Former Royals catcher on 1985 and the best slide in a World Series game
One key for the Royals beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1985 World Series was catcher Jim Sundberg, who was a six-time Gold Glove winner during his 16-year career. His veteran leadership helped counter the young pitching staff that season. Sundberg, who works in the front office for the Texas Rangers, spoke with Matt Fulks on “Behind the Stats” radio last year. Considering worlds have collided, with Sundberg’s Rangers facing the Cardinals in this season’s World Series, plus Sundberg’s Game 6 dive happened 26 years ago yesterday, this seemed like an appropriate time to re-post this. (Don’t worry, Cardinal fans, I’ll re-post one geared for you later today.)
Matt Fulks: You came here in January 1985 from Milwaukee as part of a six-player, four-team trade. … This was still a hard-nosed club with an outstanding pitching staff, but they needed a catcher who could work with a great mix of guys, young and experienced, with different dispositions on the mound. What were you able to do to help them along that season?
Jim Sundberg: It was a good mix. We had three left-handers and they were all different. Danny Jackson, for instance, was an extreme power pitcher with a sinking fastball and hard slider. Bud Black used three to four pitches, and then Charlie Leibrandt was a finesse guy who moved his fastball around. Then on the right side you had Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza, who were both power guys. Sabes probably had the best fastball I ever caught. It was an accelerator. It gave the impression that it popped at the end. Gubie had a hard sinker and a hard slider. They all competed internally against each other, but they all pulled for each other. It’s also the only time in my major-league career when the entire staff remained intact the entire season.
MF: Was anyone on that staff hard to catch?
JS: Danny Jackson was one of the hardest guys for me to catch in my career because of his explosive fastball. He wasn’t quite sure if he’d cut it or sink it, so that was tough because I had to set up and be ready to go in either direction.
The key to that season for the pitching staff was that they all went into high gear at the same time in early September. Sometimes you have two or three pitchers throwing well at one time, but seldom do you have all five guys throwing well at the same time, and to be doing so in the second week of September in the real drive to catch the California Angels. They stayed that way throughout the World Series.
MF: I’ve talked to most of that pitching staff, as well as the infielders. I keep hearing stories from guys like Frank White and George Brett about how intense Jackson and Gubie were, and if you made an error behind Gubicza, for instance, you’d get the “Gubie stare.” Whereas, if you made an error behind Saberhagen, he’d turn around and laugh. As a catcher, is that something you saw and had to help harness?
JS: The temperaments of the pitchers were very different. Danny was probably one of the more intense guys I’ve caught, and he could get very angry between innings and be hard on himself. Gubie might get mad at other guys. But keep in mind that Jackson, Sabes and Gubie were all young guys with great confidence and poise on the mound. Sabes was very happy-go-lucky. Pressure didn’t affect him. In the seventh game of the World Series, he was so good that I came in after the first inning and told the guys in the dugout that he was throwing so well that if we got one run, we’d win. Those last four innings — with our big lead and how well he was pitching — were probably the most fun I ever had on the field, just knowing we were going to win.
MF: A listener to our “Behind the Stats” show, Bryan Skelton in Nashville, sent this question through our Facebook page. What’s the best World Series slide you’ve ever seen?
JS: [Laughs.] I would say mine in ’85 in the sixth game. It’s interesting because there’s part of me wondering if Dick Howser was going to pinch-run for me. I was the winning run at second with the bases loaded. I remember thinking that I wanted a big lead and to get a good jump. As the play happened, I saw (St. Louis catcher) Darrell Porter move in front of the plate, so that caused me to slide headfirst to the backside of the plate. It was the fastest I ran at that age. [Laughs.] It was fun. Lonnie Smith and Buddy Biancalana met me at the plate and I jumped up in their arms. Of course, Dane Iorg got a bloody nose because guys were pounding on him so much after he hit those two runs in.
MF: That trip to the postseason in 1985 was the only one in your 16-year career. Can you put that experience into words?
JS: You never know if you’ll get that chance. Some incredible players never get that opportunity. It was remarkable. I remember that as we continued to win, the pressure for me was released. The most pressure to me was just trying to get to the postseason. Once we got there, it was easier to play. Once we beat Toronto in the playoffs and were headed to the World Series, I felt like a 10-year-old giggly kid with the honor of being one of the two teams left playing. The greatest thrill was playing in the World Series, and the greatest fun was the last four innings of the seventh game against St. Louis. That World Series ring that you get on opening day of the following season is what you play this game for. The bonus check is nice, but you play for that ring.
MF: Every boy who plays this game dreams of being on the field for a World Series celebration. As the final fly ball was headed toward Darryl Motley, what was going through your mind?
JS: It was suspended animation. The ball goes up and you know that as soon as it’s caught, the game is over. The ball was hit so high that George (Brett) ran to the mound as the ball was in the air, and I started to run out there. Once it was caught, it’s just mass chaos. It’s such a tremendous feeling. The cover of Sports Illustrated was of six or seven of us celebrating at the mound. I have that framed in my home office, and it’s just a wonderful feeling and memory.
MF: Jim, I can’t thank you enough for sharing those memories and feelings.
JS: Thank you, Matt.
To contact Matt Fulks, visit www.MattFulks.com. Or comment below. Or just hit “subscribe” to this blog. And feel free to share it with your friends.