• U.S.

Sport: A Gracious War Between the State

8 minute read
Tom Callahan

The television networks will disagree, but the longer the World Series rolled on, a matter that quickly came to depend on the Kansas City Royals, the more properly situated it seemed. Leaving the midst of a summer’s trouble for a middle-of-the-country October, baseball settled down last week in Missouri, making whistle-stop connections with the past on a slow-moving train from Kansas City to St. Louis and back again.

Just the sound of St. Louis connotes better times, when the Cardinals were shared property of the Western states. And this autumn’s monopoly especially brought back 1944, when the fall classic kept entirely to Sportsman’s Park. Though the Cardinals won and the Browns lost as both were forever expected to do, the sweetest memory in St. Louis is of a series without boos.

This one came close to that. “I’m a Hermann German,” proclaimed a large button pinned to a medium-size woman waving from a small platform as the World Series Special pulled into Hermann, Mo. She was the only absolute partisan spotted in a week. Across the state, everyone decked out in red or blue appeared to have either a touch or at least a tolerance of the other color. More than gracious, St. Louis was as fretful as Kansas City for the well-being of Third Baseman George Brett when, near the finish of the fifth game, he went sliding after a foul ball, skidded into his dugout and onto the spacious cushion of Coach Lee May. With a whistle, Royals Manager Dick Howser declared later, “May’s catch was the play of the night.” Spared a concussion, though not a finger in the eye, Brett had to sit out a bleary half-inning. But first he got another hit.

The “other third baseman,” the Cardinals’ Terry Pendleton, did the most to brighten the opening two games in Kansas City, both in the field and at bat. Though outpitched twice, St. Louis won 3-1 and 4-2. In the second game, poor Charlie Leibrandt would have thrown a three-hitter to level the Series for the Royals if only Catcher Jim Sundberg or First Baseman Steve Balboni had overtaken a foul pop-up just beside the dugout. The spitting image of Archie Bunker’s meathead son-in-law, Balboni wears a particular expression of impending disaster.

After Leibrandt was bled to death with two out in the ninth, some were saying Howser froze at the controls, though more likely he was silently adjusting to a declining confidence in Reliever Dan Quisenberry. Despite 37 saves this year, Quiz no longer seems made for such moments, and afterward he did not claim the last out as his rightful province. “The higher we think of ourselves,” said Quisenberry quietly, “the more chances we have of being disappointed in ourselves.” Kansas City could have taken this for an epitaph, but as Toronto learned in the American League play-offs, which the Blue Jays led 3 to 1, the Royals are not fatalists.

The hero of World Series Game 3 in St. Louis was Veteran Second Baseman Frank White, Kansas City’s most thoroughly homegrown player, who moved up to fourth in the batting order for the American Leaguers’ odd year of nine-man baseball, when “Hired Hitter” Hal McRae became a designated sitter. A graduate of the defunct Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy, White was raised in the shadow of the old ballpark at Second and Brooklyn, but not to be a cleanup hitter. “When I hit a home run, I’m as surprised as the next guy,” he said after smashing a resounding one for wonderful young Pitcher Bret Saberhagen in a 6-1 celebration. As Pendleton supplied a counterpoint to Brett, White is the flip side of airborne Cardinals Shortstop Ozzie Smith, except White’s style is to avoid notice, to be so good that nobody sees he is there, and incidentally to get in front of the ball. His relay to Brett at third base in the first game to disabuse Willie McGee of a triple approximated poetry.

Imagining White as the Most Valuable Player was an enjoyment for a moment, but no more pleasant than the next instant listening to the Cardinal understudy turned star Tito Landrum modestly describing the latest of his outlandish heroics. Landrum’s opposite-field homer in Game 4 (3-0) left St. Louis just one victory from its tenth championship in 14 World Series. A minor league drifter who once was essentially traded for himself, Landrum took over during the National League play-offs for Rookie Left Fielder Vince Coleman, stealer of 110 bases, who was gobbled up by an accidentally loosed automatic tarpaulin. Dusty Rhodes and Gene Tenace may have been unlikely World Series heroes in their day, but fate never rolled out a green carpet for anyone before. “When I stepped into the batter’s box,” said Landrum, who observed his 31st birthday on the Series’ second off day, “I looked at my feet and couldn’t believe they were mine.” On top of everything else, he is from Joplin.

