One thing I like about historical lists is the discussion it brings. It’s hard to get millions of fans to agree about what the top five or even the top ten might be. For younger fans, there might be some recency bias and that’s understandable. If you weren’t alive to witness the individual greatness of a Bo Jackson, a Steve Busby or George Brett, it’s hard to fathom just how spectacular they were. If you’re not of a certain age, you have no idea how heated the rivalry was with the Oakland A’s or the New York Yankees. But the great thing about sports, and baseball, is that it continues to create memorable moments for all of us.
Here are the top five plays and moments in Royals history.
5. November 1, 2015 – Hosmer’s Mad Dash
Heading into Game Five of the 2015 World Series, the Kansas City Royals held three-games-to-one lead on the New York Mets. Even though the Royals were just one win away from clinching the title, the series felt closer. The Royals, behind a titanic home run from Alex Gordon had prevailed in Game One in 14 innings. New York won Game Three and the Royals had to mount a three-run eighth inning rally, aided by a botched double play ball by Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, to win Game Four. For some reason, it still felt like the Series could go either way. Heading into the top of the ninth inning of Game Five, Mets starter Matt Harvey was cruising with a 2-0 lead. Manager Terry Collins wanted to go to his closer, Jeurys Familia, but Harvey famously talked him out of it.
Lorenzo Cain led off the inning with a walk and promptly stole second base. Eric Hosmer ripped a double into the left field gap to score Cain. Collins came to his senses, too late, and pulled Harvey for Familia. Mike Moustakas grounded out to first baseman Lucas Duda, moving Hosmer to third. The next batter, Sal Perez, hit a soft chopper to the left of third base. Mets third baseman David Wright cleanly fielded the ball, gave Hosmer a quick glace and lobbed a side-armed throw to first to get Perez. When Wright fielded the ball, Hosmer broke for home. Duda hurried his throw home and airmailed it past Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud as Hosmer slid in headfirst with the tying run. A good throw would have nailed Hosmer and given the Mets the victory. This is a throw that thousands of little league and high school players make each season and yet, to the Royals good fortune, a professional first baseman, on the world's biggest stage, choked on the throw.
After Hosmer’s mad dash, which is my all-time favorite Royals play, in case you’re wondering, I knew Kansas City was going to win this game and the series. And of course, they did. Kansas City hung a fiver on the Mets in the twelfth inning, the coup de grace being Lorenzo Cain's three-run double. Wade Davis came on, got three strikeouts and the Royals had a parade. But it was Hosmer’s audacious sprint home that made the difference.
4. September 30, 2014 - Salvy comes through in the clutch
What can you say about this game? It was one of the most exciting, entertaining, exasperating, thrilling games I have ever seen, and anyone who watched it will never forget it. One game, winner take all.
The Royals started “Big Game” James Shields. They had acquired Shields just for a game like this. Brandon Moss staked the A’s to an early lead with a two-run first inning bomb. The Royals took a brief lead in the third before Ned Yost made one of the more, shall we say, unusual managerial decisions of his tenure. With Shields tiring, Ned brought Yordano Ventura in on relief. Ace had great stuff and I loved watching him pitch, but this move had me reliving the Whitey Herzog-Dennis Leonard 1977 ALCS nightmare. Moss greeted Ventura with a massive three-run jack to dead center to give Oakland the lead. Ventura gave up another single and fired a wild pitch before finally getting a fly ball out. Ned trudged to the mound and called on Kelvin Hererra to put out the fire.
No dice. Hererra gave up three consecutive singles and when the dust finally cleared, the A’s were sitting on what seemed to be an insurmountable 7-3 lead and Yost was quite possibly thinking about sprucing up his resume for his next job. The Royals, as they so famously did during their 2014-15 run, kept the line moving, sending eight men to the plate in the eighht to cut the lead to one run. Greg Holland worked out of a nerve-wracking, bases-loaded jam in the ninth to give the Royals a chance. Late season acquisition Josh Willingham led off the ninth by muscling a single down the right field line. Jarrod Dyson came on to run for Willingham and moved to second on an Alcides Escobar sacrifice. Dyson then swiped third and scored the tying run when Nori Aoki lifted a fly ball deep to right field.
