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Written by Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich

The Powder Blue RoyalsAfter a weekend like that one, it’s probably best that we just put it all behind us, and look forward to the week ahead.  Depending on your perspective, being swept in a weekend series on the south side of Chicago can be viewed as something as minor as a bump in the road, but the drama queens can don a gown and a crown, and consider this Windy City collapse as the iceberg this ship was bound to hit.  I tend to favor the former for the Cleveland Indians, who should anticipate some smooth sailing ahead with the professional ball clubs from Kansas City and Minnesota visiting Jacobs Field this week.

Sure, a three game losing streak is never good for any team that wants to be taken seriously as a contender, but how quickly we forget the three the Tribe took from the visiting Tigers just last week!  Zero wins and three losses do indeed hurt you in the standings, especially when they come at the hands of your closest current competition; however that futility has not done much to affect the way that I grade the eyeball test.  When you don’t have a full summer to go on, and when you’re trying to sell this team on the undecided fan, the eyeball test matters for these Cleveland Indians.

Shifting gears, I’d like to talk about the Indians next opponent, the Kansas City Royals.  Despite everything we hear about great things coming in 2013, or perhaps 2014, the possibility that great things may never come is probably the most realistic outlook at Missouri’s other team.  What can you say about the 2012 Royals?  Like the first place Indians, I take this fourth place team at face value.  They are 6-10 in what’s said to be the worst division in baseball because that’s the type of team they are.  While the experts wait to say, “I told you so” about the great young arms coming soon, their pitching rotation is so atrocious right now that the few impressive bats that they have cannot overcome those atrocities for wins.

You have to go back a long way, maybe not all the way back to 1948, to talk about some complete Royals teams.  Of course, the Royals didn’t come into existence until 1969, but their history is relatively black and white; there were some humble beginnings, then a great decade of baseball that ended with a World Championship in 1985, and very little since.  While they wear their road grays at the corner of Ontario and Carnegie this week, we are sure to hear some mention of small markets, but I can recall a time when their away threads were powder blue, and the size of their market didn’t matter.

Brett and Wilson celebrateParking wasn’t a problem for us in 1985, and tickets were easy to come by.  Only 5,254 people would be joining my father and I to watch our 7th place Indians take on the Royals, who were 6 and ½ games off the pace in the American League West.  As we rode the elevator from the parking garage to the ground level, I asked dad who the Indians were playing, to which he responded, “George Brett and the Kansas City Royals”.  Keep in mind, I was seven years old, so I had to ask why he said it like that.

In fact, I was six the day before.  Lost in this great memory of a trip to the ballpark with my father, not my first game, but the first one I remember, was the fact that it was my birthday.  I don’t recall cake or a party of any sort, but I remember the old man explaining how Brett was the featured player on Dick Howser’s lineup card, but I recall it going way over my head as we walked from Ontario and Lakeside over to Municipal Stadium.  It did not take long for things to come into focus though.

After Indians starter Vern Ruhle kept Willie Wilson and Lonnie Smith on the ground in the infield to start the game, the now infamous George Brett came to the plate with two out in the top of the 1st inning.  After going 2-for-3 with a HR in a walk-off loss at Yankee Stadium the night before, Brett brought a .353 batting average into Cleveland on that Thursday night.  The Royals third baseman smacked one into the center field bleachers to give the Royals a 1-0 lead, and of course, that’s when dad turned to me and said, “that why I say, George Brett and the Kansas City Royals”, with a serious emphasis on the George Brett.

That would wrap up the scoring in this 1-0 Royals win, a game where neither club utilized their bullpen and just two runners reached third base.  After this one, the Royals were 42-41, still 6 ½ games behind the division leading Angels, but they heated up at the end of July, and finished 21 games over .500 at 91-70, good enough to win the American League West.  Those small market Royals would go on to defeat their cross-state rivals in 7 games for the franchise’s only World Series win.

