Game six of the 2016 World Series was great, no doubt, especially since the Chicago Cubs brought the team back from a 3-1 deficit to force a showdown game seven. It will be long remembered. As enjoyable as this may have been, I want to recall another game six, this time the pivotal tying game in the 1985 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals.
That game six has to go down as one of the most frustrating games, at least for the Cardinals, in the history of the post-season. Replayed over and over again, it still spells collapse for the St. Louis Cardinals as they played the Kansas City Royals. 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 do anything offensively. Cardinals starter Danny Cox and Royals hurler Charlie Liebrandt matched each other perfectly until the top of the eighth when Cardinals pinch-hitter Brian Harper blooped a single to center to score Terry Pendleton. With the quality of the Cardinals bullpen, the 1-0 lead should probably have been enough to win the game and the series. In the ninth inning the “wheels came off” the Cardinals bandwagon.
Taking the 1-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth, Cards 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 on television and in Royals Stadium clearly showed that Orta had been beaten to first and should have sat down on the bench. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog ran out to protest but failed to convince Denkinger to change his call.
In hindsight Herzog believed that he should have walked over to the box of baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and demanded that the umpiring team look at the replay. Had the commissioner refused, Herzog said he should then have pulled his team off the field in protest of what was clearly a bad call. 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.
The bad call rattled the Cardinals beyond all hope of recovery. Forced to hold Orta on first, Jack Clark chased a pop foul from the bat of Steve Balboni to the home dugout, but lost it because of the weird angle and failed to make the catch. Balboni then surprised everyone with a bloop single to put Royals at first and second with no outs. The Cards got Orta at third when Royals catcher Jim Sundberg failed in a sacrifice attempt, but then the Royals baserunners reached second and third on a passed ball from catcher Darrell Porter.
This set up a situation in which Hal McRae came to the plate with one out and runners in scoring position. McRae was always a dangerous hitter, but he had been essentially nullified since the designated hitter was not used in this World Series. The Cards decided to walk him to get to another pinch-hitter, former Cardinals 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. Iorg then singled to right, and slow-footed catcher Jim Sundberg eluded the tag of Darrell Porter to score the game-winning run. St. Louis lost one of the most exciting games ever, 2-1. Ironically, this was the first time all season that the Cardinals had lost a game in the ninth inning.
Commentators compared this game to the stupendous sixth game of the 1975 World Series in which the Boston Red Sox defeated the Cincinnati Reds on a tense twelfth-inning homer off the bat of Carlton Fisk. The Royals-Cardinals contest in game six had, according to Sports Illustrated reporter Ron Fimrite, a “magical combination of excellence, luck, foolishness, irony, courage and gut-wrenching suspense that seems to find its way into this great sporting event year after year.” While this game could not match that earlier contest for sheer drama, as a standard in World Series play, few could surpass it.
The Royals went on to win the 1985 World Series in seven games. Had the call not been blown, the Cardinals would have won it in six.