After a rough first series, the vibe around the K isn't great. So maybe it's a good time to reflect on why we love this game. This is the story of my first Royals game. Read it here or check out my newsletter, Powder Blue Nostalgia, to read it in its original form. And if you like what you read, I invite you to subscribe (for FREE) and receive weekly blasts of retro baseball. I won't flood your inbox or do anything shady with your email.
I’ve seen the Kansas City Royals play the Texas Rangers in person twice in my life, and both times the Royals went on to appear in the World Series later that season.
The most recent occasion was in 2014, when the Royals secured the Wild Card, and after staging an unlikely comeback win over the A’s in what still ranks as the best baseball game I’ve ever seen, went on an improbable undefeated run through the AL playoffs before losing to the Giants (and the ridiculous Madison Bumgarner) in Game 7 of the World Series.
I went to that game with my cousin Scott, my frequent ballpark buddy and sports talk sounding board. We had good seats, four rows back and basically even with first base. I could have read Lorenzo Cain’s lips when he chatted with the Ranger’s first basemen— you know, if I possessed any talent in reading lips.
The Royals won, 2-1. Jarrod Dyson scored the winning run in the bottom of the eighth on a rocket shot from Salvador Perez that went off Adrian Beltre’s glove down the third baseline. Jeremy Guthrie pitched a solid seven innings, and Aaron Crow picked up the save to give Greg Holland a day off.
We were disappointed Mike Moustakas wasn’t in the starting lineup, especially since we didn’t know that spot starter Christian Colon would soon become a KC postseason legend. Fortunately, Moose pinch-hit in the fifth and played half the game. A very nice elderly couple who’d made the drive up from Dallas sat next to us.
The point is, I remember the game very well. The first time I saw the Royals play the Rangers is a bit hazier, however. But the fuzziness of that game has only made it more legendary in my mind. And why shouldn’t it hold a mythical status to me? It was my very first game.
That said, I had to use some of the skills I picked up earning my history degree just to determine which game I’d actually attended. My dad was never much of a baseball guy and definitely not the sentimental type, so I doubt it ever crossed his mind to keep a ticket stub for a souvenir.
I’m the opposite of him in this respect. I’ve kept a ticket stub from pretty much every sporting event, concert, museum, or whatever memorable place/event I’ve attended in my adult life, securing them in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup tin my mom gave me when I was a kid. But I was six when I went to my first baseball game, and I didn’t know any better back then.
Six years old might seem young to have a firm understanding of the game, but I clicked with baseball early. I’m not sure why. I didn’t start following other sports until a few years later. Part of it might have something to do with the Royals’ success at the time. The decade preceding my first game was an outstanding period for the Royals, and Kansas City was definitely a baseball town back then.
Granted, I don’t claim that my knowledge of the game at that time was anywhere close to what it is now, or even what it would be a year or two later. I’m a largely self-taught baseball enthusiast, and my education was still a work in progress in 1985, but I could keep up with the action on the field and in the standings, and I was confident that enough of it stuck with me to be able to pinpoint the game in question without much difficulty.
Of course, having Baseball Reference as a research tool didn’t hurt either. The Royals hosted the Rangers for a four game series in late August of 1985. Using the handful of details from the game that I knew for sure, I began a process of elimination.
I knew that the Royals won the game. I couldn’t recall the exact score, but I was certain about the victory. This quickly narrowed the possibilities to two games, since the teams split the series. The first was an 8-2 Royals win on Saturday, August 24th, and the other option was a 9-2 win on Monday, August 26th. Both were night games, which fit with my recollection.
My gut immediately gravitated toward the August 24th game, which was confirmed by a text from my dad. He took me to the game, but it wasn’t just the two of us. We were accompanied by my uncle Wayne, my cousin Scott (told you we went way back at the ballpark), his brother Philip, and our grandpa.
This was the only time I ever attended a baseball game with my grandfather, which is a bit surprising in retrospect. We were close, and unlike my dad, he was a huge baseball fan. He used to tell me stories about guys like Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial, and he probably taught me more about baseball (and sports in general) than any other person in my life, but he never seemed all that concerned about watching games in person.
The fact that he was there, along with my uncle, was proof enough for my dad that we went to the Saturday game. They both went to work early in the morning, and so did my dad, who was a farmer, making it very unlikely that any of them would agree to take us to a game on a weeknight. That was good enough for me.
And I’m glad that he was so sure, because I quickly realized that what I remembered, and especially what I thought I remembered wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. In fact, they only seemed to highlight a number of things I didn’t remember at all.
Here’s what I remembered correctly. First off, the stadium was basically full and the crowd was raucous. Other than a WWF house show my dad and uncle took us to at the Topeka Expocentre a few years later— a show that featured an incredibly underwhelming main event starring the Ultimate Warrior— I don’t think I experienced a more energetic crowd until the 2014-15 Royals run. Baseball Reference backs this up with an announced attendance of 39,100.
Obviously, I didn’t expect that particular detail to help me nail down the date— all the games were well attended in 1985— but many of the box score related facts I recalled turned out to be just as generic and unhelpful.
For example, I knew that George Brett hit a home run. There was no debate about this. George Brett, Mr. Royal, future Hall of Famer and easily the greatest player in franchise history, went yard in the bottom of the third. Maybe it didn’t land in the fountains like I told everyone in my many romanticized retellings over the years, and maybe it did, but it was without a doubt a seminal moment in my childhood.
Brett’s home run in that game is probably as responsible for cementing my lifelong love of baseball and the Royals as Kansas City eventually winning that game or their going on to win the World Series two months later. It was that big of a deal to me. But it wasn’t that unique of an occurrence.