The game stayed knotted until the A’s pushed across a run in the twelfth. In the Royals half, Eric Hosmer hit a one-out triple off the left field wall to give the Royals hope. Christian Colon hit a short chopper to score the hustling Hosmer. After Alex Gordon fouled out for the second out, Colon swiped second, setting the stage for Sal Perez. Perez worked the count to two balls, two strikes against future teammate Jason Hammel. Hammel’s next pitch was low and outside, which was Salvy’s kryptonite. Somehow, someway, Salvy stretched, swung, made contact and managed to pull the ball past a diving Josh Donaldson at third to score Colon with the winner. Royal fans had waited 29 years for this moment and the Cardiac kids delivered.
3. October 27th, 2015 – Gordo comes up big
Game One of any World Series is always a festive affair, but this Series felt different for Kansas City fans. The 2015 team seemed determined to return to the series and played with purpose the entire season. When you watched them play, they just had the feel of a team with destiny on its side. Nowhere was that more evident than Game One. Alcides Escobar, who had inexplicably batted leadoff most of the season, drove the first pitch he saw from Matt Harvey deep off the base of the wall in left-center. The ball caromed away from two Mets outfielders and Escobar just kept running. The inside-the-park home run electrified the crowd and gave the Royals an early lead. The game went back and forth for the next six innings until the Mets pushed across a run in the eighth to take a 4-3 lead.
Coming into the bottom of the ninth, the Royals would have to face Mets closer Jeurys Familia, a hard-throwing righthander who notched 43 saves during the regular season. Familia got Sal Perez on an infield groundout which brought Alex Gordon to the plate. Before the series started, I had a feeling that Familia could be exposed. During the playoffs he seemed just a little too assured of himself, bordering on cocky. By the second half of 2015, Gordon, due to injuries and age, was already in decline but he was still a dangerous hitter.
With the count at one ball, one strike, Familia tried to quick pitch Gordon, but Alex was ready. He caught all of it and 428 feet later, the game was tied at four. A sellout crowd of 40,320 roared their approval. The two teams jabbed and parried for 4 ½ more innings before Escobar reached on an error in the bottom of the 14th. Ben Zobrist moved him to third with a single to right before Eric Hosmer brought him home with the winner on a sacrifice fly to right. The sight of Gordon rounding first with his right arm up and his index finger raised will always be one of the most iconic Royal images. The blow changed the direction of the entire series and solidified my belief that the 2015 team was indeed a team of destiny.
2. October 26th and 27th, 1985 - A blown call, clutch hitting, and a blowout
The Royals captured their first World Series title in 1985 with the most memorable moment for most being Don Denkinger’s blown call in the ninth inning of Game Six. The St. Louis Cardinals entered the ninth inning with a 1-0 lead. They also led the series three games-to-two. Royals manager Dick Howser sent left-handed Jorge Orta up as a pinch hitter to face the Cards hard-throwing rookie reliever Todd Worrell. Orta had been a fine hitter in the prime of his career, but by 1985, at the age of 34, he was near the end.
Worrell quickly jumped ahead with two strikes. Orta fouled off a couple pitches, then on the fourth pitch of the at-bat, hit a chopper in between first baseman Jack Clark and second baseman Tommy Herr. For the defense, the ball was hit to one of the worst spots on the field. Clark made the play, flipped the ball to Worrell and Denkinger called him safe. The Cardinals argued ferociously, but in those pre-replay days, the call stood. In Denkinger’s defense, it was a bang-bang play and he was slightly out of position. The next batter, Steve Balboni hit a towering first-pitch foul ball in front of the Royals dugout. Clark and catcher Darrel Porter converged on the ball, stopped and exchanged how do you do glances with each other, and by the time they picked up the ball again it was over Clark’s head, where it bounced harmlessly on the turf. The ball was Clark’s all the way. He just blew it.
Given new life, Balboni stroked a single into left field. Whitey Herzog came to the mound to have a chat with Worrell, probably just to give the rookie a breather and calm his nerves. Onix Concepcion came on to run for Balboni. Jim Sundberg stepped in and made four attempts to bunt. Sundberg was a terrific catcher but you got the feeling that bunting wasn’t his specialty. On the fourth attempt, Sundberg did lay down a beauty, but Worrell made a great throw to get Orta at third.
This brought up Hal McRae. Even though Mac was near the end of his brilliant 19-year career, if Royal fans could choose any player other than George Brett to be at the plate in that situation, it’d be McRae. The guy could flat out hit. On his second pitch to McRae, Worrell threw a late-breaking curve that appeared to cross up Porter. The ball skidded off Porter’s glove as the runners moved up. The Cards then wisely walked McRae to load the bases.
