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The 1985 American League Championship Series

Oh Canada!

Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

With the exciting pennant races of 1985 a fresh memory, the Royals traveled to Toronto for the American League Championship Series. The 1985 season marked the first year that the Championship Series went to a best-of-seven format. The Blue Jays, who started as an expansion team in 1977, won their first American League East crown by holding off the New York Yankees by two games. For the Royals, their West division title marked their seventh playoff appearance in the past ten seasons.

Conventional wisdom would seem to favor the veteran Royals, but this was a tough Blue Jays team. The Jays featured young stars Tony Fernandez, George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield along with ace pitchers Dave Steib, Jimmy Key and hard throwing closer Tom Henke. The Jays also had their share of former Royals - Rance Mulliniks, Buck Martinez, Willie Aikens and a 21-year-old first baseman by the name of Cecil Fielder. The series also featured the Iorg brothers – Garth for Toronto and Dane for Kansas City.

Vegas installed the Jays as the favorites in the series. The Blue Jays had homefield advantage, if you can call it that. Their home was Exhibition Stadium, a facility that had been built for the CFL Toronto Argonauts. Jays President Paul Beeston once called Exhibition “not just the worst stadium in baseball, it was the worst stadium in sports.”

They tried calling it “The mistake by the lake” but that name was already taken by Cleveland. The stadium sat near Lake Ontario and the weather was often cold at the beginning and end of the baseball season. In the Jays first game ever, on April 7, 1977, they had to borrow a Zamboni from the Toronto Maple Leafs to clear the field of snow. The main seating area was a bowl reconstructed from two grandstands that ran the length of the third and first base lines and was open to the elements. A huge covered grandstand ran the length of left field and extended well past center field. There were no seats in right field, just a fence and a whole lotta space. It was, and remains, one of the strangest baseball fields I’ve ever seen. Calling the first two games for NBC were former Yankee great Tony Kubek and a young Bob Costas.

Game One

The game was played October 8th in Toronto. The Blue Jays started their ace, Dave Steib. Steib only went 14-13 in 1985 but made the All-Star team and led the American League in ERA with a 2.48 mark. Kansas City countered with lefty Charlie Leibrandt, who had posted a sterling 17-9 record in his second season with the club. The Jays wasted little time, jumping on Leibrandt for six runs in the first four innings. The Royals finally got on the board in the ninth when Willie Wilson scored on a ground out by Pat Sheridan.

The six runs were more than enough as Steib held the Royals to three hits in eight innings of work and Tom Henke, who looked more like a high school science teacher than one of the best closers in the game, worked around two singles in the ninth to preserve the win and give the Blue Jays a 1-0 series lead. Leibrandt gave up five runs in two innings of work before Dick Howser went to Steve Farr. Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson for the final four innings. The odd pitching rotation highlighted a serious lack of depth in the Kansas City staff. Howser basically had five decent starters and Dan Quisenberry. Steve Farr, who had only thrown 37 innings in the regular season, emerged late in the year to give Howser a little more depth.

Game Two

Played Wednesday afternoon, October 9th with a 3:00 ET start time, the Jays started their number two-man, Jimmy Key. The Royals countered with Bud Black. Key had gone 14-6 in the regular season, while Black had an off year, finishing 10-15. Key and Black, both lefties, were nearly mirror images of each other, the only difference being Key often threw from a three-quarter arm slot while Black came over the top. The Royals struck first when Buddy Biancalana led off the third with a single to center.

With one out, Willie Wilson fouled off the first two pitches from Key. Key challenged him on the third pitch and Willie deposited it into the left field stands. Wilson had only hit four home runs during the regular season. The Royals increased their lead in the fourth when Daryl Motley walked and scored on a double by Jim Sundberg. Rain interrupted the proceedings in the fifth with the score 3-1 Kansas City. When play resumed, Black lost his rhythm. He hit Bell with a pitch and after a Cliff Johnson single, uncorked a wild pitch. Barfield then punched a single to center to score both runners.

Manager Dick Howser went to his closer, Dan Quisenberry, to start the eighth. Lloyd Moseby singled, stole second, advanced to third when Sundberg’s throw got by Frank White and score the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly by George Bell. The Jays were only three outs from taking a two-game lead and with Henke on the mound, it looked bleak. Pat Sheridan, pinch-hitting for Daryl Motley, said no problem and wrapped a lead-off home run around the flagpole in right to stun the Toronto crowd.