Brett hit 30 HRs in 1985. Not only that, but he went on a tear against the Rangers, smacking homers in all four games. So that didn’t help much. No matter. I had more leads to work with, specifically Royals CF Willie Wilson.
Wilson was one of the most exciting players I’ve ever seen. A Gold Glove CF patrolling the spacious outfield of Kauffman Stadium (then known as Royals Stadium), he was an excellent hitter who specialized in triples and inside-the-park home runs. And he was a terror on the basepaths, which is how he made his first impression on me.
I knew Wilson stole a base at the game we attended. And sure enough, he led off the first inning of the Saturday, August 24th game with a single, promptly swiped second, and scored the game’s first run on a Brett double. He even stole another base in the fifth, later scoring on a Hal McRae single.
That had to be enough proof to back up my dad’s certainty and my hunch that the Saturday night game was the one I was looking for. Right? Except he also stole a base in the Monday night win. Although he stole third in that game, and I was 99% sure I saw him steal second. Did I have anything else to go on?
I thought I did, but this is where my six year old memory starts to become unreliable. To this day, Odibbe McDowell is still the first player I think of when the Texas Rangers are brought up. And it’s not just because of his unusual first name. I was convinced that the Rangers CF, a poor man’s version of Willie Wilson, led off the game with a solo HR.
The only problem is that he didn’t homer in either of the games in question. He did hit one out in the Rangers’ Friday night win, but that was a 9th inning blast against legendary Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry, not a leadoff dinger. So I was definitely wrong about that.
McDowell did go 3-4 with a run and a stolen base in the Saturday night game though. The following Monday, he went 0-4. The former was way more likely to leave a lasting impression than the latter, even if time had mangled some of the specifics. Combined with everything else, it was enough to satisfy me that the August 24th win was my first game.
Having established this, I continued to research the game and was surprised by how many other things I got wrong or didn’t register at all. I always assumed the Rangers were my first live encounter with powder blue uniforms. I was used to seeing the Royals’ powder blues on TV, especially since only road games were televised back then, but they were wearing white at home, of course.
Only the Rangers made the switch from powder blue to road grays two years earlier. Ironically, considering the name of this newsletter, a lot of teams dropped their powder blue uniforms very early into the period we’re covering, or as in the case of the Rangers, well before it even began. The Royals were one of the last holdouts, however, which is why the color is so engrained in my memories.
This was not necessarily a bad thing, since the Rangers’ powder blues are one of my least favorite versions of the uniforms. But there are a lot of other aspects of my first game that I’m shocked I don’t remember at all.
Bret Saberhagen was the starting pitcher for KC. In 1985, he was on his way to the first of two Cy Young awards that he won for the Royals, and he would also be named World Series MVP. He’s my all-time favorite Royals pitcher, and the day they traded him to the Mets following the 1991 season still ranks as a traumatic moment for me. I saw him pitch a couple of times in later years, but how can I have no memory of him going six innings for his sixteenth win of the season that night?
I don’t remember the Rangers starter either, but that’s a bit more understandable. I’m guessing most people don’t remember Burt Hooton. But a lot of other stuff from the box score fails to ring a bell too.
Daryl Motley, who got the rout started in Game 7 of the World Series with a HR and caught the final out in RF, tripled that night. Steve Balboni doubled. Hal McRae went 2-4 with an RBI. Rangers 3B Steve Buechele doubled in a run and flew out to end the game. None of that stuck with me.
One other thing I do remember though is a foul ball that landed with a high bounce a few rows from our seats. We were on the second level on the first base side. In all my years of attending games, I’ve never managed to catch a ball, and this was probably the closest one has ever come to me.
A rush of people surged toward it from their seats. From where he was sitting, my dad had a decent shot at it. But he never moved. Never even gave it a second glance, turning his attention back to the field. Not only that, but he also effectively slowed me and Scott down as we attempted to scramble over him, ensuring that neither of us would get it either. Like I said, he wasn’t a baseball guy.
But he didn’t let me go home empty-handed. After some pleading on my part, he bought me a souvenir ball and a stand. Scott’s brother, Philip, who was a few years older, got one at his first game the previous year, and I desperately wanted one of my own.
I’m sure my dad rolled his eyes at my insistence. There was nothing special about the ball or the stand. It was just a standard baseball with the Royals logo printed on it, and the stand was a plain white base, also decorated with the logo, and a clear plastic orb that went around the ball.
I still have that ball thirty-seven years later. The plastic orb broke long ago, but it sits on the stand just fine without it. The ball has picked up a few minor nicks and scuffs over the years, but it’s still in relatively good shape.
I’ve taken it with me everywhere I’ve gone. It’s moved more times than I can count to multiple towns and cities across the country. It’s seen two marriages, various unfulfilling jobs, and survived three pairs of tiny hands constantly tempted to play with the ball on dad’s desk. I’ve displayed it at work and on my bedside table and lots of other places in between.
Hardcore collectors might laugh at me. This keepsake has no monetary value. No one has ever signed it. The ball’s worth is completely sentimental, but it is priceless to me in that regard. Like a religious zealot clinging to an artifact with even the most distant connection to a favored saint, the ball is my most cherished relic.
And the more I think about it, religion feels like an apt comparison to baseball. Both require faith, are prone to embellishment, and can be boring as hell to sit through on a Sunday if you’re not feeling it. Both can also be life-changing.
Now I’ve never been much for Scripture, but I can testify to the power of baseball. Thirty-seven years ago I went to a game and nothing has ever been the same since. And like the religious stories that matter the most, the specifics are not really all that important. It’s the emotion they evoke, and the grip they maintain on our hearts and souls for a long time to come.
Nothing is as powerful as that.