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With the exciting pennant races of 1985 a fresh memory, the Royals traveled to Toronto for the American League Championship Series. The 1985 season marked the first year that the Championship Series went to a best-of-seven format. The Blue Jays, who started as an expansion team in 1977, won their first American League East crown by holding off the New York Yankees by two games. For the Royals, their West division title marked their seventh playoff appearance in the past ten seasons.
Conventional wisdom would seem to favor the veteran Royals, but this was a tough Blue Jays team. The Jays featured young stars Tony Fernandez, George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield along with ace pitchers Dave Steib, Jimmy Key and hard throwing closer Tom Henke. The Jays also had their share of former Royals – Rance Mulliniks, Buck Martinez, Willie Aikens and a 21-year-old first baseman by the name of Cecil Fielder. The series also featured the Iorg brothers – Garth for Toronto and Dane for Kansas City.
Vegas installed the Jays as the favorites in the series. The Blue Jays had homefield advantage, if you can call it that. Their home was Exhibition Stadium, a facility that had been built for the CFL Toronto Argonauts. Jays President Paul Beeston once called Exhibition “not just the worst stadium in baseball, it was the worst stadium in sports.”
They tried calling it “The mistake by the lake” but that name was already taken by Cleveland. The stadium sat near Lake Ontario and the weather was often cold at the beginning and end of the baseball season. In the Jays first game ever, on April 7, 1977, they had to borrow a Zamboni from the Toronto Maple Leafs to clear the field of snow. The main seating area was a bowl reconstructed from two grandstands that ran the length of the third and first base lines and was open to the elements. A huge covered grandstand ran the length of left field and extended well past center field. There were no seats in right field, just a fence and a whole lotta space. It was, and remains, one of the strangest baseball fields I’ve ever seen. Calling the first two games for NBC were former Yankee great Tony Kubek and a young Bob Costas.
The game was played October 8th in Toronto. The Blue Jays started their ace, Dave Steib. Steib only went 14-13 in 1985 but made the All-Star team and led the American League in ERA with a 2.48 mark. Kansas City countered with lefty Charlie Leibrandt, who had posted a sterling 17-9 record in his second season with the club. The Jays wasted little time, jumping on Leibrandt for six runs in the first four innings. The Royals finally got on the board in the ninth when Willie Wilson scored on a ground out by Pat Sheridan.
Here are your 1985 Kansas City Royals
The six runs were more than enough as Steib held the Royals to three hits in eight innings of work and Tom Henke, who looked more like a high school science teacher than one of the best closers in the game, worked around two singles in the ninth to preserve the win and give the Blue Jays a 1-0 series lead. Leibrandt gave up five runs in two innings of work before Dick Howser went to Steve Farr. Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson for the final four innings. The odd pitching rotation highlighted a serious lack of depth in the Kansas City staff. Howser basically had five decent starters and Dan Quisenberry. Steve Farr, who had only thrown 37 innings in the regular season, emerged late in the year to give Howser a little more depth.
Played Wednesday afternoon, October 9th with a 3:00 ET start time, the Jays started their number two-man, Jimmy Key. The Royals countered with Bud Black. Key had gone 14-6 in the regular season, while Black had an off year, finishing 10-15. Key and Black, both lefties, were nearly mirror images of each other, the only difference being Key often threw from a three-quarter arm slot while Black came over the top. The Royals struck first when Buddy Biancalana led off the third with a single to center.
With one out, Willie Wilson fouled off the first two pitches from Key. Key challenged him on the third pitch and Willie deposited it into the left field stands. Wilson had only hit four home runs during the regular season. The Royals increased their lead in the fourth when Daryl Motley walked and scored on a double by Jim Sundberg. Rain interrupted the proceedings in the fifth with the score 3-1 Kansas City. When play resumed, Black lost his rhythm. He hit Bell with a pitch and after a Cliff Johnson single, uncorked a wild pitch. Barfield then punched a single to center to score both runners.
