With Sam travelling, the podcast took a little different approach this week as Cole had the opportunity to interview some former Kansas City Royals, two of whom played for the Jacksonville Suns when they were a Royals affiliate. For those of you who only want to hear football this time of year, be assured, we’ll get back to it next time.
Neither my father nor I are particularly emotional people. I am, however, fairly nostalgic, especially when it comes to sports. In particular, the teams that I cheered for in my youth.
On this Father’s Day, I thought I would share the story that most powerfully comes to mind when people start talking about memories with their fathers.
In 1977, the Kansas City Royals were a young team with a starting lineup that featured five players 26 years old or younger: second baseman Frank White, left fielder Tom Poquette, catcher Darrell Porter, right fielder Al Cowens and 24-year old third baseman George Brett.
In addition, 21 year old Willie Wilson, 19 year old Clint Hurdle and 23 year old U.L. Washington all got a cup of coffee that year. Most of these names would serve as the foundation for the success of the Royals in my early formative years.
For those of you under 30, I should take a moment here to point out that in those days, not only did the Royals content, but they actually won. You can check out the championship flags at Kauffman Stadium if you don’t believe me.
On April 30, 1977 (it was a Saturday), Dad announced that he was going to take me to the Royals game the next day. At the age of four, I was already a Royals fan. I watched every game that I could and had a better chance of reciting the batting order than I did of finishing my ABC’s. I don’t know what first grabbed me about baseball. Maybe it was the excitement of the announcers when something happened. Maybe it was that the home team was winning and so I felt like I had “chosen” correctly to root for the Royals. Whatever the reason, the next day would be my baseball baptism.
I would love to tell you all of the details of the morning, but all I can remember is climbing into my dad’s old Audi (I think it was an Audi 100) and spending the 30 minute drive in overload knowing that I was going to see the Royals in person. This was to be one of the two most memorable moments of 1977 (I’ll thank George Lucas for the other one).
When we arrived at then-Royals Stadium, I had a hundred questions. They started as we approached the parking attendant. “Dad, what’s that guy do?” “Dad, did you see that truck?” “Dad, can we get cotton candy?” “Dad who are the Royals playing?”
“He takes money for the parking lot, yes I did, we’ll see and the Toronto Blue Jays,” he answered. We had just gotten out of the car.
I think we parked pretty close, but at 4 years old and in anticipation of what was about the happen, the stadium looked like it was a million miles away.
When we finally got into the stadium, we walked to our seats and as we walked down the concourse, I could see the bright green of the Royals Stadium artificial turf flash through the tunnels. I had never seen anything so…well, so green.
I asked dad about and he said that it was artificial turf, which led me to refer to all artificial turf as just “turf” for quite a few years. It wasn’t until someone offered my surf and turf that I realized my mistake.
Dad patiently answered questions about what the scoreboard was all about and when John Mayberry was going to hit (I remember being disappointed when he walked, instead of hitting a home run).
Looking at the box scored on the indispensable website Baseball-Reference.com, I see that Brett led off and that Tom Poquette, who never quite lived up to the early promise, hit third. The Royals collected five doubles (they hit a lot of doubles and triples in those days) and that Larry Gura pitched seven efficient innings of six hit ball to get the win as the Royals beat the Blue Jays 8-2. Most of those facts I don’t remember. For some reason, i remember the name Otto Velez. Maybe because he hit a home run for the Blue Jays.
All I remember is that the Royals won, Dad had an answer for every questions. I think we got cotton candy and to that point in my life, it was the best day that ever existed.
This one is mostly going to be for my Kansas City friends or for people who really like to look at old baseball statistics, you know, the nerds.
Take two players. Here’s player A:
162 games, 98 runs, 189 hits, 32 doubles, 14 triples, 23 homers, 112 RBI, 16 stolen bases and a .312 batting average. For some advanced numbers .885 OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage).
Here’s Player B:
139 games, 105 runs, 176 hits, 32 doubles, 13 triples, 22 homers, 88 RBI, 14 stolen bases and .312 batting average. For some advanced numbers, .905 OPS.
Player A finished as the runner up in the American League MVP voting. Player B finished 13th in the voting. They played on the same team.
These were the statistics for the 1977 Royals teammates Al Cowens (player A) and George Brett (player B). At the time, Cowens was 25, Brett was 24. Brett batted leadoff most of the year, was the defending batting champ and for the second year in a row, was chosen as an All-Star.
Cowens lost out to Rod Carew in the MVP voting and at first glance you would be impressed that there were two of the top 13 MVP candidates from the same team. Until you realize that five Yankees finished in the top 11 (Graig Nettles, Sparky Lyle, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson and Mickey Rivers). Heck, the Red Sox had three in the top 10 (Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk and some guy named Bill Campbell, nicknamed Soup like every other guy name Campbell in history, who led the league with 31 saves that year while averaging two innings per outing).
What got my attention was how similar the numbers were for Cowens and Brett at about the same point in their careers. 1977 was Cowens’ breakthrough season. He had never hit .300 in his three previous big league seasons, had never driven in 100 and never had more than 155 hits, much less the 189 he collected that year. He also won the gold glove in right field in a year when he had 14 outfield assists (Cowens always had a good arm, hitting double digits in outfield assists in his first four seasons in the big leagues). Cowens did commit six errors, a lot for a right fielder.
From looking at the numbers, you would have thought that these two young hitters who could both run, had good gap power and emerging home run pop would both be in line for great careers.
Instead, Brett went on to the Hall of Fame, while Cowens never again hit .300 again, never drove in more than 78, and never collected more than 152 hits in a season. What happened? Was the 1977 season just a flash in the pan? Statistically, yes it was.
Cowens had been a long shot, drafted in the 75th round in 1969. Mike Piazza is the famous late round draft success story. Clearly, he had a better career than Cowens, but Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round as a favor.
Cowens had his jaw broken by a pitch in 1979 and I recall the jaw guard that Cowens had attached to his batting helmet. It would be easy to say that the broken jaw was the catalyst for his career tailing off. The Royals traded Cowens to the Angels for Willie Aikens and two utility infielders, Todd Cruz and Rance Mulliniks.
I suppose its a less in two things. First, just because a young hitter has a good year, it doesn’t mean they will keep having good years (it’s just statistically more likely to happen). Second, baseball favors outfield defense a whole lot less now than it did in 1977.
As a Kansas City born, Jacksonville transplant, I have things in common with Billy Butler. Butler is from Jacksonville and now plays for the Kansas City Royals. And apparently, we have barbecue in common.
The Royals broke out of a slump with a six game winning streak thanks to (they say) a bottle of Billy Butler’s “Hit it a Ton” BBQ Sauce. Apparently, it’s just one bottle, unopened, that has been imbued with magical powers–powers so strong that it can even lift the Royals out of the doldrums.
Then again, maybe it’s the addition of George Brett as the teams hitting coach.
Or, maybe (and my money’s on this one), it’s the fact that they won five of those game against two last place teams, the Twins and the Astros.
For the sake of science, I am willing to use my sauce to break any bad streaks out there. For science.