By In Stuff

Going all the way back to 1977

Look at that face. That is the face of experience, right? Those are the eyes of a man who has faced a thousand pitchers. That is the wrinkling face of a man who dived into the dirt countless times, all across the country, in efforts to spear scorching ground balls and line drives. 

Brooks Robinson, man. He was the aging gunfighter by the time I knew of him, my father’s hero, the man whose reflexes had slowed, whose power had sapped, whose legs had grown heavy … but he knew things, secrets, mysteries of the game that the kids couldn’t quite fathom. 

How could anyone be cooler than Brooks Robinson?

* * *

Baseball, I’ve written before, will never stop being the game it was when you were 10 years old. That’s the charm. That’s the nostalgia. That’s the trap. I was 10 years old in 1977. The Kansas City Royals had the best record in baseball that year. The Baltimore Orioles were baseball’s paragon.

They never met in an American League Championship Series. That was a weird quirk of timing. They just kept missing each other, like a scene out of an old Scooby Doo cartoon where people keep eluding each other by emerging out of different doors.

1973: Baltimore in ALCS
1974: Baltimore in ALCS.
1976: Kansas City in ALCS.
1977: Kansas City.
1978: Kansas City.
1979: Baltimore.
1980: Kansas City.
1983: Baltimore.
1984: Kansas City.
1985: Kansas City.

Now, it’s 2014 and baseball — more than at any point decades — is being played like it was when I was 10. Pitching dominates. Defense counts. The crazy thing is that teams are somehow scoring FEWER runs than they did in 1977, many fewer runs in fact.

And with the game gone retro, so has gone the American League. Royals. Orioles. Crazy, right?

* * *

Is that a smile? It’s hard to tell but, no, probably not. When Hal McRae came to the Royals, he made it plain: He did not smile. He was NOT going to play for some happy loser. He had played for the Big Red Machine Reds — he’d been taught the game by Pete Rose and Lee May, tough guys like that— and he wasn’t about to play with some wimpy group of American League candy asses.

Double plays are made to be broken.
Pitchers are born to intimidate.
Injuries are weakness of the mind.
These were the tenets of Hal.

The Royals John Mayberry grew sick of it all, and one day on the bus ride he mercilessly busted Hal McRae’s chops. Big John did that often, actually, but this day he was particularly cutting. McRae listened to it for as long as he could stand, which wasn’t long at all, and finally he stood up.

“Big John,” he said. “You’ll probably kill me. But here I come.”

And McRae rushed the big man. The players on the bus would never forget it. They were Hal’s team. They would back down to nobody.

* * *

He was fussy and pedantic, and they say he did not like wearing a baseball cap because he worried about losing his hair. But Jim Palmer gave you 300 innings of competitive fury every year. The bit of statistical trivia that is his own — Palmer never gave up a grand slam  — really defined him. He did not give in. Ever.

Palmer never struck out 200 in a season, and he was usually among the league leaders in walks, and he gave up his share of home runs. Those are the three components of today’s Fielding Independent Pitching numbers, which are pretty good at defining a pitcher’s effectiveness. Palmer’s strikeout-walk-homer numbers suggest it was quite impossible for him to be as good as he was.

But like Bugs Bunny, who could defy the laws gravity because he never studied law, Palmer defied the laws of pitching gravity. He didn’t need strikeouts, he strategically dealt walks, he gave up home runs when it was least painful.

Palmer pitched masterpieces of jujitsu, using hitters own strengths against them, tempting them into hitting balls into the teeth of Baltimore’s brilliant defense, overpowering them when they had grown defensive, giving way to them when he was at the disadvantage.

The umpire Ron Luciano, who had plenty of battles with Palmer through the years, used to say that Palmer threw a “positive fastball.” That was, hitters were positive they could it.

* * *

When you were the smallest boy in your class in 1970s, and you had stood in the front of lines ordered by height too many times, and you had heard all the, “Were you out playing handball against the curb:” jokes, and you were tormented again and again by Randy Nemwan’s song “Short People” — which came out, coincidentally, in 1977 — you turned to Freddie Patek. 

