1979. The final year of the ‘70’s was every bit as nutty as the preceding years. It snowed for 30 minutes in the Sahara Desert. Iranian radicals held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Exposing President Jimmy Carter as a weak leader and leading to his defeat in the 1980 presidential election. The Dow Jones Average closed the year at 838. Gas prices rose to .86 cents per gallon. An all sports cable television network called ESPN launched on September 7th. Kate Hudson and Jennifer Love Hewitt were born in 1979.
The YMCA of America sued the Village People over their song of the same name. The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer were the big movies of the year. Disco dominated the music scene, though 1979 was a great year for rock albums with the release of London Calling by the Clash, The Wall by Pink Floyd, Highway to Hell by ACDC, Breakfast in America by Supertramp and Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
In the world of baseball, the wind was blowing out on May 17th in Chicago as the Cubs and the Phillies engaged in a slugfest for the ages. In a game that went 10 innings, the teams combined for a then record 11 home runs and 50 hits, in a game won by the Phillies 23 to 22.
On July 12th, the White Sox and Tigers were scheduled to play a doubleheader. To show that all of the good times were not limited to the North side, the White Sox marketing staff hosted a disco demolition event between games. The idea was to blow up a pile of disco records in a showing of how much disco sucked (it did). The event quickly got out of hand as rowdy White Sox fans used it as an excuse to swarm the field, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages. When order could not be restored, the White Sox forfeited the second game.
On August 2nd, the baseball world was stunned by the death of Yankee captain Thurman Munson in a plane crash.
The “We are Family” Pirates, led by Willie “Pops” Stargell, beat the Baltimore Orioles in seven games to win the World Series. Willie Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, collecting 409 out of 432 possible votes. This has always made me wonder, who were the 23 troglodytes who did not vote for Willie Mays?
By 1979, Royals fans had adopted a little bit of a defeatist attitude. Despite having a world-class stadium, a loyal and rabid fan base, a strong pitching staff and a bona fide superstar in George Brett, owner Ewing Kauffman was unable to lure any high-profile free agents to Kansas City, which could have been the missing link to push his club past the damn Yankees. Kauffman certainly tried, having made fair offers to Pete Rose, Carlton Fisk and Catfish Hunter, among others.
Kansas City didn’t make any big off-season moves. In April, they traded reliever Doug Bird to the Phillies for shortstop Todd Cruz. The Royals played the season like they had a hangover. They ended at 85-77, three games back of the Angels. They played well at home, going 46-35, but struggled on the road, finishing at 39-42. Their best month was August, when they won 19 of 30 games to briefly surge into first place. After getting beat by Cleveland 2-1 on July 19th, the Royals were 10 ½ games back. They caught fire and won 27 of their next 40 games to wipe out that deficit and go up ½ game in the standings. They went 14-15 down the stretch to end any hope of a fourth consecutive Western Division Crown.
1979 was also the end of the road for manager Whitey Herzog. In what may have been one of the most short-sighted decisions in team history, Herzog was fired after the disappointing 1979 finish. Herzog had publicly criticized General Manager Joe Burke and owner Ewing Kauffman for failing to spend the money necessary to upgrade the Royals bullpen. After the 1978 ALCS, Herzog said “They (NY) go out and sign Reggie, Sparky and Goose, and who do we sign? Jerry Terrell. All we needed was Gossage and if we’d paid him $600,000, we could have had him, but the front office wouldn’t do it.”
Herzog also demanded that John Mayberry, a fan (and Kauffman) favorite, be traded after he showed up late and in poor playing shape for Game 4 of the 1977 ALCS. In his five seasons managing the Royals, Herzog led the team to a 410-304 record and three playoff appearances. He was only 47 when fired by Kansas City, so it’s possible to imagine that he could have managed the team for another 15-20 years, had the circumstances been different.
