Most of what the American League had going for it last week in its rout by the National League All-Stars was provided by Kansas City. Amos Otis and John Mayberry supplied virtually all of the losers' minimal offense, and Royals Stadium, the American League's first rejoinder to new ball parks in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, was resplendent. In turn, the game provided something special for Kansas City—an incident that just could determine the tight contest which the surprising Royals, picked by many to finish fifth in the West, are waging with world champion Oakland. In the second inning Oakland's 15-game winner, Catfish Hunter, tried to knock down a ball from the bat of Billy Williams with his bare pitching hand and had to leave the game.
In his general manager's box, Cedric Tallis of the Royals turned to a companion and said, "That might be the pennant right there. But I wouldn't want to wish anyone an injury." Three days later Otis put it another way. Entering the Royals' clubhouse, he learned that Oakland had just lost its third straight game to Minnesota. Chanted Otis, " Catfish Hunter's gone and Oakland's down the drain."
X rays after the game had revealed a hairline fracture of Hunter's thumb. "I figure he'll miss at least two turns," said Tallis, "and even when he comes back he may not be sharp for a while."
The first genuine pennant challenge ever by a Kansas City major league baseball team comes appropriately in a year when the city is conducting a high-powered national advertising and publicity campaign to convince the country that Kansas City is now "in its prime time." Among its principal new assets are Royals Stadium and adjoining Arrowhead Stadium, a 78,000-seat facility for the Kansas City Chiefs, already sold out for 1973. Functionally handsome, intimate and bright, Royals Stadium includes a chattily communicative, computerized $2 million scoreboard and a $750,000 "water spectacular" in center field. The stadium is a county facility but Royals Owner Ewing Kauffman paid for the scoreboard and water show himself.
Among the most effusive of those at the All-Star Game in praising the Kansas City stadium and team was A's Owner Charles O. Finley. But Kansas Citians still regard him as an ogre, the man they claim pulled the greatest baseball rip-off in history by moving his Athletics, a sub-.500 team for all their 13 years in Kansas City, to Oakland just when pennants were imminent. "We are fearful of the Royals," said Finley. "I'm happy for Kansas City fans. There are no better fans in the country." Those fans showed their continued hostility to Finley by booing every Oakland member of the All-Star team.
Tallis, Manager Jack McKeon and all the Royal players think the team is at peak strength going into the final segment of the season. The recent addition of two left-handed relief pitchers, Steve Mingori and Joe Hoerner, has filled a serious void. "They had been beating us from the left side," said Otis. Rick Reichardt's arrival from the White Sox gives McKeon the sort of hitter he had been pressuring Tallis to acquire all season. Paul Schaal's fine play at third, after a poor 1972 season, and the emergence of Fran Healy as the No. 1 catcher have also helped.
And the Royals are looking appreciatively at the schedule ahead. After the All-Star Game Kansas City was to play 18 of its next 27 games at home, while Oakland would be on the road for 14 of its next 21. "We've had our grind," said Infielder Cookie Rojas. "Now they can have theirs." This optimism was immediately borne out. In the first series played by the two teams after the All-Star break, Oakland dropped those three straight at Minnesota while Kansas City took two out of three at home against Chicago and moved to within half a game of the A's. And just as Oakland lost Hunter, Kansas City was regaining its big winner, Paul Splittorff, who had been out more than two weeks with a back injury. Splittorff promptly beat the Sox 1-0 on a three-hitter.
McKeon says the key to Kansas City's chances lies in the quality of its pitching. "Splittorff and Dick Drago will give us some of the consistency we need," he said. " Steve Busby and Ken Wright must do the same if we are going to win. I think we can. Twice we've lost five in a row. Each time everybody tried to write us off. 'There they go, that's the end of them,' they'd say. But we're still here."
The Royals probably reached their low point of the season at 2 o'clock on the morning of July 2. As the team was being driven from the airport home to the stadium, where wives were waiting, the bus had a flat tire. The team had lost six of eight to California, Oakland and Texas and had dropped from first place to fifth. What McKeon calls his "vacuum cleaner infield defense" had shown symptoms of a punctured bag. Outfielder Lou Piniella was angry at McKeon and some other players had been arguing acrimoniously.
Later that day McKeon called a team meeting. "I told the guys we had to regroup," he says. "Let's relax and each player do his own job. We've passed a period when everything seemed to go against us. Let's go back and do the little things that made us successful earlier." From then until the All-Star break Kansas City won 13 of 20, closed on Oakland and broke out of the logjam with Minnesota, Chicago and California. All that despite the fact that Mayberry, who had been leading the league most of the season in home runs and RBIs, went 10 games without an RBI and 13 without a homer.