Back In Time – 1974

Unless you are talking trades or prospects, it is hard to get interested in the 2018 Royals. In case you hadn’t noticed, I have been absent from the writing pool for a bit and it mostly stems from this being one of the most dismal of Royals seasons. There was a point in time when I vigorously wrote about the upside of Ruben Gotay, the brewing first base battle between Ken Harvey and Calving Pickering and even how, if you squinted just right, Bobby Keppel might be the answer to one of the starting rotation spots. I don’t have that kind of energy any longer.

If, like me, you find yourself drawn to a rerun of The Office despite the Royals being on the other channel, I thought maybe we would take some strolls down memory lane to take our minds off a team that is so strikingly removed from the 2015 World Champions that one might just wonder if it even really happened. In doing so, I am not seeking out a particularly significant game or season, just randomly going back to this day in time for something, if not better, at least different.

For no reason whatsoever, I chose to start the journey by going back to this past weekend in 1974.

The Royals entered July 14th with a 43-43 record, 4.5 games behind the AL West leading Oakland A’s. It was 96 degrees that Sunday afternoon in Royals Stadium as Detroit and Kansas City played the rubber match of a three game set.  As it was a Sunday, Kansas City was not playing its regular lineup. Frank White, still a season away from becoming a regular, was leading off and playing second to give Cookie Rojas a rest. Al Cowens was in center for Amos Otis and Tony Solaita was batting third and playing first.

The Royals regular right fielder that year was Vada Pinson, who was batting second. Way back in 1961, Pinson had led the National League in hits with 208 on his way to hitting a career high .343. That is relevant because Norm Cash, playing his final season (he would, in fact, play in just 12 more games after this one) was in the Tigers’ lineup and he had led the American League in hits in 196 with 193 on his way to hitting a career high .361 that year. Cash would never hit higher than .280 in any season after 1961. As for Pinson, he compiled 600 or more plate appearances in 10 different seasons, hit over .300 four times and end his career with the Royals in 1975 with 2,757 hits.

Speaking of hits, Detroit’s Al Kaline was also in his final season and marching towards 3000 hits – a mark he would hit on September 24th, but he was not in the lineup this hot Sunday (he was 0 for his previous 17 leading up to this game). That is relevant because another 3000 hit guy, one George Brett, was in the lineup for the Royals.  At that time, the 21 year old rookie had amassed 49 career hits and entered the game hitting .234. As it was a ‘Sunday lineup’, Brett had moved up from his normal 9th spot in the batting order to hit 7th.

The starting pitcher for the Royals was Bruce Dal Canton, who in his previous eight starts had gone eight innings or more five times and not made it out of the second two times. Dal Canton, who was on his way to throwing a career high 175 innings in 1974 had toiled the full 10.2 innings a month earlier to these same Tigers, losing in the bottom of the 11th on an Aurelio Rodriguez walk-off single.  Mickey Lolich spun all 11 innings for the Tigers in that one. Mull this one over:  11 innings, two pitchers and a game time of three hours flat!

Back to July 14th, Joe Coleman was on the hill for the Tigers. The right-hander was just 27 years old and was already making his 286th major league appearance and 264th start. Coleman, who had started 38, 39 and 40 games the previous three years and would make 41 starts in 1974. He would make just 59 more starts afterwards.

Detroit started the scoring in the 2nd when Jerry Moses singled in Norm Cash. The Royals would even the game two innings later when Fran Healy hit his seventh home run of the year (on his way to a career high nine). The Tigers, thanks to Frank White’s second error of the game, put two on in the fifth, but could not score. Kansas City loaded the bases in the sixth, but Healy grounded into a pitcher to catcher to first base double play to end the threat.

In the seventh, Healy failed to catch a third strike, allowing Ed Brinkman to reach with two outs (when was the last time you saw that in the majors?), but Dal Canton simply struck out the next hitter. A Jim Wohlford double and Al Cowens walk gave the Royals two on with one out in the seventh, but Cookie Rojas, pinch hitting for Freddie Patek grounded into an inning ending double play.

John Hiller replaced Coleman in the 8th, working around two baserunners in what would be the first of his SIX relief innings that day. He ran into trouble again in the 9th when a Brett infield single was followed by an Al Cowens single, only to see Cowens run into an out at second. Hiller then intentionally walked Rojas to get to White, who popped out to end the frame.

Steve Mingori replaced Dal Canton, who had now pitched 20 innings in two starts against Detroit and had nothing to show for it, in the tenth and would allow only  a hit and three walks over the next FOUR innings of relief work. All the while, the Royals could muster little against Hiller. They even resorted to pulling Amos Otis out of his day off to replace Cowens to no avail.

Doug Bird threw a 1-2-3 14th and the Tigers sent Jim Ray out to throw the bottom of that inning. Ray was in his last major league season and had more walks than strikeouts that season. Otis led off with a single followed by a a bunt popout by Rojas. Another bunt by White pushed Otis over to second and then Vada Pinson was intentionally walked (the FOURTH Royal to be intentionally walked that day). Kurt Bevacqua, acquired just six days earlier and who had pinch-hit for Solaita earlier in the game, worked a walk and then Hal McRae walked in the winning run. A walk-off walk, if you will.

Game time, three hours and thirty-nine minutes. The teams combined to hit 3-23 with runners in scoring position, committed six errors, hit into five double plays and left 26 runners on base. McRae was hitless, but walked three times (twice intentionally) to up his on-base percentage to .396.  Tony Solaita struck out in all three of his at-bats.

Kansas City would eventually get to nine games above .500 and close to within four games of the A’s on August 26th, only to lose 14 of 15 games between August 28th and September 14th. A string that included shutout losses to Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter in a Monday doubleheader in Oakland sandwiched between a home series with Minnesota and an away series with California. In fact, here are some of the pitchers that the Royals lost to in that string: Gaylord Perry, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Wilbur Wood, Jim Kaat, Bert Blyleven, Blue, Hunter, Frank Tanana (back when he three HARD) and Nolan Ryan.

As we all know, the latter half of 1974 saw George Brett become GEORGE BRETT and also see the September major league debut of a 23 year old Dennis Leonard (who would go 0-4 in five starts). By 1975, the Royals were legitimate contenders when they won 91 games and were poised to make the post-season in six of the next ten campaigns.

In many ways, the 1974 Royals team was the team before the team got good squad – maybe a bit like the 2012 Royals.  One could, with a little imagination, see a contender in that group. Sadly, no such imagination exists that allows us to think the 2018 team is the ‘team before the team got good.’ As such, perhaps we will take some more trips back in time and see what we flounder upon next time.

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