Posted on 30 March 2011.
You won’t recognize many of the names in the opening day lineup of this team destined for the cellar. But opening day is always glorious, and every team begins the season tied for first. No reason the upstart Royals couldn’t shock the world.
I’m not talking about this opening day, mind you. I’m talking about THE opening day. The first game ever played by the Kansas City Royals, back on April 8, 1969.
Other debuts that year perhaps got more attention – The Brady Bunch and Sesame Street made their TV debut, Nixon debuted in the White House, and humans made their debut on the moon.
Jimi Hendrix would cap off the summer of love at Woodstock, but the Royals got it started at Memorial Stadium. I can’t quite remember it – my mom was only about two months pregnant with me at the time – but 17,688 were there to witness a victory in the first game the team ever played.
I’ve always heard that the Royals were a “model expansion team.” I don’t know what that means, but they spent the first 11 days of their existence in first place. They tumbled during the dog days of summer, but on June 1 they found themselves just four games below .500. Had any of our teams done that well in the past six or seven years, we’d have been ecstatic.
Manager Joe Gordon’s Royals took the field for the first time against the Minnesota Twins, who were no slouch. They won the AL West that year with 97 wins. Their lineup included Rod Carew, Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew.
But April 8, 1969 belonged to the boys in blue.
Lou Piniella had played in 10 major league games prior to that day, but had never recorded a hit. But he sparked the team in its inaugural game by going 4-5 with a walk. He doubled in the team’s first ever at-bat and was driven home with a single by the next batter, Jerry Adair.
After setting the Twins down in order in the first, Royals starter Wally Bunker surrendered the teams first run on a homer by Graig Nettles.
Bunker locked horns with Twins starter Tom Hall, holding each team scoreless for the next several innings. The Twins finally broke through with two runs in the sixth. Tom Burgmeier had to come on to relieve Bunker.
The young Royals responded. They rallied for four hits and capitalized on an error. Jim Campanis and Piniella each singled in runs to chase Hall and tie the score at 3-3 after six innings.
Twins reliever Ron Perranoski and Royals reliever Dave Wickersham put out the fire. Finally in the twelfth frame, the Royals brought in Moe Drabowski, who worked a 1-2-3 inning.
The Twins sent Joe Grzenda to the mound for the twelfth, and the pitching that had been so solid finally unraveled. Joy Foy notched a one-out single. That was followed by a passed ball, an intentional walk, a wild pitch, and yet another intentional walk.
With the bases loaded and Foy just 90 feet away from victory, the Twins brought in pitcher Dick Woodson. The Royals countered by sending up pinch hitter Joe Keough.
Keough would play four partial seasons for the Royals, primarily in the outfield or at first base. But in 1969 he would hit just .187 with seven RBIs. In that clutch moment on April 8, 1969, however, he worked a single to right field to score Foy with the winning run.
Amazingly, the Royals would win again the next day by the same 4-3 score, this time going 17 innings. The hero was again Piniella, who singled in the wining run. Gordon’s team kept up their winning ways, staying above .500 until April 28.
There have been many more glorious days since, and the names of Bunker, Foy, Drabowski, and Keough have been forgotten in favor of Brett, White, Leonard, Splittorff, Saberhagen, and so many others.
But on March 31, 2011, no one will be expecting much from the Royals. The experts are already calling for another 100-loss season. Perhaps these Royals can reach back into their history and find inspiration. It’s time to write a new chapter in the team’s history, and to begin paving the way for greatness like the “model expansion team” that ruled the 1970s and 1980s.