Talk about tough losses. Look at what happened to the Kansas City Royals last Saturday night. In dropping a 15-inning, four-hour-and-13-minute pitchers' duel 2-1 to the Chicago White Sox. the Royals went 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position; lost to a 29-year-old rookie pitcher, Jeff Schwarz, who had never won a major league game; lost consecutive games for the first time since May 4; and had their streak of victories in one-run games stopped at 10. Moments after the game ended, K.C. manager Hal McRae strode into his office, sat down, slapped his hands down on his desk and....
No, he didn't fire a tape recorder across the room, kick his TV or scream obscenities for three minutes while brandishing a bottle of vodka. He smiled and said, in all sincerity, "Best game of the year. Memorable game. We don't lose any momentum losing a game like that. I would have paid to see a game like that. I can sleep tonight. We played a brave game."
Whew! How times have changed in Kansas City, where the Royals, who through Sunday had won 13 of their last 19 games, are now raving about losses. Back on April 26 the Royals were 7-12, McRae supposedly was in danger of losing his job, and anyone who witnessed the fury he unleashed in his office after a particularly frustrating 5-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers was in danger—period.
But last Saturday night, there was McRae saying, "How can you hang your head over a game like this? Now, if we had been playing bad baseball, you could probably classify this one as an agonizing loss. But we're still playing good baseball. We're still in first place."
First place? Who would have thought the Royals, a team that lost its first five games of the season and nine of its first 11, would be in first place by 1½ games in the American League West in mid-June? Even in this weak division, a disastrous start could have buried Kansas City for the second year in a row. (Its 1-16 start in '92 set the stage for a 72-90 season.)
But this time the Royals have turned their season around, and the reasons were clear in Saturday night's marathon. The heart of the upgraded Kansas City defense—shortstop Greg Gagne, a free-agent signee, and second baseman Jose Lind, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates—made four fabulous plays against Chicago. The reliable rotation contributed a 7‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®-inning stint by crafty No. 5 starter Chris Haney (3-0). The solid, veteran bullpen allowed one run in 7⅖ innings, including three perfect frames by the best closer in the American League this year, Jeff Montgomery, who threw 20 strikes in 25 pitches. The Royals' only run came in the seventh inning in typical fashion: bloop double, sacrifice bunt, two-out single. K.C. didn't make an error, and its five pitchers walked only one batter—on an intentional pass. In other words, the Royals, as usual, didn't beat themselves.
In fact, they bounced back on Sunday and defeated the White Sox 5-4 in another extra-inning test, with 40-year-old designated hitter George Brett putting on an offensive show. His two RBI singles helped stake K.C. starter Kevin Appier to a 4-0 lead after three innings. Then, with one out in the 10th, Brett stroked what appeared to be a routine single to left center—his fourth hit of the game—and he ran it into a double. Two batters later Kevin McReynolds drilled a single to left, scoring Brett with the winning run. It was the Royals' 20th one-run victory of the year, tops in the major leagues.
"It was fun touching home and seeing everyone run out of the dugout," Brett said. "It was like the good old days. And it's been like the good old days around here for the last month and a half."
Yes, Kansas City, which spent much of the late 1970s and early '80s ruling its division, is getting the timely hit, making the big play in the field and getting dependable pitching again. No, the Royals are not winning solely because McRae trashed his office two months ago. As centerfielder Brian McRae, Hal's son, says, "We were ready to explode at that time anyway." But while Hal's outburst didn't make anyone play better, it did establish him, for the first time, as a man ready to take charge of his team.
"Hal was miserable and frustrated, and we weren't responding to being 2-9," says pitcher David Cone. "He told us, if the worst thing that happens is I get fired, I'm O.K. To hell with everyone else.' There was a lot of anger there. He needed to vent it. When he did, we thought, He really does have some fire. It's the old Mac."
Indeed, the tirade was cathartic for McRae. "For the first time, I felt free...free to do the job I was hired to do." he says. "There were a lot of restraints and obstacles hindering me—what they are, or were, isn't important. I was boxed in. After that night I felt better about myself, my job. For me to be a good manager, I had to be in charge, and everyone had to know that."
The players got the message, and since then they have played the kind of baseball McRae did during his 17-year career: intelligent and hard-nosed, fundamentally sound and without flair. The Royals are virtually starless. They don't have Tony Gwynn. But they have his younger brother, Chris, who at week's end was hitting .325 as a platoon left fielder. They hit doubles instead of 500-foot homers. They bunt, they execute the hit-and-run, they slap grounders to the right side to move the runner to third. "We're kind of boring." says Montgomery.
The only time Kansas City's leading run producer, catcher Mike Macfarlane (team-high nine home runs and 32 RBIs), has gotten a lot of attention this season came last month when he smashed an umbrella that a Fenway Park fan had used in trying to scoop up a wild pitch that was still in play. "He bopped me on the head with it," says Macfarlane. "The Boston police asked me if I wanted to press charges. No way. The last thing I need is some umbrella-wielding psycho stalking me on the streets of Boston."
