Tag Archives: Matt Fulks

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.)

MR. K

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.

KAUFFMAN STADIUM

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.

WE LOVE DON DENKINGER

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.”

YEAH, GAME 7

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.

BEST OF TIMES, WORST OF TIMES

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.

GEORGE BRETT

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

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

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.

NED YOST

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.

DAYTON MOORE

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 TRADE

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.

DENNY MATTHEWS

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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CwM: Ken Morrow and the “Miracle on Ice,” Part 2

Last week, I started a weekly Q&A with some type of sports or entertainment “personality.” I’m cheating a little, perhaps, because the first two weeks are with the same person. So, here is the second of two parts with Kansas Citian Ken Morrow, who was a defenseman on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team that beat the Soviet Union and then subsequent gold medal against Finland two days later. (You can read the first part here.)

Besides the game itself, Morrow and I talked about coach Herb Brooks and his influence on the team. Although the movie “Miracle” brought Brooks to light more a few years ago, he isn’t considered one of the greatest coaches of all-time. He should be.

Matt Fulks: When was it apparent in that Olympic game with the Soviets that you could actually win?Ken Morrow

Ken Morrow: For me, it was coming out of that first period, tied 2-2. For those who don’t remember, we had been down 2-1 in the first period, and with a few seconds to go before the buzzer, our guy dumps it into their goal, it comes out, Mark Johnson rebounds, splits two defensemen and scores at the buzzer. So we went into the locker room with a 2-2 tie. At that point, not that we knew we were going to beat them, but we knew we’d be in the game. We felt good about ourselves, having gone through that first game at Madison Square Garden, to come out of the first period tied 2-2 was huge for us.

MF: I’m guessing you guys were a handful for Herb after you beat the Russians, and were getting set to play for the gold medal two days later. You guys, mathematically, still could’ve ended without a medal after the game with Finland. What was the feeling like the next day?

KM: You’re right; I won’t go into the mathematics of it, but there was a chance that if we’d lost to Finland, we could’ve finished outside the medals. So, Herb Brooks did his greatest coaching job on Saturday morning (after beating the Soviet Union). Here’s this young group of kids who’d pulled off this monumental upset, so we came into practice feeling pretty good about ourselves, and he has to get our attention on the next game. He put the hammer down real quick and real hard. We needed that. We had to get ourselves ready for the next game, which was Sunday morning. Sure enough, as we’d done all Olympics, we were trailing going into the third period against a very good Finland team. We had come from behind all Olympics long, and we put together another one against Finland.

MF: As we talk about Herb Brooks, one of my favorite things about him are all of his quotes, some of which, as you’ve told me before, you guys didn’t really understand.

KM: He had a bunch of them. [Laughs.] He was a great psychologist. He knew exactly which buttons to push on the players. Everything he did worked. We didn’t realize this at the time, but we found out years later. Throughout the year, he was constantly digging at the Soviet team, saying things like “these guys aren’t that good.” Well, their captain was a dead ringer for Stan Laurel (of “Laurel and Hardy” fame). He was one of the all-time best hockey players, but he looked like Stan Laurel. Herb would make comments like, “You guys are playing Stan Laurel out there. You can’t beat Stan Laurel?” There was always a motive behind everything that Herb Brooks did and said, and it all worked.

I do believe that for anyone thinking about going into coaching in any sport, it should be mandatory to study Herb Brooks. This guy was ahead of his time. He was innovative, and, as I said, he’s the sole reason we won a gold medal at Lake Placid.

MF: At that moment, during the entire Olympic experience from tryouts to the end, what were your feelings toward Herb?

KM: I never had a problem with him. Again, he knew what made every player tic. We actually did a psychological test, which was unheard of at the time. Now, being a part of the New York Islanders, we do a psychological test with all of the kids we’re considering drafting. I think Herb’s was a 300-question psychological test. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. There’s no doubt in my mind that he took those, looked at them, and figured out how he could get the best out of each one of those players, whether it was riding a guy hard, backing off, when to kick them in the pants and when not to. He did that throughout the year, and it always seemed to work. When you’re talking about 20 players, you’re talking about 20 different ways to motivate. He was a master of that.

