CONFIDENCE: Leo and the Bird

Our “C” word this month is CONFIDENCE. That word can mean so many things, but it boils down to this in the CYITML definition: Accepts constructive criticism; will try something new; positive attitude; views self as a winner. One person who stands out from Royals’ history who exuded CONFIDENCE on the mound is Dennis Leonard. In a career that included 144 wins, a franchise-best 103 complete games and 23 shutouts (both likely will remain at the top forever) and 1,323 strikeouts, to say that a couple of games defined Leo’s career is probably a little unfair. Right or wrong, however, there’s a game midway through Leonard’s third season that has remained a hallmark performance in his career. And one of the top memories for long-time Royals fans. We go to the archives for this story about a game on July 9, 1976, when Leonard’s CONFIDENCE was on full display.

“Including postseason games, that mid-summer game in 1976 remains one of the most electric contests I’ve ever broadcast,” says Royals “voice,” Denny Matthews, of this July 9 game. What game?

Well, to set it up, right before the ‘76 All-Star break, the Royals hit the road for series in New York and Detroit. Leonard, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, was scheduled to pitch against the Yankees. Leo couldn’t wait. A chance to pitch against a team he liked as a kid, in front of friends and family. Not to mention, it’d be at Yankee Stadium.

Royals Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Leonard, pictured with Brian Diddle of Precision Printing at the 2017 “Wiffle Ball at the Hollow” fundraiser.

However, Royals manager Whitey Herzog nixed Leonard’s start. He told Leo, who was 9-3 at the time, that he wasn’t going to be pitching in New York because he made the All-Star team.

“I remember telling my dad that I wasn’t going to be pitching because I made the All-Star team. He told everybody, so I’m thinking how cool it was,” said Leonard. “Well, P.S., Whitey apologized to me after the series saying that he didn’t know what happened but I wasn’t going to be on the All-Star team. So, I went from being a big, tall stud, to a little, itty-bitty nothing.”

Herzog slated Leonard to start in Detroit against this sensation, Mark “the Bird” Fidrych.

Fidrych burst onto the major-league scene in 1976 at a time when the game still had plenty of characters. But Fidrych’s persona stood above the other goofballs in baseball. He’d get down and dust off the pitching rubber with his hands. He talked to the ball. Oh, yeah, and he threw great stuff, especially a wicked sinker.

“He made such an impact on that Detroit ball club,” says Royals Hall of Fame shortstop Fred Patek. He then adds with a believe-you-me chuckle, “Sure, he’d pound on the mound and talk to the ball, but he was an exceptional young man on the mound. People talk about his antics, but he had great stuff, there’s no doubt about it.”

Everywhere Fidrych pitched, fans flocked to see both his incredible talent and his undeniable quirkiness. Although he never faced the Royals in Kansas City, his rookie season brought an unforgettable contest against Dennis Leonard and the Royals on a warm night in Detroit.

“My father-in-law, God bless him, flew to Detroit to meet us,” Leonard said. “The night before I was to pitch, we were in a little piano bar — I was drinking water — and I told him, ‘Fidrych my [butt]. I’m going to beat him tomorrow.’”

“You had the feeling from the outset that this game could be something special,” said Matthews. “And it was. Fans hung on to every pitch because each one meant something. Not many baseball games give you something compelling like that.”

On July 9, a capacity crowd of more than 51,000 at Tiger Stadium, mainly wanting to see “the Bird,” instead saw a masterful outing by Leonard.

He held the Tigers to four hits and struck out eight in a complete-game performance.

In the top of the fourth, with George Brett and John Mayberry on base, Hal McRae singled to left, scoring Brett. That was the only run of the contest.

Fidrych and Leonard both went the distance, but it was Leonard who held true to his prediction from the night before.

“That was just one of those games,” Leonard said, “when we were really determined.”

Confidence.

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