Going all the way back to 1977


Look at that face. That is the face of experience, right? Those are the eyes of a man who has faced a thousand pitchers. That is the wrinkling face of a man who dived into the dirt countless times, all across the country, in efforts to spear scorching ground balls and line drives.

Brooks Robinson, man. He was the aging gunfighter by the time I knew of him, my father’s hero, the man whose reflexes had slowed, whose power had sapped, whose legs had grown heavy … but he knew things, secrets, mysteries of the game that the kids couldn’t quite fathom.

How could anyone be cooler than Brooks Robinson?

* * *

Baseball, I’ve written before, will never stop being the game it was when you were 10 years old. That’s the charm. That’s the nostalgia. That’s the trap. I was 10 years old in 1977. The Kansas City Royals had the best record in baseball that year. The Baltimore Orioles were baseball’s paragon.

They never met in an American League Championship Series. That was a weird quirk of timing. They just kept missing each other, like a scene out of an old Scooby Doo cartoon where people keep eluding each other by emerging out of different doors.

1973: Baltimore in ALCS
1974: Baltimore in ALCS.
1976: Kansas City in ALCS.
1977: Kansas City.
1978: Kansas City.
1979: Baltimore.
1980: Kansas City.
1983: Baltimore.
1984: Kansas City.
1985: Kansas City.

Now, it’s 2014 and baseball — more than at any point decades — is being played like it was when I was 10. Pitching dominates. Defense counts. The crazy thing is that teams are somehow scoring FEWER runs than they did in 1977, many fewer runs in fact.

And with the game gone retro, so has gone the American League. Royals. Orioles. Crazy, right?

* * *

Is that a smile? It’s hard to tell but, no, probably not. When Hal McRae came to the Royals, he made it plain: He did not smile. He was NOT going to play for some happy loser. He had played for the Big Red Machine Reds — he’d been taught the game by Pete Rose and Lee May, tough guys like that— and he wasn’t about to play with some wimpy group of American League candy asses.

Double plays are made to be broken.
Pitchers are born to intimidate.
Injuries are weakness of the mind.
These were the tenets of Hal.

The Royals John Mayberry grew sick of it all, and one day on the bus ride he mercilessly busted Hal McRae’s chops. Big John did that often, actually, but this day he was particularly cutting. McRae listened to it for as long as he could stand, which wasn’t long at all, and finally he stood up.

“Big John,” he said. “You’ll probably kill me. But here I come.”

And McRae rushed the big man. The players on the bus would never forget it. They were Hal’s team. They would back down to nobody.

* * *

He was fussy and pedantic, and they say he did not like wearing a baseball cap because he worried about losing his hair. But Jim Palmer gave you 300 innings of competitive fury every year. The bit of statistical trivia that is his own — Palmer never gave up a grand slam  — really defined him. He did not give in. Ever.

Palmer never struck out 200 in a season, and he was usually among the league leaders in walks, and he gave up his share of home runs. Those are the three components of today’s Fielding Independent Pitching numbers, which are pretty good at defining a pitcher’s effectiveness. Palmer’s strikeout-walk-homer numbers suggest it was quite impossible for him to be as good as he was.

But like Bugs Bunny, who could defy the laws gravity because he never studied law, Palmer defied the laws of pitching gravity. He didn’t need strikeouts, he strategically dealt walks, he gave up home runs when it was least painful.

Palmer pitched masterpieces of jujitsu, using hitters own strengths against them, tempting them into hitting balls into the teeth of Baltimore’s brilliant defense, overpowering them when they had grown defensive, giving way to them when he was at the disadvantage.

The umpire Ron Luciano, who had plenty of battles with Palmer through the years, used to say that Palmer threw a “positive fastball.” That was, hitters were positive they could it.

* * *

When you were the smallest boy in your class in 1970s, and you had stood in the front of lines ordered by height too many times, and you had heard all the, “Were you out playing handball against the curb:” jokes, and you were tormented again and again by Randy Nemwan’s song “Short People” — which came out, coincidentally, in 1977 — you turned to Freddie Patek.

He not just a short ballplayer. He was THE short ballplayer. He was the essence of what a proud little man could do in a big man’s world. He would run you ragged, and bunt you silly, and if underestimated him and threw him a cookie, he just might take you deep. And he still answered to “Freddie.”

To say Freddie Patek was a hero of mine undersells the word “hero.” He was someone who made me believe in possibilities.

One of the most poignant moments of my life as a sports fan happened when Patek hit into the double play that ended the 1977 American League Championship Series. The camera closed in on him in the dugout, he was the very picture of dejection, and I sat on the floor of our television room in our little house in Cleveland, looking I’m sure very much the same way. It just wasn’t right.