Quisenberry worked around a two-out Mulliniks single to retire the Jays in the ninth. Kansas City took the lead in the 10th, when Wilson singled, then with one-out, stole second. With two outs, Frank White stroked a sinking liner to center. Moseby charged and appeared to have made a shoestring catch. Left field umpire Derryl Cousins didn’t see it that way and ruled that Moseby had trapped the ball, which allowed the fleet Wilson to easily score. Manager Bobby Cox argued vociferously, but to no avail. In those prehistoric days, there was no replay and even today, the YouTube video of the play is too difficult to make a solid ruling.

Howser sent Quisenberry out for the tenth and Tony Fernandez led off with a high chopper to Onix Concepcion. Concepcion fielded the ball cleanly, had the ball in his throwing hand, then for some mysterious reason double clutched, allowing Fernandez to beat the throw. It was ruled a hit but should have been an error on Concepcion. The error/hit proved costly as Fernandez moved to second on a ground out before a Moseby single to right drove him home with the tying run. Fernandez ran through third base coach Jimy Williams stop sign and easily beat Sheridan’s throw to the plate.

Quisenberry then tried to pick off Moseby but first baseman Steve Balboni forgot to catch the ball, allowing Moseby to take second. That brought Al Oliver to the plate. Oliver was a professional hitter in the last year of a brilliant 18-year career which saw him accumulate 2,743 hits and almost 44 WAR. With two strikes, Oliver went the other way, slipping a grounder to left to easily score Moseby with the game winner. The Royals committed three costly errors in the game, four if you count the freebie given to Concepcion, and it cost them the game.

Game Three

Game Three moved to Kansas City, a Friday night game with announced attendance of 40,224. The Royals started 20-game winner Bret Saberhagen while the Jays countered with Doyle Alexander, who had a fine 17-10 season. For the season, Saberhagen had recorded 158 strikeouts and only issued 38 walks. Game Three quickly became the George Brett show. Brett had worked out hard over the winter looking to avoid the injuries that had plagued him since his seminal 1980 season. Looking at that 1980 season, .390/.454/.664, where does a player go from there?

With one out, Willie Wilson singled to center. Wilson attempted to steal second and was called out. The replay clearly shows his slide beat the tag by Tony Fernandez but second base umpire Vic Voltaggio’s view was blocked by Fernandez and since replay didn’t exist yet, Wilson took a seat. Naturally, Brett drove the next pitch about ten rows deep to right to give the Royals a quick 1-0 lead.

It stayed that way until the fourth, when Brett narrowly missed another home run, as his lead off drive bounced high off the right field wall for a double. He advanced to third on a fly out by Hal McRae and came home on another fly out by Frank White.

The wheels came off for Saberhagen in the fifth. The inning went single, home run, fly out, double, single off Saberhagen’s leg and finally another home run, this one off the bat of former Royal Rance Mulliniks. Howser brought on game two starter Bud Black to put out the fire. 5-2 Toronto. Steve Balboni led off the Royals half of the fifth with a hard liner to left, but George Bell made a terrific running catch to rob Balboni of extra bases. Jim Sundberg picked his teammate up with a home run that barely cleared the left field wall. 5-3 Toronto. In the bottom of the sixth, Wilson led off with a sharp single over the glove of Alexander, bringing up Brett. Brett took a ball, then took a violent cut at a ball which he fouled off. On Alexander’s third pitch, Brett drove the ball deep over the left-center wall, up onto the grass to tie the score. The fans gave him a well-deserved standing ovation, getting a curtain call from Brett. Many believe Alex Gordon’s home run in the 2015 World Series was the biggest in Royals history, but this Brett shot was right up there. If the Royals lose this game, they go down three games to none and have to face Dave Steib. Game three was a must win for Kansas City and their star delivered. Again.

The game stayed knotted at five going into the bottom of the eighth. Who should lead off? Brett of course. He stroked a single to right to open the inning. Hal McRae bunted George to second. Frank White hit a ground out to short, advancing Brett to third. The Jays wisely walked Pat Sheridan to pitch to Steve Balboni. The move made sense, Bye Bye had been having a rough series, having gone oh for eleven up to that point with two costly errors. Pitcher Jim Clancy fell behind 2-0 and tried to sneak a fastball by Balboni. Balboni dropped a dying quail into short centerfield, right in the middle of three Blue Jays, to score Brett with the go-ahead run.