The Royals hitters had a decent year in 1979, led once again by Brett. George continued to pound American League pitchers, slashing .329/.376/.563 with 212 hits, 23 home runs, 107 RBI, 51 walks and an OPS of .939 and a WAR of 8.6. Darrell Porter had a monster season, going off for .291/.421/.484 with 20 home runs, 112 RBI, 121 walks and an OPS of .905 and a WAR of 7.6. Willie Wilson had his best season yet, at .315/.351/.420 with 185 hits and 83 stolen bases while Amos Otis continued to provide steady production with a .295/.369/.444 with 18 home runs, 90 RBI and 30 stolen bases.
Brett finished third in the American League MVP voting, behind Don Baylor and Ken Singleton. There is a strong case to be made that Brett or Fred Lynn of Boston should have won the MVP, but in 1979 voters were overly impressed with home runs and RBI. Porter finished 9th in the MVP race in a year where he should have easily been in the top five. Remember, this was a year where 23 writers did not vote for Willie Mays.
The downfall of the Royals in 1979 can be traced to the pitching staff. The starters struggled all season. Paul Splittorff finished with a record of 15-17. Dennis Leonard went 14-12. Larry Gura closed with a 13-13 mark and Rich Gale, who had been a pleasant surprise as a rookie in 1978, went 9-10. Al Hrabosky led the team with 11 saves. One bright spot was the comeback of Steve Busby, who pitched 94 innings and went 6-6. With the trade of Bird, Herzog’s bullpen of Hungo (Hrabosky), Mungo (Steve Mingori) Duck (Marty Pattin) and Bird, came to an end.
The Royals did play some interesting games. On May 28th, George Brett hit for the cycle in a 16 inning, 5-4 win against the Orioles. In a game played at Royals Stadium in front of 34,677, Brett got off to a slow start with a flyout in the first. He lashed a triple in the third off of Oriole starter Dennis Martinez, before flying out again in the fifth. Brett connected for a home run off of Martinez in the eighth and a single off of Don Stanhouse in the tenth. The Orioles gave him an intentional walk in the 12th. Brett hit a double off of Tim Stoddard in the 14th to complete the cycle, then just to make sure everyone would remember the game, he hit a walk off solo shot to right field off of Sammy Stewart in the 16th inning to give the Royals a 5-4 victory. Larry Gura pitched the final four innings to get the win.
On June 15th, the Royals had one of the greatest comebacks in team history, in a game against Milwaukee in County Stadium. KC fell behind the Brew Crew 6-0 after three innings, 11-2 after four and was down 11-6 going into the top of the ninth. The Royals sent 12 men to the plate in the ninth, scoring eight runs, capped by a three run, inside the park home run by Willie Wilson. Wilson, who had led off the ninth with a single, hit the dinger off Bill Castro, who later pitched for the Royals (1982-83).
The switch-hitting Wilson hit the inside the park job from the right side. He had his first “over the wall” home run in the 6th inning, also a three-run job, from the left side. He thus became the first Royal to hit dongs from both sides of the plate in the same game. The Royals had 14 runs on 21 hits to stun the Brewers, who only managed 11 runs on 14 hits.
On September 17th, Brett hit his 20th triple of the season to become the first player since, you guessed it, Willie Mays in 1957 to join the 20-20-20 club (doubles-triples-home runs). For the third and final time, 23 voters did not vote for Willie Mays.
The most interesting aspect of the year occurred in the June amateur draft. The Royals selected a couple of high school teenagers who would later go on to Hall of Fame football careers. They scored with pitcher Atlee Hammaker in the first round, then used their fourth round pick on a right-hander from Pittsburgh named Dan Marino. Director of Scouting John Schuerholz envisioned Marino as a third baseman, though he went 23-0 as a pitcher and hit better than .500 as a shortstop. Royals scout Art Stewart said that Marino had a cannon for an arm, one of the best he’s ever seen. Marino’s high school baseball coach had said that baseball was Marino’s best sport. He also said that Marino was going to be a Hall of Famer in some sport, baseball, football or basketball - it was just up to Dan to pick which sport. Marino had signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, and reportedly told the Royals brass, he would sign if they would allow him to play both sports. The Royals countered with an offer to pay for Marino’s college education if he signed with them and gave up his football career.