MF: As we look at hockey in the Olympics now, what are your thoughts on NHL guys playing?

KM: I’m really torn. As a hockey fan, I like seeing the best players in the world out there, but I also understand there won’t be another “miracle on ice” with that. I doubt that you can have the stuff going on around the world that made our “miracle on ice” bigger than it was, but I also understand that I was given a chance to play in the Olympics because NHL players weren’t playing in the Olympics at that time — not that there were a lot of great American NHL players at that time. It gave us our chance. Eventually I’d like to see it go back, but I’m going to enjoy watching these best players of the world out there.

MF: I’ve asked a few guys this over the years, and since you won four Stanley Cups and a gold medal, which would you rather win: a Stanley Cup or a gold medal, although, of course, your gold medal experience was different than most people’s because of everything surrounding it?

KM: If I had to choose, I’d take the gold medal simply because it’s playing for your country. It’s a unique experience, a unique moment. Not many people get to do that. A lot of people have won professional championships, but to think the Olympics come around once every four years, and then to be fortunate enough to say you’re a gold medal winner, that’s tops.

MF: As I say to you every time we talk, it’s been a thrill reliving 1980 with you. Thanks for your time.

KM: Great talking with you and I appreciate you letting me tell my story.

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Behind the Stats: Monday’s act of courage a lesson for all

*The following is an updated reprint. It appeared originally on Kansas City’s Metro Sports’ website in 2006.

It takes courage to do what’s right.

On Tuesday night, my wife and I tried explaining that to one of our kids. Avoiding peer pressure. Standing up for what you believe in. And so on. He seemed to understand. But, who could blame him if he didn’t?

That lesson’s tough for most of us. Sure, we know what we believe to be right or wrong, but we don’t always have the guts to act upon it.

That lesson gets reinforced for me whenever I think of former major-league outfielder Rick Monday because I can’t help but think of something he did on the field.

Really, we all owe Monday a hand-over-the-heart-salute of thanks for something he did more than 35 years ago today.

As any long-time baseball player will say, each ballpark has a unique feeling. Its own personality. One pitch into the bottom of the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium onApril 25, 1976, Monday, playing centerfield then for the Chicago Cubs, realized the stadium’s “breathing pattern got out of sync.” He heard a commotion from the left-field corner.

When Monday looked over, he saw two guys running toward left-center. One of them had something under his arm. They stopped and spread the item on the ground as if they were preparing a picnic. One of the two guys then took out a shiny can of a liquid and started squirting it onto the piece of cloth.

Monday immediately realized that the item on the ground was the American flag. The liquid doused onto the flag turned out to be lighter fluid.

“At that moment I was mad,” Monday told me by phone. He then did what he thought was the right thing to do. The only thing to do. He started running toward the two men to stop them. One of the guys lit a match, but the wind blew it out. Then, he lit a second one.

“I don’t know what I was thinking, if I was thinking about trying to bowl them over, or what,” Monday says. “I was close enough, though, that I remember thinking, ‘They can’t burn it if they don’t have it.’ So, I reached down and grabbed the flag.”

When you look at the photograph or the video that’s circulating on the Internet, you’ll notice that Monday’s timing was so perfect that the person with the second match proceeded to put the match to the ground, thinking the flag was still there.

Monday ran toward the Dodgers’ dugout, passing then-Dodger third-base coach Tommy Lasorda, who was shouting every obscenity known to man.

“I told Tommy, ‘What you were yelling would make a longshoreman blush,’” Monday, who eventually played for Lasorda inLos   Angeles, told me in 2006.

After the crowd of nearly 40,000 that Sunday afternoon began to boo the two guys for their despicable act and then cheer as security escorted the two off the field, the stadium grew quiet for a moment. Then, Monday’s proof that what he did was the right thing.

