It was one of those plays for which talking hairdos go to the videotape at 11:20 p.m. Last Saturday in Cleveland, Leftfielder Willie Wilson of the Kansas City Royals hurried to catch a fly ball hit by Toby Harrah of the Indians with two on and two out in the third inning. The wind toyed with the ball, and it hit the heel of Wilson's glove. From there, it rolled down his left arm and over to his right hand. Wilson instinctively flipped it in the air back to his left hand, and the ball ended up safe and snug in the pouch of his black kangaroo-hide glove. The juggling act had begun just outside the foul line and concluded a few yards inside fair territory, and Wilson, smiling, accepted the mock congratulations of his teammates.
That catch could be a little metaphor for the Royals' whole season, or rather, for the Royals' two half-seasons. On June 12 the defending American League champions were in fifth place, 12 games behind the Oakland A's. They looked as if they were about to drop the Western Division title. Then baseball got away. When it returned on Aug. 10, the Royals found themselves in first place, albeit with six other teams. "This is a time for rejuvenation," says Wilson. "We have new life. The strike was a blessing in disguise."
And in truth, Kansas City is the team with the best chance of benefiting from the creation of a bogus second season. Manager Jim Frey and many of the players maintain that the Royals eventually would have caught up with the teams ahead, but the truth is that K.C. barely had a pulse on June 12. "I don't think we would have had a chance," says Outfielder Amos Otis. "Not with four teams in front of us."
What a difference a year makes. On Aug. 17 last year, the Royals were 13 games in the lead and George Brett went over .400 for the first time. On Aug. 17 this year, K.C. had a 24-34 won-lost record and the third baseman was at .294, nursing yet another injury, a badly bruised and sprained right thumb. Last year the offense averaged five runs a game; this year it is producing 3.8 a game. In one-run contests in 1980 the Royals were 29-12, while in '81 they are 9-14. The team ERA has jumped from 3.83 to 4.07.
Asking why a championship team goes bad all of a sudden is a little like asking why does love go. There are lots of possibilities, but the only answer is no answer at all: It just happens. Frey is at a loss to explain why the Royals went south. "When the pitching was good, we weren't getting the hitting, and vice versa," he says. "You go through periods when if you need the out, the other guy hits a bloop double. When you need the hit, you hit a line drive right at them. All clubs go through this. It was just our turn."
Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, under whom Frey served for 10 years, says, "The toughest thing is to win again. After you've been in the World Series, you forget in April and May how tough it was to get there. You're not playing in front of 50,000 people anymore. It's 41° in Cleveland, and there are 4,500 fans out there. In 1970, after we had won 109 games the year before, the first thing I did in spring training was tell the players, 'Don't give me no crap about 109 wins. Last year's success doesn't mean crap. The pitchers will be pitching you different. You've got to do it all over again.' That's Kansas City's problem. They forgot what they did to get there. Somehow you've got to remember what's at the end of the rainbow."
Through most of last season and the AL playoffs, the Royals looked almost invincible. They had a beautifully balanced offense, four strong starting pitchers and a reliever, Dan Quisenberry, with 33 saves. Then came the World Series, and Philadelphia exposed K.C.'s weaknesses for all to see. One of the Phillies' advance scouts, Moose Johnson, helped draw up the battle plan for the Series. Johnson, who was in Oakland last week scouting the A's for the '81 Series, recalls the Phils' objective. "We felt that in order to win we had to keep their fast men, Wilson, U.L. Washington and Frank White, off the bases. We also felt there was a difference in pitching between the two leagues because the National League has more hard throwers. So we planned to go right after them with the good fastball, overmatching them with the fastball and staying away from the breaking pitch.
"If we went in with one idea, it was that George Brett wouldn't beat us. We would walk him before we'd let him beat us. We'd allow him his hits, but stifle his productivity. When we did pitch to him, we never threw two pitches in a row to the same place. Throw inside all the time, and he'll adjust."
