The Kansas City Royals loathe, despise and abhor the New York Yankees. Could anyone imagine a more uplifting premise for a championship playoff?
The Kansas City manager calls the Yankee owner "immoral and without integrity toward the game." Some might call that redundant. Whitey Herzog says he just wants to make sure his point is clear.
It is practically impossible to say the word "Yankees" softly enough so that the Royals won't hear it and work themselves up into a lather.
If the Kansas Citians aren't furious about alleged Yankee sign-stealing with walkie-talkies n last year's playoff defeat, then they are incensed about a supposedly phony rainout in New York this year when it never rained.
If the Royals' George Brett isn't reopening old wounds about how Billy Martin mistreated, then traded his brother Ken, then manager Herzog is lambasting New York owner George Steinbrenner for the "shameless may we'll spend any amount of money to buy free agents. That's not baseball. They deserve to lose."
What makes the best-of-five war that will start Wednesday afternoon (3:15 EDT, WRC-TV-4) in Kansas City even better is that the teams are an almost dead-even match, with the Royals perhaps a blood-shot, half-crazed eyeball ahead.
As if it weren't enough that New York beat the Royals in the bottom of the ninth inning of the fifth game of last year's American League playoff, the Yankee insult has been redoubled this year.
The Royals have won more games than any team in baseball - 102. They have whirled off winning streaks of eight, 10 and 16 games, the latter the longest in baseball in 23 years. Since mid-June, Kansas City sprinted for the finish with a 68-24 burst that included a sense-defying 24-1 binge.
And who got most of the national media coverage? Why, the Yankees, of course, who stopped staging three-rounders in their dug-out long enough to sizzle home with a 38-9 finish.
"We never get any recognition," sputtered Herzog yesterday, angry that New York's Sparky Lyle or Baltimore's Jim Palmer probably will win the Cy Young Award away from his Dennis Leonard (20-12, 245 strikeouts). "Dennis should get it. But how?"
The Yanks and Royals have been by far the two hottest teams in baseball over the last six weeks, part of their hurry, no doubt, coming from their desire to get at each other for a rematch of last October's masterpiece.
The two teams are as different as grass and synthetic turf. The Yankees are store-bought and controversial. The Royals are farm-grown, and thoroughly contented.
The New York attack is geared to Yankee Stadium with its close rightfield fence, centering on lefty sluggers Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss. Righthanders Thurmond Munson (100 RBI) and Lou Piniella (328) are high-average slap hitters. Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph add speed, but not as much as they should.
The Royals are the double- and triple-hittingest team in baseball, smacking balls in their park's ersatz grass gaps and gambling for extra bases. Brett, Hal McRae, Amos Otis set the style, while Al Cowens (112 RBI) and John Mayberry join Brett and McRae as 20-plus home run men.
Each team's battling order is designed for home cooking and that helps KC, which gets to play the last three games in its water-fountain-filled blue heaven of a ball park.
The Yanks are loaded with enormously salaried pitchers, several of whom (Catfish Hunter, Ken Hotzman, Don Gullett, Ed Figuerroa have had one problem after another.
The Royal pitchers, by contrast, are the meek of the baseball earth, lowly fellows like Paul Splittorff, Marty Pattin, Andy Hassler, Larry Gura, Doug Bird and Jim Colburn that the Yankees would not open their change purse to buy at auction. Only Leonard is a smoke thrower.
Nevertheless, nurturing such unsteady arms is Herzog's gift."He's uncanny with pitchers," marvels McRae. "Nobody can believe what he gets out of some guys."
Leonard rolled home with a 15-3 finish, but the junk-balling southpaw Splittorff, who will open Wednesday against Gullett, somehow topped that with a 15-2 conclusion to a 16-6 season.
Mr. Nobody, Marty Pattin, won nine of his last 10, while Mr. Nobody II, Colburn, a career mediocrity, won 18 games.
The Yankee edge is in their huge self-confidence, their plethora of big-name stars and their superior bench.
The Royal trump card is the way Herzog's strategy-dictated pitching rotation matches up against Martin's staff, which has been reduced to five able-bodied pitchers by injuries.
Herzog will open with Splittorff and either Gura or Hassler (all lefthanded) against New York's Gullett, then Guidry. "I'd rather have their right handers hitting 480-foot outs into Death Valley in left center than have their lefties hitting 350-footers to right for home runs," reasoned Herzog, who has moved his 20-game ace, Leonard, back to a Game 3 start, thereby killing his chances of starting two games.
"We just want to get in there, get a split and get back here without getting killed," said McRae yesterday.
If the Royals get that split, the Yanks could be on the ropes. Because this playoffs has no off day, the Yanks need four starters, not the usual three, for the playoffs. With Figueroa and Hunter both injured, reliever Dick Tidrow would have to become the fourth starter after Mike Torrez, leaving exhausted Sparky Lyle as the only trusted body in the Yankee Bullpen. KC, in contrast, has faith in four firemen, led by Bird (13 saves since Aug. 1) and hard-throwing young Mark Littel.
Recent performances says that the angry Royals are both hot and bothered. The Yanks, however, have the edge in established stars. In addition, the Royals may annoy the Yankees enough that the New Yorkers will stop grumbling among themselves and get mad at the opposition.
At any rate, the stage is set for fireworks. The Royals have raised Cain in recent days to make sure that the Yanks were not allowed to use recently purchased Dave Kingman. The Yanks, in turn, have conveniently forgotten to mail the Royals their allotment of tickets. "Just the way they forgot to set up a hospitality room for us last year," Said Herzog. "They must be saving money to buy more players."