“Without any prompting at all, without the organ starting, without anything being put on the diamond vision,” remembers Monday, “one section of the stadium and then another and then another, began to sing ‘God Bless America.’ When those people reacted that way, it brought goose bumps, and it still does when I reflect upon it.”

Monday, whom the Kansas City A’s drafted with the first-ever selection in the Major League draft in 1965, the same year he started a six-year stint in the Marine Corps Reserves, had a solid 19-year big-league career. He played in nearly 2,000 games, compiling 1,619 hits and 775 RBIs.

After posting what turned out be career highs in home runs (32) and RBIs (77) with Chicago in 1976, the Cubs traded Monday to the Dodgers, where he played the next eight seasons as an outfielder for Lasorda, who took over as manager in ’77. In 1981, his solo homer with two outs in the top of the ninth againstMontreal, sent the Dodgers to the World Series.

Despite the numbers, Monday says that if fans mainly remember him for saving the flag, instead of a game-winning hit or a great catch or a long career, that’s just fine.

“It wouldn’t bother me if that’s what they remember,” said Monday, who receives letters every month from fans about that one moment, which the Baseball Hall of Fame voted as one of the 100 Classic Moments in the History of the Game. “It would bother me more if people asked, ‘Why didn’t you stop them?’”

Monday added that not only has he not had any communications with the two guys who tried to ignite the flag, but he’s never even wondered why they were attempting to do it. He says it’s not important. It was wrong, “regardless of the message.”

When it comes to that April day, Monday quickly points out that, even though he’s not a fan of the recognition he’s received, he’d do the same thing again.

“(The act) hasn’t changed me, but I have been embarrassed by the attention placed on me, because I didn’t do anything,” he says. “There isn’t anyone I know, fortunately, who wouldn’t have done the same thing. I am just honored to be able to maybe tell the story to someone who might stop for a moment and think about what’s right or wrong.

“And for someone to think that the reason we all have our rights and freedoms is that – to obviously greater extents than what I did in stopping two guys from burning a flag – somewhere along the line, someone has stopped to do the right thing.”

To contact Matt Fulks or for more information about his books, please visit MattFulks.com. Feel free to comment on Rick Monday’s act from April 25, 1976, below. We will make sure that Mr. Monday receives messages directed for him.

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Behind the Stats: Larry Munson was one of a kind

College athletics has lost one of its most legendary announcers. Larry Munson, the long-time radio voice of all things Georgia Bulldogs and, before that, Vanderbilt Commodores, died Sunday night after a bout with pneumonia. He was 89.

Munson was as beloved by Georgia fans as anyone else who walked between the hedges. His style, simply put, was that of an A-1 “homer.” Sure, he bled Vandy black and gold for several years, but since the mid 1960s, it’s been all Georgia red and black.  There wasn’t any gray in a Munson broadcast. It was “we” and “they.” And, it didn’t take long after turning on a game to figure out if his team was playing well. He lived and died with each play. Frankly, instead of many cookie-cutter broadcasters today, Munson conveyed exactly what the fans felt.

Breaking into broadcasting while at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., I heard all about Munson and his unmistakable style. And the first time I heard him on the radio, I knew immediately that it was Larry Munson and the Georgia Bulldogs.

I got to know Munson during the 1990s, while working on my second book, “The Sportscaster’s Dozen: Off the air with Southeastern Legends.” The book featured firsthand stories from 12 “legendary” broadcasters from the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences.

Of course, Larry Munson was one of the dozen who agreed to be featured, giving me and, eventually, the book’s readers, a behind-the-scenes look at his career — the highlights, low lights, and everything in between.

Away from the microphone, Munson was a man’s man. He enjoyed hunting and fishing, cigars, jazz, movies, and so on. When broadcasting, he was one of a kind.