Landrum also had an opposite number, though a teammate in this case, the pitcher in whose cause he hit that home run, twice-traded but miraculously redone Lefthander John Tudor, 31. A tip from an old high school teammate is the delightful explanation for his resurrection from journeyman to 21-game winner, though the expanse of the Busch Stadium outfield, not to mention the outfielders themselves, must have had something to do with it. No matter how splendidly he pitches, Tudor seems to have difficulty enjoying it. While Landrum kept singing, “Boy, you should have seen the dugout vibrating; something was in the Cards,” Tudor kept yawning, “It’s just another ball game.” After Royals Lefthander Danny Jackson held St. Louis off in the 6-1 fifth game, when a close call at the plate caused Manager Whitey Herzog to mutter a few favorite epithets, the treat of a Tudor-Saberhagen showdown in a seventh game began to come into focus. All that required was a happier destiny for old Leibrandt in Game 6: a preposterous ninth-inning comeback, 2-1, topped by Dane Iorg’s pinch hit.

Neither of these teams approaches the stature of the 1927 New York Yankees, but each has more than enough arms and fewer than enough bats to leave some nice anomalies on the record. Buddy Biancalana’s passel of hits could be a mystery for the ages. Pitcher Jackson was fanned five straight times and rejoiced: “I tied a record for that?” In the fifth game, the winning team struck out 15 times. Cardinal Reliever Todd Worrell, 26, a late bloomer of two months’ standing in the major leagues, struck out the only half-dozen batters he faced. This matched the World Series record of Cincinnati’s Hod Eller in 1919 and Baltimore’s Moe Drabowsky in 1966, though Worrell’s and Drabowsky’s achievements must be considered greater than Eller’s, since their opponents weren’t trying to strike out.

For the first time in a decade, a World Series has been worthy enough to make people at least review the others for comparison. No souls should be lost over this one. “After 1980 I carried it around for about two years,” recalled Royals Centerfielder Willie Wilson, who struck out twelve times in six games against Philadelphia, including the last swing off Tug McGraw. “Every time I woke up, Tug was striking me out. I was the one who lost the World Series. I felt so negative about myself that I hibernated. I didn’t go outside in the day. I came out at night.” He calls it “probably the starting point of my getting on dope.” Back from the dead, or at least from the penitentiary, Wilson brought a bubbly attitude to this Series even before he started tripling. “I’m going to enjoy playing the game of baseball and be happy win or lose,” he promised.

Wilson appears in an anti-drug commercial on TV. So does Cardinal Catcher Darrell Porter, who used to know twin demons, drugs and alcohol. Plainly, trouble visits the middle of the country too. The family of baseball, which like every other family has had its share of troubles during the past year but is working desperately to solve them, did as much advertising at this World Series as some breweries. Most of the jailed Royals and confessed Cardinals have been dispersed, but the third game opened pointedly with Immunized Witness Lonnie Smith in the batter’s box facing his former teammate, Joaquin Andujar, whose name Smith was generous enough to mention on a witness stand in early September. Maybe it is just a coincidence that Andujar won his 20th game on Aug. 23, and from that day lost eight of nine, including the third game of the World Series. If anyone expected Andujar to throw at Smith, he did not. Off Andujar in the fourth inning, Smith doubled in the winning runs.

Porter says his mouth literally used to water at the sight of beer signs. He could smell the malt on billboards. So, next to bartending or wine testing, he could hardly have found a less temperate location than Busch Stadium for tempering his character. Throughout every game in St. Louis, the organist plays relentless beer jingles to which the spectators have been conditioned to clap in cadence. If Missouri is not the perfect place for tapering off at the World Series, it is certainly an ideal spot for the family of baseball to drink to its rehabilitation. –By Tom Callahan

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