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1977 American League Championship Series

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The nightmare on the Ninth

Prelude

For the second straight season, the Royals and the Yankees squared off in the American League Championship Series. Kansas City, one year older and wiser and still stinging from the Chris Chambliss walk off that ended the 1976 ALCS, came in with the best record in baseball at 102-60. They also came in as one of the hottest teams in baseball history, having won sixteen games in a row from August 31st to September 15th. “The streak” as it is still known to Royal fans, was just part of a larger sample of excellent baseball which saw the Royals win thirty-eight of their final forty-seven games (an .810 clip if you’re keeping track at home) which allowed them to run away with the American League West title. The Royals fully believed they were the best team in baseball. “We might sweep them, we can sweep anybody.” Said Royals first baseman John Mayberry.

The ’77 Yankees weren’t far behind, finishing at 100-62. The Yankees were a formidable opponent, loaded with veteran talent. They to, had something to prove, after being swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 World Series.

1977 was vastly different from today's game. Today, a player’s best friend from AAU ball might be playing on the other team. Maybe they share an agent or do an off-season charity together. With players moving more frequently in free agency, perhaps they were former roommates. Whatever the case may be, ballplayers today are far politer and friendlier with each other than in the days of yore. “It won’t take us long to win it this year.” Said Yankee manager Billy Martin. “They’re not even as good as Baltimore.” proclaimed Reggie Jackson.

“They beat us last year because we didn’t know what we were doing. We know what we’re doing now.” Royals third baseman George Brett said.

That’s how it was in 1977. A lot of trash talk and bulletin board material from two teams that didn’t like each other very much. 1977 was also the last time that two 100-win teams met in the playoffs until this years Red Sox-Yankee’s series.

Game One

Game one took place on Wednesday, October 5th with a 3:20 start time, which in today’s age of prime-time TV seems almost unfathomable. 54,930 fans packed Yankee Stadium that fall afternoon to watch Don Gullett (14-4) and Paul Splittorff (16-6) square off. Kansas City wasted little time jumping on the sore armed Gullett. Freddie Patek led off the game with a walk before Hal McRae jumped all over a two-strike fastball, blasting it over the left field fence, staking the Royals to a quick two to nothing lead, before most of the crowd had a chance to settle into their seats. Kansas City kept their foot on the gas in the top of the second. Darrell Porter drew a two-out walk before Frank White hit an infield single. Fred Patek hit a two-strike pitch into the left field corner for a double, scoring Porter and White to give the Royals a four to nothing lead.

Splittorff worked around singles to Lou Piniella and Cliff Johnson to retire the Yankees in the second. The Royals put their foot on the Yankees necks in the third. Al Cowens hit a one-out single off reliever Dick Tidrow. Big John Mayberry came to the plate looking for a first pitch fastball and he got it. Mayberry’s dong put the Royals ahead six to nothing.

Splittorff wobbled a bit in the Yankee half of the third as Thurman Munson nicked him for a two-run home run. After the Munson blast, Split settled down and retired seventeen of the next twenty-one Yankees he faced, before giving way to Doug Bird in the ninth. Cowens gave the Royals an additional run with a first pitch home run off Tidrow, leading off the eighth inning. That was more than enough for Splittorff and Bird, as the Royals sent a message that they were not Baltimore, with their seven to two victory.

Game Two

Game two was played Thursday evening, October 6th. It featured a pair of lefty’s, Andy Hassler for Kansas City and Louisiana Lightening Ron Guidry for the Yankees. With the series moving to Kansas City for the final three games, game two became a must win for New York.

The Royals jumped to an early lead in the top of the third. Darrell Porter drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on a Frank White single. Freddie Patek, who was having a terrific series, hit a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Porter.

It stayed this way until the bottom of the fifth when Cliff Johnson yanked a two-strike hanging curve from Hassler over the center field wall. Willie Randolph clipped Hassler with a two-out single. Hassler promptly balked Randolph to second. A Bucky Dent single to left scored Randolph to give the Yankees their first lead of the series.

Then came the sixth inning. Many baseball observers felt that the entire series turned in the sixth. It started uneventful enough with Frank White going down swinging. Freddie Patek continued to own the Yankees with a double to center. Hal McRae then drew a full-count walk from Guidry. With George Brett at the plate, even before the pitch was thrown, McRae motioned to Patek to score on the next hit. George dribbled a bouncer to Nettles at third. Nettles made a nice play and fired to second. Randolph caught the ball and was immediately knocked into left field by a McRae cross body block slide. Second base umpire Marty Springstead, resplendent in his burgundy American League blazer, calmly called McRae out as Patek easily scored. The Yankees went ballistic. Randolph. Guidry, Martin and Lou Piniella argued for several minutes to no avail. McRae, as hard nosed as any ballplayer I’ve ever seen, had an almost identical slide in the 1972 World Series, while playing for Cincinnati, taking out the A’s Dick Green. Patek’s score knotted the game at two but seemed to light a fire under the slumbering Yankees. In the bottom of the sixth, New York tacked on three runs, highlighted by a Cliff Johnson double and a two-run throwing error by George Brett. The Yankees added another run in the bottom of the eighth, on a Randolph single that plated Reggie Jackson. That was plenty for Guidry, who picked up the complete game six to two victory.