As I wrote it in “The Sportscaster’s Dozen,” radio play-by-play is a wonderful art form. Frank Lloyd Wright said that “television is chewing gum for the eyes.” That said, radio must be chewing gum for the mind, for the imagination, with a good announcer providing the flavor.

For Georgia and Vanderbilt fans, Larry Munson provided that flavor better than salt, pepper, oregano or paprika ever could.

But, Munson was so much more than only the “voice” of Vanderbilt and Georgia. He was one of the pioneers of a weekly fishing show on television. He called professional baseball games, first with a minor-league team in Nashville, and then with the Atlanta Braves. He was the “voice” of the Atlanta Falcons.

So, although you can read countless Larry Munson stories right now, please indulge me for a few minutes as I share two of my favorite Larry Munson stories from “The Sportscaster’s Dozen.”

The late Curt Gowdy, with whom Munson worked in Wyoming, helped Munson land a job in Nashville with Vanderbilt and the Nashville Vols, a minor-league baseball team, after World War II. (While in Wyoming, Munson had seriously considered becoming a jazz pianist, but Gowdy convinced him to stick with broadcasting.) At that time, it was common for broadcasts to be re-creations. (Basically, as you might remember from “Bull Durham,” for instance, in a re-creation, the announcer would receive a note on the Western Union wire, with brief notes about a play. The announcer then would make a sound effect and describe the play as if he was sitting in the stadium.)

Munson was known in broadcasting circles as being sensational at re-creating games. He had proof, too.

When he arrived in Nashville at WKDA radio in 1947, he talked the executives into carrying pro football “out of Chicago.” At that time, there were two teams in Chicago, the Cardinals and the Bears. So, there was a home game every week.

There was a permanent Western Union line up there that enabled us to do games every single Sunday.  That worked for two years. … It was fun because I could get on a jammed elevator leading up to WKDA on Monday, not saying a word to anybody, and the people would be talking about hearing that announcer talking about how hard it was snowing in Chicago the day before with the guys sliding on the ice when they went out of bounds.  It was difficult keeping a straight face knowing they didn’t realize it was me with sound effects sitting upstairs of that building.

Oddly enough, I thought about the second story on Saturday when ESPN’s Lee Corso dropped the F-bomb on TV. Larry Munson’s moment, much like Munson himself, is legendary in Nashville, especially with old timers, if you will. Like many stories of its nature, there are variations of the truth. John Forney, the late Alabama broadcaster, told me his version for “The Sportscaster’s Dozen.” (Munson told me his version 50 years later, but brushed it off, so we didn’t put it in his chapter.)

As the story goes, the Nashville Vols were playing either Little Rock or New Orleans in a wretched, blow out of a game. During the late innings, as Munson thought he sent the game to a commercial break, he said, “What a freaking way to make a living.” Only, the guy in the studio had fallen asleep and hadn’t started any commercials, so Munson’s microphone was still on. That might not seem terrible, except Munson said a different “f” word instead of freaking. That wouldn’t go over well anywhere, but especially not in the buckle of the Bible belt.

The next inning, someone brought a message to Munson. It was from his boss. It read: “Dear Larry: It sure is, but you don’t have to tell everyone.”

Whether you are a Yellow Jacket or a Volunteer or a Gamecock or a Gator, you know that Larry Munson was one of a kind. There never will be another like him. He will be missed by anyone who ever had a chance to get to know him.

If you have a favorite Larry Munson memory, feel free to leave it in the comments section. For more about Matt Fulks, please visit www.MattFulks.com.

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Behind the Stats: Bleier shows Veteran’s Day is about second chances

As long as you keep moving forward, you’ll reach the finish line.

—Unknown

Throughout each person’s life we encounter at least one individual — whether it’s as basic as a casual acquaintance or as personal as a friendship — who teaches us about living and makes us realize that we can do better. It’s these people whose lives can intimidate writers, or at least give writers a mental hurdle while trying to relay the story in a perfect way.

Rocky Bleier, who is best known as a running back with the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s, is one of those people. His story, while worth telling and retelling and passing along to children and grandchildren, is challenging.