1985 IndiansThat game was truly indicative of what the Indians were during my childhood, fun to watch only because it was professional baseball, and occasionally a real professional team would visit the Lakefront.  Whether it was the stomach punch of the rally-killing double plays, the failure to score runners from third with less than two out, or the inept offense murdering a rare good effort from the no-names on the pitching staff; you had to be a naïve child or a glutton for disappointment to expect anything good from those Pat Corrales-led Indians teams of the mid to late 80’s.

Of course, as a child, I was able to focus on the sprints and not worry so much about the results of the marathon.  Had I approached it another way, I probably wouldn’t be a baseball fan today, or I would have jumped on and off the bandwagon of the early-Jacobs Field era teams like much of my generation has.  However, those overall pitiful teams provided their share of memories, even if they left a vacancy in the area of joy on the whole.

The year was 1987, and those same Royals were a few years removed from their lone World Championship, but still contenders, just a game behind the division leading Twins in early July.  A lot of the Championship team was still there, but one notable absence was Howser, who stepped down the during the 1986 season for medical reasons, and had passed away a few weeks before this Royals series at Cleveland in the summer of ’87.  On the other hand, Kansas City had added some young promising talent in the form of Kevin Seitzer, Bo Jackson, and Danny Tartabull.  Ironically, the starting pitcher for this contest would be Danny Jackson the same one who shut down the Indians lineup on the day I was introduced to the superstar George Brett, two years prior.

Jackson wouldn’t throw a complete game this time around, however, he wouldn’t even factor into the decision, throwing the exact opposite of a complete game by not recording a single out.  This requires a little bit of context, and it goes beyond the fact that the Indians had won the previous two games in this series in their last at-bat.  The night before, watching the game on WUAB from the comfort of my own home, I saw one of the most ridiculous actions I’d ever seen this side of Milton Bradley.  In the top of the 3rd inning of a scoreless game, Ken Schrom throws a pitch that was a little inside to Willie Wilson, the Royals center fielder, and Wilson doesn’t take to kindly to it, but finishes the at-bat with a flyout to center field.  Wilson trots around first base, and goes to retreat to the third base dugout, so it would seem.

Danny JacksonWilson decides that he still isn’t happy with Schrom, and well, charging the mound presents itself as a crime of opportunity…and the benches clear.  Wilson was ejected for being an idiot, and the game continues without a hitch, and certainly without retaliation from the events of the third inning.  Indians reliever Doug Jones hit Bo Jackson with a pitch in the eighth inning of a tied game, but situation could hardly be interpreted as anything intentional.  The Indians would win that game on Joe Carter’s two-run walk-off, but the Wilson incident was on the top of my mind as I took my seat behind the Royals bullpen along the third base line the following evening.

After a couple of groundouts in the top of the first inning, George Brett comes to the plate, and here we go again.  This time it’s a double off of Indians starter Tom Candiotti, and he comes around to score with two outs.  It was 1-0 Royals after a half inning of play in Cleveland.  Jackson probably threw 8 or so warm-up tosses before the bottom half of the frame, but was sent to the showers after just one pitch that counted.  That one pitch was thrown behind the head of Brett Butler, and Butler reacted just as Wilson had the night before, except he immediately went after Jackson.  Butler was tossed from the game, and normal baseball activities resumed with Bob Stoddard assuming the pitching responsibilities with Mel Hall assuming Butler’s 1 ball and no strike count.

Hall would walk, but was quickly eliminated when Stoddard got the next hitter, Julio Franco, to ground into a double play.  It was a good game that went back and forth, and Stoddard left in the sixth inning, in line for the win.  The Indians got to the Kansas City bullpen to knock Stoddard off that line, and battled every time the Royals took the lead.  It was a solid back and forth game, but certainly not one for the ages.  For the third time in three nights, the Indians would win in their final at-bat, a bases loaded double from Cory Snyder that gave the Tribe a 9-8 win and a series sweep.

The Royals remained two games behind the Twins after that series, and were never able to catch them, finishing two game behind Minnesota for the American League West Division title.  That was probably the last time the Royals and Indians played a meaningful series that late in the season.

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