Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.
In last week’s entry, I wrote a bit about the randomness of no-hitters. In further support of that point, I bring up that Bret Saberhagen’s no-hitter in 1991 is still the most recent one, home or away, in Royals history. Is 31 years without one as ridiculous as, say, 36 home runs standing as the single-season mark for 32 years? I would say no, because there’s just no rhyme or reason to no-hitters. The New York Mets, seven years older than the Royals, have two in their entire franchise history, and had to wait until 2012 for their first. Kansas City’s 1969 expansion cousins, the San Diego Padres, never had one until early in the 2021 season.
So yes, it’s been a while for the Royals, which is why I ranked this one ahead of Colborn’s. There has been one other no-no in Kauffman Stadium history, and we’ll cover that next week. But this one holds a little more historical significance for the Royals, simply because it’s the most recent.
Saberhagen was famous as a Royal for alternating good and bad years. As an odd-numbered year, 1991 fit in the “good year” pattern, and while Saberhagen missed a month in midseason with shoulder tightness, he was still pitching well. He entered the game with a 3.10 ERA and 9-6 record. Meanwhile, the White Sox were slumping, entering this contest with a six-game losing streak. Still, their lineup featured three Hall of Famers (Carlton Fisk, Tim Raines, and Frank Thomas) and four more guys who were All-Stars at some point (Joey Cora, Ozzie Guillen, Lance Johnson, and Robin Ventura), so this was a solid lineup.
Kansas City’s hitters backed up their pitcher with two runs in the first against White Sox starter Charlie Hough, who had always been tough on the Royals. Brian McRae led off with a single, and Kirk Gibson walked. After a passed ball, George Brett hit a sacrifice fly. Jim Eisenreich singled, and a Todd Benzinger groundout brought Gibson home.
Saberhagen picked up three strikeouts against the first five hitters he faced, and Royals radio announcer Denny Matthews told his listeners Saberhagen had no-hit stuff on this night.
“I get feelings about things. I thought he did have no-hit stuff. And he did. He didn’t have it in the last three or four innings. He struck out only one after the fifth,” Matthews said later.
Ron Karkovice drew a walk in the third, giving the White Sox their first baserunner. But two more groundouts and the inning was over. The Royals added to their lead in the bottom of the third, with singles by Gibson, Brett, and Benzinger scoring two runs and a Bill Pecota double pushing the lead to 5-0.
After another quick White Sox turn at bat, the Royals added two more runs in the fourth. Chicago reliever Ken Patterson hit McRae with a pitch. Patterson then threw wildly on a pickoff attempt, allowing McRae to scoot to third. Gibson tripled and Eisenreich hit a sacrifice fly, and now the Royals had a 7-0 lead.
With the big lead, it was pretty apparent the Royals had the game in hand. The only question now was whether Saberhagen would allow a hit. And he did, if only for a minute. In the fifth, Dan Pasqua hit a fly ball deep to left-center. Gibson, who played so much of his career on bad knees and was never considered much of a defensive wizard, gave chase from his spot in left field. He got to the warning track, reached up…and the ball bounced off the end of his glove. The center-field scoreboard registered a “1” in the hit column, and Saberhagen went back to work.
But in the press box, official scorer Del Black was watching the replays. After a minute, he changed his ruling to an error. The crowd of 25,164 cheered as the hit counter reset to zero and a “1” went up under the errors.
“I thought the ball was catchable,” Black said. “I didn’t make the call until I saw two angles on the replay. I thought he was there. He didn’t have to jump, just reach up. I thought it ticked his glove. It didn’t look like he was laboring to get to it or catch it.”
“You can pretty well tell by the crowd’s reaction,” Saberhagen said. “I heard the crowd and I figured what happened.”
“I didn’t really see it happen,” Pasqua said. “I touched first base and when I rounded it, the ball was on the ground. But people told me it was questionable. There are a lot of balls catchable that are hits. In this circumstance, I’m sure the game had a lot to do with his call.”
“It’s got to be an error,”’ Gibson said. “It’s the right call. I could’ve caught the ball. It was waaay in (the glove).”
Karkovice, batting with two outs, hit a line drive down the left-field line that hooked just foul. He had done the same thing in the third, with the ball just missing the right-field line. But Saberhagen struck him out, and was through five hitless innings.
He worked through the next two innings with little threat of a hit, although Thomas started the seventh with a line drive right at McRae in center field. The toughest play for an outfielder, they say. McRae was frozen for a second by the knuckling action on the ball, but finally tracked it down.
Pasqua led off the eighth with a walk. With two outs, Guillen smacked one back up the middle. Luckily, Saberhagen was able to spear it and make the easy throw to first for the final out of the inning. Afterward, shortstop David Howard said he likely would not have been able to field the ball.
Just like in the 1985 World Series, Saberhagen took the mound for the ninth with a large lead and three outs to go for history. Raines grounded out. Cora hit a pop fly. Now it was down to Thomas, who, although just a rookie, was already an offensive force. On a 1-0 count, Saberhagen threw a curve that just kept breaking. Thomas reached out and grounded it right to second baseman Terry Shumpert, who made the easy throw to finish off the no-hitter.
A healthy-sized crowd of 25,164 was in attendance, and they cheered as if the Royals had just won that World Series all over again. Catcher Brent Mayne, also a rookie, leaped into his pitcher’s arms after experiencing a highlight that many catchers never enjoy.
“The big thing tonight, he established the fastball inside unbelievably well,” Mayne said. “That set up his curveball, which we primarily just tried to keep down, and they couldn’t handle it. Frank is a great hitter and all, but that was an unhittable pitch. Ninety-nine times out of 100, nobody hits that ball.”
Saberhagen became just the third pitcher in history to claim a Cy Young Award, a World Series MVP, and throw a no-hitter, joining Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. No one would have suspected it at the time, but this was the last hurrah for Saberhagen in a Royals uniform, as he was traded to the New York Mets after the season. While the Royals have certainly had troubles developing pitchers since then, it is rather amazing that the likes of Kevin Appier, David Cone, Danny Duffy, Zack Greinke, Jose Rosado, and Yordano Ventura haven’t been able to duplicate the feat.