The recent walk-off victory by the Kansas City Royals over the Oakland A’s in the 2014 play-in game brings to mind the last time the Royals were in the playoffs. That was in 1985, 29 years ago and it proved to be one of the great experiences in Missouri MLB history. It was also thrilling, and moving, to see the George Brett celebrate the Royals victory over the A’s. A longtime fixture with the Royals, he was the greatest player on a Royals team in 1985 that was, without question, great.
Both the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals won their league pennants in 1985 and met in the World Series. They could well do so again this year, although the odds arte long. In 1985 they played the “I-70 Series,” named for the interstate highway that connects the two great Missouri cities.
The Cardinals won 101 games in 1985 while losing only 61, a .623 winning percentage that was the best in the majors. The Royals were not so dominant, going 91-71 for the year, but the two teams’ victories in their respective league playoffs set up an all-Missouri championship series. None of the television moguls who purchased broadcast rights for the World Series were thrilled that Kansas City and St. Louis played each other in 1985. They were both relatively small markets, but the seven game series was exciting.
The World Series started off well for the Cardinals, who took the first two games in Kansas City. Those victories led many to crown the Cardinals prematurely. Many thought the Royals, gallant though they might be, were simply overmatched by a great Cardinals team. In game three the Royals began to climb out of the hole they had dug in Kansas City. The staff’s ace, twenty-one-year-old right-hander Bret Saberhagen (20-6), beat Cards’ starter Joaquin Andujar, 6-1. The Cards then won game four to take a 3-1 series advantage.
Ozzie Smith’s famous flip from the start of the World Series.
Sports reporters began to lose interest in the World Series and turned their attention to the local flavor of Missouri. “Much of the charm of the I-70 World Series lay on Missouri’s back roads,” reported Craig Neff in the October 28, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated. Sent in search of local color, Neff found it everywhere. He stopped at the Midway-Locust Grove Methodist Church for its country ham dinner and found everyone talking baseball. There were fans dressed in Cardinals red and others wearing Royals blue, but they sat side by side peacefully debating the series. They disagreed over who would win, but it was always good-natured disagreement. Written on a chalkboard at the church were words that said much about how everyone viewed the series: “WE SUPPORT THE ST. KANSLOU CITY ROYINALS IN THE WORLD SERIES.”
But then there was game six. It has to go down as one of the most bizarre in the history of the post-season. Replayed over and over again, it still spells collapse for the Cardinals. The Royals won it by the narrowest of margins, 2-1, forcing a showdown seventh game. But it was the process of getting to the 2-1 finale that made the game so strange. It was a classic pitcher’s battle for eight innings as neither the Royals nor the Cardinals could score. In the top of the eighth inning Cardinals pinch-hitter Brian Harper blooped a single to center to score Terry Pendleton. With the quality of Cardinals pitching, many thought a 1-0 lead would be enough to win the game and the series. Unfortunately, in the ninth inning the “wheels came off” the Cardinals bandwagon.
First base umpire Don Denkinger blowing the call at first in the ninth inning of the sixth game.
Taking the 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth, Cardinals closer Todd Worrell came in to finish off the Royals. The first batter was pinch-hitter Jorge Orta, who hit a weak grounder to first baseman Jack Clark. Clark fielded it cleanly and flipped it to Worrell, who covered first from the pitcher’s mound. In one of the worst calls in World Series play, first base umpire Don Denkinger called Orta safe. Replays clearly showed that Orta had been beaten to first and should have been called out. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog protested the call. In hindsight he believed that he should have asked MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth to demand that the umpires look at a replay. Had the commissioner refused, Herzog said he should then have pulled his team off the field in protest. In that case, Herzog said, “I’d have been right, but I’d have been fired.” But he thinks Ueberroth would have acceded to his demand, and the replay would have forced a change in the call.
Another view of a really bad call.
The bad call rattled the Cardinals. The Royals got runners onto second and third with one out, and the Cardinals then intentionally walked Hal McRae to get to pinch-hitter Dane Iorg. Without question this was a good percentage decision. McRae was one of the best hitters in the American League, and Iorg had batted only .223 in limited use in 1985. But Iorg singled to right, driving in Jim Sundberg to win the game, 2-1.
This set up a dramatic World Series finale. The Cardinals did not even hit the ball out of the infield and lost an embarrassing, 11-0. After going through three pitchers and trailing 9-0 in the fifth inning, Whitey Herzog sent pitching ace Joaquin Andujar to the mound. After home plate umpire Don Denkinger called an obvious ball on Jim Sundberg, Andujar flipped out. He stomped around the mound in what could only be called a temper tantrum and then charged toward Denkinger behind the plate. Herzog rushed out to restrain Andujar and ended up being ejected from the game.
Afterward, Herzog philosophized about this turn of events. “I’d seen enough,” he said. “That wasn’t a ball game. Like Casey says, ’Ain’t no sense livin’ in misery.” He took the ejection as a reprieve from torture.
After Herzog left the field, Andujar returned to the mound and on the very next pitch, called a ball by Denkinger, he flipped out again. He screamed and jumped up and down on the mound before running in to take a swing at Denkinger. By the time order had been restored, Andujar had been tossed out of the game. It was all over; the Royals added two additional runs to defeat the Cardinals. One wit dubbed the Cardinals the “Nuthouse Gang” because of Andujar’s coming apart.
Celebrating a championship.
In contrast, this victory by the Royals proved exceedingly sweet, the only World Series victory the team ever won. Team leader and future Hall of Famer George Brett shouted above the locker room celebration, “I know, I know, people were saying, ‘God, we’ve got this damn all-Missouri World Series. Who cares?’ Well, do you think I wanted to be drafted by Kansas City, this little town in Missouri? I’m from L.A. and I wanted to play for the Dodgers. But I’ll tell you something: I’m proud, very proud, to be a Kansas City Royal.” Brett then added, “And you know what it is we did, don’t you? We showed’em.”
In retrospect, the two teams had been remarkably well matched. Both had strong defenses, great pitching, and speed. The Royals pitchers proved the difference between victory and defeat. Bret Saberhagen had gone 2-0 for the Royals with a 0.50 ERA, and the Royals team ERA stood at only 1.89 for the World Series.
George Brett was right, the Royals “showed’em.” Here’s to the Kansas City Royals, victors in the World Series twenty-five years ago, and their worthy opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals. I look forward to both teams returning to greatness on the ball diamond.