Happy New Year my Royal loving friends! I’m still in full-blown, holiday, nostalgia, and list mode.
A few years ago, Joe Posnanski wrote a column about his personal top 20 home runs of all time. It got my wheels spinning. What are mine? It was harder to boil down than I expected.
Hell, my first memory watching baseball was the 1980 World Series. We were at my grand dad’s house and he chanted “Willie, Willie”, after Willie Aikens hit his second home run in Game One of the Series. George Brett, his home runs against the Angels during the last week of the 1985 season were epic. His home runs against the Blue Jays in the ALCS that same year were huge. There was Kirk Gibson in 1988, and Joe Carter‘s bomb against the Phillies in ’93. Many dongs to contemplate. ( that’s what she said)
I decided they needed to be home runs I actually witnessed. Home runs that shadowed forks in my life’s road. Below is the column I wrote about those big flies. What are yours?
The Horrible Beauty of Home Runs
I love baseball. At an early age I embraced it’s nostalgia, romanticism and sense of history. It truly was my religion, and I still can’t accurately place events and moments from my childhood without it as reference. Here are my top 3 most memorable home runs in chronological order.
Howard Johnson, New York Mets, Wrigley Field, 1989.
For my 16th birthday, my Dad took to me to Chicago to see a couple Cubs games, and to tell me that he and my mom were getting a divorce. I had never been to Wrigley, and I also had more than a hunch that Dad had some “news” for me. It was a sad, excited, anxious pilgrimage.
It was a night game, in and of itself a novelty for Wrigley in 1989. The place was buzzing. I was full of adrenaline when we got off the red line, and couldn’t believe how everyone in the neighborhood seemed to be as excited as I was about a baseball game. That place looked how I had always felt about the game. I purposefully walked through the tunnel and into the seats as slow as the crowd would let me, telling myself to never forget the moment. Our seats were only a few rows away from where poor Mr. Bartman sat years later for the National League Championship Series. Being a huge Royals fan, I had no rooting interest. I just wanted to see something amazing, and avoid the horrible talk that swung its enormous bat in my mind’s on deck circle.
In the fifth, Mets third baseman, Howard Johnson, came on with two on and two out. The switch hitting Hojo was batting from the right side, but I can’t remember the Cubs lefty he was facing. I do remember he served up a hanging curve that got yanked out of Wrigley and landed on Waveland Avenue. The only stadium I had previously been to was cavernous Royals Stadium. Nobody had or has ever hit one out of that stadium, so I saw something that, at the time, seemed amazing. (I did once see Jim Rice drop a bomb at the K, landing a few feet from the Crown scoreboard. That made my uncle Bill say, “Oh F***”)
After Hojo launched that 3 run dinger, I looked at my Dad. His face was lit up like a Christmas Tree. We high-fived as he yelled, “Oh F*ck!”. We caught a game the next day. The Cubs lost a rain delayed contest to the Cardinals. I don’t remember what we did that night. On our drive home from the airport that Sunday I watched him struggle to start the uncomfortable conversation he thought he had to have with me. I feigned surprise, and it wasn’t very fair for either of us. That being the case, I absolutely cherish that weekend with Dad, and to this day, there is nothing I want to do more on my birthday than go to a baseball game.
Ed Connealy, Red Birds, A crappy baseball field in Southern Johnson County, 1991
I waited until my very last competitive baseball game to hit one over a fence. My first, and last, legit homer came in the Championship game the summer of my Senior Year.
We only played 7 innings in the Summer League, and in the fifth inning, were down by two runs. Our pitcher loaded the bases by walking his second straight batter. He then went 3-0 to the next hitter, and started screaming at the umpire. Our coach, his Dad, pulled him before he got ejected.
I went from shortstop to the mound with the bases loaded and a 3-0 count. I threw two great sliders, and a fastball for a dramatic strike out. I was to lead off the next inning, and the guy pitching is the guy I just gutted. I wasn’t done. His first pitch was a meatball that I hit it out of the park, probably over 340 feet. My balls never felt so big.
Flash to the bottom of the 7th, and I am up against this kid again. We are still down one, with a runner on second and third. There are two outs. On a 2-1 count, I shoot his weak curve on the screws opposite field. It lands in the webbing of the out stretched right fielder’s glove. Game over. High School over. Playing Baseball that counts is over. On the way home I had to pull over. I have never cried so hard.
Ken Harvey of the Kansas City Royals, Kaufman Stadium, 2003
When I was a kid, the Kansas City Royals were good. Real good. It’s fair to say that from 1977-1985, they were among baseball’s elite. They had a couple of seasons in the early 90’s when they contended, but since winning it all in 1985, they had been a horrible baseball team. Then came the Spring of 2003.
The Royals started the 2003 season 9-0, and stood 11-3 when the Detroit Tigers came to town.
In the 11th inning Ken Harvey, a poor man’s Mo Vaughn, strolled through the rain to the plate. Everyone stayed, despite the hour and the weather. The house was wired. Ken yanks a no doubter deep into the left field fountain to win the game. The “K” went crazy, crazier than I had ever seen it.
I had been to at least 100 Royals games prior to this one. I went to Game 1 of the 1985 World Series. I had seen Bo Jackson break the laws of physics in that stadium. But I never saw that stadium completely go off like it did after Ken Harvey’s home run.
Initially, I was surprised at how emotionally charged we all were. I distinctly remember the strongest reactions came from fans aged over 30. We were not just celebrating that home run. We were remembering happy, proud times from our past, that we knew we would never get back.
Beneath our cheers, beneath our yells, crept anger and some sadness.
The next day’s KC Star displayed an awesome photo of big Ken circling the bases in the rain. It was like finding a picture of, or a note from, an old, lost friend.
Many of my favorite, and almost all of my most vivid, life memories are layered like these home runs.
(The 2003 Kansas City Royals finished 83-79. It was the franchise’s first winning season since 1993. They finished 7 games out of first place that season. Ken Harvey was out of baseball by 2006)
I want to wish you a year with peace, love, enthusiasm, and a pennant race.
Happy New Year, and Go Royals!