But when the Royals beat the Red Sox 5-3 on Umbrella Night, they started a five-game winning streak that by June 3 had boosted them into sole possession of first place for the first time since April 16, 1988. "We're not special in any part of our game, we just silently win by one run," says backup catcher Brent Mayne. "These one-run wins are unbelievable character builders."
Kansas City's lead character is still Brett, who says he isn't the least bit surprised by the turnaround. "We're not doing this with mirrors," he says. "It had nothing to do with Hal's tirade. We're just playing good baseball. Everyone on the team is contributing. Like Jose Lind goes out with pneumonia-or, as he calls it, ammonia—and Rico Rossy comes up from the minors and hits a homer in his first at bat."
The biggest contributor has been Brian McRae. Through Sunday he was hitting .304 with 20 extra-base hits and a team-leading 14 stolen bases, and he was running down everything hit to centerfield. Last season Brian, 25, batted .223, the lowest average in the major leagues among qualifiers for a batting title. "He has been amazing," says Hal, who worked with Brian on hitting mechanics this spring. "I thought he'd be a .270 guy. He has matured a lot."
Brian says he has made an even bigger adjustment in his mental approach to the game. "Now I'm confident, even a little cocky," he says. "Last year I was a little unsure. We played so bad, everything got to me. But now I go to the plate thinking, This pitcher isn't better than I am. Last year I did what everyone wanted me to do instead of what I'm best at. I got the most walks in my career , but my average went down 40 points. Now I don't care if the pitch is over my head or in the dirt, if I think I can hit it, I'm swinging."
Brian is also more relaxed playing for his father. In 1991, in his first full season, he was struggling to make it in the major leagues. Two months into that season Hal replaced the fired John Wathan as manager, giving the Royals two McRaes trying to adapt. Father and son were spending more time together than at any other time in their lives, and it took some getting used to. They get along well now, but they see each other only at the park. "I don't even know the phone number at his apartment," Brian says.
They both see a lot of Montgomery, who after 29 appearances this season was tied with five other stoppers for the major league lead with 19 saves. Montgomery doesn't have an overpowering fastball, a knee-buckling curve or pinpoint control, but he does have what few closers can claim: four pitches (fastball, curve, slider, changeup) that he can throw for strikes.
Montgomery came to Kansas City in a 1988 trade with the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Van Snider—one of the most lopsided deals in the last 10 years. He says he asked Murray Cook, who was then the Reds' general manager, why he was being traded after having pitched only 19‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings (with a 6.52 ERA) in '87. "Murray told me that Pete [Rose, then the Red manager] gave him a list of half a dozen guys who he said would never play for him, and I was one of them." says Montgomery. "Pete said I lacked the mental toughness to play in the big leagues."
Mental toughness? "He's among the first I'd pick if I were going to war," says Macfarlane. Through last week Montgomery had 134 saves, a 2.37 ERA and one All-Star Game appearance as a Royal. His save totals have gone up over the last five seasons 1-18-24-33-39. If he saves 40 this year, he will become only the second pitcher ever to increase his save total six years running (the first was former Oriole Sammy Stewart. 1979-84). Finally, Montgomery is getting some recognition. "My first three or four years here." he says, "I could walk around town virtually unnoticed."
So could most of the rest of the Royals, except, of course, Brett, who remains an icon in Kansas City. A surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Brett has played the game brilliantly—with grace. Hair and passion—for 20 years, but he says this season might be his last. He doesn't want his final at bat to be a home run or a line-drive single but a groundout to the second baseman in which he busts his butt running to first, then turns to the rookies in the dugout and says, "That's how the game is played."
"Every time I go 0 for 4, I want to retire," he says. "Every time I get three hits, I want to play. Every time I do something to help us win, I want to play. Every time I feel overmatched up there—that's a lot—I want to retire."
Through Sunday, Brett was still hitting in his customary No. 3 hole, had 31 RBIs and, after his four hits on Sunday, was batting .250. Three weeks ago, when Hal McRae told him he was doing a great job, Brett replied. "What in the hell are you talking about? I'm hitting .240."
"Hal told me, 'I don't care if you hit .220, your job now is to produce runs,' " Brett says.
The ease with which McRae now moves among his players, including a former teammate like Brett, is partly the result of Royal owner Ewing Kauffman's having sent him to a leadership seminar in the off-season. McRae, who's the first to admit that he wasn't a good manager at first, went gladly. "The seminar helped me understand how to deal with my bosses, my peers, my subordinates," he says. "I was badly prepared when I came in, but I'm learning. You need methods, procedures. It taught me to categorize individuals, and how to deal with them."
A career .290 hitter who appeared in eight league championship series and four World Series, McRae was a winner as a player—and now he's finally winning as a manager. "I don't understand how you can have fun in this job when you're losing more than you're winning," he says. "I manage to win, not just to manage. You play golf to play golf. But golf isn't my profession, this is. And I'm enjoying it."
This year Brian is more relaxed playing for his dad, who, since venting his spleen in April, has learned to laugh off the (few) losses.
[See caption above.]
Brett's fourth hit on Sunday was a leg double; moments later he scored the winning run.
Like Hal, Brian blew his top.
Reliever Montgomery shuts down the opposition but allows Connor, 3, to take his cuts.
DAVID LIAM KYLE
[See caption above.]