August 13, 2010

 

 

 

When the Boys in Blue Were the Best
A New DVD Box Set Reveals a Team Who Made Headlines Outside the Onion

by Dan Lybarger

For years, the Royals have had a unique place in American pop culture. Thanks to their maddeningly erratic play, they’re an easy punchline. For example, the satirical news site The Onion has repeatedly poked fun the team, which this season is fighting tooth and nail against perennial losers the Cleveland Indians for the American League Central’s basement.

Still of Bret Saberhagen and George Brett
Pitcher Bret Saberhagen embraces third baseman George Brett after the Royals win Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.
A quarter of a century ago, it was another matter. In 16 years, the Royals had gone from being a lowly expansion team and American League West pennant winners, when in 1985, they took the World Series.

Having lived most of my life in the KC area, I remember being elated when the Boys in Blue won game seven. I was only a casual fan but their victory seemed like a divine affirmation. Because our scrappy baseball team defeated clubs from bigger cities on the coasts to get to the Series, it seemed as if coming from eastern Kansas was no obstacle to whatever dreams I had. If the Royals could win it all, what was there that couldn’t be done?

As a young man, it seemed to me as if Howard Cosell and other broadcasters were constantly demeaning both the Royals and the region they represented. The fact that the Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals were competing in the series seemed the ultimate rebuke to coastal elitism.

Oh, sure the players on the Royals came from all over the nation (viral video star George Brett, for example, originally hails from California), but the fact that the rest had to acknowledge that something was going well in Kansas City filled my 18-year-old heart with pride. For years afterward, I wore my official shirt celebrating the team’s achievement until it became too threadbare and faded to wear.

Diamond Drama

While the warm feelings I had during the fall of 1985 are still vivid in my memory, I really didn’t understand what the series was actually like until recently. Because I was struggling to get through my college classes, I didn’t get to watch the Series that closely until the final game. A new boxed set of every game (www.amazon.com/Kansas-City-Royals-World-Collectors/dp/B003JLL2WW) in the I-70 or “Show Me” Series from A&E Home Video reveals that the championship contest was unusually dramatic and remains surprisingly watchable.

If you’re willing to overlook the fact that the original ABC Sports broadcasts were shot well before the advent of HD and that home runs were scarce (Mark McGwire and his steroids wouldn’t come around till later), it’s amazing how there’s more than wistful nostalgia to this collection. Occasionally, you can spot off-field turmoil working its way onto the diamond.

The Royals’ competitors for the trophy were the St. Louis Cardinals, managed by Whitey Herzog, who had turned the Royals into a winning unit until he was let go in 1979. Apparently three division pennants weren’t enough. While the Royals made a disastrous trip to the World Series without him in 1980, Herzog wound up winning the series with the Cards in 1982. During the close-ups on the dugouts or stands, you can spot signs of resentment.

This is especially true of the third game. Outfielder Lonnie Smith started the 1985 season as a Cardinal and was traded to Kansas City, but early in the season he had testified in court that he had purchased cocaine in 1982 for himself and fellow Card and pitcher Joaquín Andújar (the Royals had a coke scandal of their own in 1983). Andujar denied the charges and was probably not pleased that Smith was the first batter he faced during that game.

The new box set is loaded with jaw-dropping moments that are worth watching again. One play reminds me why my brother and I used to think that George Brett was the coolest man on earth when we were kids. We’ve never met him, so we can’t speak about his character. His devotion to the game, however, was obvious in every inning he played. It was a common sight to watch him turn normally fearsome pitchers into batting practice, but his steely determination made even his bad plays mesmerizing.

During game five of the Series, Brett rushes to catch a pop foul that’s almost out of play. Most players would have done the logical thing and let the ball go. The Royals were ahead 3 to 1, and the batter Terry Pendleton already had a strike with this foul ball.

Nonetheless, catching the fly would have taken the batter out for certain and kept the momentum of the game in the Royals’ favor. Brett didn’t simply hold out his glove and wait for the ball to plop into it. He heroically slid into the Royal’s dugout at Busch Stadium and dove to what would have been certain injury if coach Lee May hadn’t been there to catch him. Brett dropped the ball, but even St. Louis fans applauded when Brett emerged from the dugout hardly worse for the wear.

One advantage of the new DVDs is that they help less patient baseball fans get to the plays they want to see. The chapters are divided by half innings, so you can ignore the stretches where the bats go silent. There are several of those.