Johnson says other scouts have told him that the other American League teams have been doing just what the Phillies did last year with the same results.
Indeed, although Brett was batting near .300 at week's end, he had driven in only 17 runs. Wilson, who struck out a record 12 times in six Series games, mostly on inside fastballs, was seeing nothing but inside fastballs the first part of the season. Consequently, he got off to a slow start at the plate, and it affected his base running. "Last year it seemed as if teams were afraid to walk Willie and George," says Royals Coach Gordy MacKenzie. "This year they're pitching both of them a lot tougher."
The Royals are also missing some key players from last year's squad. Their rightfielder, Clint Hurdle, played only 12 games this year and is probably out for the season with a bad back. Catcher Darrell Porter sold his services to the Cardinals, costing the Royals not only a first-string catcher but also the versatility of John Wathan, who has done most of the catching this season.
K.C.'s bench is sometimes derided for its age, but it's hard to fault 38-year-old Lee May, who's hitting .341 and is a good clubhouse influence, or Jerry Grote, also 38, who's batting .321 after sitting out two years. "We don't have a John Lowenstein, a Terry Crowley, a Jim Dwyer, like the Orioles have," says White.
Frey has also come in for a lot of criticism, even though his approach brought the Royals 102 victories last year—97 in the regular season and five in the postseason. Many of the complaints concern his conservative offensive philosophy, which might best be described as automatic pilot. Several players are itching to run, but only Wilson and Otis have the green light. Says White, who had 28 stolen bases in 1979 but has only two this year, "I'm tired of reading about how fast the Oakland A's are. We're just as fast, it's just that we're managed differently. This is nothing against Jim, I just think we should run more, You create mistakes. Even more importantly, you create a different atmosphere. I remember under Whitey Herzog, guys used to gather in the dugout and talk about this pitcher's move and that pitcher's move. We don't do that anymore. Sometimes I want to run so bad, but I don't get the sign." Otis, who wasn't allowed to run on his own last year, concurs. "When nine times out of 10 you don't run, it makes you lazy at first base."
The pitchers also sense a lack of communication between themselves and Frey. Says one, "Billy Connors, our pitching coach, is sort of a go-between. He does a lot of going between." What rankles the pitchers the most is what they interpret as Frey's second-guessing. But Jim Frey isn't the reason the Royals got off to such a slow start. He's an open and friendly man, and it shouldn't be forgotten that he is in only his second year as a manager. "The atmosphere of freedom he gave the club last year was very important," says Quisenberry.
The Royals have also had some sticky incidents this year, but no more than last season, no more than any club has. Brett has taken out his frustrations twice this year, once on a UPI photographer and another time on the porcelain in the visitors' lavatory in Minnesota. Frey publicly embarrassed Wilson by yelling at him for not wearing a jacket for a flight to Seattle on May 24, and Wilson walked out of the airport, skipped the flight and didn't arrive in Seattle until the first game of the next day's doubleheader. First Baseman Willie Aikens was reportedly upset that Frey didn't name him to the All-Star team—Aikens was hitting .277 with 29 RBIs at the break, and, besides, he has a bonus clause in his contract for making the All-Star squad. Designated Hitter Hal McRae was quoted last week as saying he'd like to be traded, though it really was only an idle remark on his part. But such gripes are usually the aftereffects of losing, not the causes.
Before the Royals could find an answer to their problems, baseball's solons found one for them. As General Manager Joe Burke says, "I should get the Player of the Month award for making up a 12-game deficit in one day." But, as Quisenberry says. "It doesn't feel like a new season. It's still overcast in Cleveland. We're playing with real umpires, aren't we?" Seriously, folks, Quisenberry, who gives straight answers about as often as he throws an overhand curveball, welcomes the second chance. "In the first half we felt pressure to duplicate what we did last year. Now I feel we should be scrounging for whatever we can. Instead of saying, 'We're so good that we'll come out of it,' we can go back to scrounging for wins."
