50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #26: Royals Make AL West Title Official (September 17, 1980)

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.

Much like the 2015 Royals, the 1980 version didn’t really have to sweat about their postseason chances after a few months of the season. The 1980 team led the division by double digits from July 23 on, and entered September with a 20-game lead. Only one other AL West team finished above .500, and that was the 83-79 Oakland A’s. But a division title is still a great accomplishment, and you can’t be held responsible for your division rivals’ mediocrity. 

The Royals had to play a bit of a waiting game to officially claim the AL West this time. They returned home from a West Coast road trip on September 14, had a day off on the 15th (meanwhile, Oakland lost, dropping the Royals’ magic number to one), and then got rained out on the 16th (with the A’s winning in Texas). The makeup game for the rainout was scheduled as part of a doubleheader on the 17th, so the Royals had two chances to clinch in front of the home crowd.

They only needed one, thanks to Dennis Leonard. The right-hander limited California to three hits and two walks while striking out nine, as the Angels never had a runner advance past second. In fact, the only inning Leonard really had trouble was the second, when John Harris doubled with one out. Brian Downing followed with a walk, but Leonard retired Rick Miller on a fly ball and Dickie Thon on a groundout to end the inning.

Leonard was backed by 11 hits from the Kansas City offense. The Royals wasted little time getting on the board, as Willie Wilson reached on an infield single to start the bottom of the first. Angels starter Ralph Botting walked U L Washington, and the two speedsters pulled off a double steal. Hal McRae hit a sacrifice fly for the 1-0 lead. 

The Royals added two runs in the second, with Frank White doubling to start the inning and Jose Cardenal drawing a walk. A groundout moved the runners up a base, and Wilson singled to drive them both in.

Then Kansas City put the game away in the fifth inning with two more tallies. Now facing Angels reliever Jim Barr, Willie Aikens drew a one-out walk. Singles by John Wathan and White pushed the score to 4-0. Pinch-hitter Clint Hurdle singled for another run, and now the Royals turned things over to Leonard.

Jason Thompson singled to start the California fourth, but was promptly erased on a double play. Leonard would proceed to retire 16 straight batters, a string that was snapped only by a walk to Carney Lansford in the ninth. But Leonard struck out Thompson to end the game and make the AL West title official.

Royals fans were treated to a special, unplanned celebration of sorts between games. A group of eight or 10 people paraded through the lower deck carrying Yankees pennants; understandably, after the Royals had lost three straight playoff series to the New Yorkers, these people were booed loudly. However, one KC fan changed those boos to cheers when he grabbed one of the pennants and lit it on fire. 

But, since there was a second game to play, the Royals players had to wait a bit to celebrate. Although they lost the second game by a 7-4 score, the locker room was filled with merriment. Relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry boldly sprayed champagne on Muriel Kauffman. Ken Brett sneaked up on his younger brother George and poured champagne down the back of his pants. George would shortly return the favor. 

I rank this division clinching win here because it was the Royals’ fourth in five years (imagine!), making it a bit less special, and because the division race was such a blowout. Over the next few weeks, we will celebrate some better pennant chases.

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