The Cardinals went into that series with the highest batting average in the National League, but the Royals’ pitchers, particularly 21-year-old Bret Saberhagen (who was on his way to winning a Cy Young Award and an MVP for the Series) and Danny Jackson, effectively shut down their bats. The Cards batted only .185, and Cardinals Hall of Fame player Ozzie Smith only managed a pair of hits for the entire Series.

The final game is worth watching simply because it may be the most surreal in baseball history. Whereas many of the previous matches had been tight and hard fought, gave seven was a comic spectacle. The normally formidable Cards pitcher John Tudor, who won games one and four, gave up five runs by the third inning. In the fifth, the Cards’ pitching faltered despite some definite fury on the mound. No matter who was placed on there, the pitchers seemed to be aiming at the Royals’ bats. Andújar, one of a seeming legion of pitchers relieving Tudor, couldn’t seem to get a decent pitch across despite his rage. Umpire Don Denkinger wound up throwing both him and Whitey Herzog out of the game.

And the Royals kept scoring.

Despite capturing the plays of the Series, the DVD box set will never replicate my most vivid memory. As game seven went beyond a simple rout, one of my classmates wandered through the dorm corridors like zombie in a George Romero movie. Seeing his beloved Red Birds playing like a farm club left him with glazed, empty eyes. His mouth was open so widely that I think I could have stuffed a softball there without him noticing.

Making the Right Call

If the DVDs lack pictures of my fellow Ottawa University alumnus sleepwalking through Price Hall, there are several other moments that don’t involve the games themselves that are worth catching. For example, when the St. Louis Cardinals are introduced at Royals Stadium for the first game, the fans politely applaud all of them except for Andújar, who receives loud booing. He hadn’t even had a chance to lose his legendary temper yet.

Still of George Brett
The sweet swing of George Brett
Before game seven, the Oak Ridge Boys apply their sweet harmonies to the “Star Spangled Banner,” making that notoriously difficult song sound almost hummable. Before the first game is even played, Reggie Jackson correctly predicts that the Royals would take the Series in seven games. Pete Rose, however, felt it would go to the Cardinals in four.

I hope he didn’t put a bet on that.

The boxes for each disc in the new box set are covered with stats and can help viewers find the choicest plays. The extras, however, are disappointing to say the least. Most are bland highlight reels and some interviews with the Royals that don’t reveal much, even though the 1985 season has been the team’s high water mark for years. At least second baseman Frank White has some great recollections. He remembers how seeing signs in St. Louis that prematurely celebrated the Cards’ victory motivated him and the rest of the team to play better and how the eventual victory rubbed off on him and the entire city.

There’s a glaring omission that might have made the boxed set more interesting and certainly more honest. Game six had an umpire mistakes that has become the subject of furious debate.

Umpire Denkinger ruled that Jorge Orta had safely made it to first in the bottom of the ninth. The replays said otherwise. Orta, who would have been the inning’s first out, was eventually forced out on his way to third, but the Royals managed to get two runners on base, and a base hit from former Card Dane Iorg sent them home.

Even though the Royals could still have scored both the tie and lead runs if Orta had been called out earlier, St. Louis fans are still understandably upset, and Denkinger is still tarred with the mistake 25 years later. He even received death threats because of his call. Despite a respected 30-year career as umpire, Denkinger still discusses the mistake in interviews on a regular basis and has become a persuasive advocate for the use of instant replays. Ironically, instant replays actually supported the angrily contested calls Denkinger made during the final game.

The game six disc includes the botched ruling as it was broadcast on ABC with a couple of instant replays. But there’s no further discussion. If Denkinger is willing to talk about his mistake, why can’t it be included in the set? The official site for Major League Baseball has a lengthy discussion (http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/baseballs_best/mlb_bb_gamepage.jsp?story_page=bb_85ws_gm6_stlkcr) of the call and its impact, so it’s hard to see why a featurette on the mistake couldn’t have been included.

As it stands, the set still reminds us that even when the Royals were at the peak of the power, they were still human. Brett struck out a few times, and pitcher Charlie Leibrandt lost the second game despite having shut out the Cardinals (and having given up only two hits) up to the second out in the ninth inning. The fact that these blunders didn’t stop them from winning the championship still warms my heart.

It’s too bad they aren’t likely to get another one soon.

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.