03/05/09 11:05 AM EST
Memories fill Kauffman Stadium
Ballpark has been site of greatest triumphs in Royals history
By Dick Kaegel / MLB.com
Bret Saberhagen pitched a shutout, the Royals punched up 11 runs, and the place went crazy. Those invaders from across the state, the St. Louis Cardinals, were toast.
"It's my fondest memory of that stadium, by far," said George Brett, who leaped onto Saberhagen after the final out.
"Prior to that, it was winning the first division in '76. Maybe another one would be the first [home] game of the World Series in '80. But I never felt anything like winning the last game of the season at home, and it was for the World Series with 40,000 people in the stands sharing that moment with you. It was really special."
Of course, that was preceded the night before by one of the most controversial umpiring calls in the game's history. A safe call at first base by Don Denkinger ignited a Royals comeback victory that evened the Series at three games each.
Oh, that's what those fans meant when they unveiled that banner in the stands that read: "The Fat Lady Isn't Singing Yet."
The place was still known as Royals Stadium back then -- owner Ewing Kauffman wasn't convinced to lend his name to it until 1993 -- and had been the site of just one other World Series. In 1980, the Royals lost their first Series to the Philadelphia Phillies but, at Kansas City, they won two of the three games over Pete Rose & Co. In fact, they won their first Series game on Oct. 17 in the 10th inning when Willie Wilson walked, stole second and scored on Willie Aikens' single.
It was in that third game that Brett, who'd suffered from hemorrhoids during the first two games at Philly, blasted a first-inning home run. Afterward, to the assembled media at Royals Stadium, Brett grinned and cracked: "My problems are all behind me."
Of course, that World Series came only after the Royals finally -- finally -- beat the rival New York Yankees in the American League playoffs. It was a three-game sweep. The first two wins came at KC, but the clincher came at Yankee Stadium.
In three playoff losses to New York from 1976-78, just one ended at Royals Stadium. That was in '77, the year many believe the Royals had their best team in history, when the Yankees rallied with three runs in the ninth to win, 5-3.
It was Kansas City's division clinching in 1976 that prompted one of the happiest episodes in stadium history. When the place opened in '73, second baseman Cookie Rojas vowed that when the Royals won their first title he'd jump into the water display in right field.
When the Royals celebrated, Rojas and shortstop Freddie Patek stripped to the waist and headed for the fountains. But, wait! Weren't those lights in the water run by electricity? Did the club want the middle of the infield taking a chance on getting fried in a cauldron? Quick-thinking PR director Dean Vogelaar managed to get the juice turned off before the players plunged in for their swim. Patek sauntered back to the clubhouse with wet pants and an umbrella.
Hall of Famer Brett had many great moments, but one of the most shining came on Aug. 17, 1980, as he tried to become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams. When he doubled off Mike Barlow in a 4-for-4 day against the Blue Jays, he reached .401 and doffed his helmet at second base to the roaring crowd.
"It was another game in August. We had a [14-game] lead and it was just a matter of time when we clinched the division," Brett recalled.
"The average was .399 when I got up. Dukey [John Wathan] was hitting ahead of me, and Duke walked and brought me up with two outs in the eighth inning. I hit a double to put me over the .400 mark. I didn't think the reaction would be that big but, standing out on second base, all of a sudden it was just unbelievable. I think there were 30,000 people at the game on Sunday and it was wild. It was one of the goose-bump feelings up your arm. You normally don't get goose bumps during a game. You might get 'em when you get back to the dugout or something, but here I am standing on second base and I've got goose bumps. That's how the ovation was, it was a cool moment."
He would finish at .390 in the biggest hitting season the stadium has seen.
When Brett announced his retirement in 1993, he was feted after his final home game and, in a moment of inspiration, famously knelt down and kissed home plate.
Some background from Brett: Ex-Yankees great and KC resident Hank Bauer would play in broadcaster Fred White's benefit golf tournament, have a cocktail and playfully growl at the other players, to wit: "Jamie Quirk, you should kiss home plate every time you get to the ballpark. You can't play." To which the amused Quirk would reply something on order of, "Yeah, I know, but don't tell anybody."
It was a running joke and, as Brett was circling the stadium in a golf cart saluting the fans after the game, Bauer's gravelly voice came back to him.
"I heard Hank Bauer's voice saying, 'You've got to kiss home plate every time you come to the ballpark,'" Brett said. "All of a sudden, I told the guy to stop the cart and I got off and kissed home plate. It was a fitting thing to do because I was grateful for the opportunity not only to be a Major League baseball player, but very fortunate to play in a great city like Kansas City."
Brett's 3,000th hit came at Anaheim, Calif., but Kansas City fans did get to see Paul Molitor record his milestone hit for Minnesota on Sept. 16, 1996. Molitor, facing Jose Rosado, dropped a drive between center fielder Rod Myers and right fielder Jon Nunnally for a triple -- the first batter to get a triple for No. 3,000.
There have been three no-hitters at the stadium -- the first by the Angels' Nolan Ryan on May 15, 1973. It was also the first of seven thrown by the Ryan Express. Oddly enough, Royals manager Jack McKeon protested the game in the third inning, claiming that Ryan was lifting his foot too soon and illegally breaking contract with the rubber. The claim was ignored.
The other two no-hitters were by the Royals -- Jim Colborn on May 14, 1977, against the Rangers, and Bret Saberhagen on Aug. 26, 1991, against the White Sox. Saberhagen's was controversial because left fielder Kirk Gibson missed a fifth-inning drive against the wall and the Sox thought they had a hit, but it was ruled an error.
The stadium's first year, 1973, was marked the All-Star Game on July 24. It was the 40th anniversary of the Midsummer Classic, and the National League's 7-1 victory was marked by Johnny Bench's monster home run that's been estimated at 480 feet. It was also the last All-Star appearance for Willie Mays.
In a Royals game, credit for the longest homer goes to Bo Jackson at 475 feet on Sept. 14, 1986, against the Mariners' Mike Moore. It was the first homer of Jackson's career.
The longest day in stadium history came on June 6, 1991, on the anniversary of the real Longest Day, the Allied invasion of France in 1944. In what began as an afternoon game, the Royals and the Rangers labored 18 innings and six hours 28 minutes. Not many of the 38,523 fans who came out for a classic pitching matchup, Saberhagen vs. Ryan, were around when Kansas City won, 4-3, on a wild throw by Texas pitcher Kenny Rogers.
The longest winning streak in Royals history was 16 games, attained at home on Sept. 15, 1977, when Whitey Herzog's team won the second game of a doubleheader against Oakland. Al Cowens led off the 10th inning with a game-ending homer off A's pitcher Doug Bair.
Now the stadium is undergoing a massive renovation with new history to be made in fresh surroundings. Brett envisions a return to the past in the future.
"It said something about the summer that every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night was sold out, it didn't matter who you played," said Brett. "And Sundays we'd get 30,000. I remember weekends in the summertime, you'd leave the ballgame and have to wait an hour to get out of the parking lot. And then you'd get out of the parking lot and you'd see license plates from Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska -- all over the Midwest -- where people would make this their vacation.
"It was a destination, and how great would it be now to be competitive again and to get those people back. It was really a special thing."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.