He not just a short ballplayer. He was THE short ballplayer. He was the essence of what a proud little man could do in a big man’s world. He would run you ragged, and bunt you silly, and if underestimated him and threw him a cookie, he just might take you deep. And he still answered to “Freddie.”

To say Freddie Patek was a hero of mine undersells the word “hero.” He was someone who made me believe in possibilities.

One of the most poignant moments of my life as a sports fan happened when Patek hit into the double play that ended the 1977 American League Championship Series. The camera closed in on him in the dugout, he was the very picture of dejection, and I sat on the floor of our television room in our little house in Cleveland, looking I’m sure very much the same way. It just wasn’t right.

* * *

He seemed dark and brooding, to me, like the cliche of a struggling artist. Mark Belanger couldn’t hit at all. Even in his baseball card, he seemed to be holding the bat slightly askew.

But in the field, at shortstop, he made plays that were like witchcraft. He seemed to pull ground ball singles back in from the outfield, like he had this rewind button, and he unleashed throws that jarred the senses — no one so slight and so off-balance should have been able to project a ball with such force.

All I wanted to do, in those days when I was nine, 10, 11, was make plays. I didn’t care about hitting the ball and wasn’t much good at doing it. But in the field I felt powerful, I felt fearless, I felt in sync with the dirt and the ball. “Hit it harder,” I used to yell to the coach hitting infield practice, my favorite part of the whole day. I imagined this was how Belanger felt.

My childhood spanned that time when the designated hitter was still new, and I can remember wondering why baseball would not have a corresponding designated fielder, something for Belanger, so that he would never come to the plate but could display defensive genius day after day. 

* * *

He once told me that he never played a game in his life without fear. George Brett, like another Kansas City hero Tom Watson, was raised with one clear truth: Nothing, ever, was good enough. When George would go three-for-four, Jack Brett would rant endlessly about the groundout to second. 

Jack famously told George’s mother, Ethel: “He can’t read. He can’t write. He has terrible grades. He can’t play baseball. He can’t play football. He can’t play basketball. What the hell is he going to do?”

His mother said; “But he’s such a nice boy.”

Well, that wouldn’t do. Jack Brett raged at his nice boy son. And George Brett learned to fear failure. He learned to fear embarrassment. He learned to fear that voice, the rumbling voice of his father, tearing him apart over an error he made in the third or a swing out of the strike zone. After one such conversation, George tore the phone off the wall in the clubhouse. After more than one, he headed out into the night to find relief.

George Brett did not grow up to be a nice boy. He took a bat to the toilets in Minnesota. He broke a players’ leg in a collision. He leaped up to punch Graig Nettles. He struck a photographer with his crutch. He got into a fight with Willie Wilson. Nice? No. He became like Jack Brett, the essence of fury.

“Maybe I was too tough on George,” Jack would say after Brett had secured his Hall of Fame career. 

Fathers. Sons. Such a riddle. When Jack Brett found out he was dying of cancer, he implored his family to not tell George.

“He’s in the middle of a slump,” Jack Brett said. “Wait until he turns it around.”

* * *

My childhood was the time of bigger-than-life managers, of Whitey Herzog running his players into a blur and Earl Weaver platooning players in and out and waiting for the three-run homer. 

In a way, those managers defined the baseball I have never stopped associating with. They were mad scientists, mixing chemicals, evaluating the explosions, kicking dirt on umpires. Well, they had to be. They had to do something to make their team stand out. 

In a way, the baseball of the 1990s seemed to take away managers’ choices. The ball was flying out of the yard with such regularity, and runs were so easy to come by, that anytime a manager wasted an out trying for an extra base, it seemed counterproductive. Teams were so desperate for arms that they basically stopped carrying a bench and the pitcher to use was the pitcher available.

