It’s been nothing but cold here in southwest Colorado for the past few weeks. The temperature hasn’t risen above the freezing mark much, if at all, and snow has blanketed the ground like green grass covers the outfield at Kauffman Stadium.
What’s the matter with me? Here I sit in permafrost, 849 miles or 13 hours and 25 minutes away from “The K,” according to Google Maps, and my winter thoughts wander to the green fields of my favorite team. I should be putting logs on the fire; instead, I’m looking up a box score from a game I attended at Royals Stadium in 1986 thinking warm thoughts.
In 1986, I was living in Austin, Texas, and my girlfriend at the time had a great idea. She suggested we go camping that spring in Missouri. Now, I love camping. And I was in love with that girlfriend. And I was especially in love with the idea of camping in Missouri. If the timing was right, we could take in a Royals game during the trip and be camped out in the seats of Royals Stadium.
I know, it’s true. Even then my thoughts tended to wander back to the Royals.
As luck would have it, the Royals were in town during our trip and we got tickets to a game against the Toronto Blue Jays. We started our week of camping at the ballpark. First, it was easier to start at the top of the state and work our way down. Second, we didn’t know where along the way we would be taking showers, so we wanted to start at the ballpark with a clean slate, so to speak.
It was April 12, 1986, and it was a beautiful day at Royals Stadium. A chill was in the air, and the announced crowd of over 24,000 was wrapped in warm clothes and sunny outlooks. I hadn’t paid much attention to the team, the season being only a handful of games young. But I knew we had lucked into something special when Dennis Leonard came out of the dugout to warm up after the National Anthem, the crowd giving him a standing ovation.
Leonard was back. He first joined the Kansas City Royals in 1974, won 20 games three times and routinely pitched over 200 innings, hurling 292 and 294 innings in 1977 and 1978, respectively. You couldn’t drag him out of ballgames. The bullpen usually had the night off when Leonard took the mound. That all changed when he blew out his knee and missed all of 1984 and only appeared in 2 games in 1985.
His presence was noticeably absent in 1985, even though the Royals won the World Series that year.
Leonard was so much a part of the building process that he was awarded a World Series ring.
So, to see him emerge from the dugout that sunny April day, unexpectedly on my part, was an amazing blessing. He had been gone too long. And yet, as the game unfolded, it was like he had never left.
He threw with such ease and conservation of motion. That is, until he released the ball. Then his violent leg whip and powerful arm seemed to propel his body and the ball in one motion toward the plate. You could feel the recoil like a shotgun blast in a weak grip.
The innings flew by that day. George Brett and Frank White had singles, but neither team could manage much. No score through the top of the eighth. Jim Sundberg got a hit off Toronto starter Jim Acker in the bottom of the eighth. Buddy Biancalana came in to pinch run. Jorge Orta pinch hit for shortstop Angel Salazar and laced a double to right, scoring Biancalana. That’s all Leonard would need. As was his trademark, he came out for the ninth. Leonard won the game 1-0, tossing a 3-hitter and his 99th career complete game.
He threw four more complete games that year, his 12th and final season. He retired from the game with a 144-106 record and an impressive 3.70 ERA.
And even though his career with the only team he ever played for came to an end, another long, yet less chronicled team began. You see, I married that girlfriend who loved baseball enough to see to it her boyfriend got to attend a Royals game.
A pretty special one at that.