In the 17th round, Kansas City selected a California teen named John Elway. Many people thought baseball was also Elway’s best sport, though he was committed to playing football for Stanford. The Royals thought so highly of Elway, that they brought him in for batting practice before a game in Anaheim. The Royals had him hit with a group that included George Brett, Jamie Quirk and Clint Hurdle. After hitting several bombs, Brett was overheard saying, “Holy sh*t, this kid is better than we are!”
Both of these young men later played a big part in the history of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs never had a chance to draft Elway but did endure 16 seasons of Elway as a member of the Broncos. They did famously pass on Marino to draft Todd Blackledge, in what remains one of the team’s greatest draft blunders of all time. And if you think the Royals have had a history of blowing first-round draft picks, take a look across the parking lot. Starting with the Blackledge pick in 1983, the Chiefs have blown first round picks on guys by the name of Horton, Jozwiak, Palmer, Snow, Jenkins, Morris, Riley, Sims, Dorsey, Jackson and Baldwin. Despite football being much easier to evaluate talent, the Chiefs seem to blow it about every other year. Prior to Patrick Mahomes, the Royals had better success drafting quarterbacks than the Chiefs did.
The Royals had a long history of drafting quarterbacks, starting with a second-round pick of Archie Manning in 1971. Manning was a terrific baseball player, but instead choose to play football for the hapless New Orleans Saints, where he took a pounding. The team also selected Steve Bartkowski with their 33rd round pick in 1971. Bartkowski went on to have a nice career with the Atlanta Falcons.
In the 1978 draft, Schuerholz badly wanted to draft Michigan State wide receiver Kirk Gibson and had even reached a tentative contract deal with Gibson, before the Detroit Tigers rendered that mute by picking Gibson 12 slots before Kansas City. Gibson only lasted that long because a Seattle Mariners scout named Jerry Krause (yes, that Jerry Krause who later built the Chicago Bulls dynasty) was unable to convince Seattle owner Danny Kaye (yes, that Danny Kaye, the actor) to draft Gibson. Kaye was worried that Gibson would get injured playing another season of college football, so instead Seattle drafted some guy named Tito Nanni. With Gibson off the board, Kansas City settled for a shortstop named Buddy Biancalana, passing on some guy named Ripken, who went to the Orioles with the 48th pick. Evaluating and drafting baseball players makes brain surgery look like a breeze.
The Royals continued their infatuation with football players by selecting Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson in the 1986 draft. They got that one right.
The 1979 program also had some great stuff, like the Chandler Baseball Camp ran by Tom Belcher (no relation to Tim). Tom pitched for three seasons in the minors in places like Syracuse and Buffalo. His AAA manager in Syracuse in 1962 was Johnny Vander Meer, who threw consecutive no hitters for the Cincinnati Reds.
And of course, the beer ads. Schlitz, the Relief Ace. About ten years ago, I met my brother-in-law Dave and his friend Steve for a round of golf at the Root River Country Club in southern Minnesota. Steve was the executive director of the Rochester, Minnesota airport and Dave was doing some work for him. In the parking lot after the round, I produced a cooler which contained a 12-pack of Schlitz. As I handed one to Steve, he exclaimed, “Schlitz! I haven’t had one of these since I was in Vietnam!” Understand, he’d been back from Vietnam for 40 years. He took a long pull of the cold beer and looked at the bottle wistfully. He was silent for several minutes and I wondered what was going through his mind. Was he thinking about long ago firefights? About friends who never made it home? Maybe he was just thinking about a steak fry in a far away country where the army served warm beer to tired soldiers. We stood sweating in the August heat for several silent minutes, until Steve came back from wherever he’d been. Sometimes the smallest things are the biggest things.
This is my last post for the year. Thank you to all of you who’ve read my ramblings over the past nine months and for your kind comments. Here’s wishing all of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and may 2019 be the best year yet.