Tag Archives: baseball playoffs

Even the Royals doctored the field

I came across this article earlier today about how, allegedly, the Giants groundscrew might’ve doctored the infield dirt a bit in hopes of slowing down the Royals’ running game. Wouldn’t you know it…I happened to write about legendary groundskeeper George Toma in the book, “100 Things Royals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.” The piece on Toma is a Q/A. So, although I’d like you to buy the book, here is an excerpt of that interview with Toma.

Royals 100 Cover

You eventually ended up here in Kansas City at Municipal Stadium. Even though the A’s, Chiefs and Royals love you and your fields, one player who wasn’t a fan of coming to Municipal was Mickey Mantle.

GT: Sometimes we would do things that we’ll call “groundskeeping by deceit.” Mickey Mantle didn’t care for (Municipal) because I kept centerfield hard and it was hard on his legs. One of my best buddies and a guy who serves as a coach for the Twins during spring training is Harmon Killebrew, who played with the Royals. I used to keep third base like concrete. The trainer would tell me, “you’re going to get my third baseman killed down there” because Harmon could hit that ball but he was a little slow. So we’d make it hard to make sure the ball would get through the infield. Groundskeeping by deceit.

Royals pitchers will say how they liked the way you could doctor the mound or a part of the infield a certain way when they were pitching.

GT: Guys like Steve Busby always wanted a little hole next to the rubber so he could push off. In the batter’s box, there used to be a special hole for George Brett and a special hole for Amos Otis and for Hal McRae. You could say we did a lot of cheating because we moved the batter’s box back about 10 inches. If we got caught, I’d blame it on my son, Chip. Everything went great until the Royals traded Buck Martinez to Milwaukee. The first time they came to town, manager George Bamberger came up to me and said, “George, I don’t want any of that stuff, moving that batter’s box.”

We could do a lot of things. At Municipal Stadium we had a Butternut clock on the left-field tower. It had two dots. … We would send Bobby Hoffman into the scoreboard before the game and then we’d get the other team’s signals. If those two dots were on, it was a fastball. If one dot was on, it was a breaking pitch. Or, they could look down the third-base line to (the mule) Charlie O’s pen. If the lantern was on, that was a fastball. If the lantern was off, it was a breaking pitch. All of that was just part of the game back then.

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A primer for Royals newbies

Royals 100 Cover

In case you’re curious (or even if you’re not), here’s the cover of that “100 Things Royals Fans…” book.

As the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles begin the 2014 American League Championship Series tonight in Baltimore, it seems like a good time to offer a primer, of sorts, to all Royals fans but particularly the bandwagoners, newbies and out-of-towners. After all, if you believe this ESPN Sports Nation poll, the only place in the country not pulling for the Royals are the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the District of Columbia. So, since I kinda wrote the book on things Royals fans should know, I figured now would be a good time for a quick guide so you can sound somewhat intelligent.

(Most of what you’re about to read is taken from that book on the right. If you want or need more info, I’d say buy the book. Not that it’ll completely help you, but at least you’ll have another book on your shelf.)


The Royals weren’t the first Major League Baseball team in Kansas City.  That distinction belongs to the Philadelphia-Kansas City-Oakland A’s. After woeful seasons in Kansas City, though, thanks largely to a cheapskate owner Charlie Finley, the team bolted to Oakland. (Finley threatened/promised often to move the team, including to Peculiar, Mo.)

So, after the 1967 season, a group of local businessmen, plus Joe McGuff and Ernie Mehl, long-time sports writers and editors with “The Kansas City Star,” convinced Major League Baseball owners that Kansas City needed an expansion team. The only condition was that they had to secure an owner.

After much searching, that owner came in the gift of long-time Kansas Citian and pharmaceutical billionaire Ewing Kauffman. He was everything Finley wasn’t. And more. Conservative in his thinking and loved by his employees and others around him, Kauffman, who wasn’t a sports fan and didn’t understand the game of baseball, loved Kansas City and felt the city needed a major-league team. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say that with some encouragement from close friends and his wife, Kauffman decided to step up to the plate for the city.


