My First Game: Kansas City Royals, May 1976
In his new memoir, longtime sports scribe Bob Ryan writes, “I’m not like most baseball fans. I have no idea when I saw my first big league game, or even my first minor league game. The fact is I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t going to games. So I have no great story to tell about my memorable first trip to the ballpark.”
I have an idea when I saw my first big league game. That’s easy, because I was never anywhere near a Major League ballpark until I was almost 10 years old.
Well, that’s not precisely true. When I was very small, we lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. But I don’t believe that I was ever taken to Bloomington for a Twins game. And if I had been, I wouldn’t remember it. Later, we lived in southwest Michigan, a couple of hours from the ballparks in Chicago. Never went there, either. Sure, I’d seen Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record on television, and I’d watched a bit of the 1973 World Series. But those games might as well have been on the moon, or Mars. For me, Buchanan’s Little League field, next to good ol’ H.C. Stark Elementary School, was about as big as baseball got.
In 1976, though, we moved to a little town in suburban Kansas City, just 22 miles south of Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium. It didn’t take long for me to become interested in the local team, which was then (as now, lately) the talk of the town. Even better (as it turned out), my father’s new job was with a company owned by Ewing Kauffman, who owned the Royals, which meant pretty good seats for the game, pretty regularly.
Here’s my problem: I was not obsessive in my youth and didn’t save a single thing from my first Royals game—not a ticket stub or a scorecard or a program or anything else. Nor was my first game added somehow to the family lore. Maybe if anyone had guessed that I would eventually do this for a living . . .
But all I have are some ideas. I think the Royals won my first game. I think it was an afternoon game, and not on a school day. And I think it was fairly early in the season, before Memorial Day.
Putting all of those together, I’ve identified only three candidates:
• On May 1, the Royals beat the Yankees 4–1, with Steve Busby pitching a complete game (his mound opponent, Ed Figueroa, also went the distance; men back then were more manly, that’s for sure).
• On May 2, the Royals trailed 1–0 in the bottom of the ninth. But Amos Otis led off with a double, which brought Yankee relief ace Sparky Lyle from the bullpen. After a grounder that sent Otis to third base, Big John Mayberry’s sacrifice fly plated Otis with the tying run. Lyle was still on the mound in the bottom of the 11th when Jim Wohlford led off with a single, and Otis followed with a walk. After George Brett laid down a sacrifice bunt, Wohlford scored on Mayberry’s infield grounder to win it. I hope I was there!
• On May 15, another walkoff win! This time it was the White Sox, with young Rich Gossage starting for the Sox (he wouldn’t join Lyle in the Bronx bullpen until two seasons later). The Royals fell behind 1–0 in the third but tied the game in the fifth when Otis’s fly ball scored Tom Poquette, who’d led off with a triple. In the bottom of the 12th, it was still 1–1 . . . and Gossage was still pitching for the ChiSox. Otis and Brett opened with harmless ground outs. But then Mayberry ended the affair with a blast over the wall in right-center field. If I was there, wouldn’t I remember something like that?
Royals Stadium c. 1976
Courtesy of Missouri State Archives
I don’t know. I just don’t remember anything specific enough, and of course it’s quite possible that my memory’s even worse than I think. It might have been a night game, it might have been in June, and it might even have been a loss. And unless my mom’s been hoarding some ancient artifact, I’ll just never know for sure.
I do remember some things, though.
I remember my very first sight of the field, the greenest thing I’d ever seen in my life. Did I care that all that perfectly green “grass” was created by the Monsanto Corporation in some faraway factory? Not at all. As I would later learn, the Royals were uniquely well equipped to take advantage of Royals Stadium’s spacious dimensions and fast, billiard-table playing surface.
I remember being surrounded by so many people, more people than I’d ever seen in my (almost) 10 years, and how it exciting that was. Ah, memory. The Royals were one of the top draws in the American League in those years, but fewer than half the seats in the stadium were filled in all three of these games I think I might have attended. But when you’re nine years old and you’ve never been to a major sporting event, 18,000 people still seems like a million.
Finally, I remember my dad, maybe toward the end of the game, hollering at the third-base coach, probably a baseball lifer named Chuck Hiller. There were two or three runners on the bases, maybe two or three beers aboard my father. “Get the runners moving!” he shouted from not far above Hiller. “Get ‘em going!” I might have known, even then, that this wasn’t the right time for a hit-and-run or a double steal or anything else out of the ordinary.
Then it happened. I don’t know if anybody else in the entire ballpark noticed. But my old man’s got a booming, resonant voice. After another of his imprecations, Hiller turned back toward us, just ever so slightly, and shook his head as if to say, “Gimme a break, will ya? I’m tryin’ to work down here.”
For just that short moment, I felt as though I were some small part of those dramatic proceedings on that greenest of places. And ever since, I’ve wanted to remain just some small part.
Kansas City Royals third baseman and American League batting champion, George Brett,
October 14, 1976.