Monday, May 10, 2010

The Revolutionary War (1977)

This is part 2 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: Hammerin' 715 (1974)

The Yankees and Royals met in the ALCS for three consecutive years from 1976-78. While I never heard this rivalry referred to as "The Revolutionary War," it would have been fitting. The origin of the term "Yankee" is in reference to a person native to the United States, and the only royalty that Yankees would be known to battle would be from England.

Of course, the analogy begins to fall apart when you consider the Royals didn't have control over the Yankees prior to those matchups. Also, while the Yankees won all three of those series in the '70s, the Royals enacted a bit of revenge by sweeping them in 1980. The two teams haven't met in the postseason since, although this is mainly due to the Royals lack of success. Since winning the World Series in 1985, they've gone 24 consecutive years without playing beyond game #162.

The three American League Championship Series played between New York and Kansas City during the latter half of the 1970s were all hard fought. 1976 and 1977 went the full five games and, although the Yankees won three-games-to-one in 1978, their final two victories were both one-run games in which they captured the lead for good in the 6th inning or later.

The moment from these three series that would have to be considered the most memorable by the majority of fans is Chris Chambliss's 1976 Game Five walk-off home run. After all, his solo blast did secure the Yankees' first World Series appearance in 12 years—the franchise's longest drought since their first ever World Series in 1921—and is featured on highlight reels that show Chambliss knocking over celebrating fans as he barrels his way around the bases to make it official. However, my most prominent memory was of the conclusion of the ALCS played one year later.

Whereas Game Five in 1976 was played at Yankee Stadium, to advance to a second consecutive World Series in 1977, the New Yorkers would have to win the deciding game in Kansas City. To do so, they would have to overcome a poor outing from Ron Guidry, and come from behind against a pitcher—Paul Splittorf—who had shut them down in Game One.

The Yankees trailed 2-0 after the 1st, 3-1 after the 3rd, and 3-2 going into the 9th. But, Dan Quisenberry wouldn't make his major league debut until two years later, and the Royals bullpen was without a bona fide closer. Apparently lacking complete confidence in a trio of relievers who finished 1977 with double-digit saves—Doug Bird, who had pitched part of the 8th inning; Mark Littell and Larry Gura—Royals manager Whitey Herzog handed the ball to Game Three starter and winner Dennis Leonard.

The Yankees clawed their way for three runs off Leonard, who was relieved by Gura and then Littell, on two singles, a walk, sacrifice fly and a George Brett error, to take a 5-3 lead. The Yanks did have a legitimate closer in Sparky Lyle, won won the Cy Young Award in 1977. Lyle retired Darrell Porter on a popup, but then gave up a single to Frank White. Next came the moment that is still etched in my brain.

Royals shortstop Freddie Patek was as pesky as they come, having batted .389 (7-for-18) in the '76 ALCS, and .412 (7-for-17) so far in this series. But, he would not further his reputation as a Yankee killer in this at bat, grounding into a series-ending double play.

I watched as television cameras zoomed in on a dejected Patek, sitting in the dugout with his head in his hands and an occasional tear streaming from his face. My thoughts turned from reveling in his failure to feeling somewhat sympathetic. At 10 years old, it was my first real experience with feeling the thrill of victory while empathizing with the agony of defeat.

Next: Mr. October (1977)

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