The best analogies are sometimes far-flung and need an explanation. Thus, when Kansas City pitcher Larry Gura says, "The Yankee pitchers, facing our lineup, look like they're playing Space Invaders," some people laugh at the apt comparison, while others are perplexed.
Space Invaders, a current craze of hoola-hoop dimensions, is a computerized penny-arcade game to which legions of ballplayers and other adolescents of all ages are addicted. The main point about Space Invaders is that you can't win.
The Martian spaceships just keep getting closer, firing their lasers, blasting your fortifications and cutting your reaction time for survival. All you can do, as you fire faster, as you duck and hide, is forestall the inevitable moment when the Martians blow you away.
All the while, an insidous thumping sound, like Poe's "Telltale Heart," keeps beating as an ominous reminder that "they're gonna getcha."
Yankee pitchers can be forgiven if they subconsciously feel this way about the Royals. The symptoms of a man being fired upon by infinite invincible hordes of space invaders and a man trying to pitch to the Royal lineup when it is healthy and hot, are similar: growing nervousness, impatience and finally resigned exasperation.
Even Royals Stadium here seems futuristic and interplanetary with its lighting-fast phony grass, its waterfalls and its huge, crown-shaped scoreboard that looks like it might blast off at any moment. The Royals themselves are thoroughly modern and computerized, a collection of natural athletes on unnatural turf who would look at home in track spikes or football cleats. They all spray line drives, steal bases, have excellent defense range. Every one of them will gamble for an extra base or spike you on the double-play pivot. They take collective pride in being tough and, even, mean, relishing an occasional brawl in a manner alien to normal baseball protocol.
Like those impacable Space Invaders, the Royals seem almost interchangeable. Willie Wilson and George Brett are simply the most virulent of the breed. As U.L. Washington, Frank White, Hal McRae, John Wathan and Amos Otis -- each of whom stole 10 or more bases this year -- wheel around the bases like blue blurs, it is difficult at a glance to tell them apart. Even heavyweights like Clint Hurdle, Darrell Porter and Willie Mays Aikens are graceful and don't slow down the merry-go-round. In a Royal rally, it is easy to forget which part of the batting order -- top, middle or bottom -- is doing the damage. The style of attack never changes. Some just do it better.
The young Royals have raw athletic talent; the old Yankees have veteran baseball skills. This playoff is truly a case of "When Worlds Collide."
Every opponent has problems with the Royal lineup, but none seems so perplexed as the Yankees. Even mediocre teams put on a better show against K.C. than the Yankees. Against the league as a whole, it is almost indisputable that the Yankees, at least statistically, are a stronger and deeper team. They had more wins, a larger margin of victory per game and were more widely feared by opponents. Yet, already in '80, the Royals have won seven games against New York by five or more runs: 12-3, 9-3, 13-1, 14-3, 6-1, 8-0, and 7-2 in the playoff opener.
Obviously, some extra factors are at work here. The time has come to ignore the Yankee-Royal playoffs of '76-'77-'78. Those simply were not the same teams, especially the Yankees, who now have only nine players on their roster from the '78 playoff club. The chemistry under consideration is a new one. Why do the Royals feel so confident against New York and play so well -- perhaps even play over their heads?
First, one clarification is necessary. The Royal edge, if it continues to exist, is based entirely on Kansas City's odd ability to score nearly twice as many runs (7.38) against the Yankees' excellent pitchers as the rest of the league does (3.82). When the Yanks are at bat, the Royals have no edge. New York has no trouble hitting K.C. pitchers at a normal, efficient clip -- 58 runs in 13 games. True, the Royals have a good book on Bobby Murcer (one for 26) and Oscar Gamble (two for 17). Nevertheless, the Yanks have few worries against the Royal staff; they have handed Kansas City two Royal thumpings this year, 16-3 and 13-7.
But when the Royals come to bat, strange things happen. Floods of runs cross the plate -- and quickly. Kansas City has scored 50 runs in the first four innings of its games against New York. In other words, the Royals score as many runs per game in the first four innings (3.84) as other teams do in a whole game against the Yankees. Of course, the sampling of Royal-Yankee games is not large. But it isn't real small, either. Something's afoot.
As a staff, the Yankees two great strengths are that they have the best bullpen in baseball, and they also allow fewer homers than any AL team (102). bNew York allows a lot of base hits, almost one an inning, but is very stingy with walks and long balls. Against most teams -- especally slow but power-laden teams like Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee, which inhabit the East Division -- that's an excellent pitching concept: eliminate the cheap, instant runs that come from walks and homers, thus forcing your foe to build an inning on multiple hits.
However, the Royals could care less about home runs; they had only 115 to New York's 189. They also eschew walks, slashing at bad balls. No Royal drew as many as 70 walks this year.
In other words, the New York theory of pitching is "make them hit the ball, as long as its not for a home run." The Royal's theory of hitting is "just hit the ball someplace and forget home runs." The two notions dovetail to the Royal's dramatic advantage.
Until the Yankee pitchers get that worried, lost-before-we-start Space Invaders look off their faces, New York is going to have its hands full with the Aliens from Kansas City.