Two words: Don Denkinger. The conventional wisdom is that the Royals won the '85 World Series over the Cardinals courtesy of a botched call by Denkinger when he was umpiring at first base in Game 6. Folks choose to forget the Cardinals still had the rest of that game and a whole Game 7 to recover, but I'll save that for another column.
As for this one, what about 1980? Nobody talks about that World Series, and guess who was in it? The Royals. It was their first and only other appearance in the Fall Classic prior to now and 1985.
I remember. It was the first World Series I covered as a professional journalist, and so many things were striking.
There was Game 4 in Kansas City. There never was a Saturday afternoon in October more gorgeous than that one. Then, out of nowhere, an obscure first baseman named Willie Mays Aikens brightened the sky even more for those screaming inside a packed house after he homered in each of the first two innings against the Phillies to push the Royals toward victory.
There also were the dogs and the horses. Despite Aikens resembling that other Mays by finishing the World Series with four homers and a .400 batting average, the Phillies won it all in six games. The clincher came in Philadelphia, where the police surrounded much of the field at old Veterans Stadium with those rather active dogs (I nearly was bit by one of them) and with cops on horses in anticipation of the last out.
Several days before the dogs and the horses, there was the moment I shared with Royals manager Jim Frey. Somehow, before one of those World Series games in Kansas City, I was the only reporter left talking to Frey in his office, and it was about 30 minutes before the first pitch. Reporters are now long gone from Major League clubhouses after batting practice starts for teams. Not only that, clubhouses have been closed in recent years to the media before all postseason games. But there I was, nearly interviewing Frey right up to the time he trotted onto the field for pregame introductions.
Mostly, I remember how those Royals turned Kansas City into a baseball madhouse, which was strange. In addition to covering the Giants for the San Francisco Examiner at the time, I also was assigned to the Oakland Raiders, the primary rivals of the Kansas City Chiefs. I always felt more of a football vibe around that part of Missouri -- until the 1980 World Series.
The town of Len Dawson, Hank Stram and Buck Buchanan suddenly evolved into that of George Brett, Amos Otis and Dan Quisenberry.
Kansas City is also giddy over its miracle workers of now, especially with the World Series opener slated for Tuesday (6:30 p.m. CT on FOX; 7:07 first pitch) at Kauffman Stadium (known as Royals Stadium in 1980). In addition, there was overwhelming enthusiasm throughout the area in 1985, when Royals fans danced and screamed into the winter after their underdog team of Bret Saberhagen, Dick Howser and Brett found ways to whip the lofty in-state Cardinals.
Still, there was just something magical about those 1980 Royals, and numbers tell part of the story. They drew 127,000 more fans at home than the '85 Royals and 333,000 more than the current ones. Yes, Kaufmann Stadium was slightly larger in 1980, but that gave more Kansas City folks chances to hug the hometown team, and they took advantage of it.
The World Series was new for Kansas City back then. The same applied to the Royals' ballpark, which was seven years old but looked as if its first brick was laid within days. It had a distinctive water fountain beyond the right-field fence, and that feature hasn't changed. Plus, in contrast to many of its peers, Kauffman Stadium wasn't built as a multipurpose facility. It was designed only for baseball, and the team made the place sparkle even more.
Just like the current Royals, those 1980 Royals were mostly home grown, young and good. Their biggest problem was huge: The Yankees of Reggie Jackson. Even though the Royals made three consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series through 1978, they never advanced further than that, with much help from Mr. October and his band of potent friends. Then, after a brief slide the next season, the Royals rebounded big time in 1980 along the way to grabbing the old AL West and sweeping the Yankees out of the ALCS.
Brett led the way. He batted .390.
Then there was Willie Wilson, the definitive leadoff hitter, who led the Major Leagues that season in plate appearances, runs, hits and triples while stealing 79 bases and batting .326. The Royals had standouts at designated hitter in Hal McRae, at second base in Frank White and in center field in Otis. They also had six 10-game winners on the pitching staff, and Quisenberry was their Greg Holland, the Royals' All-Star closer these days.
Speaking of the current Royals, if we really stretch things a little to make a point, Billy Butler is their McRae, Omar Infante is their White, Lorenzo Cain is their Otis and Jarrod Dyson is their Wilson.
Brett is still their Brett. The Hall of Fame third baseman is now a team executive who cheers as wildly at Kauffman Stadium for the Royals as others did for him and his former teammates. Especially the ones of 1980.