50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #9: Dream Season Ends In Defeat (October 9, 1977)

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.

Of all the playoff disappointments the Royals suffered in their history, this is probably the most crushing. Losing in the 1976 ALCS was bad, but at least the franchise had finally made the postseason, and hey, they lost the decisive Game Five on the road. Likewise, the 1980 and 2014 World Series losses were tempered by the fact the Royals had finally vanquished the Yankees in the former and ended a three-decade long postseason drought with the latter.

But this game…yikes. Hopefully you followed along last year as I chronicled the 1977 Royals, but if not, just know that this was likely the best team the Royals have ever fielded. They are still the only edition to win 100 games; in fact, they were the winningest team in baseball in 1977. They won the AL West by eight games after one of the great stretch runs in the game’s history, a sizzling 35-4 run from mid-August until the last week of the season, when the division was safely in hand and manager Whitey Herzog began resting players. They split the first two games of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium, then came home and won Game Three. One more win in two home games and they would be in the World Series. But the Yankees scored five runs in the first four innings of Game Four and held off a Kansas City rally to force the decisive Game Five.

The emotions in this game were high right from the start. In the bottom of the first, Hal McRae singled. George Brett laced one into the gap in right center field, then raced around second and slid into third safely with an RBI triple. Brett’s popup slide that carried him into third baseman Graig Nettles, who kicked at his counterpart. Brett hopped up and threw a haymaker at Nettles. The two players tumbled to the ground, taking would-be peacemakers Royals third-base coach Chuck Hiller and Yankees starter Ron Guidry with them. The benches cleared, of course, although without further incident. Rather amazingly, the umpires let Brett and Nettles stay in the game. Brett scored on an Al Cowens grounder, and the Royals held a 2-0 lead. 

The teams traded runs in the third inning, and Kansas City took a 3-1 lead into the eighth. Yankees reliever Mike Torrez, who replaced Guidry in the third, had shut down the Royals since then. Royals starter Paul Splittorff had been equally effective. But this Royals team’s one weakness was the bullpen. And once Willie Randolph led off the eighth with a single, Herzog felt he had no choice, calling on Doug Bird to face the right-handed hitting Thurman Munson.

“(Herzog) decided to go with the percentages. I had faced Munson three times and I’d done something different with him every time. We thought maybe I was running out of tricks.”–Splittorff, quoted by the Associated Press, Oct. 10, 1977

Bird struck out Munson, but Lou Piniella singled. Pinch-hitter Reggie Jackson, held out of the lineup by Yankees manager Billy Martin because Splittorff was a lefty (but there was probably some personal animosity at work there, too), followed with a pinch-hit single to score Randolph. Now the lead was down to 3-2 and Herzog called on Steve Mingori. That decision worked, with an assist from Frank White. After Nettles flied out, Chris Chambliss hit a grounder up the middle, but White snared it with a dive to his right, then scrambled to his feet and fired to Freddie Patek at second for the forceout.

The Royals failed to capitalize on two walks in the bottom of the eighth, with Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle getting the final out of the inning despite pitching 5 ⅓ innings in relief the previous night.

With no closer he really trusted, Herzog called on Dennis Leonard to start the ninth. Leonard had been the Royals’ best starter in 1977, winning 20 games. But Paul Blair led off with a single and Leonard walked pinch-hitter Roy White.

“I felt good. It wasn’t as if I had to pitch the whole game. I just needed one inning. I asked Buck (Martinez) whether I had anything warming up in the bullpen. He said I was throwing good, that I had good stuff.”–Leonard, quoted by Allen Quakenbush, Lawrence Journal-World, Oct. 10, 1977

Herzog now called on Larry Gura to face Mickey Rivers. Herzog reasoned that Rivers would bunt and Gura was a good fielder. But Rivers was swinging away, and pulled a single into right field to tie the game. Time for another pitcher, this time Mark Littell, who had surrendered the walkoff home run to Chambliss in 1976 that ended that series. Randolph hit a sacrifice fly to put New York in front. With two outs, Brett committed a throwing error on Piniella’s grounder, allowing another run to score. Littell retired Jackson to end the inning.

White singled with one out in the ninth, bringing Patek to the plate. The shortstop was celebrating his 33rd birthday and had enjoyed a great series, going 7-17 with three doubles and a triple to this point. With a hit, he could keep the inning alive for Hal McRae and possibly Brett. And he hit the ball hard…right to Nettles, who started the double play that brought Kansas City’s dream season to a screeching halt.

As the Yankees celebrated, NBC’s cameras caught Patek with his head down in the Royals dugout. He would sit there for several minutes before joining the quiet atmosphere in the locker room.

“What a joke. You play hard for six months and eight innings and it all goes up in smoke in one fatal inning.”–White, quoted by the Associated Press, Oct. 10, 1977

“It’s a bigger letdown than last year. We trailed most of the time last year. It was more of a short dream turned nightmare. This year we were ahead most of the time. We had so much momentum, so much excitement. It was a fantastic feeling turned to nightmare.”–Brett, quoted by Allen Quakenbush, Lawrence Journal-World, Oct. 10, 1977

“I don’t know what to say about it. I felt we had it all the way. I just wish it would have rained after seven innings. If we get Rivers out, we’re gonna win the ball game, but we couldn’t get that damn out in the ninth when we needed it. It’s gonna be a long winter.”–Herzog, quoted by Allen Quakenbush, Lawrence Journal-World, Oct. 10, 1977

6 thoughts on “50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #9: Dream Season Ends In Defeat (October 9, 1977)

  1. The best thing I can say about this game is that it happened nearly two years before I was born, so I didn’t have to witness it. I know the story of the 77 season and playoffs, and I’ve seen the footage of Brett & Nettles duking it out numerous times, but full credit to your writing skills that a game that took place over 45 years ago before I was even born still stings to read about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Royals Rumblings - Information for February 14, 2023 - Sports Champ. All rights reserved.

  3. Pingback: Royals Rumblings - Information for February 14, 2023 - Sports Info

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s