face that basically said, I can’t believe what is going on here.
Some players had a difficult time drawing a crowd and just stood along the warning track as people passed by. I walked to center field and stood with my back to the impossibly high wall and looked toward home plate, blinking in the bright sun, thinking, so this is what it’ll be like when I play center field here. Hey, a kid has to have big dreams, right? I remember thinking, how in the world does Amos Otis see the ball in this sunshine?
In left center a mob of people were congregated. We couldn’t see who the player was, so I stood on my tip toes, raised my camera as high as I could and snapped off a couple of photos. In those pre-historic times, before digital, I had to shoot up the remainder of my film, take it to Morrows drugstore where they would send it in for processing. There was no taking photos of your dinner and passing them out to your friends, bragging about what you were eating or taking pictures of your own face. Every photo was valuable and kind of expensive. I got the pictures back about ten days later and dug through them to see what was in the center of the throng of fans. None other than George Brett. Brett had become a full-fledged superstar in 1976, winning the batting title and tormenting the Yankees in the Championship Series. The photos revealed a young Brett, startled by the crush of attention, while a Royal staffer tried to give him some breathing room.
We chatted with John Wathan, one of the lonely Royals. He said on hot days like this, that he would put a sheet of tinfoil between his socks and the soles of his shoes to try and keep his feet cool.
We finally made it back to our seats, which were about thirty rows behind third base. We reclined and watched the remainder of fans drift off the field. The public address system blared the song, Moonlight
Feels Right. It was a catchy song by a band called Starbuck that included quite possibly the only, and best, marimba solo in rock history. Record labels used to release a lot of music in the late spring and early summer, hoping that a song would be a hit and become the song of the summer. Moonlight had been released the previous summer, and even though my personal musical tastes ran more toward Bob Seger, AC/DC and Steely Dan, this song still had a nice, toe tapping summer quality to it.
We’ll see the sun come up on Sunday morning, and watch it fade the moon away
I guess you know I’m giving you a warning, ‘cause me and the moon are itching to play
I’ll take you on a trip beside the ocean, and drop the top at Chesapeake Bay
I suppose the song, like most songs, is about love and sex. I hadn’t figured that out in 1977. Heck, it wasn’t until last year that I figured out that one of my favorite songs by the band Little Feat, Fat Man in the Bathtub, was about sex and a woman’s anatomy. We were pretty innocent and unworldly down on the farm.
Anyway, back to the game. New York came in with a record of 50-41 while the Royals were at 50-38. There were 38,699 sunburnt souls in attendance. The Yankees, desperate for a win, ran out their A team: Randolph, Rivers, Cliff Johnson, Chambliss, Piniella, Jackson, Nettles, former Royal Fran Healy and Bucky Dent. We were hoping to see a high-profile pitcher, but instead got a young righthander named Ken Clay.
The Royals countered with: Brett, McRae, Pete LaCock, Cowens, Joe Lahoud, Otis, Porter, Patek and White. Andy Hassler took the mound for Kansas City. John Mayberry got the day off.
The Royals struck first. With two outs in the bottom of the second, Amos Otis singled to center. Darrell Porter then yanked a Clay fastball over the right field wall for his ninth home run of the year.
Hassler shut the Yankees down until the fourth when Reggie crushed a two-out, solo home run deep over the center field wall, a shot that traveled about 420 feet.
Kansas City got the runs back in the bottom of the fourth. LaCock, whose father was the television personality Peter Marshall, led off with a walk. LaCock was an amiable fellow, one of the nicest players to ever play for the Royals, always signing autographs and posing for pictures. He also had a pretty decent three year run for Kansas City between 1977 and 1979, playing a solid first base and hitting close to .300 each season. After the walk, Al Cowens ripped a double to the left center gap, scoring LaCock. Billy Martin had seen enough of his young pitcher and made a trip to the mound, calling on Dick Tidrow. As Martin approached the mound, the entire stadium exploded in the most hateful and lusty booing I have ever heard in the ballpark. It continued for the duration of the mound visit and didn’t end until well after Billy made it back to the refuge of the dugout. Billy Martin had played seventy-three games for the Kansas City Athletics in 1957, part of the continual shuffle of over-the-hill New York Yankee veterans to the Athletics in exchange for Kansas City’s younger talent. By 1977, Martin was persona non grata in Kansas City, due to his verbal jabs made at the Royals the previous season. I have the feeling that Billy was persona non grata in most ballparks and marshmallow factories around the country.
After getting Joe Lahoud on a ground out to Randolph, Tidrow gave up a sacrifice fly to Amos Otis to drive in Cowens, which made the score four to one, Kansas City. Cowens was enjoying a breakout season in 1977, which saw him slash .312/.361/.525 with 23 home runs and 112 RBI. He won his first and only Gold Glove and finished second in the American League MVP race while putting up 5.4 WAR.
The Yankees cut it in half in the fifth, on a Randolph double, before the Royals iced the game with four runs in the sixth. LaCock drew a one-out walk and moved to second on a passed ball. Joe Lahoud drew another base on balls before Amos ripped a double to the left-center gap, scoring both runners. Tidrow didn’t want anything to do with Porter and gave the hard-hitting catcher an intentional pass to face Freddie Patek. The strategy backfired when Patek drilled a single to right field, scoring Otis and Porter. Porter was a terrific athlete and had great speed, as evidenced by his scoring from first on the Patek single. At the end of six, it stood Royals eight, Yankees two.
The Yankee’s picked up a couple of meaningless runs in the seventh and eighth, as Mark Littell and Steve Mingori shut the door. Kansas City threatened to pile on more in the eighth, but Tidrow struck out Patek and got Frank White on a pop-up to Chambliss to escape a one-out, bases loaded jam. For the Royals it was an efficient day at the plate, scoring eight runs on seven hits and six walks. The near sellout crowd, hot and sunburned, fueled by Hamms, loved every minute of it.
The win was part of an eight-game win streak for the club, which went fifteen and three from July 1st to July 22nd. Of course, the real fireworks started later in the summer, with the streak.