One of my first sports memories was in 1978 or 1979. I was about 10 at the time and I’d been invited by a friend to see the Royals play the Yankees in the playoffs. This was back when baseball was still competitive and the pinstripes were hated rivals.
Our seats were high in the upper deck, but almost directly behind home plate. As I remember, it was a close game – close enough that skipper Whitey Herzog went to his best reliever to close out the game. Al Hrabosky was a hard-throwing lefty with one of the best mustaches in the league. (And that’s saying something – this was the seventies, after all.)
But what set Hrabosky apart, aside from his considerable talent and facial hair, were his on-mound antics. Acting out on the mound wasn’t unique, this was the era of Mark Fidrych, but Hrabosky’s act was unusual, to say the least. When he needed to really get himself up for a batter, he would walk behind the mound and turn his back on home plate. He would then talk his glove, yell at the ball while pounding it into his glove with more and more force each time. When he had finally worked himself into a lather, he would abruptly turn and walk to the pitching rubber and go into his windup. It was quite a sight to see.
The first batter Hrabosky faced that night after being called in from the bullpen was Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson. Hrabosky, or the Mad Hungarian, as he was known, took his warm up and then went into his one-man conference behind the mound. As he stood there, pounding the ball and screaming at himself, the sellout crowd bought into his madness and became enraged themselves. The stadium erupted with screams, applause and mayhem. Enraged, he spun on his heel and marched to the mound. The crowd and Hrabosky were one, his manufactured anger amplified by 39,000 screaming voices.
Jackson stood a little tentatively in the batter’s box, his left foot planted, his right foot outside the line, as he tried to decide what to do. Hrabosky, now nearly foaming at the mouth, yelled at Jackson to get in the box, as he gestured wildly with his hands. The crowd built to a crescendo again, trying to intimidate the Yankees slugger. But Jackson readjusted his helmet, hiked his pants and stepped in. Hrabosky pounded his glove some more and threw his first pitch – hard, fast and high. Jackson was out of the box almost before the ball snapped in the catcher’s mitt.
The crowd approved.
Jackson was rattled. With a foot in the batter’s box he held his hand up to the home plate umpire to ask for a time. The umpire granted Jackson a timeout and he stepped back from the box, staring at Hrabosky, trying to make sense of this madman. Needless to say, the crowd only increased its intensity.
Sadly, I can’t remember what happened next. In all likelihood, Jackson got a hit, which put the Yankees ahead. This was often the case in the late 70s. It was a great rivalry, but the Yankees too often got the better end of it. All I know is that the memory of Hrabosky and Jackson facing each other is so vivid to me, it could have happened yesterday. It is certainly my first sports memory and the first time I ever felt a part of something bigger – caught up in the emotion of the crowd, feeling like we could affect the outcome of that at-bat – simply by yelling a little bit louder.
Hrabosky left Kansas City soon after, as do all decent Royals players these days. I hope it’s not too nostalgic to think of those days as being better baseball, but I think they were. The Royals were competitive and the crowds were large. And while I’d like to think those days will be here again, barring a salary cap or other agreement that levels the playing field, I’m not sure they will.