After the game, all anyone wanted to talk about was the McRae slide.

“That was a vicious clip.” Martin said. “I would have thrown the ball into his face.”

“It was a cheap shot.” Said Thurman Munson.

McRae was unapologetic. He said that’s the way the Royals played, the way he learned to play from Pete Rose and others on the Cincinnati Reds Big Red Machine dynasty. When asked if it was the hardest he had ever hit anyone, McRae said: “I don’t rate them. I just try to do my job.”

I love watching this slide. It’s not fair or accurate to call it a slide as it was definitely a cross body block. I’ve always appreciated a great block, or a series of them, such as when Chiefs guard Will Shields would make Ray Lewis his bitch for an entire game, but football is a different sport. Shields blocks would sap the will to play from Lewis and empower his Chief teammates. McRae’s slide/block fired up the Yankees who vowed to return the favor the first chance they got.

Game Three

The series returned to Royals Stadium for game three, which took place on Friday evening, October 7th. Whitey Herzog continued to tinker with his lineup, moving white hot Freddie Patek from the leadoff spot to the eight hole and inserting Tom Poquette in the leadoff slot. The Royals started twenty game winner Dennis Leonard while the Yankees countered with Topeka native Mike Torrez.

Joe Lahoud, getting his first start of the series, drew a one-out walk off Torrez in the bottom of the second. Darrell Porter singled to left, advancing Lahoud to second before, who else, Freddie Patek, drilled a single to left, scoring Lahoud. Kansas City added another in the third with a McRae double, a Brett single and a groundout by Al Cowens, which plated McRae. The Yankees cut the lead in half in the fifth on a Piniella RBI double.

The Royals tacked on another run in the fifth, two more in the sixth, which chased Torrez and a single run in the seventh off Sparky Lyle, curtesy of a John Mayberry double which scored George Brett.

The key offensive play happened in the sixth, with the Royals up three to one. With Lahoud on third and Porter on second and left-handed Tom Poquette at the plate, Billy Martin went to the mound and yanked Torrez, replacing him with lefty Sparky Lyle. Herzog countered by pinch hitting Amos Otis. The move worked brilliantly, as Otis yanked a double into the left field corner, scoring both runners. After the game, an angry Torrez told a reporter, “If I can’t get Tom Poquette out, I should quit this game.” The Yankees tacked on a meaningless run in the ninth, to make the final six to two and moving the Royals to within one victory of their first trip to the World Series. Leonard was masterful, throwing a complete game four-hitter, recording four strikeouts while only walking one.

The Yankees continued to talk a line of smack after the game. Billy Martin, one of the all-time great trash talkers, was so enraged by the loss that he guaranteed the Yankees would win game four. He also mocked Royals game four starter Larry Gura. “I just hope he doesn’t get into a car wreck coming to the stadium. I ought to put a bodyguard around his house. We’ll beat him.” Not only was Martin a master of talking trash, he also knew this would draw the press away from his beleaguered players and relieve some of the pressure they were feeling.

Game Four

During pre-game batting practice, Hal McRae asked the Yankees Cliff Johnson what time they would fly back to New York. Johnson, a bear of a man at 6’4 and 225 pounds, was not amused by the question. Johnson had been acquired from Houston on June 15th (for a young Dave Bergman) and had stroked twelve home runs in 142 at-bats for the Yankees. He was what was then called an “extra man”. Johnson countered to McRae that they were not flying back until they had won game five, then he started berating McRae about his slide into Randolph. Words were exchanged, and Johnson challenged McRae to a fight under the stands. To this, Mac answered with one of baseballs all-time great burns. “Cliff, I don’t fight extra men.”