And so being a manager seemed to evolve into counting pitches, making sure someone in the ever-growing bullpen was rested and shuffling nine good hitters into the lineup.

But now: It’s back to my childhood. No, not exactly — strikeouts are way up, batting averages way down, the 100 mph fastball makes its case as the dominant weapon in the game — but it’s staggering how similar to 1977 the American League is.

Average team homers in 1977: 144.
Average team homers in 2014: 144

Kansas City Royals ERA in 1977: 3.52
Kansas City Royals ERA in 2014: 3.51

Number of runs for Orioles in 1977: 719
Number of runs for Orioles in 2014: 705

And so on. Runs are harder to come by than they have been in a very long time, and in a weird way this opens up the game rather than closing it. It encourages risk because waiting around for runs probably won’t work. For better and worse it makes managers — whether it’s Buck Showalter or Ned Yost — stars of the show once again.

These Orioles are not unlike the Orioles of old. There are differences, of course, but they catch the ball and they prevent runs (more with their bullpen, but still) and they hit the long ball.

These Royals are not unlike the Royals of old. There are differences, of course. But they catch the ball, they prevent runs and they run whenever they can.

I was always told that every style eventually comes back around. This feels like a series right out of childhood. I never believed that basketball short shorts would come back, or those ridiculous pants golfers used to wear, or disco. But if you live long enough, I guess, you will see Royals and the Orioles will play in the ALCS. What can you say? Put on some Bee Gees, pretend to be Fonzie and may the force be with you, always.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

45 Responses to Going all the way back to 1977

  1. William J Earley says:

    Great read. Nice job.

  2. Alejandro says:

    Otro gran artículo….gracias y que ganen los Reales!!!

    • Brad says:


      I was born in 1977, a life long Royals fan. Today my wife and I are at the hospital to have our first child, a son. All I can think of is sitting here with him watching his first Royals game.

  3. Matt Bugaj says:

    I was born in 79. Thanks for taking me back.

  4. PhilM says:

    The first Topps set I was able to complete was that 1977 edition — so great to see that bright block lettering and the goofy position pennant. Good times!

  5. Jeff H. says:

    Joe- Another fine post, but I have one nitpick. About Palmer, you say “he gave up home runs when it was least painful.” Do stats support this? Sounds a bit like Morris and “pitching to the score” to me.

    • Jake Bucsko says:

      Eerie…we posted basically the same thing at the exact same time. GET OUT OF MY HEAD, JEFF

      • Jake, Jeff, I would normally agree but this is a “print the legend” type of post, not serious analysis. A ten year old (like Joe in ’77, or me in ’75) would think Morris pitched to the score & that Palmer only gave up solo homers in late innings when the O’s were up or down by six, so why not go with it? 🙂

        Joe, wonderful post. I had all those cards. What a great ALCS matchup.

        Go Giants!

    • ian merchant says:

      I think he’s equating that with never giving up a grand slam. It’s a generalization but home runs are worst with three guys on.

  6. Jake Bucsko says:

    Great read, but your ruminations on Jim Palmer “giving up home runs when it was least painful” and “strategically giving up walks” sounds dangerously Jack-Morris-pitching-to-the-scoreesque.

    • Looked up the numbers. As far as HRs, Palmer gave up some, but he also threw a lot of innings. His .7 HR/9 was not bad. With bases loaded, opposing teams hit .196/.230/.234. In high leverage situations, players hit .218/.273/.317. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

  7. Jim Haas says:

    My mother, Maria Salvatrice Regina Vigneri, grew up in Baltimore, so I followed the Orioles all the way from our midwest home. Belanger was a demi-god in our house. Thanks for this little history lesson.

  8. Crout says:

    But if it the game has regressed why wouldn’t Buck wait for the 3-run homer like Weaver did?

  9. Larry says:

    Because Chris Davis has forgotten how to hit.

  10. wogggs says:

    This post takes me back to being 7 years old in KC. As a short guy myself, Patek was always one of my favorites.

