Flags fly forever.
In baseball, the fact that championship teams are remembered for eternity while the defeated are relegated to being a fuzzy memory is particularly cruel. Teams fight and claw over a marathon 162-game season only to have their fate determined by a handful of games in a little over a week of play, subject to the whims of lady luck.
SB Nation has been doing a series this month looking at all of the best teams to never win a championship. These are the teams we should still remember even if they lack the hardware. For the Royals, the most deserving team is quite clear - the 1977 team should have been the first championship club in franchise history.
The Royals were born in 1969, but in just under a decade they were already a behemoth in the American League. They did this without taking the shortcuts of free agency as the Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, and Arizona Diamondbacks had. Instead, the Royals accumulated a wealth of talent through scouting, shrewd trades, innovation, and an aggressive style of baseball that relied on speed, defense, and pitching under manager Whitey Herzog.
The Royals went into the 1977 season having tasted the post-season for the first time in club history the previous fall. But the experience was bittersweet as they fell to the Yankees in the best-of-five American League Championship Series in heartbreaking fashion, by a walk-off home run by Chris Chambliss in the deciding game.
Despite coming a win away from reaching the Fall Classic, some felt the Royals were a flash-in-the-pan. They finished second-last in the league in home runs, with only two players in double digits, and no player with as many as 20 dingers. They didn’t have a flashy ace in their rotation, and their best pitcher - Steve Busby - made just 13 starts in 1976, and didn’t look to be any healthier in 1977.
The Angels looked to be a team on the rise, signing two big free agents away from the crumbling Athletics - outfielder Joe Rudi and designated hitter Don Baylor. The Twins had a promising young team built around perennial batting title contender Rod Carew. Even the Rangers looked to have their best team since moving to Texas, with young players like Mike Hargrove, Toby Harrah, Doyle Alexander, and Bert Blyleven.
But the Royals couldn’t be counted out so long as they had George Brett. The floppy-haired California kid was a second-round pick in 1971, meaning every single team in the league had a chance to grab the future Hall of Famer at least once. Cooperstown certainly didn’t seem to be in his future when he hit .282/.313/.363 with just two home runs in 133 games as a rookie in 1973. But under the tutelage of hitting coach Charlie Lau, Brett soon became one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball. He won his first batting title in 1976, but in 1977 he added a new component to his game - power. He enjoyed his first 20+ home run season, smashing 22 round-trippers, and he did it without sacrificing contact, still hitting .313 and striking out just 24 times.
Joining Brett in ‘73 was a hard-nosed competitor produced by The Big Red Machine in Cincinnati. With the Reds winning championships with a deep roster, there was no place for third baseman/outfielder Hal McRae, so they shipped him to Kansas City for pitcher Roger Nelson and outfielder Richie Scheinblum. McRae showed the young Royals how to win with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude, and became the preeminent designated hitter in the American League.
Five-time All-Star Amos Otis, acquired in another shrewd trade from the Mets for third baseman Joe Foy, patrolled center field, gliding effortlessly in spacious Royals Stadium. Next to him was Al Cowens, a former 75th-round pick from Compton, California, who had a career year in 1977 and won his only Gold Glove. Left fielder Tom Poquette was coming off a .300 season in his rookie campaign.
On the infield was the slick double-play combo of Frank White and Freddie “The Flea” Patek. Big John Mayberry was one of the league’s big power threats over at first base. The Royals felt they needed more offense behind the plate, so they picked up Darrell Porter from the Brewers along with pitcher Jim Colborn for catcher Jamie Quirk, outfielder Jim Wohlford, and pitcher Bob McClure. They picked up first baseman Pete LaCock in a trade from the Cubs to provide a bat off the bench to go along with rookie outfielder Joe Zdeb. Popular infielder Cookie Rojas provided veteran leadership, and catcher John Wathan was versatile enough to fill in everywhere.
But the pitching would be the team’s calling card. With Busby out for much of the year in 1976, Dennis Leonard had stepped up to lead the rotation in just his second full season. Colborn would join long-time Royals lefty Paul Splittorff in the rotation, with young lefty Andy Hassler as the fourth starter. Herzog had a squad deep in arms, and could turn to pitchers like Marty Pattin, Larry Gura, Mark Littell, and Kansas City-native Steve Mingori of Rockhurst High School coming out of his bullpen.
The 1977 Royals certainly didn’t look like a juggernaut early in the year. They had a tough May, dropping 10 of 15 in part due to an injury to George Brett, and fell to seven games back of the Twins by the end of the month. They remained under .500 as late as June 21, when they stomped the expansion Seattle Mariners 13-3 to get back to even at 32-32.
“If we play up to our ability, we should win from 95 to 100 games, and I think that will be enough. If we don’t win 95 games, that will mean we didn’t go out and bust our tails.”
The Royals got hot in June, and by the All-Star break had pulled to within two and a half games back of the surprising first place White Sox. Chicago had lost 97 games the previous season but had turned things around under former Royals manager Bob Lemon with a torrid July. But when the calendar turned to August, they dropped 14 of 19, losing their slip on first place to the Royals.
Kansas City began to get hot toward the end of the month, going on a ten-game winning streak and entering September with a pretty good race on their hands. The White Sox were still just two games back, and the Twins and Rangers were lurking right behind them. Little did those teams know, the Royals were about to steamroll the division with the best run of baseball Kansas City had ever seen.
The Royals swept a four-game series against the Brewers that included a brilliant performance by Splittorff, who flirted with a no-hitter. The club then went to Seattle to sweep the hapless first-year Mariners in a four-game set. The winning continued in Minnesota with another sweep. The only thing that could really stop the team at that point was the Brush Creek flood, which caused water to surge on the Country Club Plaza, eventually killing 25 people.