Dane Iorg came on as a pinch hitter. Iorg was also at the end of his career. He’d play in 90 games with San Diego in 1986 before calling it quits. Even though he came in hitting only .223, Iorg was a solid hitter. On the second pitch from Worrell, Iorg hit a soft looper into right field. Concepcion scored easily. Sundberg motored around third and with a headfirst slide beat the throw from Andy Van Slyke to give the Royals the 2-1 victory. I remember the game like it was yesterday. My wife and I were newlyweds that fall, and she, not yet a baseball fan, could not understand why I insisted on staying up late to watch the conclusion of this game instead of coming to bed. No DVR in those days and some things are best appreciated live, as they happen. This was one of them.
Game seven almost seemed pre-ordained. Momentum is a funny thing. When you have it, nothing can stop you. When you’ve lost it, you’re in a world of hurt. The Cardinals were in a world of hurt. Kansas City started new father Bret Saberhagen while the Cardinals countered with John Tudor. Don Denkinger, still hearing it from the Cardinal bench, in an unfortunate twist of fate, was behind the plate. In the bottom of the 2nd, Darryl Motley squared up a Tudor pitch and sent it deep into the left field seats, only foul. No problem. Motley turned on the next pitch and drove it into the left field seats to give the Royals all the runs they needed. In the bottom of the 5th, the wheels finally came off the Cardinals bus. Herzog went through five pitchers before getting out of the inning with the Royals now ahead 11 to 0. Joaquin Andujar was the most notable, getting into a shouting match with Denkinger over balls and strike before getting ejected. Saberhagen was masterful, holding the Cardinals to five hits. Royals Stadium was rocking. The Cardinals spent most of their press time after the game caterwauling about Game 6 but lost in the narrative was the fact that they only hit .185 for the series and only scored 13 runs in the seven games. Seven of those runs came in the first two games of the series. For the Royals, the Series victory was a sweet sigh of relief after losing out to the Yankees three times in the mid ’70’s and falling to the Phillies in the 1980 series.
1. October 10th, 1980 – Who’s your daddy, Goose?
The summer of 1980 was something else. It was crazy hot that summer. Global warming wasn’t a thing yet. Over 1,700 people nationwide died from the heat, including more than 200 in the KC metro area in just a 17-day span in July. George Brett was as hot as the weather, having had one of the greatest offensive seasons in the past fifty years.
The Royals and Yankees met in the Championship series for the fourth time in five years. Kansas City fans had adopted a bit of a fatalistic view of these proceedings, mostly as a defense mechanism so they wouldn’t get their heart broken. Again.
The first two games were played in Kansas City and the Royals took Games one and two behind strong pitching from Larry Gura, and Dennis Leonard and timely hitting from Amos Otis, Frank White, Darrel Porter, Willie Wilson, and Brett. Brett also made a heads-up play in the eighth inning of Game two. With the Royals leading by a run, Brett moved into position to snag Wilson’s errant throw from left field on a Bob Watson drive, whirled and threw Willie Randolph out at the plate to preserve the lead. What’s the term for that type of play? Brett jetered him? Jeteresque?
Game Three moved back to the Bronx. Royals fans allowed themselves some hope. Needing only to win one of the next three, it was possible, right?
The Yankees held a 2-1 lead going into the top of the seventh. Tommy John got two quick outs before giving up a double to Willie Wilson. Yankee manager Dick Howser, in what ended up being a career-altering move, brought in hard-throwing closer Goose Gossage to quell the Royal threat. U.L. Washington greeted Gossage with a single which brought Mr. Brett to the plate.
If God were to design a baseball closer, Gossage would be the prototype: big (6’3, 217lbs), snarling, high kicking, fu Manchu wearing, fastball throwing intimidator.
If God were to design a hitter, Brett would be a good choice. Along with Ted Williams, Ken Griffey Jr., and Stan Musial, Brett had one of the sweetest left-handed swings you’ve ever seen.
Gossage’s first pitch was a fastball of course, right down the middle. Brett jumped all over that cheese and sent the ball on a majestic flight into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. The crowd of almost 57,000 people sat in stunned silence. Brett took a leisurely 21-second stroll around the bases, just to remind New Yorkers who their daddy was. The blow gave the Royals a 4 to 2 lead, but it had the feel of a knockout punch.
Dan Quisenberry worked out of a bases-loaded, nobody out jam in the eighth and the Yanks went down in order in the ninth to send Kansas City to their first World Series and exercise the demons of the previous three Championship series losses. Brett’s home run being the hammer blow, the lightning bolt that gave Royal fans deliverance.