    • I wasn’t short at all, but it seemed like every time the Royals came to Anaheim, Patek killed the Angels. We called him the “Mighty Midget”. It was meant as a compliment in those non politically correct days.

  11. Well said, Mr. Posnanski. I enjoy your blogs immensely. Go, Royals!

  12. Dale says:

    Excellent, Joe. As another Cleveland baseball fan growing up in the 70s, I also have fond memories of those Baltimore and KC teams. I think I had all those baseball cards, too.

  13. KHAZAD says:

    Great Column. I guess I am a little bit older than you, I was 12 in 1977. But I was always the shortest person in my class as well, and Freddie Patek was my hero.

    I never made it past 5 foot 4, but I played baseball through the age of 22, and Freddie was my inspiration. Without his example, I might not have had the perseverance to keep working at the game when I was young. I had alot of good experiences in baseball, and Freddie was a big reason why.

    Go Royals!

  14. Orioles Fan says:

    I graduated highschool that year. I think Geroge Brett’s greated temper tantrum was his Pine Tar tantram. Noteven Earl Weaver could top tha tone.

    • Weaver, Dick Williams, Billy Martin…. Some seriously volatile managers back in the day. With replay, no real reason to argue anymore. The ump just says “so you want to challenge the call, or not?”

  15. […] want to read what I have to say about the ALCS, so I’ll do you a favor and link you to Joe Posnanski […]

  16. Cuban X Senators says:

    Grew up going to Memorial & getting autographs after the game. Palmer signed for more than a dozen all while holding the Gold Glove he’d received that day under his left arm.

    Brett told my 11 year old sister to “take a f’n quaalude” when the autograph scrum jostled her into him.

    Can’t imagine either happening now.

  17. JMAC8 says:

    Great column, Joe. I especially like this paragraph:

    Palmer never struck out 200 in a season, and he was usually among the league leaders in walks, and he gave up his share of home runs. Those are the three components of today’s Fielding Independent Pitching numbers, which are pretty good at defining a pitcher’s effectiveness. Palmer’s strikeout-walk-homer numbers suggest it was quite impossible for him to be as good as he was.

    It’s encouraging to see that you appreciate the intangible value he brought to his team and you’re not married to even an inarguably quantifiable metric like FIP.
    I’ll take it as a sign that you’ll no longer tout inarguably subjective “fielding statistics” when evaluating player worth. (Yeah, I’m a Jeter fan, and a Palmer fan too.)

  18. Dr. Baseball says:

    Great writing Joe!

    I was nine years old in 1977. Those cards were among the first I ever owned. That 1977 set brings back such great memories.

    I was also the shortest in my class. I was a Yankees fan, and as I looked on the back of the baseball cards I remember reading that Ron Guidry and Thurman Munson were both 5’11.” Knowing I’d never be tall, I just hoped to make it to 5’11” like my Yankee heroes.

    I never made it…

  19. Uncle Willy says:

    I’m glad to see this style of baseball making a comeback. I was never too thrilled with the home run craze of the late 90s/early 00s.

  20. John Leavy says:

    I wasn’t a National League fan, so I never saw much of Ozzie Smith- the numbers say he was the best shortstop ever. But as a Yankees fan, I SAW Mark Belanger all the time, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better.

    He killed my Yankees wit his glove, but worse yet, even when he was batting .220, his rare hits always seemed to come at the worst possible time for us. Earl Weaver didn’t believe in bunting, as a rule, but he made an exception for Belanger, because he was so good at it. He regularly got guys into scoring position with a picture perfect bunt, and those guys inevitably scored.

    On one hand, I don’t really believe such an anemic hitter belongs in the Hall of Fame…. but if 3/4 of the voters disagreed with me, I wouldn’t object too strenuously!

  21. invitro says:

    I like hearing you folks talk about the 1977 cards. I was seven in 1977, and I was nonplussed by the 1977 cards, because they weren’t as colorful as the glorious 1976 set, which remains my favorite set. I came to love the 1977 cards sometime in the 1980s.