Steve Farr had come on in that disastrous fifth inning, and Howser rode him into the ninth. Farr pitched brilliantly, facing 13 batters in the game and only giving up two hits, both which were wiped out by double plays. Farr pitched 4 13 innings to pick up the crucial win. The game was quite possibly the best playoff performance of George Brett’s career, as he went 4-for-4 with a single, double, two home runs, three RBI, four runs scored. He also made a huge defensive play, with a terrific backhand stop of a Moseby grounder and a brilliant jump throw to the plate to throw out Damaso Garcia which saved a run early in the game.

Game Four

Game Four was played Saturday evening, October 12th with 41,112 fans packing Royals Stadium. Both teams brought back their Game One starters and both pitched brilliantly. Kansas City broke a scoreless game in the bottom of the sxith when Lonnie Smith drew a leadoff walk and moved to third on a single by Willie Wilson. Brett was given an intentional pass to load the bases with no outs. When Hal McRae drew a walk to score Smith, the crowd smelled blood and stood in an ovation. Steib got the next batter, Pat Sheridan, on a popup to third, then coaxed Frank White to hit into a 6-4-3 double play to escape the inning.

Howser brought Leibrandt out for the ninth and the decision cost him. Damaso Garcia drew a leadoff walk and scored the tying run on a double to right by Lloyd Moseby. Howser called on Quisenberry, but the Jays were having none of it. George Bell greeted Quiz with a single to center and the next batter, Al Oliver, continued to torment the Royals by roping a double to right, scoring both Moseby and Bell. Quisenberry got the next three batters but the damage was done. 3-1 Toronto. Science teacher Henke worked around two walks in the ninth to record the save and give the Jays a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Game Five

The Jays had to be feeling both confident and slighted. In any previous year, they would have been going to the World Series. Still, with a three-games-to-one lead and two more games scheduled for Toronto, if needed, they had to be feeling good about their chances. Kansas City on the other hand, now faced three must win games in a row. A tall order for any team.

Game Five was played at Royals Stadium on Sunday afternoon, October 13th. The Royals pinned their survival on the arm of 23-year-old Danny Jackson, who had gone 14-12 in the regular season. Toronto countered with game two starter, Jimmy Key.

Kansas City pushed across a run in the first on a Brett groundout to short, which scored Lonnie Smith, who had led off with a double and promptly stole third. The Royals added a run in the second. Frank White led off with a single and Steve Balboni, having found his hitting stroke, laced another single, moving White to third. Daryl Motley delivered White with a fly ball to center. 2-0 Kansas City.

Jackson was brilliant, scattering eight hits, striking out six, including the side in the second and only allowed two Blue Jay hitters to get to third base. He held the Jays hitless over the last three innings and his performance saved the Royals season. Now the series shifted back to Toronto, with the Jays holding a three games-to-two lead.

1985 World Series - Kansas City Royals v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Game Six

Game Six was held Tuesday October 15th at Exhibition Stadium. Dick Howser gave Mark Gubicza his first start of the series, while the Jays went with Game Three starter, Doyle Alexander. 37,557 filled Exhibition to see if their Blue Jays could win their first American League crown.

The Royals struck first. Willie Wilson and Brett drew one out walks before Hal McRae dropped a single to left, scoring Wilson. The Jays answered in their half of the first with a double by Damaso Garcia, a single by Lloyd Moseby and a run scoring double play grounder by Rance Mulliniks.

Wilson hit a single leading off the third but was forced by Brett at second. Hal McRae, having a strong series, hit a double to left, scoring Brett. Once again, the Jays answered in their half of the frame. Tony Fernandez hit a one-out double, before taking third on a wild pitch. Lloyd Moseby brought him home with a fielder’s choice. It stood 3-3 going into the fifth inning, when with one out, George Brett continued to beat Doyle Alexander like a rented mule, stroking another home run over the center field fence.

The Royals lead stood at 3-2 until the sixth. Jim Sundberg drew a leadoff walk and Frank White sacrificed him to second. Light-hitting Buddy Biancalana ripped a double to right, scoring Sundberg. Biancalana advanced to third on an error by Blue Jays right fielder Jesse Barfield. Manager Bobby Cox called on Dennis Lamp to face Lonnie Smith and Smith came through big, stroking another double to right, scoring Biancalana. 5-2 Kansas City and suddenly a game seven seemed very likely.