Frey sees signs of life in the Royals. "You can tell when a club takes the field how it's feeling," he says. "We're running a little harder, playing defense a little sharper, showing that extra spark." Although they lost three of four games with Baltimore to start the second season, the Royals outscored the Orioles 16-9. They just had a little of the bad luck left over from the first half. In the sixth inning of the last game of the series, Baltimore Third Baseman Doug DeCinces hit a smash down the third-base line that Brett stopped with his right thumb. "I was just praying that the next batter wouldn't hit it to me," he said after the game. "I seriously was thinking about throwing the ball lefthanded." The injury was diagnosed as a bruise on the distal point of his thumb, and Brett was held out of the first two games of the ensuing Cleveland series. With the Orioles ahead 2-1 in the eighth and a runner on first with no one out, Wilson hit a screamer to Al Bumbry in center. "Last year that ball would have been in the gap for a triple," says Frey. The one encouraging sign for the Royals in that game was the work of rookie lefthander Atlee Hammaker, who pitched four innings of shutout ball.
Hammaker, Mike Jones, another lefthander, and Rightfielder Darryl Motley were all brought up from a very strong Omaha club to help the Royals out in the second season. "It's good to have new faces," says Quisenberry. "It just makes the rest of us play better. I remember when I came up in '79 I didn't exactly overwhelm anybody, but I did pitch well enough to make the other pitchers bear down a little more." On Friday night Jones, who's something of a bear, survived a shaky first inning to beat the Indians 4-1 with the help of Renie Martin's three innings of one-hit relief. Martin is due to get married on Oct. 23, unless the World Series interferes, but that isn't the Royal Wedding everybody has been talking about. Wilson was his old self in Friday night's game against Cleveland, going 4 for 4 and setting up two runs with stolen bases.
The Royals received more encouraging news on Saturday. Dennis Leonard held the Indians to three runs before relinquishing the ball to Quisenberry in the eighth. The underhanded reliever had been getting into a lot of Quisenberry jams in the early part of the season, and had just recovered his stuff when the strike began. Quisenberry got the last out of the eighth, and in the ninth he made three Indians beat the ball into the ground. His sinker was obviously its old self. Final score: Royals 5-3.
On Sunday the Royals made it three in a row, winning the first game of a double-header 6-2 and losing the second 8-6. The split gave them a 4-4 record for the second season and put them in a fourth-place tie in the AL West. In the victory, White had a three-run homer, and starter Larry Gura went six innings before giving way to Ken Brett, who got the save. Ken's little brother George returned to the lineup with a sacrifice fly, a single and his second homer of the year, a three-run shot in the second game off Len Barker. McRae, who had three hits Saturday, stayed hot, rapping out four hits in the Sunday games to make his overall average .278 and his second-season average .472. At the suggestion of Batting Coach Rick Renick, McRae has started striding into the ball more, with obvious results.
After Saturday's game McRae had pondered the differences between last year's Royals and the commoners of the first half of this year. "When a club is winning, a guy can make a bonehead play, and everybody says, 'Who cares?' If you can laugh about your screwups, you're in good shape. But when you're losing, you can't joke around. Everybody selects his words very carefully. The catch that Willie made today—last year, guys would have been rolling around on the floor of the dugout. Somebody would have been whistling one of those circus songs, and somebody else would have been juggling balls."
When Wilson got back to the dugout after making his juggling catch, he said he heard someone say, "Hey, Wilson, put a tent on that circus." They weren't rolling in the dugout, but it was a start.
Skipper Frey has had a bellyful of bad bounces.
Cleveland's Ron Hassey got the bad news from Ump Marty Springstead as Wilson stirred up dust.
Leonard's delivery was no treat for the Indians in Saturday's game.
Down the Missouri from Omaha and into the breach come three rookies: Jones, Motley and Hammaker.
Otis, bunting here for a base hit, didn't believe Kansas City could recover from its pre-strike ills.
When Wilson is hitting and stealing, the Royals have the vital spark they missed during the Series.