I have a deep appreciation for anyone who’s ever had the guts to serve our country. Heaven knows I didn’t and still don’t.

That appreciation — combined with a love of the Steelers that began as a child — makes Bleier a perfect subject to honor today as we  celebrate Veteran’s Day.

It’s tough to find one word to describe Bleier and his life. Oh, you could use courageous, inspiring, athletic, heroic, unwavering, horrific, determined, incredible, astonishing, remarkable, and tenacious. And so many more. You could also throw in Super Bowl champion and college national champion, but of course neither of those is just one word.

Shoot, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Pat Conroy, and even the Merriam-Webster folks would struggle finding one word to describe Bleier.

The remarkable aspect of Bleier’s life is not what he accomplished on the field per se.

“Like many people, I probably peaked when I was nine years old, in a game against my neighbor when I scored 52 touchdowns on one afternoon,” Bleier quipped, laughing. “That was probably the biggest game of my life, and it’s been downhill ever since.”

Actually, Bleier, a native of Appleton, Wisc., played an important role on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship team under coach Ara Parseghian. But he wasn’t given much chance of making it in the NFL, particularly because of his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame. The Steelers didn’t gamble a lot when they drafted him in the 16th round of the 1968 draft.

However, shortly thereafter is where the story takes its most revealing turn.

In December 1968, with three games left in his rookie season, Bleier received an unwanted piece of mail before practice…his draft notice for the U.S. Army. With the United States near the height of the Vietnam War, Bleier loved his country, but, c’mon, how many 22-year-olds really wanted to go to war?

“I can’t say that I was gung-ho about serving,” he said. “I can’t say that I wanted to or needed to serve our country in time of war. Like most others, I was just an average guy who got a draft notice. I’m sure my thought process wasn’t much different than anybody else who got drafted, when you look at that [notice] and say, ‘Aw, (insert your own profanity)! How did I screw up? Now what do I do?’ But you do what you think is right. You go and you serve.”

When someone received a draft notice, he usually had a week before he had to report. Bleier’s draft notice reached him late. He had one day to report. The Steelers tried to help him defer until the end of the season, but the best they could do was designate him with high blood pressure, giving him an extra day before reporting.

Five months later, in May 1969, Bleier was sent to Chu Lai, South Vietnam, with the 196th American Division’s Light Infantry Brigade.

A few months later, in August, Bleier’s life was altered in Heip Duc as he was crippled by enemy rifle fire and grenade wounds in both legs.

It appeared as though his NFL career — not to mention his ability even to walk normally — was finished.

But while he was still in the army, Bleier worked to become a better football player.

“Whether it was by design or by the grace of God, or the lessons that I needed to learn, I fell through the cracks and came back alive,” he says. “I went over there, I served, I got wounded, and I got wounded again. I wasn’t wounded enough to not play, but enough to learn a lesson.

“People have asked me if the experience made me a better  ballplayer. I would have to say yes, it did. If I hadn’t gone, would I have been a better ballplayer? I don’t know. I do know that what I wanted to do was come back from Vietnam and play football. That drove me. So I pushed myself.

“When I was in the service, I got up at 5:30in the morning and ran prior to going to my duty station. When I got done with my duty, I came back and lifted weights. When I got done with that, I went home and ran sprints. All of that was part of wanting to come back with a focus.”

Bleier, who was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and two campaign ribbons, came back with that same desire to play football.

Steelers’ owner Art Rooney, whether out of a belief in Bleier or pity for him, gave Bleier a second chance.

Two years later, in 1972, after working off the injured reserve and the taxi squad, Bleier made Pittsburgh’s active roster.

“I think all of us want hope. As long as we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re okay,” said Bleier, who retired from the NFL after the 1980 season. “As long as there is hope, or a ray of hope, of either making the team or doing something that you love, then you push yourself forward.”

