It was one of those plays for which talking hairdos go to the videotape at 11:20 p.m. Last Saturday in Cleveland, Leftfielder Willie Wilson of the Kansas City Royals hurried to catch a fly ball hit by Toby Harrah of the Indians with two on and two out in the third inning. The wind toyed with the ball, and it hit the heel of Wilson's glove. From there, it rolled down his left arm and over to his right hand. Wilson instinctively flipped it in the air back to his left hand, and the ball ended up safe and snug in the pouch of his black kangaroo-hide glove. The juggling act had begun just outside the foul line and concluded a few yards inside fair territory, and Wilson, smiling, accepted the mock congratulations of his teammates.
That catch could be a little metaphor for the Royals' whole season, or rather, for the Royals' two half-seasons. On June 12 the defending American League champions were in fifth place, 12 games behind the Oakland A's. They looked as if they were about to drop the Western Division title. Then baseball got away. When it returned on Aug. 10, the Royals found themselves in first place, albeit with six other teams. "This is a time for rejuvenation," says Wilson. "We have new life. The strike was a blessing in disguise."
And in truth, Kansas City is the team with the best chance of benefiting from the creation of a bogus second season. Manager Jim Frey and many of the players maintain that the Royals eventually would have caught up with the teams ahead, but the truth is that K.C. barely had a pulse on June 12. "I don't think we would have had a chance," says Outfielder Amos Otis. "Not with four teams in front of us."
What a difference a year makes. On Aug. 17 last year, the Royals were 13 games in the lead and George Brett went over .400 for the first time. On Aug. 17 this year, K.C. had a 24-34 won-lost record and the third baseman was at .294, nursing yet another injury, a badly bruised and sprained right thumb. Last year the offense averaged five runs a game; this year it is producing 3.8 a game. In one-run contests in 1980 the Royals were 29-12, while in '81 they are 9-14. The team ERA has jumped from 3.83 to 4.07.
Asking why a championship team goes bad all of a sudden is a little like asking why does love go. There are lots of possibilities, but the only answer is no answer at all: It just happens. Frey is at a loss to explain why the Royals went south. "When the pitching was good, we weren't getting the hitting, and vice versa," he says. "You go through periods when if you need the out, the other guy hits a bloop double. When you need the hit, you hit a line drive right at them. All clubs go through this. It was just our turn."
Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, under whom Frey served for 10 years, says, "The toughest thing is to win again. After you've been in the World Series, you forget in April and May how tough it was to get there. You're not playing in front of 50,000 people anymore. It's 41° in Cleveland, and there are 4,500 fans out there. In 1970, after we had won 109 games the year before, the first thing I did in spring training was tell the players, 'Don't give me no crap about 109 wins. Last year's success doesn't mean crap. The pitchers will be pitching you different. You've got to do it all over again.' That's Kansas City's problem. They forgot what they did to get there. Somehow you've got to remember what's at the end of the rainbow."
Through most of last season and the AL playoffs, the Royals looked almost invincible. They had a beautifully balanced offense, four strong starting pitchers and a reliever, Dan Quisenberry, with 33 saves. Then came the World Series, and Philadelphia exposed K.C.'s weaknesses for all to see. One of the Phillies' advance scouts, Moose Johnson, helped draw up the battle plan for the Series. Johnson, who was in Oakland last week scouting the A's for the '81 Series, recalls the Phils' objective. "We felt that in order to win we had to keep their fast men, Wilson, U.L. Washington and Frank White, off the bases. We also felt there was a difference in pitching between the two leagues because the National League has more hard throwers. So we planned to go right after them with the good fastball, overmatching them with the fastball and staying away from the breaking pitch.
"If we went in with one idea, it was that George Brett wouldn't beat us. We would walk him before we'd let him beat us. We'd allow him his hits, but stifle his productivity. When we did pitch to him, we never threw two pitches in a row to the same place. Throw inside all the time, and he'll adjust."
Johnson says other scouts have told him that the other American League teams have been doing just what the Phillies did last year with the same results.
Indeed, although Brett was batting near .300 at week's end, he had driven in only 17 runs. Wilson, who struck out a record 12 times in six Series games, mostly on inside fastballs, was seeing nothing but inside fastballs the first part of the season. Consequently, he got off to a slow start at the plate, and it affected his base running. "Last year it seemed as if teams were afraid to walk Willie and George," says Royals Coach Gordy MacKenzie. "This year they're pitching both of them a lot tougher."