Buddy, can you spare a hit?by Frank Jackson
July 26, 2012
Amarillo, Texas is not the first place one would think of when wondering whatever happened to [fill in name of a World Series hero]. When I last was there in 2006, I paid a visit to Potter County Memorial Stadium to see the Amarillo Dillas of the then-independent, but now-defunct, United League. The ballpark was informally known (lovingly, ironically, or both) as the Dilla Villa. The venue was an old (built in 1957) but not ancient ballpark and currently serves as the home of the Amarillo Sox of the American Association.
The Dillas’ manager was only three years younger than the ballpark, but he had aged better, even though the baseball gods had been quite whimsical in regard to his fate. The manager’s name was Buddy Biancalana.
It’s not unusual for light-hitting backup infielders to get into managing—think of Tony LaRussa or Sparky Anderson! They have experience at different positions and the view from the bench affords them a rare educational opportunity. “You can observe a lot by watching,” goes the famous Yogi Berra line. “If you pay attention,” he might have added. And backup infielders who ascended to the managerial ranks were obviously paying attention.
In a sense, it’s the payoff for paying dues. The unheralded utility infielder gets a chance to vindicate himself. As a player, his career probably involves the indignities of bouncing from team to team on a series of short-term contracts with regular trips down to Triple-A and non-roster invites to spring training camps.
It is hard for a utility player to stand out from the pack, but it can happen. One way is to distinguish himself in the postseason. Almost every year an obscure player becomes a household word during October. Even if he slinks back to obscurity the following season, he will still have that postseason gold star on his report card, and the baseball historians will occasionally invoke his name reverently.
Buddy Biancalana was such a player. A first-round draft pick in 1977, he distinguished himself as the Kansas City Royals shortstop in the 1985 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The series was memorable for a number of reasons, as are most seven-game series, particularly in this case when one team is down three games to one.
Also, it was an all-Missouri series. It wasn’t the first all-Missouri series (the all-St. Louis showdown between the Cardinals and the Browns in 1944 holds that distinction), but it was the first (and so far only) all-Missouri series that involved Kansas City. It was sometimes referred to as the I-70 series as a nod to the interstate highway connecting the two cities.
The Cardinals had a long history of success, but the Royals were the new kids on the block. The franchise had done well enough since its establishment in 1969 but had been frustrated by the Yankees in its efforts to get past the ALCS in the late 1970s and make it to the World Series. The Royals finally did so in 1980 but fell to the Phillies in six games. So they still had not notched a title, even though they had accomplished a lot in 17 seasons and were considered a model expansion franchise.
If you think an outstanding shortstop is essential to a championship team, you would be surprised by the 1985 Kansas City Royals. Onix Concepcion had hit .282 in 1984 and appeared to have a lock on the position in 1985. Indeed, he started 109 games at shortstop but the results were disappointing, as his average in 314 at bats was a mere .204. (In fact, Concepcion was back at Triple-A Omaha in 1986.) So the position was on occasion manned by the veteran Greg Pryor, rookie Jim Scranton, and Buddy Biancalana.
Manager Dick Howser selected Biancalana as the Royals’ starting shortstop for the Series. That alone guaranteed he would become better known, but wonder of wonders, he actually distinguished himself, playing a key role in the Royals’ only title. Fielding his position flawlessly (and spectacularly on a couple of occasions), he had five singles (including the winning hit in Game Five) and five walks in 23 plate appearances, good for an on-base percentage of .435. He received more World Series MVP votes than any other position player. (Pitcher Bret Saberhagen won the award).
As underdogs going into the series (the Cardinals had won 101 games during the regular season), the Royals proceeded to lower expectations by dropping the first two games in Kansas City. They won Game Three in St. Louis but dropped Game Four. They then reeled off victories in three elimination games to take the Series. That sort of comeback means that the name Biancalana still looms large in the collective memory of Kansas City baseball fans. And not just because it has five syllables.
But 1985 had been a memorable season for Biancalana for reasons that had little to do with his on-field endeavors. In fact, those reasons had nothing to do with the American League.
In the National League, 1985 was the year Pete Rose was all but certain to break Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record. As he inched closer and closer to Cobb’s total of 4,191, Pete Rose countdowns and hit watches were a daily feature of sports pages and sports broadcasts across the country. If you were a baseball fan, you could have seen that coming.
What you could not have seen coming was that the name of Buddy Biancalana would be mentioned in the same breath as Pete Rose. Yet thanks to David Letterman, that is what happened.
