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The Best of Times and the Worst of Times: Royals/Yankees

"We lost to the Yanks in the ALCS AGAIN?!"
"We lost to the Yanks in the ALCS AGAIN?!"

Although the Yankees just finished up a series with the Royals, I figured now would be as good a time as any to do a post of "The Best of Times and the Worst of Times" on the Royals/Yankees rivalry, especially because barring an unlikely run to the playoffs by Kansas City, the two teams will not play again this year. The end of the 2011 season marked the 26th consecutive season since the Royals last made it to the postseason, the longest current streak in the American League (the Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos hold the longest streak in baseball at 30 years). However, back when the Royals were routinely winning division titles in the late '70s and early '80s, the Yankees were a frequent foe in the American League Championship Series.

Kansas City Royals


All-time regular season record vs. NYY: 183-268

All-time playoff record vs. NYY: 8-9 ('76 ALCS: 2-3; '77 ALCS: 2-3; '78 ALCS: 1-3; '80 ALCS: 3-0)

Kansas City and New York played against each other in the ALCS four times in five years from 1976-1980, and they had a heated rivalry (in-game fights were not out of the ordinary). The Yankees bounced the Royals from the playoffs in three consecutive years before Kansas City finally exacted revenge on George Steinbrenner's team in 1980. The teams nearly met again in the ALCS in '81, but although the Yankees made it there, the Oakland A's swept the Royals in the ALDS (necessitated by the strike-shortened season). Another possible matchup in '85 was missed when the AL West-winning Royals instead faced the 99-win Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS rather than the Yankees, who finished just two games behind Toronto for the division title. The Royals have had only one winning season in the past 18 years (2003, when they were managed by current Yankees bench coach Tony Pena), but although the rivalry is mostly dormant, the many memories from the late '70s and early '80s have created a plethora of incredible moments involving the two teams.

Both teams built themselves up from the doldrums of the American League. The Yankees hovered around the bottom of the AL from 1965-67, finishing with the worst record in the league in '66 for the first time since 1912 and losing 90 games in '67. The Royals played their first games in '69, and they combined to lose 190 games in their first two seasons. Fortunately, the youth on each team soon began to flourish. The Yankees' young catcher, Thurman Munson, won the AL Rookie of the Year in '70, and outfielder Roy White notched five consecutive seasons of at least a 130 wRC+ from '68-'72. In the second round of the '72 draft, the Royals drafted a third baseman out of El Segundo High School in California named George Brett, and the future Hall of Famer made his major league debut a mere two years later. Starting pitchers Paul Splittorf and Dennis Leonard also rose through the farm system; each was a reliable starter for the big league club by '76. Small trade acquisitions began to pay off as well for both squads; the Yankees built a strong offensive core around Munson and White with third baseman Graig Nettles and first baseman Chris Chambliss (both traded from the Indians), and they acquired a young reliever from the Red Sox named Sparky Lyle who would become their bullpen ace. The Royals surrounded Brett with future All-Stars Amos Otis (traded from the Mets) and Hal McRae (traded from the Reds). New Yankees owner George Steinbrenner threw his financial weight around by utilizing the new free agent market to sign Catfish Hunter to the most lucrative deal in baseball history at the time, a five-year $3.75 million deal.

A couple of trades between the teams also helped them grow. The Yankees acquired '69 AL Rookie of the Year Lou Piniella from Kansas City in exchange for starting pitcher Lindy McDaniel, a deal that did not work out well for the Royals after McDaniel left baseball just two years later. Piniella became one of New York's most reliable players and a fine outfielder. After a few trades and signings that brought Ed Figueroa, Willie Randolph, and Dock Ellis to the Yankees prior to the '76 season, the Royals and Yankees made another trade in May of that year, as the Yankees sent pitcher Larry Gura to Kansas City in exchange for backup catcher Fran Healy. Gura was incensed by the trade and vowed to beat the Yankees and estranged former manager Billy Martin that year. He would receive an opportunity to do so as the Royals and Yankees both broke their playoff droughts in '76 by winning their divisions. The Yankees' Munson and the Royals' Brett finished first and second respectively in the AL MVP voting, as both carried their clubs to the ALCS.