The Royals spent their first four years at old Municipal Stadium, near downtown Kansas City. Municipal had been the home to several teams throughout its history, including the Negro Leagues’ Monarchs and the A’s…not to mention the Kansas City Chiefs. In ’73, the club moved to state-of-the-art Royals Stadium, which featured a monstrous (and now, iconic) scoreboard in center field, flanked by a water spectacular and (argh!) artificial turf. It was one of the few new single-use stadiums (read: non-cookie-cutter that could be found in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia to name a few) in baseball. The old girl, since renamed Kauffman Stadium, underwent a $250-million facelift prior to the 2009 season.


If the Royals advance past the Orioles — and, perhaps, even if they don’t — you’ll likely hear the name Don Denkinger, who was the umpire at first base during Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. You will hear St. Louis fans curse Denkinger because they believe he lost the World Series for them with a questionable call late in that game.

In the bottom of the ninth, with the Royals trailing the game, 1-0, and the World Series, three games to two, pinch-hitter Jorge Orta led off the inning by grounding a ball toward first base. Cardinal first baseman Jack Clark fielded it cleanly and flipped to pitcher Todd Worrell, who was covering first. Although Worrell seemed to touch first before Orta on the bang-bang play, Denkinger called Orta safe. (There was no replay at the time.)

“As a pinch-hitter, in my mind I just was going to try to get a good at-bat and see if I could get on base,” Orta told me 25 years later. “I wanted to help start a rally. When I hit that soft groundball, my instincts said to run as hard as I could. I hustled down the line and was called safe on the play. And I thought I was safe, yes.”

Right or wrong call, the Cardinals self-destructed after that. First, Jack Clark missed a popup in foul territory off the bat of Steve Balboni, who went on to single. Royals catcher Jim Sundberg then tried to sacrifice bunt, but the Cardinals threw out Orta at third. With runners at first and second and one out, a ball got past Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter, which moved Balboni and Sundberg up 90 feet.

Pinch-hitter Dane Iorg, who had been hitless in the Series, delivered a base hit that scored Balboni and Sundberg, on a headfirst slide, and sent the Series to a seventh game. The hit should’ve turned Iorg into a hero. Instead, with the controversy from earlier that inning, Iorg’s hit often remains forgotten in World Series lore.

Of course, any time there’s mention of 1985 or blown calls in baseball, Denkinger’s name comes up. And usually with a cuss word immediately before or after. There’s one thing to remember, though.

“We scored the winning run with one out,” says Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza. “We still had an out (left in the inning) if the play went differently at first (with Orta). The way things had been going for us that season, who’s to say that whoever was coming up next doesn’t hit a home run and we win anyhow? It was a magical season for us. … (The Cardinals) had every opportunity in the world to come back in Game 7, but we blew them away. … Hey, they had us down three games to one. If you can’t close it out at three games to one, don’t blame it on the umpire. Yeah, (the call) went our way … (But) you have to be able to close out a team when you have them down like that.”


Improbable teams have won the World Series, but none has come back from such improbable odds as the 1985 Royals. Kansas City came back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit in the ALCS against Toronto and then did the same thing against the Cardinals. In Game 7, the Royals turned in one of the most lopsided wins you’ll ever see in World Series history, beating St. Louis 11-0. A young pitcher named Bret Saberhagen threw a five-hit, complete-game shutout en route to becoming the series MVP.


As fans during the 1970s and ’80s, we didn’t think we’d ever see bad baseball played by the Royals. Why would we? They won the American League West division in 1976, ’77, ’78, ’80, ’84 and ’85. (They also played in a three-game Western Division playoff against the A’s following the strike-split season of 1981.) They reached their first World Series in ’80, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, and then beat the Cardinals in ’85. Are you kidding me? They’ll be great FORRRR-E-VERRRR! Shows what little we knew. After beating St. Louis in 1985, as you’ve heard way too many times already during this postseason, they didn’t reach the playoffs again until this year. Along the way, they’ve had only seven seasons of better than .500 baseball and way too many years of ineptness with a few 100-loss seasons mixed in. So please pardon our excitement. I hope you can understand.