Manager Dick Howser went to his closer, Dan Quisenberry, to start the eighth. Lloyd Moseby singled, stole second, advanced to third when Sundberg’s throw got by Frank White and score the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly by George Bell. The Jays were only three outs from taking a two-game lead and with Henke on the mound, it looked bleak. Pat Sheridan, pinch-hitting for Daryl Motley, said no problem and wrapped a lead-off home run around the flagpole in right to stun the Toronto crowd.
Quisenberry worked around a two-out Mulliniks single to retire the Jays in the ninth. Kansas City took the lead in the 10th, when Wilson singled, then with one-out, stole second. With two outs, Frank White stroked a sinking liner to center. Moseby charged and appeared to have made a shoestring catch. Left field umpire Derryl Cousins didn’t see it that way and ruled that Moseby had trapped the ball, which allowed the fleet Wilson to easily score. Manager Bobby Cox argued vociferously, but to no avail. In those prehistoric days, there was no replay and even today, the YouTube video of the play is too difficult to make a solid ruling.
Howser sent Quisenberry out for the tenth and Tony Fernandez led off with a high chopper to Onix Concepcion. Concepcion fielded the ball cleanly, had the ball in his throwing hand, then for some mysterious reason double clutched, allowing Fernandez to beat the throw. It was ruled a hit but should have been an error on Concepcion. The error/hit proved costly as Fernandez moved to second on a ground out before a Moseby single to right drove him home with the tying run. Fernandez ran through third base coach Jimy Williams stop sign and easily beat Sheridan’s throw to the plate.
Quisenberry then tried to pick off Moseby but first baseman Steve Balboni forgot to catch the ball, allowing Moseby to take second. That brought Al Oliver to the plate. Oliver was a professional hitter in the last year of a brilliant 18-year career which saw him accumulate 2,743 hits and almost 44 WAR. With two strikes, Oliver went the other way, slipping a grounder to left to easily score Moseby with the game winner. The Royals committed three costly errors in the game, four if you count the freebie given to Concepcion, and it cost them the game.
Game Three moved to Kansas City, a Friday night game with announced attendance of 40,224. The Royals started 20-game winner Bret Saberhagen while the Jays countered with Doyle Alexander, who had a fine 17-10 season. For the season, Saberhagen had recorded 158 strikeouts and only issued 38 walks. Game Three quickly became the George Brett show. Brett had worked out hard over the winter looking to avoid the injuries that had plagued him since his seminal 1980 season. Looking at that 1980 season, .390/.454/.664, where does a player go from there?
With one out, Willie Wilson singled to center. Wilson attempted to steal second and was called out. The replay clearly shows his slide beat the tag by Tony Fernandez but second base umpire Vic Voltaggio’s view was blocked by Fernandez and since replay didn’t exist yet, Wilson took a seat. Naturally, Brett drove the next pitch about ten rows deep to right to give the Royals a quick 1-0 lead.
It stayed that way until the fourth, when Brett narrowly missed another home run, as his lead off drive bounced high off the right field wall for a double. He advanced to third on a fly out by Hal McRae and came home on another fly out by Frank White.
The wheels came off for Saberhagen in the fifth. The inning went single, home run, fly out, double, single off Saberhagen’s leg and finally another home run, this one off the bat of former Royal Rance Mulliniks. Howser brought on game two starter Bud Black to put out the fire. 5-2 Toronto. Steve Balboni led off the Royals half of the fifth with a hard liner to left, but George Bell made a terrific running catch to rob Balboni of extra bases. Jim Sundberg picked his teammate up with a home run that barely cleared the left field wall. 5-3 Toronto. In the bottom of the sixth, Wilson led off with a sharp single over the glove of Alexander, bringing up Brett. Brett took a ball, then took a violent cut at a ball which he fouled off. On Alexander’s third pitch, Brett drove the ball deep over the left-center wall, up onto the grass to tie the score. The fans gave him a well-deserved standing ovation, getting a curtain call from Brett. Many believe Alex Gordon’s home run in the 2015 World Series was the biggest in Royals history, but this Brett shot was right up there. If the Royals lose this game, they go down three games to none and have to face Dave Steib. Game three was a must win for Kansas City and their star delivered. Again.