Bleier became an important part of those championship Steelers teams of the ’70s. His best statistical season in 12 years with the Steelers came in 1976, when he rushed 220 times for 1,036 yards and five touchdowns, and caught 24 passes for 294 yards. He was best known on the field, however, as a great blocking back for Franco Harris, en route to four Super Bowl titles.

And to think that, as with so many other American veterans, Bleier’s life changed with one letter. In many ways, the lives of fans who followed Bleier’s career changed with that letter.

“Vietnam is a part of my story and a part of who I am,” he said. “Am I thankful for Vietnam? I’m thankful for the experience. I’m thankful for going. I’m thankful for having served. I’m thankful for the people I have served with, and those who served before and after me. I’m thankful for the people who know me and the relationship they have of one of those who defended our country.”

Indeed, Rocky Bleier can give us a kick in the pants every now and then. He can teach us that we should be thankful for life’s challenges.

He can teach us about change and being our best and finding our strengths. He can teach us that we will reach the finish line with each new step. And he can teach us that we sometimes do get a second chance.

For more information on Matt Fulks’ books, or to suggest a “Behind the Stats” topic, visit Matt at MattFulks.com.

The previous appeared on SportsRadioKC.com on Nov. 11, 2010.

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Behind the Stats: Celebrating the life of Scott Shannon

Yesterday was so much fun. And so easy.

Broadcasting games. Hanging out, talking sports – mainly baseball and basketball – and music. And girls. Quoting “Fletch.” Laughing about unique observations in life. Debating about which college basketball program was better, KU or UK. (Just remember, the coach who really got it going for you, Adolph Rupp, was from Kansas.) Going to church.

But Scott and I were young. And naïve.

And, in seemingly an instant, the innocence, youth and naivety all changed.

Wow, it’s been a blur of 20 years.

I’ve written about Scott Shannon before. Shoot, I’ve written many of the following exact words countless times during other Novembers.

That doesn’t make this column easier. Even as, today on the campus of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., several members of Scott’s family, plus friends, teammates, teachers and fans, gather to celebrate his life with a memorial service, my mind doesn’t let these words flow. I still get furious with that wretched cancer. I loathe it.

Even if you’re not familiar with Scott Shannon or Lipscomb, humor me for a few moments.

From 1987-1991, Shannon was a hard-throwing right hander for legendary college baseball coach Ken Dugan and the Lipscomb University Bisons. (And, yes, that’s Bisons with an “s.” That’s how they did it in the South in the mid-late 1800s. They did a lot of things wrong in the South in the mid-late 1800s.)

Shannon, 6-foot-4 and about 180 pounds (even though he was listed at 195), had a gift for a right arm. Part of that gift was the ability to throw in the 90s. Another part was the ability to throw just as hard in the late innings of a game as he did in the first two.

During his career at Lipscomb, Shannon compiled a career 27-9 record and a 3.87 earned run average. As a junior, he walked only eight batters in 70 innings. During his senior season of 1991, Shannon helped lead the Bisons to the NAIA District 24 baseball championship and a berth in the Area 5 tournament.

That season, the NAIA All-American Shannon had a 10-1 record with a 2.85 ERA, and was the NAIA Player of the Week at the end of March. Several major-league scouts talked to him, but he wasn’t drafted, which was a huge disappointment, even though he brushed it off to most people and used it for motivation.

Really, in terms of overall athletic ability, he was incredible. He may have been the best athlete, or at least the best conditioned, at Lipscomb. (And, keep in mind this was Lipscomb at a time when the men’s basketball teams, under Hall of Fame coach Don Meyer, were setting records for points and wins.)

Stories about Shannon around campus were near legendary, or at least that’s how my aging mind remembers. He ran five or six miles a day. On several occasions, he even ate an entire pizza late at night and then ran five miles a few minutes later, clocking a pretty good time. (For the record, though, at least a couple of times a week, he’d order the pizza, go for a run, and then eat.)

