An impartial observerby Craig Brown
October 30, 2009
I’m a baseball fan.
Not exactly a surprise, considering you’re reading this at a baseball website to which I regularly contribute.
As you may know, the Royals are my team. I grew up in Kansas City and came of age when October baseball was the rule, not the exception. So the last 24 years have left me out in the cold once the postseason begins. Of course, since I’m a fan, I’ll watch the games. I find it's always more fun when you have a rooting interest (or a wager) in the outcome. Usually, I'll find a team that interests me for one reason or another and that will be the team I tepidly support for October. Sometimes, I’ll find a team to root against. Last year, I climbed aboard the Rays bandwagon early (like, in May) so I rode that one all the way to the bitter end.
In search of a team early this October, I decided I’d cast my lot with the Angels. No reason, really. They seemed like a nice team with some quality players who were fun to watch. I caught a lot of their games on television this summer when they’re were on late in the Central Time Zone thanks to Extra Innings, so I had followed them more closely than the other teams in the hunt. (I watched my share of Dodgers games as well—love listening to Vin Scully—but what can I say? I’m an American League kind of guy.)
It’s really more a process of elimination when your team isn’t playing in October and you need to find a temporary team to cheer. Here’s how my thought process broke down:
Boston - No. I liked the Sox more when they had that Curse.
Twins - No. They play in the Central, so I’m contractually obligated to hate them.
Los Angeles - The Angels are fine.
Yankees - No. We’ll get to them in a minute.
St. Louis - No. Never. There are simply too many reasons to list.
Colorado - No. Does anyone have an opinion on the Rockies?
Los Angeles - Maybe. Although I always took San Francisco in the whole Dodger/Giant debate.
Phillies - No. We’ll get to them in a minute.
By a straightforward process of elimination, I adopted the Angels as my October team.
Unfortunately, as will happen, my chosen team didn’t win the pennant. This left me without a team. Normally, I’d reassess and pick a new team (the benefits of temporary fandom) but this year posed a special risk.
You see, the Yankees are my least favorite team in the American League. And the Phillies are my least favorite team in the National League.
This hatred for the Yankees and the Phillies isn’t something I manufactured. This is real. It’s part of being a fan.
Why I don’t like the Yankees
Forget all that Evil Empire stuff. It’s personal…
1976, 1977, 1978.
God, those years were painful. The Chris Chambliss home run to end the series in ’76… The Freddie Patek double play to end the series in ’77…. We're talking some permanent psychological scars.
In ’76. the Royals took an early lead in the decisive fifth game, but were trailing by the third after a Thurman Munson single and a Chambliss ground out. The Royals couldn’t do a thing against starter Ed Figueroa after the second inning and were down 6-3 entering the eighth. An Al Cowens single leading off the inning chased Figueroa. Reliever Grant Jackson gave up a single to Jim Wohlford, bringing up George Brett who promptly tied the game with a home run.
It was a cruel lifeline. Mark Littell, starting his third inning in relief in the bottom of the ninth, grooved a pitch to Chambliss, who set off a pandemonium bomb in the Bronx.
The next year was worse: The Royals were at home and led the fifth game from the beginning. They put two runs across in the first as Brett tripled to score Hal McRae, setting off a brawl in the process. Brett slid hard into third, angering Graig Nettles, who appeared to kick Brett. Brett jumped up and began swinging, landing a solid punch to Nettles’ jaw before the melee was halted. I loved every minute.
Tensions aside, the Royals held the lead until the ninth. Just three outs away from their first pennant, the Royals unraveled. A Paul Blair single, a walk to Roy White and a Mickey Rivers single tied the game at three. New reliever Littell (him again!) is brought in to face Willie Randolph, who drives in the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly. A Brett error plates the third run of the inning and suddenly the Royals, who were on the brink of celebration, are on the edge of despair.
The collapse was complete when relief ace Sparky Lyle induced Patek into a series ending double play.