The Best of Times

The teams opened the best-of-five ALCS in Kansas City, where they would play the first two games before moving to New York for Game 3 (plus Game 4 and 5 if necessary, a rule that still confuses me- the Yankees had home-field advantage thanks to their 97 wins, but they had the possibility of only playing once at home? Questionable). In Game 1, the Yankees started Catfish Hunter while the Royals surprisingly started Larry Gura, who had started just two games all year, though one of them had been a complete game shutout against the Oakland A's on September 29th. Gura was excited by the opportunity to beat his old manager, but he had too much energy at the start of the game and immediately loaded the bases on two singles and a walk with no one out in the top of the first. Gura struck out Lou Piniella, but a grounder to third turned from a possible double play to two runs as George Brett threw the ball away after touching third base for the second out. From then on though, Gura shut the Yankees out until the ninth inning. The Yankees lucked out when Amos Otis hurt himself running out a grounder in the first inning, and his hamstring injury forced him to miss the rest of the series. Hunter matched zeroes with Gura, scattering six hits but allowing no runs through seven innings. In the eighth, the Royals got on the board after a groundout scored right fielder Al Cowens, who had tripled to lead off the inning. Freddie Patek singled to put the tying run on base, but Thurman Munson gunned him down stealing second to end the threat. The Yankees finally got to Gura again for some insurance in the ninth inning after three consecutive two-out hits scored two more runs on a Roy White double. Hunter set the Royals down in the bottom half of the frame to give the Yankees a 4-1 win and a 1-0 Series lead.

In the second game, the Royals rebounded against Yankees starter Ed Figueroa. They had scored two runs off Figueroa to take an early 2-0 lead in the first, but the Yankees rebounded with three in the next couple innings against Dennis Leonard. Royals manager Whitey Herzog decided to give Leonard the early hook, and his reliever, normal starter Paul Splittorf, threw 5.2 shutout innings to keep New York at bay while the Royals recovered the lead with two runs in the sixth thanks to a triple, single, and double by Brett, John Mayberry, and Tom Poquette respectively. A three-run eighth against Yankee reliever Dick Tidrow ensured the 7-3 win. Back in New York for Game 3, the Yankees put the Royals on the brink of elimination with a 5-3 win. The Royals batted around and scored three runs in the first against Dock Ellis, but Ellis proceeded to shut them out over the next seven innings. In the fourth, Chris Chambliss hit a two-run homer against Royals starter Andy Hassler to make the score 3-2, and the Yankees took the lead with a three-run sixth against Hassler and the Royals' bullpen, with Graig Nettles hitting the go-ahead single. Sparky Lyle threw a scoreless ninth to save the win. It was a Game 1 rematch in Game 4 as Hunter and Gura took the hill, but neither pitched past the fourth inning. Despite a two-run Nettles homer, the Royals held a 5-2 lead after driving Hunter from the game in the fourth. They added some insurance runs against Tidrow and Grant Jackson; Patek had a huge game by going three for four with two RBI doubles, and the Royals bullpen held the lead to force a decisive Game 5.

Whitey Herzog sent Leonard back to the hill in Game 5 against Figueroa. The Royals quickly scored twice in the top of the first on a two-run Mayberry homer, but after only nine pitches by Leonard in the bottom of the first, Herzog again removed him in favor of Splittorf. Leonard had already surrendered a Mickey Rivers triple and singles to White and Munson, so Herzog decided that he couldn't let the game get away from him. Chambliss hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game, but Splittorf ended the rally after that. The Royals took the lead in the second after Buck Martinez drove in Cookie Rojas, who had singled and stole second. The Yankees showed their resilience by regaining a 4-3 lead with two runs in the third. The back-and-forth game stayed relatively quiet for the next few innings, although the Yankees loaded the bases with two outs in both the fourth and the fifth, only to strand them all against Marty Pattin and Andy Hassler. The Royals' shaky pitching caught up to them in the sixth, as Rivers scored on a Munson single to right after "Mick the Quick" notched his fourth hit of the day, a drag bunt single. The Yankees tacked on another run after Brett threw away a Carlos May grounder to score Chambliss, who had singled and stole second.

