Soaked with champagne and beer, George Brett stood in the middle of the Kansas City Royals' clubhouse Saturday night and looked at his celebrating teammates with a wry smile on his face.
"They know this (winning the American League West) is only the first step," he said. "I know Toronto won 10 more games than we did (actually eight), but if we played the way we did the last week, we'll win, our experience will do it. If we play the way we did in June, July and August, we'll get our butts kicked."
Tonight at 8:30 in windy, lakeside Exhibition Stadium, the Royals and the AL East's Blue Jays will begin finding out whether experience or sheer talent matters most in a best-of-seven league championship series. The Blue Jays (99-62) led the league in pitching earned run average and were second in hitting. The Royals (91-71) were second in ERA but 13th in batting.
But the Royals have been in the playoffs six of the last 10 years now. The Blue Jays, in their ninth year of existence, are in for the first time. Toronto is similar to the first Kansas City team that made the playoffs in 1976. Then, the franchise was eight years old and young players such as Brett, Hal McRae, Frank White and Darrell Porter were just coming into their own.
Now, Brett, White and McRae are the veteran backbone of a team rebuilt in the last two years, one that depends heavily on young pitchers in Bret Saberhagen (20-6), Bud Black (10-15) and tonight's starter, Charlie Leibrandt (17-9). Behind them is relief closer Dan Quisenberry, who saved 45 games last year, 37 this year.
The Blue Jays mirror the 1976 Royals in many ways. They are built around several players in their late 20s and just peaking: outfielders George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield had 73 home runs among them and stole 80 bases, a superb blend of speed and power. They also have one of baseball's best young double play combinations in shortstop Tony Fernandez and second baseman Damaso Garcia, both good-hit, good -- though occasionally erratic -- fielders.
They also have pitching, led by tonight's starter, Dave Stieb (14-13), who led the league in ERA and would have had a better record had the bullpen been more consistent. Jimmy Key (14-6) is another strong young arm and, rare for Toronto, a left-handed one. Third starter Doyle Alexander, 35, is a retread who found some magic elixir in Toronto and has gone 41-16 for 2 1/2 seasons, including 17-10 this year. The bullpen has names in Gary Lavelle and Bill Caudill, but the stopper during the pennant drive was Tom Henke, called up from Syracuse in July. He had 13 saves and a 2.03 ERA.
In short, both sides have pitching. Toronto has more offense overall but Kansas City has the best player in Brett. His very presence in the lineup makes the rest of the Royals better. He hit .335 this season and, even drawing 103 walks, he had 30 home runs and 112 RBI.
"You can only pitch around George Brett so many times," said White, who had 22 home runs, a career high at age 35. "Sooner or later, he's going to get you."
Brett was largely responsible for the Royals' five-of-six winning drive during the last week that beat out California and won the division for the second straight season. The victory put Manager Dick Howser into postseason play for the fourth time and gives him a chance to break an 0-9 postseason string (0-6 in championship series, 0-3 in the 1981 mini-playoffs). Howser thinks those failures will end with this series.
"Repeating tells me a lot about this team," Howser said. "I think with our starters we can compete with anyone and that's just what we did all year, we competed. We had ups and we had downs but when it mattered most, we produced. We know how good Toronto is, but we have a lot of confidence. Last year against the Tigers, we were playing a team that really dominated the league. This year, no one is dominant. Any team in the playoffs can win the whole thing."
The Royals were 7-5 this season against the Blue Jays. This will be the first time in league history that both participating teams played their home games on artificial turf, so home field could mean less. But the potentially frigid weather in Toronto could be a factor.
The main factor, though, as always in postseason, will be pitching. That is where the experience of the Royals could make a difference. Leibrandt, Black and Saberhagen all started playoff games last year. Alexander started the first game of the 1976 World Series for the Yankees; he was bombed.
"I think it's very important that we get on top of them," Brett said. "Of course, you always say that but in this case it's really true because they've never been through it before and they might get a little tight. They're not coming in that hot. They lost three in a row in Texas (actually in Detroit) and had to hang on a little to win.
"We weren't playing well either until this last week. But we went through a week that had as much pressure as a playoff or a World Series can have and we handled it. I really think we're ready to play."
The Royals are 1-4 in playoffs, including three losses to the Yankees. They readily admit they are happy to be playing Toronto rather than New York. "The Yankees have a hex on us or something," said White, even though the Royals did sweep the Yankees (managed by Howser) in 1980 to reach their only World Series.
The Royals' home city has become so spoiled by the regular-season success that the team averaged barely 30,000 attendance for the six crucial games at Royals Stadium last week. Toronto, on the other hand, is agog over its Blue Jays, wallowing in a first pennant race and a first pennant won. Regardless of the weather, Exhibition Stadium will be crammed with crazies tonight and again Wednesday afternoon.
But home field, experience, hot hitters, momentum, take your pick, really don't matter now. Pitching does. Both Howser and Toronto Manager Bobby Cox say they like their pitching. Good pitching is why they are here. This first best-of-seven AL playoff (up from best-of-five) will decide whose is better.