Indeed, the tirade was cathartic for McRae. "For the first time, I felt free...free to do the job I was hired to do." he says. "There were a lot of restraints and obstacles hindering me—what they are, or were, isn't important. I was boxed in. After that night I felt better about myself, my job. For me to be a good manager, I had to be in charge, and everyone had to know that."
The players got the message, and since then they have played the kind of baseball McRae did during his 17-year career: intelligent and hard-nosed, fundamentally sound and without flair. The Royals are virtually starless. They don't have Tony Gwynn. But they have his younger brother, Chris, who at week's end was hitting .325 as a platoon left fielder. They hit doubles instead of 500-foot homers. They bunt, they execute the hit-and-run, they slap grounders to the right side to move the runner to third. "We're kind of boring." says Montgomery.
The only time Kansas City's leading run producer, catcher Mike Macfarlane (team-high nine home runs and 32 RBIs), has gotten a lot of attention this season came last month when he smashed an umbrella that a Fenway Park fan had used in trying to scoop up a wild pitch that was still in play. "He bopped me on the head with it," says Macfarlane. "The Boston police asked me if I wanted to press charges. No way. The last thing I need is some umbrella-wielding psycho stalking me on the streets of Boston."
But when the Royals beat the Red Sox 5-3 on Umbrella Night, they started a five-game winning streak that by June 3 had boosted them into sole possession of first place for the first time since April 16, 1988. "We're not special in any part of our game, we just silently win by one run," says backup catcher Brent Mayne. "These one-run wins are unbelievable character builders."
Kansas City's lead character is still Brett, who says he isn't the least bit surprised by the turnaround. "We're not doing this with mirrors," he says. "It had nothing to do with Hal's tirade. We're just playing good baseball. Everyone on the team is contributing. Like Jose Lind goes out with pneumonia-or, as he calls it, ammonia—and Rico Rossy comes up from the minors and hits a homer in his first at bat."
The biggest contributor has been Brian McRae. Through Sunday he was hitting .304 with 20 extra-base hits and a team-leading 14 stolen bases, and he was running down everything hit to centerfield. Last season Brian, 25, batted .223, the lowest average in the major leagues among qualifiers for a batting title. "He has been amazing," says Hal, who worked with Brian on hitting mechanics this spring. "I thought he'd be a .270 guy. He has matured a lot."
Brian says he has made an even bigger adjustment in his mental approach to the game. "Now I'm confident, even a little cocky," he says. "Last year I was a little unsure. We played so bad, everything got to me. But now I go to the plate thinking, This pitcher isn't better than I am. Last year I did what everyone wanted me to do instead of what I'm best at. I got the most walks in my career , but my average went down 40 points. Now I don't care if the pitch is over my head or in the dirt, if I think I can hit it, I'm swinging."
Brian is also more relaxed playing for his father. In 1991, in his first full season, he was struggling to make it in the major leagues. Two months into that season Hal replaced the fired John Wathan as manager, giving the Royals two McRaes trying to adapt. Father and son were spending more time together than at any other time in their lives, and it took some getting used to. They get along well now, but they see each other only at the park. "I don't even know the phone number at his apartment," Brian says.
They both see a lot of Montgomery, who after 29 appearances this season was tied with five other stoppers for the major league lead with 19 saves. Montgomery doesn't have an overpowering fastball, a knee-buckling curve or pinpoint control, but he does have what few closers can claim: four pitches (fastball, curve, slider, changeup) that he can throw for strikes.
Montgomery came to Kansas City in a 1988 trade with the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Van Snider—one of the most lopsided deals in the last 10 years. He says he asked Murray Cook, who was then the Reds' general manager, why he was being traded after having pitched only 19⅓ innings (with a 6.52 ERA) in '87. "Murray told me that Pete [Rose, then the Red manager] gave him a list of half a dozen guys who he said would never play for him, and I was one of them." says Montgomery. "Pete said I lacked the mental toughness to play in the big leagues."