Whitey Herzog should be bald now. The baseball fates have been given the Kansas City Royals' manager every reason to yank his cornsilk hair out by the roots.
"Sometimes this game makes no sense what . . . so . . . ever," Herzog said deliberately.
"This team hasn't been halfway healthy since May. Guess you'd have to say we're pretty darn lucky to still be in a pennant race at all."
Then Herzog gave the tiny, sly smile of a 27-year baseball man who knows his game is designed to defy logic, to make strong men whimper: "Last year at this time, we were healthy and in fourth place. Now we're in first place and five games up in the lost column."
A week ago in Cleveland, Herzog looked up to see his multimillion-dollar infield of batting champion George Brett, All-Star Fred Patek, Gold Glover Frank White and super-rookie Clint Hurdle.
Instead, Herzog saw Steve Braun at third, U.L. Washington at shortstop, Jerry Terrell at second and Pete LaCock on first. By the time the game ended in extra innings, Herzog had Jamie Quirk at short and outfield Joe Zdeb alternating between second and third with Terrell. Who are these guys?
"Thank heavens for all of 'em," said Herzog.
Few teams have ever made so whacky a progression to first place as these Royals, who are last in the AL in home runs, next to last in fielding and have a starting pitching staff led by Rich Gale and Larry Gura.
Had Herzog known what would befall his Royals in two-thirds of a season, he might have stayed in his native New Athens, Ill., and fished the summer away.
K. C., after winning more games than any team in baseball in '77 (102), was so confident of its rookie crop that 18-game winner Jim Colborn and cleanup man John Mayberry were traded for utility men and broken bats.
Two of those glamorous 6-foot-3, 200-pound kids with NFL physiques and "can't-miss" tags have had severe cases of big-league mind-boggle.
The strapping Hurdle has four homers in 316 at-bats, and keeps tinkering with his stance. His .269 average and 46 RBI are tolerable, but not up to Mayberry's slumping levels.
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCES] 46 RBI are tolerable, but not up to Mayberry's slumping levels.
Fleet Willie Wilson looks like Godzilla but hits like Winnie the Pooh. Since he can't steal first base (226 average, zero homers), most of his damage (34 steals) comes as a pinch runner.
As if these miscalculations of youth and age were not enough, the Royals started injuring themselves in spring training and havent stopped.
Andy Hassler, since traded, cut himself with a knife in March - on his pitching hand, naturally.
Amos Otis pulled a hamstring on opening day and hasn't been fluid since. Nevertheless, his humble 14 homers lead the Royals.
The "DL' (disabled list) is the Royals' home away from home. Everybody visits at least once.
"We play so hard that we're just naturally going to get injuries," says outfielder Tom Poquette, only half joking.
The Little Blue Machine, which leads the AL in steals (154), doubles and triples, has the league's most versatile and thought-provoking attack.
"If you understand 'inside' baseball, you gotta love us," says Herzog who seems to put on the hit-and-run or double steal at least once an inning.
Taking the extra base, especially on their home Tartan Turf, where they are 39-18, is Royal gospel.
The price of hard-nosed, head-first baseball is steep. Brett, the team leader, has missed 28 games with a dislocated shoulder and broken thumb. Al Cowns, last year's MVP candidate with 112 RBI, visited the DL with sprained knee ligaments. John Wathan (.328 in '77) also dislocated his shoulder.
How do these awful things happen? Brett was trying to hospitalize a second baseman on a doubleplay. Cowens was drivig into a base, Wathan diving for a ground ball.
No sooner did the Royals get a teensy-bit healthy - winning 10 of 12 to end July with a five-game AL West lead over California - than nearly the entire infield was sidelined almost simultaneously.
Pate (hamstring), White (strained shoulder) and Brett (thumb) went down in action. Say hello to August, the dog days.
The Royals now face 16 of 19 games on the road. Patek, limping, is back.White and Brett are still sidelined for several more days.
"If we can just hold together on the road, hold together until some of our people get back. . ." said Herzog, aware that 21 of K.C.'s last 34 games are at home.
"I'm proud of us," said catcher Darrell Porter. "We could have collapsed by now."
Even healthy Royals have bombed out. Dennis Leonard, a 20-game winner, opened the season 4-9, and is now up to a lackluster 12-14. "He just pitched bad," Herzog said with a shrug. "Everything doesn't have a nice neat explanation."
Just as surprising has been the Royals' teamwide power drain. Brett, Cowens and McRae, who combined for 66 homers last year, have 18.
"We got 'home run' on the brain," said Cowens. "Especially early in the year we were swinging for the pump.
The best way not to hit homers is to swing for 'em."
So, how in the world can K.C. have the same 62-48 record it had after 110 games last year?
"We've stayed alive with pitching and the oldest cliche in the book - teamwork," said Herzog.
While Leonard and Paul Splittorff (13-9) have been mortal, the unlikely starting due of Gale and Gura has a combined 23-5 record.
The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Gale finally looks as imposing on the stat sheet - 13-3 record, 2.59 ERA - as he does on the mound. Despite his size, Gale is no fast-balling whirlwind - just a determined, poised 24-year-old with four good pitches.
Gura, 30, is typical Herzog reclamation project - a soutnpaw castoff of the Yankees who has been 23-7 since 1976 with the Royals.
"Whitey is probably the biggest reason behind us sticking together," said Gura, 10-2; who opened the Royals' crucial road trip with a shutout here Wednesday.
"Managing is done 85 percent off that field," said Gura. "That's where Whitey is so excellent. He tells you the truth, he explains your role.
"He's the kind of boss that 25 men all want to work for. I'VE HAD A COUPLE OF FAMOUS MANAGERS - Billy Martin and Leo Durocher - that you couldn't say those things about."
So the decimated Royals, and their manager whose hair doesn't need to turn white, continue to steal victories until that healthy day when the real K.C. killers can show up.