When he wasn’t pitching, Shannon was involved with the Bison Radio Network. That’s where we really got to know each other. We were partners for nearly three years with Lady Bison basketball and Bison baseball broadcasts, plus we each worked the men’s basketball games. In all, we probably broadcast 200-250 games together during that time.

We didn’t know each other very well before we started broadcasting together, but from the first women’s basketball game that we worked in 1989, he welcomed me as an old friend. Even though I could take away some of his play-by-play and other on-air time, there never was any type of jealousy or apprehension or ego or anything like that. He might’ve felt it, but he never showed it.

It doesn’t matter the line of work, people oftentimes see or feel jealousy or feel unwanted as the “new guy.” It’s human nature. That wasn’t Scott’s nature. He didn’t allow me to feel any of that. He helped me learn everything I needed to know about the broadcasts because, to him, it was a matter of being members of a team, doing the best job we could do putting on the best broadcast each game, and having fun along the way.

Largely because of his attitude, we developed a fast and close friendship.

In fact, he was the instigator in me getting up the guts to introduce myself to the pretty girl who’d become my wife.

That’s the way he was. Shannon had an uncanny ability to make friends and be friendly with a wide range of people. He personally touched hundreds of lives. There are plenty of people with great Scott Shannon stories, I’m sure.

The summer after his senior season, 1991, Scotty and I spent quite a bit of time together, at least as much as we could between jobs and girlfriends. As August approached, he was complaining about being tired. He looked it, too. It seemed understandable, considering he was working two jobs, plus he was preparing for a couple of major-league tryouts.

As an athlete you know your body. You know the aches, pains and normal fatigue and recovery. Even as a young, invincible athlete, you know when something just isn’t right. In early September, Labor Day weekend to be exact, Scotty reached that point and went to see a doctor at a Nashville hospital. The doctor suggested that he go, almost immediately, to nearby Vanderbilt  University Medical Center.

It was cancer. Damn cancer!

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 1.5 million Americans will face cancer this year. And approximately 560,000 people will die from some type of the disease this year. Additionally, look at the person next to you. At status quo, according to the ACS, either you or that person will get cancer during your lifetime.

Next Friday, Nov. 11, undoubtedly, I’d be calling or texting Scotty and giving him a hard time for turning 42, especially since his birthday was three months before mine. But I won’t make that call or send that text.

You see, 20 years ago today, Nov. 5, 1991, two months after being admitted to the hospital at Vanderbilt, and having not left it since the Sunday night before Labor Day, cancer and all the drugs used to fight it, took Scotty’s life. He was six days shy of his 22nd birthday.

Call it morbid. Call it sentimental. Call it whatever. I really don’t care. But I could count on one hand the number of days during the past 20 years that I haven’t thought about Scotty at least once. Although it’s usually a quick, funny story, many of those thoughts center on the unanswerable: “Why?”

Why would God (or whatever higher power in which you believe) allow this to happen? Why did parents have to go through this with one of their children? Why is it that someone my age — and in incredible shape — get cancer and die so quickly?

I haven’t learned the answer to any of those questions. I suspect I never will.

A lesson I’ve learned through the years, though, is that friends come and go. There are some that we wish would go sooner, but they don’t. Then there are those who come into our lives and we’re forever grateful, even if the time spent with them is cut short. Obviously, Scotty is one of those.

Another reason he’s in my thoughts so often is because our youngest son, who happened to be born two days before Scott’s birthday in 2004, takes one of his names from Scotty. Coincidentally, he’s ornery, a little stubborn, loves the girls and they love him, and he makes me laugh every day. That same sentence could be used to describe Scott Shannon.

Scott’s family has told me that they know of at least three other little boys running around with the name Scott because of Shannon’s influence. It goes back to how he dealt with people.

Ultimately, for Scott Shannon, it was about team; it was about doing things – doing life – the right way; and, just doing our best job.

And along the way, we had some fun.

For more information on Matt Fulks’ books, or to suggest a “Behind the Stats” topic, visit Matt at MattFulks.com.

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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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