Matthew Keenan

Ticket to Yesteryear, published in 435 South, October 2013

by on Nov.02, 2013, under 435 South Columns

Psychologists tell us we gain as much joy from rooting against our opponents as we do rooting for our own teams. It’s the thinking that gives rise to this bumper sticker: “My favorite teams are KU and whoever is playing MU.” And when your beloved team plays your hated rival, the potential for euphoria — and despair — is never greater.

In the 1970s, there was no greater rivalry than that between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees. The Royals introduced the world to Kansas City baseball with the opening of their stadium in 1973 and with it, joined a golden age of baseball.

In that era, baseball’s popularity eclipsed that of football and basketball combined. It had earned the moniker of “national pastime” and had no peer. Proof of this could be seen in neighborhood baseball diamonds in small towns and big cities equally. There were pick-up games, home run derbies, and special rules to accommodate small numbers of players, like ghost runners.

The Royals-Yankee rivalry went beyond the players, beyond the fans, right down to the managers and owners.

The wildly reviled Billy Martin and his equally despised sidekick Reggie Jackson led the Yankee Empire. The team owners were also studies in contrast: Ewing Kauffman — a self-made man who welcomed trick-or-treaters to his Mission Hills home; and George Steinbrenner — a convicted felon and grumpy recluse who was willing to pay any sum to guarantee a championship.

The Pine Tar game remains an iconic event that was just recognized for its 30th anniversary by media outlets the world over. Do you think it would still be celebrated today had it involved George Brett charging someone like the 1983 Minnesota Twins’ manager Billy Gardner?

No way.

My family’s connection to the Royals was even more personal. Royals shortstop Freddie Patek’s aunt, Marie Peterson, lived in my hometown and, even more unbelievably, worked for my dad’s law firm. It was a moon shot of unlikely probabilities.

In 1976, the Royals faced the Yankees in the American League playoffs. In the deciding game 5 in New York, George Brett hit a game-tying two-run homer in the top of the eighth inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off home run to win the series. As Chambliss attempted to round the bases, fans mobbed him; a video clip frequently shown is emblematic of the frenzy associated with Yankee baseball.

The next year the Royals were once again on a collision course with the Yankees. But that autumn also saw me leaving home and enrolling as a freshman at KU. I had gained 200 miles on the drive to Royals stadium. When the Royals and Yankees met in the playoffs, my dad called me and what he said I still remember: “I have tickets to game 5, if they play it. You want them?”

My high school classmate, pledge brother and, later in life, best man was John Holt. I now had something John wanted, and the converse was also true.

John had a car.

As had happened many times before and since, we made a memory together.

This was game 5, the biggest game in franchise history and certainly the biggest game played in the new stadium. And in the mix of prominent Kansas City celebrities were two 18-year-olds sitting in the left field upper, upper deck. Use any cliché you want. None could capture the palpable sense of anxiety in the air, in part because of the 1976 meltdown but also because we knew this was a franchise with World Series titles like you’d toss in your closet and forget about.

They had Babe Ruth. We had Dick Drago.

“I just remember how electric it was,” John remembers. “I’d been to many games over the years with my family, motoring up for weekend getaways to watch the Royals. But the buzz, the energy, the anticipation of what could be and the fear of what might be just enveloped us. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Before or since.”

And three distinct memories from that evening have stuck with me.

The first was a play in the first inning. Hal McRae singled and George Brett — just two years separated from his rookie year — hit a triple and brought McRae home. John and I were sitting right above third base. Brett slid into third and Graig Nettles kicked him. Brett came up from his slide and punches flew. Everyone was stunned.

In preparing this piece, I Googled “George Brett + Graig Nettles + fight” and saw the video for the first time. Watch it and you will understand the environment that night. You will also appreciate why Brett was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 98.19 percent of the vote — one of the top five vote-getters of all time, with much of that vote coming from the New York media. They respected him and he respected the game. He competed and played like a warrior. And if your hated rival kicks you after you tripled in the first run of the game, well, there is only one appropriate response.

Obviously I had never seen a game of this magnitude without television commentary. No one could shape your observations, your impressions or your reactions. Everything was raw and you couldn’t process it.

A fistfight with our best player in the first inning of the biggest game on the biggest stage.

“Brett will be tossed!” I said to myself.

No chance.

The umpires knew what the league and NBC also appreciated — this was the most-watched American League playoff game in history, with more than 22 million viewers. This was no time for ejecting the most popular player on the field, on the planet.

Students of local sports history know the game’s eventual outcome. The Royals’ lead evaporated in the top of the ninth inning. It wasn’t a home run that happened quickly, like a year earlier. It was a slow death that started with a bloop single and then a walk, and then another single to Mickey Rivers. On a deep fly, the go-ahead run scored. The game ended with Freddie Patek hitting into a double play.

When the final out was recorded, I can still remember distinctly how the stadium was so quiet you could actually hear the Yankees’ dugout cheering. Whoops and yelling and screaming — so faintly but so distinctly. The contrasts were stark and dumbing. There were two kinds of Royals fans in the world that night: those who cried and liars. The Yankees, of course, went on to win the World Series, beating the LA Dodgers. Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in the final game.

The stadium didn’t empty for what seemed like 30 minutes. By leaving we had to accept it was over and no one was ready to do that. I remember walking down those circular ramps and about halfway down, we came upon a fistfight between two adult fans. Someone was wearing a goose down jacket and it had torn; feathers were slowly circulating in the air, ascending the ramp. One of the bystanders was a lady, and she was screaming. In my 54 years, I’ve seen only two fights between grown men. They were three hours apart. Neither one was the most shocking thing I had witnessed that day.

We climbed in John’s Plymouth Fury but didn’t head home. Home was 262 miles west on I-70 where Larry and Ramona would hug me, fix me some chicken soup, and say something to soothe the soul.

We were stopping short of that at a fraternity with a room that six weeks earlier I had first seen and shared with two older students I hardly knew, and where I slept in a dorm with 30 other strangers, save one. It was a place that felt like a million miles from home, and it would take another six months and a few keggers to get anything close to feeling comfortable.

That stretch of I-70 back to Lawrence was the longest, loneliest, darkest stretch as we listened to the post-game on the radio. Depression wouldn’t do it justice; I was suddenly very homesick, feeling like I had just tumbled into an emotional sinkhole.

For 36 years these recollections were locked away, deep in my consciousness. And then Lori found this ticket stub in our basement and handed it to me.

One glance and all the memories came rushing back.

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