2011 and Royal shades of 1976

Watching games on Wednesday night (although I mainly watched the Royals since it was their season finale), and the incredible finish to the regular season, it reminded me of a season the Royals had a dramatic finish. Actually, it was 1976, 35 years ago today, that the Royals punched their ticket for the organization’s first trip to the postseason.

So, in honor of that, here is a reprint of an article that appeared in the Kansas City Royals’ Gameday magazine.

1976: Overcoming the A’s…Finally

In a championship season, especially in baseball, it’s usually difficult to point to one game as a turning point or the key contest. That’s not the case with the 1976 Royals.

Ask nearly any member of that club their memory of 1976 and, without hesitating, they’ll point to a late September game against the Oakland A’s.

“That game truly was a defining moment in Royals history,” says broadcaster Denny Matthews. “It’s probably second only to Game 3 of the 1985 playoffs in terms of importance in franchise history. If we don’t beat Oakland in that game, we probably don’t win the division.”

That game happened on Wednesday night, Sept. 29, in Oakland. The A’s had been dominant since, basically, leaving Kansas City. They’d won the Western Division, 1971-75. The Royals had been competitive for a few years, but they were young and still learning how to win.

“Oakland always beat us and they knew they could beat us,” said Royals Hall of Fame shortstop Fred Patek.

“We had a really good team in 1973, but Oakland slapped us down,” club Hall of Famer Amos Otis added of the ’73 team that won 88 games. “The A’s were such a dominant team that they slapped us down a few times.”

Most recently, in 1975, when the Royals finished with a then-club-record 91 wins, but finished second to Oakland.
1976, though, seemed to be different. The Royals grabbed their first lone lead in the division on May 19. They stretched it to as many as 12 games as late as Aug. 6, behind great pitching from Dennis Leonard, Al Fitzmorris, Doug Bird and Paul Splittorff, plus a tough lineup that included Otis, George Brett, John Mayberry, Hal McRae and Al Cowens.

But something happened. The Royals struggled mightily down the stretch. After a five-game winning streak in the middle of September, the club fell apart. Heading into the final road series, at Oakland, the Royals had lost four out of five. Then, they dropped the first two against the A’s.

Suddenly, that 12-game lead in the division was down to 2 1/2 with four remaining.

So, on Wednesday, Sept. 29, manager Whitey Herzog pulled a couple rabbits out of his cap. He started pitcher Larry Gura and back-up catcher John Wathan. He also started Otis in centerfield. Otis, who had been beaned in the head two weeks earlier by Oakland pitcher Stan Bahnsen, was benched for those first two games.

Along with a four-hitter by Gura, Otis had an RBI double and a two-run home run as the Royals won 4-0.

“I was fortunate, as always, that the pitcher hit my bat with the ball and it went all the way out of the ballpark,” Otis said, laughing, of the home run.

The win clinched at least a tie with the A’s for the division title. They went on to earn the championship outright a couple nights later.

“Even though Oakland was our major nemesis, once we got the lead and were going into Oakland,” said Leonard, “we didn’t think we’d get swept, but we didn’t think we’d win only one, either. Luckily, Gura pitched one heck of a game.”

Getting past rival Oakland helped start a new rivalry with the New York Yankees, which began during that postseason. In the best-of-five American League playoffs, the Yankees beat the Royals in a heartbreaking fifth game, when Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off home run over the outstretched glove of Hal McRae.

“There was a sense of relief getting to the playoffs, but as the series went on, and we were tied two games to two, we felt we could win it,” Leonard said. “Of course that came to a crashing halt with Chambliss. But, playing in that series, and playing even with the Yankees with the exception of that one pitch, fueled our fire going into ‘77.”

In spite of the disappointing loss to the Yankees, the 1976 season set the Royals on a decade-long stretch of championship baseball. From 1976-85, the Royals won the Western Division six times and made two trips to the World Series, including the championship over St. Louis in 1985.
And, in many ways, it all started with that one September game against Oakland in 1976.

“Winning that game and the division,” Patek says, “was the big thing that gave us confidence the next year and following. After that, we felt that when we walked in the clubhouse, we couldn’t be beat.”

If, for whatever reason, you want to follow Matt on the Twitter, you can: @MattFulks. Or, feel free to visit his website, www.MattFulks.com. There’s even a “Matt Fulks – Author” page on Facebook that Matt actually didn’t start. And, even more amazing, it has 4 fans!

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