It sometimes seems that the New York Yankees have been created in all their soap-opera preposterousness merely as foils for the gallant Kansas City Royals.
The Yankees make such a lovely dragon, suitable for prime-time slaying by these wholesome Lochinvars who have just come out of the west.
Kansas City's central characters are almost perfect inverses of the corresponding Yankees.
The contrast between Royal manager Whitey Herzog and his black-hat opposite, Billy Martin, is so complete that Herzog plays on it as one of his strategic gambits.
If Martin bans reporters from his clubhouse, Herzog invites them in. If Martin sulks in post-defeat public interviews, Herzog is magnanimous to a point where comparisons are inevitable.
When Herzog is on the road, he blasts the Yankee brass with abandon, his diatribes a blur of curses interruped only by hyphens. In New York, he becomes the voice of reason, isolating Martin further with his own restrained generosity.
Herzog knows how to plant a burr under Martin's saddle: "I like one-year contracts, that's all I'll ask for," he said, knowing Martin is in dutch for demanding a five-year pact. But a moment later, Herzog covered his mischievous tracks: "Billy and I are buddies. Last time we went hunting, Billy's dog eat my pheasant."
Whose dog eat whose pheasant?
Herzog is no less crafty, no less intense than Martin. When AL president Lee MacPhail ruled against Herzog in an August protest over a rainout in New York, Herzog rumbled, "If MacPhail comes in my office, there's gonna be one fat little league president thrown out on his butt."
But Herzog knows how to alternate between vinegar and honey. Martin knows about vinegar, but when he reaches for the honey he always seems to come up with arsenic.
The byplay between Herzog and Martin always has the unsettling aspect of a healthy man taking advantage of an invalid. Herzog never misses a chance to make Martin look like the bad buy.
This week, Herzog reached back to 1954 and an armed service game to recall Martin beating him by using his own sergeants as umpires."I pulled my team off the field, though my general damn near court-martialed me." recalled Herzog. "I told Billy, 'If you want the damn game that bad, you can have it. I'll get you in the All-Army tournament. Then I beat him there."
While Herzog remembers Martin as a hunting buddy, others recall that Billy the Kid ended up with Herzog's job after Herzog was fired in Texas in '73. "The Rangers promised me three years to get the team straight," Herzog said, "but somehow it only lasted one season."
Martin has always been a notorious "somehow" in front-office politics. When manager Sam Mele had Martin for a coach at Minnesota, he called Martin "a knife walking around looking for a back."
Herzog has artfully commandered the whole nation as his team's rooting section. "All baseball wants us to win," said Herzog. "Not that they love us . . . they just hate the Yankees, and their check-writing."
No wonder the Royals call Herzog "Stein" - short for "Einstein." "Oh," said Herzog, "I thought it was for Frankenstein."
The Royal's knack for using Yankee foibles to show themselves in a good light only starts in the manager's chair.
Of all the Yankees' apples of discord this season, right fielder and cleanup-man Reggie Jackson has been the big golden delicious. Of all the soft-spoken, content and self-effacing Royals, right fielder and cleanup-man Al Cowens is the epitome.
While the Yankees, including Jackson, delight in making good plays look exceptional, Cowens specializes in making the difficult look casual. When the Royals' three home-run hitters from game one posed together. Cowens looked so shy that one Royal laughed, "He doesn't even know how to smile."
"George Brett and Hal McRae get all the publicity on this team," said Cowens, who had 69 extra-base hits and 112 RBI this year, "but I don't resent it. That's just the way it is. No sense me resenting it . . . Things may change after we win this playoff and then the World Series."
While Jackson gives dissertations on who should be the league's MVP, Cowens just says, "I would like to think my name would come up sometime during the conversation."
The Yankees' favorite parlor game is, "Who gets the credit?" Martin and owner George Steinbrenner play it best, but almost all of the Yankees are masters. Thurman Munson, the "team leader," usually makes a list in which his rival, Jackson, makes an appearance somewhere around fifth place.
It's just another way the Yankees make friends. When the team voted for its MVP this week. Graig Nettles won. "I must have the least enemies," laughed Nettles. "Maybe they voted for me out of pity proably thought I was the only who wouldn't vote for himself."
The Royals' "leader" type, third baseman George Brett, characteristically promotes Cowens as the team star, saying. "He should be the league's MVP but he probably won't. Al's black, married and plays in the Midwest. To get famous, you've got to be white, single and play on one of the coasts."
Even the Yank and Royal pitching staffs seem to be made-to-order contrasts. Herzog has been patient with past 20-game winners Paul Splittcoff and Jim Colburn, helping them rediscover themselves after serious slumps. Martin has been impatient and rushed his big names while they were still injured.
The Royals' answer to a simple question is invariably an honest answer. Why did Splittorff come out of Wednesday's game? "Because I didn't have a thing left." said Splittorff."The guys had been laughing at me on the bench. Anybody down on the field knew I prayed my way through the last two innings."
Don't even inquire about how the Yankees accounted for Don Gullett's quick exit that same afternoon. Ask two yankees - especially if one is Martin and the other a player - if the sun is shining and it's even money they will get their stories crossed.
Over the course of a six-month season, the Yankees may be a more delightful team. Their overtones of 20th-century abnormality offer a kaleidescope of minidramas. Their players have brought the complex nextis of fame, talent and melancholy to the locker room.
The Royals, however, are perfect over the short run of a playoff. Togetherness, candor, backslapping, hustle - the invigorating Royals have it.