Two short years ago, the phrase "World Series Champion, Kansas City Royals" would have sounded ludicrous to anyone under the age of 35. The notion of a championship matchup between them and the Mets would have been completely laughable. Two bottom-feeding, stingy teams that are always bad? Yeah, right. Where's the drama there?
Except the Royals haven't always been bad. In fact, during the second half of the 1970s, they were arguably baseball's second-best team. Four times in five years, between 1976 and 1980, Kansas City met the Yankees in the ALCS. Thrice, the Yankees triumphed. The Royals reached the World Series only once, in 1980. Still, for five years, New York and Kansas City staged a fierce rivalry that would have put 2015's brief spat to shame.
It all began in 1976, the year before the Bronx officially Burned. The Royals were an unknown that season. Just eight years old as a franchise, Kansas City stormed through the regular season, winning 90 games and the AL West. In true Royals fashion, they succeeded with speed and defense. That group hit an unthinkably measly 65 home runs as a team, but stole 218 bases. However, the Yankees were hungry. After bearing a dozen straight empty Octobers, Yankee Stadium was rollicking. In the deciding Game 5, Chris Chambliss' famous walk-off home run sealed the series for the home team. That blast earned the first baseman immortality, while simultaneously banishing a quality Royals squad from baseball's collective memory. The 1976 Yankees won 97 regular season games but were swept by Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and the rest of the Big Red Machine in the Fall Classic.
A year later, the met again. This time, Kansas City had home field advantage. Running away with the Western Division, the Royals finished 102-60. George Brett truly emerged, swatting 22 homers while batting .312 in his age-24 season. Dennis Leonard won 20 games to lead a Royals pitching staff that finished with a team ERA of 3.52. Alas, no amount of regality would be enough to overcome the fearsome pinstripes. Again, New York ripped Kansas City's heart out, taking the series in five games. They topped it off by celebrating the clincher on the field in Kauffman Stadium. I imagine the scene there that day was a lot like Wade Davis tossing his glove skyward as he embraced Drew Butera in front of thousands of enemy onlookers. The visitors whooping on the turf. The stands stifled by the putrid mix of disappointment, jealousy, and admiration. This time, the Yankees owned October. They defeated the Dodgers, thanks in large part to one, Reginald Martinez Jackson.
The third time is supposed to be the charm, but for the 1978 Royals, the third time meant more agony. In a watered-down series, the 100-62 Yankees entered October missing both ace pitcher Ron Guidry and third baseman Graig Nettles. Even without Gator, who posted one of the best pitching seasons of all time (25-3, 1.74, 248 SO), the Yankees won easily, dispatching the 90-72 Royals in four games, and again besting the Dodgers for fall supremacy in the next round. Jackson homered twice in the series.
While both teams amassed victory totals in the high-80s, neither qualified for the playoffs in 1979. Instead, the Orioles knocked off the California Angels. However, in 1980, a new decade brought familiar foes. Kansas City stormed to 97 wins behind Brett's unconscious .390 batting average. Again, Leonard won 20 games to lead the staff. Meanwhile, the Yankees, presumably worn out from all those extra October contests, were a powerhouse. They won 103 games, their most since 1963. Jackson walloped 41 taters. Tommy John won 20 games.
However, the 1980 ALCS brought different results for these old rivals. Finally slaying the giant, Kansas City swept the Yankees aside, winning all three contests. They outscored the Bombers 14-6 in the series. Just as New York had done to them three seasons ago, the Royals celebrated on the field in the Bronx. Kansas City went on to lose the World Series to Philadelphia in six games (while Brett missed some time for reasons that—erm—might have stung a wee bit), marking the end of one of the most successful runs any franchise has had in the expansion era. They would win it all five years later, but then failed to reach the postseason again until 2014. I don't need to tell you what the Yankees went on to achieve.
The rivalry between the Yankees and the Royals in the late 1970s has been lost to the ages (save for the infamous '83 Pine Tar Game), but boy, was it a thrilling one. In a transitional era for the sport, both squads were tough, gritty baseball clubs. Those Royals teams were more than the sum of their parts. The Yankees...well, they had the better team on paper all four seasons. You can't help but wonder, were the Royals to have reached another World Series or won in 1980, if that Kansas City squad would be remembered as a dynasty. They had all the makings of one.
Of course, in 2015, they certainly do again. All these years later, the Royals came back to New York (albeit against a different New York team) and righted history's wrongs. They achieved what had previously been unthinkable: sweet, sweet redemption. Perhaps it's time for the Yankees to bring back those '70s memories against the Royals. Someone has to stop them, so why not the Bronx Bombers?