Letterman had been a late-night talk show host since 1982. He had the time slot immediately after Johnny Carson. The post-midnight airing meant that there was less at stake, ratings-wise, so he could employ off-the-wall humor that might have been out of place on the Carson show.
1985 was also the year Letterman discovered Atlanta pitcher Terry Forster, referring to him as a “fat tub of goo” on the air. The phrase must have caught on because it is listed as his official nickname on his career data on the Baseball Almanac web site. At 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds (some 60 pounds over his playing weight early in his career), Forster provided ample ammunition for Letterman’s jibes. Dig up a late '80s card of Forster and see for yourself. I had seen him pitch in person as a 19-year-old rookie for the White Sox in 1971, so watching him pitch on Braves telecasts in the mid-1980s was a revelation.
It was good for a laugh, but Forster’s heavyweight status was not enough to satisfy Letterman, so he complemented Foster with an offensive lightweight, who turned out to be Buddy Biancalana.
While Pete Rose was approaching 4,200 career hits, Biancalana was approaching 50. Periodically, Letterman would refer to the in-studio “scoreboard” to bring viewers up to date on Biancalan’s “progress.” Clearly, the comparison to Rose was ludicrous, but since humor was the objective, it worked.
Why Letterman selected Biancalana from the wide assortment of bench players available on 26 major league teams is subject to conjecture. My guess is that it was the alliterative name that cinched the deal. Had Biancalana gone by his given name of Roland, he might not have been selected. Then again, maybe one of Letterman’s writers was a Royals fan. (Letterman himself was from Indianapolis and had no connection whatsoever to Kansas City.)
For whatever reason, during the 1985 season, when Biancalana hit just .188 (26 for 138), he became a national phenomenon, at least among the insomniacs, college students, and cultists who watched Letterman. One can just imagine how they reacted to Biancalana’s exploits in the ‘85 Series! And, no surprise, Biancalana appeared in person on the Letterman show after the baseball season, remarking that he was closer to Cobb than Letterman was to Johnny Carson. That was good for a laugh (though it sounds as though it was written by a Letterman staffer), but Letterman had the last laugh, as his growing popularity eventually allowed him to surpass Carson in terms of longevity.
If 1985 was definitely Biancalana’s career year, 1986 wasn’t too bad either. He batted a career high .242 (46 for 190) and garnered more playing time, but it was of little help to the team. Manager Dick Howser’s brain tumor sidelined him after the All-Star Game and cast a pall over the rest of the season. The Royals finished at 76-86.
In 1987 Biancalana split the season between the Royals and the Astros. He was just 10 for 47 (.213) for the former. He began the season as a backup to Angel Salazar and later suffered from a neck sprain. He was traded to the Astros on July 29 for Mel Stottlemyre Jr. His tenure there was disastrous (1 for 24 or .042) and he was sent down to Triple-A Tucson. As it turned out, he would never play major league ball again. In six seasons, he had amassed the equivalent of roughly one full-time big league season: In 550 at-bats, he had 113 hits, good for a .205 batting average.
At Tucson, he hit just.179 (5 for 28) during the remainder of the 1987 season. The Astros released him on Dec. 21, 1987. The Royals brought him back into the fold in 1988, but he spent the season at Triple-A Omaha, where he hit .248 and closed out his playing career. At age 28, when the best players are in their prime and the late bloomers are finally starting to make some noise, Biancalana was through as a player.
For a while he worked as an agent, but then he felt the urge to get back into the game itself. Before his managerial stint in Amarillo, Biancalana served as manager of the Lakewood Blue Claws and the Charleston River Dogs in Single-A ball, and also logged time as an infield coordinator for Tampa Bay. More recently, his contributions to the game have been more cerebral.
In concert with tennis star Steve Yellin, Biancalana founded PMPM (Perfect Mind-Perfect Motion) Sports. The company’s mission is to acquaint athletes with how their perception of time is altered when they are in the “zone.” More importantly, the program shows them how to get back into the zone instead of passively hoping to return to form while slogging through mediocre performances. Since Biancalana had starred on baseball’s biggest stage in 1985 and found his major league career over less than two years later, you can understand why this theme is appealing to him. I won’t go into any more detail about the company here, but for anyone who would like to learn more, the web site is http://www.pmpmsports.com.
Now, 27 years have passed since Biancalana’s World Series heroics. There were no web sites then, but baseball is still around, David Letterman is still featuring baseball players (most recently, R.A. Dickey), and Buddy Biancalana has a new gig. Considering Pete Rose and his travails in the interim, maybe things haven’t worked out so badly for Buddy after all.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.