KC Royals: Unexpected hero launches MLB fandom

KC Royals (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
KC Royals (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Mark Schremmer grew up watching KC Royals baseball. The first MLB game he attended involves a 16-inning marathon and an unexpected hero.

There’s something special about attending a Major League Baseball game. Every time you go to the park, there’s a chance you will see history.

Will this be the night someone tosses a perfect game or no-hitter? Will someone hit for the cycle or crush three homers?

The magic is that you never know when it will happen or who the hero will be when it does. And after that magical moment does arrive, every person in the stadium will forever be linked whether they realize it or not.

Yeah, the movie “Moneyball” said it best. “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”

As you may have guessed from my sappy intro, I miss baseball. I miss watching the KC Royals on TV. I miss listening to Denny Matthews on the radio. But most of all, I miss spending three-plus hours surrounded by thousands of my closest friends at Kauffman Stadium.

At this point, I’m satisfied with the prospect of Major League Baseball returning in any form this summer. Still, nothing can quite match getting to see a game in person.

The absence has sparked memories of the best games I’ve attended over the years. I’ve never seen a perfect game or no-hitter, but I have witnessed my fair share of magical moments. I was at Busch Stadium in 1998 when Mark McGwire hit home runs Nos. 67 and 68 in the next-to-last game of the season against the Montreal Expos. I was at Coors Stadium a few years later when Barry Bonds blasted homers Nos. 61, 62, and 63 on his way to a ridiculous 73-home run season.

But my best memories have come at Kauffman Stadium. Growing up about two hours south of Kansas City, the stadium (Royals Stadium at the time) served as my introduction to big-league ball. Since then, I’ve attended dozens of KC Royals games as a fan and as a sports reporter when I worked at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Joplin Globe. I was in the stands when Justin Maxwell blasted a walk-off grand slam in the Royals’ 2013 home finale, and I was in the press box when Salvador Perez lined a single past Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson to give the KC Royals a dramatic Wild Card win in 2014.

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to write about some of the most memorable KC Royals games I’ve attended in Kansas City. We will look back at a 1990 doubleheader that featured Hall of Famers George Brett and Cal Ripken, a 2001 game against the Arizona Diamondbacks that featured Randy Johnson on the mound and three homers from Luis Gonzalez, several games from the 2014 and 2015 playoff seasons, and more.

Fittingly, we will start at the beginning.

It was Aug. 26, 1984, and it’s the first MLB game I can remember attending. That fact alone, however, isn’t the only reason this game between Kansas City and the Chicago White Sox makes the list. The 16-inning affair is the longest game I’ve ever attended, and it serves as a great reminder that any player can be the hero for the day.

To put things in context, I was 5 years old and I was sporting my George Brett No. 5 shirt. Anyone who knows anything about KC Royals baseball realizes how big of a star Brett was in Kansas City. The Royals hadn’t won a World Series yet, but by 1984 Brett already had reached legendary status. He batted .390 in 1980, and the infamous Pine Tar game received national headlines in 1983.

As a 5-year-old, I couldn’t name a whole lot of Royals players. But I definitely knew George Brett, and I couldn’t wait to see the slugger in person.

That’s why I remember being pretty devastated when the lineup was announced, and Brett was absent. (Little did I know that Brett had missed the previous couple of games because of injury).

Greg Pryor, who I didn’t know at the time, took Brett’s place at the hot corner.

Honestly, I don’t remember too much about the game after that. As a 5-year-old, my strongest memories involve thinking the stadium was enormous, being there with my family, and dealing with the grueling heat for the four-and-a-half-hour game. The game lasted so long, my dad recalls begrudgingly forking over the dough for a second round of high-priced concessions.

Looking back at the box score, Darryl Motley’s two-run homer off White Sox starter Richard Dotson helped the Royals jump out a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the first. Dotson rebounded by not allowing a run over the next six innings. Chicago chipped away at the lead with two runs in the third and one in the fourth off KC Royals pitcher Charlie Liebrandt.

Carlton Fisk’s two-run homer off Dan Quisenberry in the top of the eighth gave the White Sox a 5-4 advantage. Kansas City tied the game in the bottom of the eighth when Pat Sheridan scored on Dotson’s wild pitch.

Then … nothing happened.

For the next seven innings, neither team scored. The ninth through 15th innings featured only six hits.

If the KC Royals were going to win, they needed someone to step up and be the hero.

That player was none other than Greg Pryor. The guy who I didn’t know four-and-a-half hours earlier and was taking the place of my then-hero George Brett, belted a solo shot to deep left field off Bert Roberge in the bottom of the 16th to end the marathon and give the Royals a 6-5 victory. It was one of Pryor’s 14 homers over his 10-year big league career.

Years later, I had the chance to meet Pryor and I told him my story.

He remembered the game quite well. Normally reserved, Pryor said he recalled being much more talkative that day as he got a premonition that he would be the player to win the game.

“Before I came up to bat in the ninth inning, I turned to third base umpire John Shulock and said, ‘I’m coming up to bat in the bottom of the ninth. If I win this game with a homer, will you buy me a dozen golf balls?”

Pryor said Shulock didn’t seem to appreciate the prediction. The Royal’s third baseman followed by flying out in the bottom of the ninth.

Undeterred, Pryor continued to ask Shulock to buy him golf balls if he won the game. The umpire didn’t bite, and Pryor grounded out in the 11th and flew out to center in the 13th.

“When I was getting ready to come up in the 16th, I told Shulock ‘last chance,’” Pryor said. “I guess that the intense heat and the length of the game were getting to Shulock as he became irate at me for bothering him. He told me that I could buy my own golf balls.”

Pryor received another chance to be the hero in the bottom of the 16th when he came to the plate with two outs and nobody on base.

“When I was in the hole, I told my manager, Dick Howser, my story about Shulock,” Pryor said. “I had never talked to a manager during a game unless he asked me a question. But on this day, I told Howser I was trying to get the umpire to buy me golf balls if I ended the game. Howser says, ‘I’ll buy you a dozen golf balls if you win this game.’”

If my dad had known that a dozen golf balls is all it took to end the game, I’m sure he would have obliged Pryor several innings earlier.

But, alas, Pryor didn’t find any takers until the 16th inning.

Once at the plate, Pryor worked himself into a 3-2 count against Roberge.

“It was a fastball,” Pryor said. “I got the bat head out in front. I remember Ron Kittle being in left field. I never imagined that God had the wind blowing so hard for it to go over the fence.”

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When Pryor went to his locker the next day, he found a dozen new golf balls courtesy of Howser.