* * *

He seemed dark and brooding, to me, like the cliche of a struggling artist. Mark Belanger couldn’t hit at all. Even in his baseball card, he seemed to be holding the bat slightly askew.

But in the field, at shortstop, he made plays that were like witchcraft. He seemed to pull ground ball singles back in from the outfield, like he had this rewind button, and he unleashed throws that jarred the senses — no one so slight and so off-balance should have been able to project a ball with such force.

All I wanted to do, in those days when I was nine, 10, 11, was make plays. I didn’t care about hitting the ball and wasn’t much good at doing it. But in the field I felt powerful, I felt fearless, I felt in sync with the dirt and the ball. “Hit it harder,” I used to yell to the coach hitting infield practice, my favorite part of the whole day. I imagined this was how Belanger felt.

My childhood spanned that time when the designated hitter was still new, and I can remember wondering why baseball would not have a corresponding designated fielder, something for Belanger, so that he would never come to the plate but could display defensive genius day after day.

* * *

He once told me that he never played a game in his life without fear. George Brett, like another Kansas City hero Tom Watson, was raised with one clear truth: Nothing, ever, was good enough. When George would go three-for-four, Jack Brett would rant endlessly about the groundout to second.

Jack famously told George’s mother, Ethel: “He can’t read. He can’t write. He has terrible grades. He can’t play baseball. He can’t play football. He can’t play basketball. What the hell is he going to do?”

His mother said; “But he’s such a nice boy.”

Well, that wouldn’t do. Jack Brett raged at his nice boy son. And George Brett learned to fear failure. He learned to fear embarrassment. He learned to fear that voice, the rumbling voice of his father, tearing him apart over an error he made in the third or a swing out of the strike zone. After one such conversation, George tore the phone off the wall in the clubhouse. After more than one, he headed out into the night to find relief.

George Brett did not grow up to be a nice boy. He took a bat to the toilets in Minnesota. He broke a players’ leg in a collision. He leaped up to punch Graig Nettles. He struck a photographer with his crutch. He got into a fight with Willie Wilson. Nice? No. He became like Jack Brett, the essence of fury.

“Maybe I was too tough on George,” Jack would say after Brett had secured his Hall of Fame career.

Fathers. Sons. Such a riddle. When Jack Brett found out he was dying of cancer, he implored his family to not tell George.

“He’s in the middle of a slump,” Jack Brett said. “Wait until he turns it around.”

* * *

My childhood was the time of bigger-than-life managers, of Whitey Herzog running his players into a blur and Earl Weaver platooning players in and out and waiting for the three-run homer.

In a way, those managers defined the baseball I have never stopped associating with. They were mad scientists, mixing chemicals, evaluating the explosions, kicking dirt on umpires. Well, they had to be. They had to do something to make their team stand out.

In a way, the baseball of the 1990s seemed to take away managers’ choices. The ball was flying out of the yard with such regularity, and runs were so easy to come by, that anytime a manager wasted an out trying for an extra base, it seemed counterproductive. Teams were so desperate for arms that they basically stopped carrying a bench and the pitcher to use was the pitcher available.

And so being a manager seemed to evolve into counting pitches, making sure someone in the ever-growing bullpen was rested and shuffling nine good hitters into the lineup.

But now: It’s back to my childhood. No, not exactly — strikeouts are way up, batting averages way down, the 100 mph fastball makes its case as the dominant weapon in the game — but it’s staggering how similar to 1977 the American League is.

Average team homers in 1977: 144.
Average team homers in 2014: 144

Kansas City Royals ERA in 1977: 3.52
Kansas City Royals ERA in 2014: 3.51

Number of runs for Orioles in 1977: 719
Number of runs for Orioles in 2014: 705

And so on. Runs are harder to come by than they have been in a very long time, and in a weird way this opens up the game rather than closing it. It encourages risk because waiting around for runs probably won’t work. For better and worse it makes managers — whether it’s Buck Showalter or Ned Yost — stars of the show once again.

These Orioles are not unlike the Orioles of old. There are differences, of course, but they catch the ball and they prevent runs (more with their bullpen, but still) and they hit the long ball.

These Royals are not unlike the Royals of old. There are differences, of course. But they catch the ball, they prevent runs and they run whenever they can.

I was always told that every style eventually comes back around. This feels like a series right out of childhood. I never believed that basketball short shorts would come back, or those ridiculous pants golfers used to wear, or disco. But if you live long enough, I guess, you will see Royals and the Orioles will play in the ALCS. What can you say? Put on some Bee Gees, pretend to be Fonzie and may the force be with you, always.