Royals-Cardinals take 2? Stranger things have happened in pro baseball

I once debated a friend of mine, who is a monstrously big Kansas City baseball fan, about the better team in Missouri—the Royals or the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the easist debate I’ve ever won.

Even taking into account the Royals didn’t even come into existence until 1969, while the Cardinals have been around since 1882 (a mere 11 years after the first professional baseball league was formed in America), it’s a no-brainer as to which team has enjoyed the most success.

St. Louis has won the most World Series crowns in the National League—11—and only the New York Yankes, with 27, have won more in baseball. The Royals, who have reached the pinnacle of Major League Baseball only twice, have won just one Series. The Cardinals are 19-time National League champions, including last year, while the Royals have won only two AL crowns.

Granted, Kansas City had that now-famous 29-year playoff drought but the Royals have been in just four American League Championship Series before sweeping the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in three games this fall to reach their fifth ALCS. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have participated in 11 NLCS’s during that span—winning seven league titles and three World Series championships (which, incidentally, is one more Series than Kansas City has participated in over the lifetime of the franchise).

That the teams are in the playoffs in 2014 brings back memories of the last time both Missouri clubs made it this far. Being a diehard Cardinals fan, the 1985 World Series is still a bitter pill to swallow. For those of you youngsters not baseball historians, let me just say St. Louis had the Series almost won until first-base umpire Don Denkinger made his infamous safe call (even he later said he goofed up) in Game 6 which allowed Kansas City to not only win that game but absolutely destroy the Cardinals in the Series clincher.

St. Louis closer extraordinaire Todd Worrell took the mound for the bottom of the ninth inning with the Cardinals clinging to a 1-0 advantage, thanks to a Brian Harper pinch-hit single to center field that scored Terry Pendleton with two outs in the top of the eighth at Kansas City’s Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium.

Kansas City’s Jorge Orta was the first to face Worrell, batting for Darryl Motley. With an 0-2 count, Orta slapped a grounder to Jack Clark at first base. Worrell raced to the bag, Clark flipped him the ball and Worrell’s foot obviously (to everbody but the umpire) hit the bag before Orta’s—but Denkinger called the Royals’ runner safe. That one call was enough to tarnish what had been a stellar career of umpiring in the major leagues and prompt many unnecessary threatening calls and notes to Denkinger and his family.

Steve Balboni then singled Orta to second on another 0-2 count (us Cardinal fans who are old enough to remember conveniently forget a foul popup during Balboni’s at-bat dropped harmlessly at the feet of Clark, who wasn’t a first baseman but was forced to play that position). That dropped popup led to a comedy of errors.

After Jim Sundberg laid down a bunt that forced Orta out at third but moved Onix Concepcion, pinch running for Balboni, to second while Sundberg reached safely at first, a passed ball by St. Louis catcher Darrell Porter (who had ironically played for the Royals in their first World Series appearance in 1980 against the Philadelphia Phillies) advanced the runners to second and third during Hal McRae’s at-bat. McRae, pinch hitting for Buddy Biancalana, was then walked to load the bases, setting up a force at every base.

It mattered little as Royals’ utility man Dane Iorg, pinch hitting for Kansas City closer Dan Quisenberry, then became an instant hero in Kansas City with a two-run single to right field, scoring both Concepcion and Sundberg—and the rest is history. Saberhagen, the Series Most Valuable Player, totally dominated the Cardinals in Game 7, pitching a complete game against St. Louis ace John Tudor. Kansas City won that game 11-0, Tudor cut his right pitching hand after punching an electrical fan and St. Louis not only lost the Series but a good pitcher.

After starting 1985 1-7, Tudor—who had been lights out in games 1 and 4 of the same Series—reeled off 20 wins in 21 games but was never the same after losing to the Royals in Game 7. While his earned run average didn’t suffer, he never won more than 13 games after 1985.

Living in the  Kansas City area as I had for more than 25 years before moving to Monticello in January 2013, I was constantly reminded of that I-70 Series. I would generally respond by quietly reminding Royals’ fans who were friends of mine the only difference between St. Louis and Kansas City in professional baseball is about 250 miles and 10 World Series championships. Given I lived in Missouri during the throes of bad Kansas City baseball, that would generally shut them up.

But as much as it pains me to admit, the 2014 Royals are fun to watch.

The names have changed from George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Saberhagen and Dick Howser to Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Wade Davis and Ned Yost, but the results have largely been the same. Should Kansas City handle the Baltimore Orioles in this year’s ALCS, even more of the country will take notice of the team that not only finished the regular season with the lowest home run total in the AL (95) but in all of baseball. The Royals have more than made up for that lack of power in the playoffs, though, with four long balls—two of which were game-winners. Players like Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson have added to the excitement, too, Kansas City has 12 stolen bases in the postseason; no other club has more than two so far. A 12-inning win over the Oakland Athletics in the wild-card game on Tues., Sept. 30 and a pair of 11-inning victories over the Angels to start the AL Division Series gave the Royals another milestone. No team in baseball history had started the playoffs with three extra-inning wins back-to-back-to-back. Maybe this is Kansas City’s year; we shall see.

The Cardinals just might have a little to say about that. Tuesday night, St. Louis advanced to its 20th NLCS by beating back the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games, 3-1. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember—the Redbirds just find a way to win.

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, surely the hands-down Cy Young winner in the NL, was beaten twice. Like their western Missouri counterparts, the Cards were last in their league in home runs but used them effectively in the Dodgers’ series.

Another friend of mine, also a big Royals’ fan,  posted the possibility of another Royals-Cardinals World Series on Facebook before the playoffs even started. I answered him with this thought: We might get revenge for 1985—if Denkinger doesn’t have a relative umpiring this fall.

Both the Royals and the Cardinals still have a lot of work to do but it would be great to see. I’m sure the television networks are cringing; they don’t want to see two teams from the Midwest playing in the Fall Classic.

For baseball fans in this part of the country—the majority of whom are Cardinal fans, at least in Arkansas, though—that would be awesome.

The Advance-Monticellonian

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