Realization of the passage of time tends to strike suddenly and at the heart of one’s dearest passions; such is occasionally the case for me and baseball. The first major league game I witnessed, albeit via television, was Game 1 of the 1963 World Series, a bit more than five full years before the KC Royals first played. I watched Sandy Koufax strike out 15 Yankees in a 5-2 Dodger win that triggered LA’s sweep of the declining Bronx Bombers.
Koufax is now 86, something I find hard to believe, perhaps because I don’t want to believe it. Whitey Ford, who started against him that early fall afternoon, died over two years ago. The great Mickey Mantle, a victim of two Koufax strikeouts that day, has been gone 26 years.
Our inability to stop time’s onward march struck me again Monday when I learned Cookie Rojas, one of the best players ever to grace a Royal infield, turned 83 Sunday.
How, I thought, can Cookie Rojas be 83? It can’t be that long ago that we were privileged to watch second baseman Rojas and shortstop Freddie Patek turn almost impossible double plays at old Municipal Stadium, and then Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium.
But it really was that long ago. Time flies, doesn’t it?
If you missed seeing Rojas before he played his last big league game in 1977, you missed a lot. He’s never made the Hall of Fame and never will, but he could handle the bat and, while his glove wasn’t quite as good as Frank White’s, it was good enough, and then some.
Just in case you never saw him play, let me tell you a little about Cookie Rojas.
Cookie Rojas came to the KC Royals when they needed a veteran second baseman.
Jerry Adair, a slick-fielding original Royal the club snared from Baltimore in the previous fall’s expansion draft, opened Kansas City’s inaugural 1969 season at second. He went 2-for-5 and knocked in a run Opening Day, a decent performance that seemed to bode well for the veteran infielder’s season. He finished hitting .250, a mere four points below what would a campaign later become his career average.
Adair played 126 games in 1969 but, hitting just .148, found himself released early the following season, leaving the Royals without an established second sacker.
Until Rojas came along, that is. The Cardinals, with whom Rojas, already an eight-season veteran, had played only 23 games since Philadelphia traded him to them after the ’69 season, shipped him to Kansas City in June for Fred Rico, who played 12 times for the Royals the previous campaign but never appeared in the big leagues again.
Rojas wasted little time staking his claim to a Kansas City job. He’d hit a measly .106 for the Cards, but found the Royals and the American League to his liking and hit .260 in 98 games.
That was just the start. Over the next four seasons, Rojas hit .276, drove in 241 runs, and made the AL All-Star team each year (and, pinch hitting for Rod Carew, hit a two-run homer in the 1972 game). His 69 RBIs in 1973 were a career high, and his .300 average in 1971 was his second best (he hit .303 for the Phillies in 1965).
And together with Patek, Rojas formed a lethal double play combo featuring some fancy glove work and exchanges. Rojas never won a Gold Glove, but he more than held things together at second.
So it was that Rojas was a linchpin and leader of the 1971 KC club which finished a surprising second in the AL West in only its third year of existence, then finished second in 1973 and ’75 before winning the division for the first time in 1976 and again in ’77, his final Royal year. He hit a combined .308 in the ’76 and ’77 AL Championship Series.
Frank White’s emergence spelled the end of Cookie Rojas’ KC Royals career.
Time, the undefeated opponent of every ballplayer, finally caught up with Rojas when a young infielder eased him out of a job.
Frank White came to the Royals in 1973 and for three seasons took his turns at shortstop, second and third. He initially displayed signs of a good glove, but lesser so of a decent bat, but the club knew who its second baseman of the future was. He stuck with the big club for good in ’74 and learned the second base trade from Rojas.
White played second 68 times in 1975; Rojas put in 116 games there, but White’s increased second base work signaled Rojas’ time was short. The Royals turned the job over to White in ’76; Rojas played second only 56 more times before the club, having no place for him to play, released him the day after it lost the 1977 ALCS to New York.
It was in that series that Rojas last played in a major league game. He was Manager Whitey Herzog’s DH in the final contest and went 1-for-4, singling off Mike Torrez to lead off the fourth inning.
Rojas played 880 games and hit .268 in his eight seasons with the Royals. He finished his 16-year big league career, which began with the Reds in 1962, with a .263 average.
Rojas went on to a career as a coach and broadcaster, and managed the 1988 Angels to a 75-79 record before the team fired him with eight games left in the season.
Fittingly, Rojas has been a member of the Kansas City club’s Hall of Fame since 1987.
Cookie Rojas last played for the Royals 45 years ago. How can that be?