The ’78 ALCS was difficult as well, but since the Yankees won in four, it wasn’t as heartbreaking as the previous two. I mean, Ron Guidry pitched the fourth game of that series because the Yankees needed him in their one-game playoff with the Red Sox. Nobody was beating Guidry in ’78. The final game was a quality pitchers duel as both starters went eight innings, but the Yankees touched Dennis Leonard for two home runs. That was the difference. Doesn’t mean it didn’t sting.
Why I hate the Phillies
Finally, the Royals got by the Yankees in ’80, sweeping the ALCS in three games. The iconic moment in that series was the towering Brett home run against Goose Gossage to vault the Royals ahead in the seventh. Dan Quisenberry salted the game away with the final nine outs and the Royals celebrated the first pennant in their relatively short history
All was right in the world.
Until they went to Philadelphia.
The Royals dropped the first two at the Vet, the second a heartbreaker when Quisenberry couldn’t hold a two-run lead in the eighth. They returned to Kansas City and won Game Three in the 10th, then evened the Series behind a pair of Willie Aikens home runs the next day. With the Series even at two games apiece, it perhaps was destined to go the full seven.
Then Quisenberry coughed up another lead. A Del Unser pinch-hit double drove home Mike Schmidt and Manny Trillo brought Unser home with the go-ahead run on a two-out single, forcing the Royals to return to Philly needing both games to win the Series.
Of course, that didn’t happen as Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw held the Royals to a single tally in Game Six to bring the Phillies their first title in club history.
So I have an unpleasant history with these two teams.
Is it silly to dislike these teams so long after they crushed my preadolescent hopes of glory? Perhaps. However, as my friend Minda told me last night, there is no statute of limitations on sports grudges. I figured I’d just settle into this year’s Series with a certain degree of apathy. Maybe sometimes that’s the best way to view a major sporting event. This way, I can appreciate the good plays, chuckle at the blunders and wonder what the hell the umpires were watching when they inevitably blow a call. Without an emotional investment, I’m free to be a fan of the game.
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to impartiality and indifference...
I enjoy well-played, fundamentally sound baseball. (Which is strange considering I’m a Royals fan. Maybe there’s something there about wanting what you cannot have.) So in the first two innings of Wednesday’s game, I found myself locked in to the broadcast. An impartial observer. Sure, C.C. Sabathia wasn’t exactly sharp in the first inning, but his escape from a potentially disastrous start was compelling.
As we all know, Sabathia retired Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino to start the third. Then Chase Utley stepped to the plate.
Really, this at-bat was just awesome baseball. A great pitcher against a great hitter. Sabathia threw fastballs, sliders and a sinker. Utley took three pitches out of the zone and swung at five, fouling off all of them. On pitch number nine, Utley skied one to deep right…
“Get up!” I said to my television.
Huh? I thought I was impartial. I thought I’d just watch these games without a rooting interest. I thought I just wanted to see some baseball.
“Get up!” I said again, only louder.
I did a little fist pump.
From there, it became effortless. I clapped when Utley crushed his second home run and marveled at how Cliff Lee toyed with the most potent offense in the game. I was delighted when Joe Girardi tried to find a reliever capable of getting an out and thought Alex Rodriguez looked right at home with his three-strikeout night.
It turns out that over 30 years later, I’m still not over the devastation of those playoff losses to the Yankees. I’m probably not over the World Series loss of ’80 either, but when it comes down to it, the Phillies broke my heart only once. The Yankees stomped on it thrice.
Don't get me wrong. If the Phillies win, I’m not going to climb up a light pole in celebration, or buy any of that overpriced, ugly championship gear that MLB will immediately begin hawking. I won’t do Google searches for the Phillie Phanatic or name my next child after Jayson Werth. I just know I would be happier with a Phillies championship than if the Yankees emerge as victors. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to be the team I pull for in the World Series. And since my Royals won't be returning to the postseason any time soon, this will be a ritual I'll continue to fine tune over the next several years.
Go Phillies. I guess.
Craig writes about the Royals at Royals Authority. The Royals Authority 2009 Annual, featuring detailed player profiles and a complete look at the minor leagues is now on sale. He welcomes all questions and comments via e-mail. Or just follow him on Twitter.