The score was 6-3, Yankees, and Figueroa pitched deep into the game before leaving following a Cowens single to start the eighth. The lead looked safe, but reliever Grant Jackson allowed a single to pinch-hitter Jim Wohlford to bring the tying run to the plate. Unfortunately for the Yankees, that tying run was the eventual runner-up for the AL MVP, George Brett. Brett launched Jackson's pitch deep down the right-field line into the bleachers for a game-tying three-run homer, deflating the excited Yankee Stadium crowd. The tie set up the drama of the bottom of the ninth though; Kansas City bullpen ace Mark Littell, who had allowed only one homer all year long, came in for his second inning, and the first batter he faced was Chambliss. The big first baseman was hitting .500 with ten hits in the ALCS, so despite Littell's propensity to avoid the long ball in '76, it surprised few people when Chambliss launched Littell's first pitch deep into the night to give the Yankees a 7-6 win. The long ball sent the Bronx into a frenzy as fans stormed the field celebrating the team's first pennant in 12 years. Although the Yankees beat the Royals again in '77 and '78 (and actually won the World Series in those years), their finest hour against Kansas City was undoubtedly the incredible '76 ALCS, capped by Chambliss's amazing blast.

The Worst of Times

As previously mentioned, the Yankees played the Royals in the ALCS four times. They won the first three series from '76-'78, but the Royals would get another chance at beating the Yankees in 1980. Both teams had missed the playoffs in '79 and changed managers prior to '80, but many players from the late-'70s teams were still there. Jim Frey, a longtime member of Earl Weaver's coaching staff in Baltimore, was hired by the Royals to replace Herzog, who had left for the managerial job with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Yankees had fired Martin mid-season in '78 and replaced him with Bob Lemon, who guided them to the World Series title in '78 but was fired during the disappointing '79 season. Lemon was replaced by Martin, who was fired for the second time after the season ended for punching out a marshmallow salesman (yes, this was real life). Steinbrenner wanted to make Gene "Stick" Michael the manager after his AAA Columbus Clippers won the International League, but Michael instead took the general manager's job and suggested Steinbrenner hire Dick Howser. Howser had been the Yankees' third-base coach for ten seasons before accepting the head coaching job at Florida State in '79, but a three-year, $300,000 managerial contract with the Yankees was enough to bring him back to New York. It was Howser's first season as a big league manager, but he did very well with the roster that Michael assembled for him. Reggie Jackson had his finest season as a Yankee and finished runner-up for the AL MVP with 41 homers and a 169 wRC+. In the silly days of relievers finishing high in MVP voting, closer Goose Gossage had also finished third in the voting (and third in the AL Cy Young voting) by saving 33 games with a 2.27 ERA. Beyond Gossage, Tommy John and Ron Guidry provided stability to the rotation with 485 innings and a combined 3.49 ERA. Even though the defending World Series champions, the Baltimore Orioles, won 100 games, it wasn't enough to take down the Yankees, who won the AL East title with 103 wins, their most in the regular season since 1963. Once again, they would play the Royals in the ALCS.

