That lonely band of strangers jumping and hugging under the glare of 56,588 New Yorkers in Yankee Stadium last Friday at midnight was the Kansas City Royals, the best team in the American League, the best team in baseball. The Royals beat the Yankees fairly, squarely and, in case nobody noticed, for the 11th time in 15 games this year. As a result, George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' 12-year-old owner, took his ball and went home. The Royals went to Philadelphia to start the World Series.
The Yankees played as if they had heard too many choruses of New York, New York this year. King of the hill, top of the heap, indeed. Steinbrenner blamed his players for the opening 7-2 loss, and they blamed the sun. Steinbrenner blamed the third-base coach for the 3-2 defeat in Game 2. Manager Dick Howser blamed dumb luck for the third and final 4-2 loss. "I still think we're the better team," said Howser. You would've thought the Yankees had lost three straight to the Seattle Mariners.
There are some very good reasons why the Royals won the first pennant in their 12-year history and their first Championship Series with the Yankees after galling defeats in 1976, '77 and '78. They won because Frank White, their ninth-place hitter, batted .545 and charted new territory at second base. They won because their pitchers held the Yankees to two runs apiece in the three games. They won because of more speed, better fielding and better managing. The Yankees came into the Championship Series willing to concede Willie Wilson his stolen bases and George Brett his hits. The Royals are so well-balanced that they won even though Wilson had zero stolen bases and Brett had only three hits.
But, oh, that last hit. Kansas City was trailing New York 2-1 in the third game, with two outs and none on in the top of the seventh. After Wilson doubled into the rightfield corner off Starter Tommy John, Howser summoned Rich Gossage, figuring that the Red Adair of baseball would make the bat in U.L. Washington's hand about as useless as the toothpick in his mouth. But Washington got his bat on the ball, chopping it to Willie Randolph at second, and just beat the throw to first. "That 80-foot single, that's what beat us," Howser said later.
This set up a classic confrontation between the most overpowering pitcher in baseball and the best hitter. Brett, of all people, was due; his playoff average was 190 points below his season average of .390, and he was batting .241 lifetime against Gossage. Gossage's first pitch was out over the plate, and Brett launched a shot of at least 450 feet into the upper deck in rightfield. Said a champagne-soaked Brett later, "I was delighted to see Gossage. I didn't want to face John again."
Brett may have won the pennant with his record sixth homer in American League Championship Series play, but White was the MVP. In the fifth, White hit a fair-sized homer himself off John into the leftfield seats. In the bottom of the sixth, he leaped improbably high to grab Bob Watson's line drive off Paul Splittorff. Then Reggie Jackson, who was looking like Mr. February after striking out twice, followed with a double down the line in left. Royal Manager Jim Frey responded with the same underhanded move he's been making all season: he brought in submariner Dan Quisenberry. Howser countered with pinch hitter Oscar Gamble, who rapped the ball up the middle. White made another fine play to reach it, but he threw wildly to third in a rash attempt to get Jackson. The ball went into the dugout and Jackson scored. Gamble wound up at third and scored on Rick Cerone's single.
New York had one more hope after Brett's homer. Watson, who batted .500, tripled to the wall in left-center to lead off the eighth. Then, after getting ahead of Jackson 0-2, Quisenberry threw eight straight balls, walking Reggie and Gamble. "I had 12 unintentional walks all year, and there I was walking two in a row," said Quisenberry. "I let the crowd affect me. It was awesome. I tried to turn the volume down, but it just wouldn't go down."
Frey showed remarkable cool by leaving Quisenberry in to pitch to Cerone. After throwing his ninth straight ball, Quisenberry evened the count at 1-1. On the next pitch Cerone hit a line drive to the right of Washington, who raced a couple of steps to catch the ball. Jackson, running as soon as the ball was hit, was easily doubled off second. It was not a dignified way to go.
"When Washington caught that ball and doubled off Reggie," said Cerone, "it was like I was standing there watching somebody slap my mother. That's how bad I felt."
The atmosphere was more pleasant in the other clubhouse, where some of the players were covered in milk because the Royals have several teetotalers. Frey hugged Brett and said, "You're the greatest." Brett said, "The people in Kansas City are going to feel that we won the World Series. For us to beat New York is the ultimate for them."