That said, although there are multiple players and managers who should be mentioned, here are three who have had their numbers (5, 10, 20) retired.


Simply put: he’s recognized as “Mr. Royal.” (If there were such a distinction.) He’s the only Royals player in the Baseball Hall of Fame (excluding guys in the HOF who played a season or two here, such as Harmon Killebrew). The career numbers remain staggering: 3,154 hits, 317 home runs, 665 doubles, 137 triples, 201 stolen bases and three American League batting titles (the first person to earn one in three decades). Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that many remember the player by a single number: 5. For 21 seasons, George Brett wowed Royals fans with his offensive numbers and his ability to come through in the clutch. Brett was the 1985 American League Championship Series MVP and eight-time Royals Player of the Year. By the way, Brett is the distinguished, tan guy in the suite that’s been shown countless times on TBS during the postseason.


Frank White is one of the greatest success stories in Royals history. After growing up in Kansas City and attending Lincoln High School, which didn’t have a baseball team, White was working as a sheet-metal clerk when the Royals selected him from a tryout for their experimental Baseball Academy. The test paid off for the Royals. White played 18 seasons at second base in front of his hometown fans. During that time, he was an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner, a five-time All-Star, collected more than 2,000 hits, and, in 1985, became the second second baseman in major-league history to bat cleanup in the World Series. In 1980, he was the American League Championship Series MVP. His No. 20 was retired in 1995, nine years before the Royals honored him with a statue outside Kauffman Stadium. He should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Travesty that he’s not.


Dick Howser is one of the greatest managers in Royals history, along with Whitey Herzog. Howser, who managed from 1981-87, is best known for leading the Royals past Herzog’s Cardinals in ’85. Three days after managing the American League club in the 1986 All-Star Game, on July 18, doctors diagnosed Howser with a malignant brain tumor. Less than a year later, on June 17, 1987, Howser lost the battle. He was 51. That same year, his number 10 became the first number the Royals retired. They’ve since retired numbers 5 and 20.


The Royals current manager is Ned Yost. He isn’t particularly loved by the fans or the media like Howser was. And we’d swear that he’s tried to screw up this team (we call that being “Yosted”) with the way he’s rested everyday players and used pitchers, but there’s no denying that he’s helping put this club in a position to win. Now, as long as “we” can avoid being Yosted against Baltimore.


Like Yost, fans have been ready to run general manager Dayton Moore out of town for a couple years. He took over a franchise that had a wretched farm system, asked for patience, took more criticism than George Bush and Barack Obama combined, and now can sit back with an “I told you so” grin if he wanted. He’s too kind to do that, though.


The news in December 2012 shocked every baseball insider, along with every wanna-be seamhead. The Royals acquired James Shields, an All-Star front-end starting pitcher, Wade Davis, a solid pitcher, and reserve infielder Elliot Johnson (the “player to be named later”) from Tampa Bay in a monstrous deal that sent Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard to the Rays. To date, it’s the biggest trade in Dayton Moore’s tenure — and one of the most notable in franchise history.  Most “experts” felt Moore had been bamboozled. Or simply lost his mind.

It’s too early to tell the complete significance and label it as a good or bad deal, but without Shields and Davis, it’s doubtful the Royals would be playing Baltimore in the ALCS.


The radio “voice” of the Royals, Denny Matthews has been with the organization since its first game in 1969. (Mainly) younger fans today think Denny is dry and boring in this day of screamers and countless catch phrases. He was brought up in this business at a time when the idea was for the broadcaster to paint the picture and then let you as the listener envision it. He doesn’t feel a need to scream during a game. For (many) fans my age and older, Denny — and his longtime broadcast partner Fred White, who died last year — is the voice of summer. He’s been honored by the Hall of Fame with the Ford C. Frick Award. It was well deserved.

Now, as you prepare to watch the ALCS and listen to the TBS broadcasters go on and on about how it’s been more than a generation since the Royals have been in the postseason, you can try to impress your spouse, kids and buddies with at least a little wisdom about what this organization has been and why Royals fans have painted Kansas City blue during the past couple weeks.




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“Chat with Matt” … Jim Sundberg

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.


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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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