When play resumed after a few days of rainouts, the Royals kept right on winning, sweeping the A’s in a four-game set, to extend their win streak to 16, the longest in club history, and the longest winning streak in baseball since the 1953 Yankees. They finally dropped a game on September 16 against the Mariners, but by then they had opened up a double-digit lead in the division, all but clinching first place. They went on an eight-game winning streak anyway to officially win the division. The Royals won 27 of their final 33 games. From August 17 until September 25, they won 35 games and lost just 4, winning an amazing 90 percent of their games. They ended the year with 102 wins, still the most in club history, and the only time the Royals have ever won the most games in all of baseball.
“I really felt that was our best team,” said McRae in an interview with The Sporting News in 2015. “We knew each other, and we had a style of play that everybody bought into. We had our leadership in place and our support system in place. Everybody took care of everybody.”
McRae would lead the league in doubles that year with 54, adding 21 home runs and batting .298/.366/.515 in all 162 games. He and Brett paced the offense, but it was a surprising performance from right fielder Al Cowens, who finished fourth in the league with 112 RBI that garnered enough attention to cause him to finish runner-up in MVP voting to Carew.
The Royals hadn’t had a 20-home run hitter in 1976, but had four in 1977 - Brett, Cowens, McRae, and Mayberry. Darrell Porter proved to be a big offensive upgrade at catcher with a .353 on-base percentage and 16 home runs of his own. Amos Otis battled some injuries but still smacked 17 home runs and swiped 23 bases with 85 runs scored. Frank White and Freddie Patek combined to swipe 76 bases, nearly half of the 170 bases the Royals stole that year, second-most in the league. LaCock and Zdeb both proved to be great additions, both finishing the season near .300.
But the offense was carried by the pitchers, who finished atop the league in ERA. Workhorse Dennis Leonard led the league with 20 wins and finished fourth in Cy Young voting with 5.6 WAR and a 3.04 ERA in 292 2⁄3 innings pitched. Colborn won 18 games, including a no-hitter against the Rangers in May. Splittorff won 16 games despite just 99 strikeouts in 229 innings. Hassler was the only pitcher on the staff who threw at least 10 innings and had an ERA over four. Doug Bird, Mark Littell, and Larry Gura each finished with at least 10 saves.
In the playoffs, the Royals again had to face a stacked Yankees team that had won 100 games that season but had a season full of turmoil led by controversial manager Billy Martin. Martin was notorious for his ruthless win-at-all-costs attitude, and for feuding with his own players. He mocked the Royals, particularly pitcher Larry Gura, who the Yankees had let go just two years before.
“He was calling me some names, typical low class,” said Gura, the Royals’ starter. “Nothing you can print. He was yelling, ‘Get the change‐up over, you— .’
Kansas City jumped on Yankees starter Don Gullett and got a gem from Splitt in Yankee Stadium to take Game One, giving fans hope that this year would be different. The Yanks took Game Two, a game that included a brutal slide by Hal McRae that took out Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph and caused enmity between both teams the rest of the series. Still, the Royals were on the verge of their first pennant after Dennis Leonard’s complete game gem to win Game Three.
Whitey Herzog preferred to use his left-handers to neutralize left-handed Yankees hitters like Reggie Jackson, Mickey Rivers, Chris Chambliss, and Graig Nettles. So he passed on 18-game winner Jim Colborn in favor Gura, the southpaw, who had made just six starts all year. Whether it was Martin’s heckling or the Yankee bats, Gura was ineffective and would have to be pulled by the third inning. Marty Pattin provided six strong innings to keep the Royals in the game, but the offense could muster little against Yankees closer Sparky Lyle, who pitched the final 5 1⁄3 innings of the game, allowing just two hits, and clinching the game to even the series.
The pivotal Game Five would have been drama-filled anyway, but the Yankees and Royals took it to new heights. The Yankees benched star slugger Reggie Jackson for slumping in the post-season and for his poor track record against Royals Game Five starter Paul Splittorff. The Royals benched their slugger, John Mayberry, for a poor performance in Game Four that many whispered was due to a late night out partying.
In the first inning, Brett came in hard on a slide into third, causing Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles to kick Brett in the chin. The animosity between the two teams spilled over, leading to a bench-clearing brawl.
Still, through all that the Royals led 3-2 going into the ninth inning, just three outs away from their first World Series. Herzog brought in his ace, Dennis Leonard to close things out at home. Leonard came in just two nights after tossing a complete game, but Herzog thought he could get three more outs. After giving up a hit and a walk, Herzog yanked him for Game Four starter Larry Gura. Gura would have to face Mickey Rivers, who collected two hits in two tries against him in Game Four, and continued that streak with a game-tying hit in Game Five. Herzog again went to his bullpen to summon Mark Littell, who gave up a sacrifice fly to Randolph to give the Yankees the lead. Sparky Lyle would slam the door shut to win the game and the pennant.
The Royals would fall to the Yankees again in 1978, and would have to wait until 1980 to finally get their revenge on the Bronx Bombers and take their first pennant. Their first championship wouldn’t come until 1985, a team that barely won the division, was second-last in runs scored, and had to overcome two 3-1 series deficits to bring home a title.
We may not remember the 1977 club the same way we remember the championship clubs in 1985 or 2015. But in 1977, the Royals were the best team in baseball over the regular season, and for about six weeks they were darn near unbeatable. Despite the lack of a ring, that 1977 club may very well be the best Royals team of all time.