Kansas City took the AL West title by winning 97 games, as George Brett thrilled baseball with a phenomenal season. Brett had a 30-game hitting streak and came about as close to hitting .400 as any player since Ted Williams, finishing at .390/.454/.664. He was the AL MVP, but the Royals also enjoyed good seasons from Willie Aikens (20 homers) and Hal McRae (39 doubles) as well. The rotation was led by familiar foes Larry Gura, Dennis Leonard, and Paul Splittorf, each of whom started at least 33 games and pitched 200 innings. Gura had been the only Royals starter to beat the Yankees in the '78 ALCS, and in Game 1 of the '80 matchup, he beat them again. As in '76, the Yankees opened the series with two games in Kansas City due to the strange home-field advantage rules at the time. Rick Cerone and Lou Piniella hit back-to-back homers against Gura to give the Yankees an early 2-0 lead, but the Royals took advantage of Guidry's wildness (a walk and a wild pitch) to tie the game on a two-run double by Frank White. Guidry was wild again in the third inning, as three walks (albeit one intentional) led to a two-run single by Willie Aikens to give the Royals a two-run lead. Guidry was removed after the inning in favor of Ron Davis, who pitched four solid innings but surrendered a solo homer to Brett to make the score 5-2 entering the bottom of the eighth. The Royals added two more runs on a Willie Wilson double after a Bob Watson error at first base allowed the inning to continue with two outs. Gura finished off the complete game with a scoreless ninth to give the Royals a 1-0 lead in the series.

In Game 2, Yankee starter Rudy May pitched a complete game of his own, but it was in a losing effort. The lefty had only one bad inning, but the three-run third inning cost the Yankees. The Royals notched four straight hits against May, capped by a two-run Wilson triple and an RBI double by U.L. Washington. The Yankees came back against Dennis Leonard with two runs in the fifth on an inside-the-park homer by Nettles and an RBI double by Willie Randolph, but they were unable to score again. The potential tying run was cut down at the plate on a heads-up play by Brett in the top of the eighth against Leonard. Watson doubled, but although the cutoff man was overthrown, Brett intercepted the ball and threw home to retire Randolph. The Yankees put two runners on in the ninth against Royals closer Dan Quisenberry, but he got Nettles to hit into a double play to end the game. The Royals were going to New York needing to win just one game for the AL pennant. Needing a win to stay alive, the Yankees took a 2-1 lead into the seventh after a two-run rally in the sixth. With two outs in the seventh, Wilson doubled against Tommy John to knock him out of the game, and Gossage allowed a single to Washington to bring up Brett. The eventual ALCS MVP crushed a three-run homer into the upper deck in right to give the Royals a 4-2 lead. The Yankees had a chance to tie it in the eighth after loading the bases with nobody with out on a triple and two walks against Quisenberry, but the Royals turned a Cerone liner into a double play and induced a groundout from pinch-hitter Jim Spencer. The Yankees were set down in order in the ninth and the Royals completed the three-game sweep. Yankees manager Dick Howser was fired after the season, and he would later go on to manage the Royals beginning in '81, helping the franchise win their only World Series title in '85.

The Weirdest of Times

I'll sit back and let Bob Costas explain the infamous "Pine Tar" game, as the story is really just made by the commentary you hear from Brett and the announcers. If you haven't heard about the incident before, watch the video and I guarantee you won't be bored.

Best Transaction for the Yankees

December 7, 1973: NYY traded SP Lindy McDaniel to KCR for OF Lou Piniella and RP Ken Wright

This trade was already mentioned, but it was a steal for the Yankees. Wright pitched in only three games for them, but Piniella became an 11-year mainstay with the team, helping the Yankees win two World Series titles. McDaniel pitched a couple seasons in Kansas City, but his career ended after '75. Maybe if the Royals had Piniella, they would have won more of those ALCS matchups with the Yankees.

Worst Transaction for the Yankees

December 8, 1983: NYY traded 1B Steve Balboni and SP Roger Erickson for RP Mike Armstrong and C Duane Dewey

There haven't been too many terrible deals that went against the Yankees in their trade history with the Royals, and this trade wasn't awful considering the fact that the Yankees has All-Star and '85 AL MVP Don Mattingly at first base and All-Star Don Baylor at DH. Still, it's tough to look back and realize that the team gave away someone who had five straight 20-homer seasons for basically nothing. Erickson and Dewey never appeared in the majors for their respective clubs, and Armstrong had a good season in '84 but appeared in just 16 games for Yankees over the next two years. Balboni was never an All-Star or an all-around good hitter, but he hit 36 homers for the title-winning Royals in '85 and he could certainly have been a fine DH for the Yankees if he had stayed longer on the team.