Game four was played on Saturday October 8th, a cold autumn day with the first pitch scheduled for 12:15. Gura found trouble right away. Mickey Rivers led off the game by hitting the first pitch he saw for a double. Graig Nettles worked a 3-2 count before slapping an infield single. Thurman Munson brought home Rivers with a fielder’s choice to Brett at third. Yankee starter, Ed Figueroa worked around a one out single to McRae to retire the Royals in their half of the first. The Yankees added two more runs in the second. With two outs, Willie Randolph singled to left. Bucky Dent doubled, plating Randolph, and Mickey Rivers continued to torment the Royals with a single to center which allowed Dent to score. More Yankees in the third. Munson led off with a two-strike double and after Gura walked Reggie Jackson, Herzog decided he’d seen enough. Marty Pattin was summoned from the pen and promptly gave up an RBI single to Lou Piniella to make the score four to nothing, Yankees. Pattin escaped the inning by snagging Chris Chambliss’ line drive and then doubling Jackson off third for the inning ending double play. The Royals finally showed some life in the bottom of the third. Freddie Patek, who was having a fabulous series, led off with a triple to right field. Patek scored on a Frank White sacrifice fly. McRae, who was also enjoying a solid series, punched a two-out single to center off Figueroa. George Brett then lashed a triple to the right-center gap, scoring McRae. Four to two, Yankees.

The Yankees added another run in the fourth on a Nettles single. The Royals answered in the bottom of the fourth. Amos Otis drew a one-out walk, before Patek lashed an RBI double to left. Martin pulled Figueroa and brought in Dick Tidrow. Frank White greeted Tidrow with a double to right, which plated Patek. After Tidrow issued a two-out walk to McRae, Martin called on lefty Sparky Lyle to put out the fire, which he did, getting Brett on a hard line drive to Piniella in left. Five to four, Yankees. Pattin and Lyle then locked into a pitcher’s duel, each throwing four scoreless innings. Pattin finally tired in the ninth and after giving up a leadoff single to Rivers, Herzog called on Steve Mingori, a left-handed sidewinder and Kansas City native. Mingori’s first pitch skipped past Darrell Porter, moving Rivers to second. After retiring Graig Nettles on a flyball to Cowens in right, Herzog brought in Doug Bird, hoping to keep it a one run game. Munson greeted Bird with a flyball to center, which scored Rivers with an insurance run. Lyle made it stand up, with a one-two-three ninth to give the Yankees the win and knot the series at two games apiece.

After the game, Martin was asked about bringing in his closer to pitch the final five and one third innings. “I wanted my best pitcher out there.” said Martin.

While Lyle was warming up in the bullpen, Martin asked pitching coach Art Fowler how he looked. Fowler told Martin that Lyle “couldn’t get his grandmother out.”

When brought into the game, Martin asked Lyle how he was feeling.

Lyle – “I feel fine.”

Martin – “Fowler said you couldn’t get your grandmother out.”

Lyle – “Well, I’m not facing her.”

The other controversy in the game occurred in the top of the fourth when Graig Nettles was forced at second and slid hard into Royals second baseman Frank White. The Royals thought Nettle’s slide was more of a cheap shot than McRae’s slide had been, and they wanted some payback.

“They’re not going to intimidate me.” White said. Paul Splittorff added, “We’re playing at home, and we’re going to win tomorrow.”

Herzog had made one move in the top of the fifth that flew under the radar, pulling first baseman John Mayberry and replacing him with John Wathan. Mayberry had struck out twice in the game, dropped an easy pop foul hit by Rivers and bungled a simple relay throw.

And so it was. Game five has all the makings of being another classic.

Game Five

Game five was played on Sunday evening, October 9th, in front of a packed house of 41,133. As was the norm with the Bronx Zoo, the Yankees had all sorts of distractions. Before the game, Mickey Rivers demanded a trade. Then Martin made an unusual managerial decision, against the wishes of George Steinbrenner, and benched Reggie Jackson. Martin explained the move by noting that Jackson was in a one for fifteen slump and hadn’t hit Royals starter Paul Splittorff particularly well. “He hasn’t been swinging well and this guy (Splittorff) has always bothered him. It’s not a decision I’m happy making, but I have to do it. I probably wouldn’t do it in the World Series, but I just had to do it now. If I didn’t do it for the ballclub, I shouldn’t be managing.” said Martin.

Jackson countered with this pearl, “eight hundred million people in China don’t even care about Reggie Jackson.”

The Royals had a dumpster fire of their own to contend with. Big John Mayberry had shown up late for game four, infuriating Whitey Herzog. Rumors were circulating that Mayberry had been out late partying, and there were whispers of a drug problem. Mayberry didn’t help his case by playing poorly in game four, before Herzog yanked him in the fifth. Herzog, never one to cater to a star’s whims, sat Mayberry for the critical game five and went with Wathan and Pete LaCock at first base.

For the Royals, their hopes rested with game one starter Paul Splittorff, who had traditionally been successful against the Yankees. New York countered with Ron Guidry, who for the first time in his career would pitch on two days rest.

