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bxny
04-01-00, 05:45 PM
World Series-bound

Chris Chambliss' game-winning home run propels the Yankees to their first pennant since 1964

By Jeff Ryan

Two years of renovations had given Yankee Stadium a needed makeover, so when players and fans stepped inside its gates for the 1976 home opener, they had plenty to talk about.

Most people fixed their gaze on the new scoreboard, the relocated monuments or the sight lines no longer obstructed by steel pillars. But something obscure commanded the attention of Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles: a chain-link fence affixed to the top of the padded wall in right-center field.

"I went out there on the first day and saw this extra fence that stood three or four feet high, and there didn't seem to be any reason for it to be there," Nettles says. "I pointed it out to Billy Martin because it looked like it would take away home runs. I never hit tape-measure homers, anyway, so I knew I'd need all the help I could get." Martin ordered the fence removed, and within a day or two, it was gone.

It was a small chore for the maintenance crew. But it turned out to be a move that may have altered the course of Yankees history.

Six months later, on the night of October 14, Chris Chambliss' pennant-winning home run barely cleared the wall in right-center in the deciding fifth game of the American League Championship Series against the Royals. Had the extra fence still been in place, the ball likely would have struck it and remained in play. And what would have happened then? Well, judging by the way New York and Kansas City battled each other all year, they'd probably still be playing.

Game 5 of the ALCS epitomized the tenacity of a developing rivalry between the Yankees, a team as newly overhauled as their stadium, and the Royals, a feisty franchise in only its eighth season of operation. Six of their 12 regular-season meetings were decided by one run. The tightness carried over into the postseason, as the teams split the first four games of the ALCS. And after it appeared that the Yankees were en route to their first pennant in 12 years when they took a 6-3 lead into the eighth inning of Game 5, George Brett ripped reliever Grant Jackson's letter-high fastball into the right-field seats for a game-tying, three-run homer. "When Brett hit that it was like, 'Here we go again,' " Chambliss says. "They didn't give up, and we had gone back and forth with them all night-and all season long."

Riding the momentum of their victory in Game 4 the previous afternoon, the Royals attacked quickly, with John Mayberry blasting a two-run homer off Yankees starter Ed Figueroa in the top of the first inning. The Yankees answered in the bottom of the first. Mickey Rivers tripled and scored on an infield single by Roy White. Thurman Munson singled White to third, and he came home on Chambliss' sacrifice fly.

Kansas City took a 3-2 lead in the top of the second when Buck Martinez singled home Cookie Rojas, but the Yankees again responded with an RBI single by Munson and a Chambliss groundout that drove in New York's fourth run. As the crowd of 56,821 erupted, the lead increased to 6-3 in the bottom of the sixth when another Munson single drove in Rivers, and Chambliss scored on an error.

"When you're in the playoffs and the adrenaline is flowing, you never think you're dead," says Frank White, the second baseman for that Royals team. "We were a young team that didn't spend a lot of money on players and the Yankees were solid at every position. We felt that if we could just keep it close, we had a chance to win."

The Royals might have taken the lead in the top of the ninth if not for a blown call. With two outs, Martinez singled and Al Cowens walked. Then Jim Wohlford grounded to Nettles, who fired the ball to Willie Randolph for a force out on the sliding Cowens at second base. Cowens was called out, but he appeared to have beaten the throw.

"That killed our inning big-time," White says. "When you played in New York, things happened. I think the umpires felt the pressure there. Billy Martin questioning every call put pressure on them."

Though Royals manager Whitey Herzog was second-guessed for having fireballing righty Mark Littell face fastball-craving Chambliss leading off the bottom of the ninth, the reliever had in fact only surrendered one homer all season. "I never went up to the plate thinking about power too much because that would ruin my swing," Chambliss says. "I was just thinking about hitting the ball hard."

Littell's first pitch was a high fastball and Chambliss' smooth swing caught it perfectly. The ball disappeared behind the Stadium's blue outfield wall, 11 consecutive unfulfilling seasons for Yankees fans disappeared into the cool October air and Chambliss disappeared in a wild throng that quickly overran the field. He was tripped and knocked to the ground after touching second base, he almost had his helmet ripped from his head at third, and he sent one overzealous fan sprawling during his broken-field run toward the plate. (Chambliss wouldn't actually touch the plate until he was escorted from the clubhouse to the field by police several minutes later.)

"My first thought was that I hit a home run," Chambliss recalls. "Then I realized it was the ninth inning, the game was over, and we'd won the championship. Then I thought, 'Oh, no, the people are on the field.'' I was in the middle of a mass of people, and when I fell to the ground, it was scary."

He continues, "With the security they have now, that would never happen again. I never felt like it was fun to celebrate that home run with the fans. They didn't belong on the field. I wanted to meet my teammates at home plate and I couldn't."

Not long after the Yankees were walking on air, they had their legs cut out from under them, getting swept in the World Series by the powerful Reds. Through the long, cold New York winter that year, though, all any Yankee fan was talking about was Chambliss' shot heard 'round the city.

"One of my best memories is Chambliss' homer," says Mo Vaughn, who grew up in Connecticut and was a die-hard Yankees fan. "That was the best memory, besides Reggie Jackson's three homers in the World Series. Chambliss' homer set the tone for that rivalry."

In 1977, a possibly gun-shy Herzog bypassed Littell when the teams met in Game 5 of the ALCS in Kansas City. As the Royals entered the ninth with a 3-2 lead, Herzog summoned Dennis Leonard, the Game 3 starter who had just one day of rest. Leonard gave up a single and a walk as the Yankees rallied for another ninth-inning win-and another pennant. If New York seemed particularly cool under pressure that night, it wasn't surprising. They'd learned a lot about perseverance and confidence a year earlier in the Bronx, during what will forever be known as "The Chambliss Game."

"In '76, we felt we were going to win whenever we stepped on the field for a big game," says Chambliss, who is currently the Yankees' hitting instructor. "If (Littell) would have struck me out on three pitches, somebody else in our lineup would have hit one out. And if that fence was still on top of the wall and my shot was a double instead of a home run, then somebody would have driven me in. I'm sure of it."

Adds Nettles, "We weren't a team that relied on one guy. If Chris didn't do it, lots of other people could have. I would have been coming up later in the inning and I was the American League home run champion. It was a back-and-forth game, but we thought we were in good shape that night if we had the last at-bat with our kind of offense." Clutch hitters such as Munson and Nettles, run manufacturers such as Rivers and Randolph, RBI threats such as Chambliss-the Yankees had plenty of tools in 1976. But the most important ones may have been in the hands of some maintenance men.

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Did the Yanks and KC give us some great battles or what! http://www.Bronx-Bombers.com/ubb/smile.gif


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[This message has been edited by bxny (edited April 01, 2000).]

reg
04-01-00, 05:45 PM

kgblues
04-01-00, 06:28 PM
Magic times. Those battles were classic.
I was there for that game. Last row, section 33. I never saw the ball go over the wall. You can't see the wall from those seats. I had to wait for the crowds reaction.
We wound up on the field like everyone else. I slid into where 2nd. base should have been.
Man, that felt good.

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kg