Gubicza tired in the sixth, issuing a single and a walk, which prompted Howser to call on Bud Black. Cliff Johnson, who had some bad blood with the Royals dating back to his days as an “extra man” with the Yankees, drilled a single to left, scoring Moseby. Black worked around some trouble to retire the Jays without further damage and it was 5-3 Kansas City at the end of six. Black and Lamp both found their stride and held their opponents in check. In the bottom of the ninth, Black gave up a one-out single to Tony Fernandez, who was erased on a force at second. Lloyd Moseby hit a single to right, bringing the winning run to the plate. Howser went with his stud closer Dan Quisenberry. It seems comical to call Quisenberry a stud, but he did have 212 saves over the past six seasons and led the league in saves in five of those years. Quiz got Garth Iorg swinging to end the game and plunge Toronto into a night of angst.

Game 7

Now the pressure was firmly on the Jays. Kansas City had come back from an improbable 3-1 deficit to send the series to the first ever Game Seven in the Championship Series. There was some grumbling in the Toronto press about the new seven-game format, which is to be expected when your team is choking. Toronto called on Steib for the third time in the series while the Royals went with Game Three starter, Saberhagen.

The Royals drew first blood scoring a single run in the second on a Sheridan single, a groundout, and a single to right by Jim Sundberg. In the top of the third, Saberhagen took another drive off his leg, the second time he’d been hit in the series. He made it through the third but gave way to Charlie Leibrandt in the fourth. The score was still 1-0 going into the top of the fourth, when Pat Sheridan hit a two-out home run off Steib, his second of the series. 2-0 Kansas City. The Jays nicked Leibrandt for a run in their half of the fifth with a Willie Upshaw double doing the damage.

In the sixth, Kansas City broke the game open. Brett drew a one-out walk and Steib hit McRae with a pitch. Sheridan forced Brett at third, but Steve Balboni worked a two out walk off a tiring Steib to load the bases. Jim Sundberg then hit a high fly to right. The ball carried and hit the very top of the chain link fence about two feet into fair territory and bounced into the field of play. Jays right fielder Jesse Barfield watched the ball for a moment before umpire Derryl Cousins signaled fair ball. All three Royals baserunners, running on contact with two outs, scored easily as Sundberg had a stand up three run triple. For a catcher, Sundberg had a surprising number of triples, 36 in a 16-year career with a season high of six in 1978. None were bigger than this one, which drove a dagger into the heart of the Blue Jays.

Jim Acker relieved Steib and Frank White greeted him with a run scoring single to make it 6 to 1 Kansas City. Jeff Burroughs led off the ninth for Toronto, but the game was stopped when an inebriated Blue Jays fan fell over the outfield railing on the first base side. The inevitable was delayed about five minutes while paramedics and police loaded the unconscious man onto a stretcher and out the right field gate to an ambulance.

Leibrandt got Burroughs on a comebacker, which was the last at-bat in Burroughs’ 16-year career. The game was delayed once more as three young fans sprinted across the outfield with a large Canadian flag, before being tackled by a squadron of security personnel. Toronto’s finest stood ready on horseback, if needed. The flag delay prompted an irate Dick Howser to storm out of the dugout, most likely telling home plate umpire Dave Phillips to get this thing under control. Leibrandt ran into some trouble in the bottom of the ninth.

With one out, Jesse Barfield stroked a high fastball into right for a single. Tony Fernandez followed with a double, prompting Howser to bring in Quisenberry. Leibrandt had done his job, pitching an excellent five and one third innings to get his team to the brink of the World Series. Quiz then made a nice play on a Damaso Garcia grounder to the third base side, which scored Barfield. That brought up Lloyd Moseby. Moseby hit a high chopper to Frank White, whose throw beat Moseby and the party was on!

The Royals had done the improbable and were on their way to their second World Series appearance, this one against their in-state rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals.

George Brett was named MVP of the Championship series after batting .348 and having a hand in 11 of the 26 runs scored by the Royals. He finished with two doubles, three home runs, five RBI and six runs scored. The Jays hit .269 for the series, compared to .225 for the Royals, but the Royals young pitching staff came through when it mattered with standout performances from Steve Farr, Danny Jackson, Bud Black and Charlie Leibrandt.

Doused in glory suds: Royals’ George Brett, who was named most valuable player in the American Leagu Photo by Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Next week: 1985 World Series