    Oh, I didn’t follow baseball in 1977, because I was too busy playing it.

  22. AreJay says:

    Hey Joe….I am rooting for the Royals solely because I like your heartfelt writing so very much. Although I suspect that a column you would write if they cratered would be among your dramatic, cynical, emotional best, I much prefer the idea of the joyful column you will write if you win. Bottom line Joe is that I’m rooting for the Royals because, and only because, of you. Just thought you’d like to know.

  23. Scott says:

    Wonderful article. Thanks.

  24. […] Going all the way back to 1977 […]

  25. Johnny says:

    Amazing similarities between the 1977 and 2014 Royals. One gigantic difference though… Davis and Holland. If we had had them, we beat the Yankees. No doubt about it.

  26. Dave B says:

    Great write-up, Joe. Great baseball cards, too.

  27. Trip von Minden says:

    Great article! I HAD most of those baseball cards back then.

  28. hardy says:

    Best picture in baseball history is Frank Howard holding Freddie Patek on at first base. It’s like they’re two different species.

    How is it possible for Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger both to have had such stellar dWAR statistics? Wouldn’t Robinson getting so many balls have cut into Belanger’s numbers? Same question with respect to Paul Blair playing behind Belanger, and Bobby Grich (at least for a while) at second base – seems like they’d have been competing to field the same balls.

    Have never seen the statistics, but in my recollection of being ten years old, Belanger did hit a little better than you’d expect with men on base.

  29. John says:

    1977…. I remember it but it wasn’t as fondly as Royals fans. I was in High School in Minnesota and 1977 was the Twins’ year. Carew had his monster season, Hisle led the league in RBIs Lyman Bostock had a fabulous year. Butch Wynegar was still full of promise and Roy Smalley was about to become a great shortstop. They scored 867 runs, the largest number of runs for any team in the decade. The Twins were in first place for 66 days that summer and it looked their division to win. They had taken a 1/2 game lead in August 16th and then limped out August 7-8, and still only trailed by 3. The pitching staff finally showed how bad it truly was by having a 7-18 August with an ERA over 5. The last month of the season saw them lose an amazing 14.5 games in the standings and finish a distant 4th. KC went a ridiculous 46-17 to finish. Still my saddest season as a Twins fan.

  30. whitesox67 says:

    Your comments about Hal McRae hit home. I am a White Sox fan and 1977 was the year of Bill Veek’s South Side Hitmen let by Zisk and Gamble with 30+ homeruns each. I attended the 7/31 doubleheader when the Sox were 5 games or so ahead of the Royals. The Sox won the first game but dropped the second game as McRae hit a huge home run and knocked in several. The loss was the beginning of a precipitous lose. I was a bittersweet year given Veek’s health and status.

  31. Grandpaboy says:

    Nice post…sure brought back a lot of memories. I’m the same age as you, Joe, and the playoff battles of 1975-80 are still stuck in my head after all of these years. Even though I was a Mets fan–until they traded Seaver, at least–I loathed the Yankees with a passion and HATED it when they beat the Royals in 76-78. I’m a Cubs fan now, and I’d like nothing more than for the Royals to stick it to the Cardinals AGAIN if they both make it to the World Series.

  32. Brent says:

    1977 is such a strange year for the AL West. The Royals went 35-4 in August to September to blow away the division, but as noted above by Twins and SouthSox fans, they had teams that they thought were competitors all year until the Royals insane hot streak. The strangest thing though is, as much as Twins and White Sox fans remember that year fondly for having good teams that just fell short, neither of those teams finished second in the division. That would be the Texas Rangers who won 94 games behind a starting rotation of Gaylord Perry, Bert Blyleven, Doyle Alexander and Dock Ellis.

  33. Not only did I collect the whole 77 set (still in basement in shoebox), the very last card I needed to complete it was a Royal, Marty Pattin, card No. 658 as I recall. Of course, once I had collected my hero Ron Cey’s card, the rest was gravy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *