Friday, October 16, 2015

Tangled Up In Blue: The Kansas City Royals, the Toronto Blue Jays and A Thirty Year Reunion Special

Complacency is a funny thing in sports. Teams that seem to win too much go from beloved underdogs to sworn enemies of all that is decent very quickly. Often times, such as in the case of the San Francisco Giants of recent years, success is so erratic that it never comes off as entitlement. That, as it is clear, is the cross upon the backs of the New York Yankees. So what becomes of the Kansas City Royals? After twenty-nine years, they broke their postseason drought only to lose to the aforementioned Giants in a classic World Series. Yet now the Royals seem at home in the postseason. To be honest, it is kind of unnerving how normal it is to see Kansas City in October, despite their last two autumn runs being in 2014 and 1985. Toronto, on the other hand, wears the hat donned by their Royal counterparts last year. The Blue Jays are exciting, powerful, must-see television. This year marks the first postseason try north of the border since 1993 and Joe Carter's incredible walk-off home run. Eight years prior to that moment, the Jays stood in the way of the Royals' pennant hopes. Thirty years ago tonight, Toronto hosted Kansas City in a winner-take-all game seven of the American League Championship Series.

For the Royals, it was business as usual. This was their seventh postseason appearance in ten seasons, which included a World Series loss to Philadelphia in 1980 and a mauling by Detroit in 1984. The Royals were, for purposes of understanding, much like the St. Louis Cardinals are now- always in it to the end. They were led by eventual World Series MVP Bret Saberhagen, Dan Quisenberry, and switch-hitting Willie Wilson. They also had a guy named George Brett, who managed to keep a .305 batting average across twenty-one seasons. Kansas City was loaded, and their eventual World Series title validated years of relatively unheralded success. And then, like Keyser Soze, they were gone, left to the wilderness of the American League's cellar.

Toronto could not have been more different. Upon joining the league in 1977, the Blue Jays fared about as well as anyone in Ontario might have feared. Their first five seasons, in order, included losses of 107, 102, 109, 95, and 69 losses. That last one sounds pretty good until I reveal that season was the strike-shortened 1981 season. The Jays only mustered 37 wins that year. So in 1982, when the team made the leap to sixth place in the American League East, it was cause for celebration. Their rise continued, anchored by ace pitcher Dave Stieb, who was in the middle of a rather underrated string of years in Toronto. Come 1985, the Blue Jays boasted a lineup featuring six players who batted at or above .275. For comparison, the Royals only had two hitters that productive, the aforementioned Wilson and Brett. Suddenly Jesse Barfield broke out, and the upstart Blue Jays were a force in the American League. In 1983 and 1984, Toronto boasted identical records of 89-73, good enough for fourth and then second in their division.  Their leap to ninety-nine wins was good enough to land home-field advantage against the seasoned Royals.

Game one featured Stieb against Royals' ace lefty Charlie Leibrandt. The Jays' potent offense quickly rattled their foe. Leibrandt gave up seven hits, resulting in five runs. He was gone before an out could be recorded in the third inning. Exhibition Stadium, packed with just under forty thousand fans, was already reaching a fever pitch. Its tenant had won more games than anyone in Major League Baseball aside from the St. Louis Cardinals, the team the winner of this series would likely face. Game one quickly belonged to Toronto. The Royals' only run came in the top of the ninth, far too late for any concern. Toronto 1 - Kansas City 0

The next night was not as easy for the home team. Jays' starter Jimmy Key was chased in the fourth after giving up three runs on seven hits. In contrast, Bud Black was giving some stability to the Kansas City rotation after the disaster in game one. He pitched seven innings, allowing three runs of his own. Dan Quisenberry took over in the eighth. Toronto center fielder Lloyd Moseby got on base with a single to left field. He jumped for second base, and as he neared the bag, Royals' catcher Jim Sundberg sailed the throw from the plate. Moseby was able to glide into third base. This set up George Bell to drive in the run. A sacrifice fly to right field was enough, and the Jays were ahead 4-3. In the bottom half, Pat Sheridan pinch hit for the right fielder Darryl Motley. This turned out to be a great decision, as Sheridan launched a Tom Henke beyond the wall to tie the game. Extra innings were fated to happen, an omen to the tightness of the series. Frank White scored Willie Wilson on a base hit in the top half of the tenth. It would be all the Royals could muster, but it gave them an opportunity to steal home field from Toronto. Then it all unraveled. Lloyd Moseby singled to drive in Tony Fernandez. Moseby's speed was the center of attention. A pickoff throw to first base went awry, sending Moseby to second. Two batters later, he crossed the plate. The game was over. Toronto 2 - Kansas City 0

Kansas City finally found the right formula in game three. Back at home with Bret Saberhagen on the mound, the Royals looked to bounce back from heartbreak. Nothing ever goes as planned, and Toronto's five runs in the fifth inning began the narrative that they might just sweep the more experienced club. The Royals did not given up, however. Soon they had nudged the deficit to 5-3, then tied it at 5. In the home half of the eighth inning, George Brett singled. Hal McRae's bunt moved him to second. Frank White's groundout. The Blue Jays walked Pat Sheridan to get to Steve Balboni, who had been hitless to that point in the series. On the third pitch, Balboni singled to center field, scoring Brett. The Jays went down one, two, three in the top of the ninth. Toronto 2 - Kansas City 1

Game four saw a Stieb vs. Leibrandt rematch. This time, the Royal ace was dominant. A bases-loaded walk by Dave Stieb in the sixth inning scored Lonnie Smith. That appeared to be enough as Leibrandt came back in for the ninth. Much like how Dusty Baker was known for leaving his pitchers in just a little too long, Dick Howser showed him how to do it in 1985. A walk and a double tied the game, ending Leibrandt's night. Dan Quisenberry entered the game and allowed a string of hits that put the Jays up for good, 3-1. Kansas City had been pushed to the brink. Toronto 3 - Kansas City 1

Of course, this is not where the story ends. The next night, Danny Jackson pitched a complete game shutout to send the series back to Toronto. There, battle-forged experience prevailed over youthful excitement. Kansas City took both games, neither of which was in any real danger after the sixth inning. Game seven was played on October 16, thirty years to the day of tonight's game one. Baseball is somehow spooky quite often.

The Blue Jay's collapse was complete, but they did not stumble into the recesses of the American League. Sure, Kansas City went on to win the World Series in seven games that year, but their future was not as glamorous as their past. For Toronto, the next eight years brought about the most successful time in the young franchise's history. They would lose the American League Championship Series again in 1989 and 1991, but the front office had assembled a juggernaut. The Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993, two of my earliest baseball memories that I can still recall. They were the first Canadian team to win the title, despite being nearly a decade younger than their Montreal counterparts. But time will be kind to no one. Toronto eventually met Kansas City in the playoff drought. After 1993, they wouldn't win more than ninety games until this year.

The sting of Toronto's collapse in the 1985 ALCS is long since healed. Many players active today were not even alive when it happened. The Blue Jays went all-in this year, acquiring David Price and Troy Tulowitzki among others at the trade deadline. Their gamble has paid off well to this point, but they cannot be satisfied. The same goes for Kansas City. After a surprise run to the pennant last year, the expectations are now appropriately high. For both teams, anything short of a championship could be considered a disappointment. This is in stark contrast to the teams competing for the National League crown. Kansas City is again the more seasoned team in terms of playoff experience. Toronto is again a powerhouse offense that intimidates up and down the lineup. As the Royals and Blue Jays square off over the coming week, one franchise hopes to repeat history, the other longs to rewrite it.

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