Splittorff shut the Yanks down one-two-three in the first and the Royals wasted little time getting on the scoreboard. In the bottom of the first, Hal McRae hit a one out single. George Brett then stepped in against Guidry. On a two-two count, Brett jumped on a high fastball and stroked a line drive to center. Rivers, in centerfield, got a bad jump on the ball, then took a poor route as the ball sailed over his head. Paul Blair bailed out Rivers by hustling over from his spot in right field and made a perfect relay throw to second baseman Randolph, in short right field, who fired a bullet to Nettles at third. Brett, who always ran like he was being chased by a pack of wild dogs, barreled into third with a hard slide. Third base umpire Marty Springstead (he of the game two McRae slide), called Brett safe. Brett’s momentum carried him up into Nettles, who responded by kicking Brett in the chin. Then all hell broke loose. Brett bounced to his feet and threw a haymaker which connected with the top of Nettles head. Guidry and Nettles went after Brett, while third base coach Chuck Hiller tried to separate the combatants. Both teams and bullpens joined the fray. Three very interesting things happened in this fight. One, Thurman Munson, in full catcher’s gear, fought his way to the bottom of the pile and laid on top of Brett, shielding him from blows. Second, Billy Martin, whose trash talk and antics helped bring this series to a boiling point, pulled aside Freddie Patek and told him, “let’s you and me stay out of this, so we don’t get hurt.” The third interesting thing is no one got ejected. Think about that. First inning of the deciding game five, a bench clearing brawl involving the biggest stars of both teams, and no one gets thrown out. Uniforms were dusted off; players and benches were warned, and everyone went back to their positions and the game resumed.

Brett said of the fight, “What are you going to do when someone kicks you in the face? You gonna just lie there and say “kick me again?” Despite what the bible says, apparently not. At least not in a game five against the damn Yankees.

When play did resume, Al Cowens hit a grounder to the hole at third, which was deep enough to score Brett and give the Royals a quick two to nothing lead.

It stayed that way until the top of the third, when emerging Royal killer Mickey Rivers hit a two-out single. Rivers then stole second and scored with Munson chopped a single into right field.

Kansas City got that run back in their half of the third when Al Cowens stroked a single to left, scoring Hal McRae, who had led off the inning with a double. This signaled the end for Guidry, as Martin called on Mike Torrez, who ended the threat by striking out Amos Otis and John Wathan. Torrez and Splittorff kept both teams’ bats in check until the eighth inning. The Royals were leading three to one and only six outs away from their first World Series. Willie Randolph led off the eighth with a single, prompting Whitey Herzog to go to his bullpen. Doug Bird got Munson swinging for the first out. Lou Piniella hit the first pitch he saw into right field, putting runners at the corners. Martin temporarily came to his senses and pinch-hit Reggie Jackson for “extra man” Cliff Johnson. Jackson delivered, blooping a two-strike pitch into short center field, which scored Randolph. Herzog then brought in Steve Mingori, who got Nettles and Chris Chambliss out to end the inning. Royals three, Yankees two.

Amos Otis and Pete LaCock worked Torrez for two-out walks in the Royals half of the eighth, when Martin called on Lyle one more time. Lyle got Cookie Rojas swinging, in what would be the last at-bat of Cookie’s illustrious sixteen-year career. Rojas got the game five start at designated hitter and had delivered a single leading off the fourth inning, in what would be the last hit of his career.

Then came the ninth. The nightmare ninth on the ninth. Herzog, also wanting to use his best pitcher, called on Dennis Leonard to protect the slim lead. Leonard gave up a two-strike single to Paul Blair to open the inning. He then issued a full-count walk to Roy White, prompting Herzog to push the panic button. Herzog had lost confidence in his closer, Mark Littell and in what would become a text book example of how not to use your bullpen, Whitey called on another starter, Larry Gura. Gura got two strikes on the first batter he faced, Mickey Rivers, before Mick the quick looped a single to right, scoring Blair and tying the game. Herzog, who was surely spotting himself by now, made the slow trek to the mound and finally called on Littell to douse the flames. Willie Randolph got his revenge by hitting a sacrifice fly to center, deep enough to score White and give the Yankees the lead. Littell got Munson on a ground out to Patek for the second out. Lou Piniella then hit a roller to third, which Brett made a poor throw to LaCock, the error allowing Rivers to score an insurance run. Littell ended the inning by getting Jackson on a groundout to Frank White. Five to three Yankees as the crowd sat in stunned silence. The Royals still had a chance. Frank White hit a one-out single off Lyle, bringing Freddie Patek to the plate. Patek had played brilliantly in the series, batting .389. Lyle jumped out to a quick two strike, no ball count before throwing another of his nasty sliders. Patek hit a hard shot down the third base line, which Nettles speared and started a classic five-four-three double play, which sent the Yankees to the World Series.

The loss was gut wrenching for the Royals and their fans. A crushed Patek sat in the dugout, head down, for what seemed like an eternity. The Yankees went on the defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. I, and I’m sure many other Royal fans watched that series thinking, that should have been us.