Willie James: BEGINNING OF THE END

Thought we could do it again when we came to spring training in 1986. It took us five years to get from our first trip to the World Series to our second. So we knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we knew it was possible. Spring training was great. I don’t really know what our record was, but any time you come off a championship or have been in the playoffs, everybody in the world is watching your games. You’re a little more popular. More fans come to the ballpark in spring training. One thing we did notice that spring is that Dick (Howser) started to change. He would go inside and take naps, and some other coach would run the drills. So, there were a few whispers in the clubhouse about Dick’s health. But the day I really knew something was up was afer we broke from spring training and we were coming up north. Dick called me Hal one day. It was going through the tunnel in right field. Dick was coming down or I was going up – whichever way it was. I said, What’s up, Skip? He says: Nothing, Hal. I looked at him, and then I just kept going. I don’t remember for sure, but I think I said to Hal: You know, Dick just called me Hal.

Little by little we started hearing rumors. He was taking longer naps. What I noticed is that he was just not there as often. When someone is not there, of course you are going to ask what is going on? You would get evasive answers. The front office people, the coaches … they were all trying to keep it low key, trying not to let players know anything. At the All-Star game we noticed he was pronouncing the lineup wrong. He said a couple of things wrong, which was really unusual for Dick because he was really sharp – I mean really sharp. So, that’s when we really started hearing he had brain cancer. The All-Star game turned out to be the last game he really coached. That was a weird time, man. Now your leader is down. You were just hoping you got enough veterans and hoping you have enough talent. But we were all feeling for Dick. Mike Ferraro, Mikey Mike, became our manager. It was weird.

We had been looking forward to repeating a great season. You look forward to getting your World Series ring. That was something you treasured. You are going through all the patting on the back and hoping you can do it again. But we weren’t really winning, losing a little bit more than usual. It was a really trying time. I think we were right around a couple of games over .500 right at about the end of June, then we lost 11 straight games. We never got over .500 again the rest of the season. That happened right about the time when Dick left us. There was a lot of chaos going on around our club. You know, our leader was down. There was a little different philosophy as far as the manager was concerned. There were some personality conflicts. I know I had a little bit of a conflict that year with Dick and with Ferraro. I was pretty good friends with one of the reporters who was covering the Royals. We would sit and talk every day, not just about the game, but about everything that was going on in our lives. One day, just before a home game, Dick had sent Mike Ferraro down to talk to me and tell me I couldn’t have any conversations with this reporter unless it was news. This was right before the National Anthem. I thought about it for a second, and just before the anthem started I was so upset I said, You tell that little SOB he can’t tell me who I can talk to. And if he needs to tell me that you tell him to get down here and tell me and not send you. I loved Dick as a manager, as a guy you played for. I respected Dick immensely. But that incident right there kind of angry me off. I mean what is going on here? Who is he to tell me who I can talk to? A healthy Dick, I don’t know if he would have said that because he had never said it before, but I don’t know. I do know that really irked me. I thought my job was to play baseball as hard as I could for the organization and the leadership of the team. Then, after the game was over, it was my life. I wouldn’t think of going over to your place and tell you who to talk to. So, why would you tell me who I could talk to, like I was a little kid. It was just a little chaotic the way Dick went down and the way things happened earlier with me and Dick and Ferraro – and then feeling bad for it aferwards. You don’t ever wish that on anybody.

There wasn’t a lot of turmoil between the players. We always thought we could maybe pull it back together, but it didn’t happen. We went from winning the World Series to not being able to win a game. We finished 16 games behind the Angels or something like that. All the guys were having bad years. I think the best batting average on the team was .290. That seems like a lot, but that was George Brett. He doesn’t hit .290. Everything was just bad. You were wanting to get it over with, and when it was over, it was a relief. You could just go home and think about next year and start over. I can tell you, everybody was glad when that season was over – at least I was. It was a tough, tough year for everybody. To lose our leader, who had gone through the pain with us and the blood, sweat and tears and to have won a world championship with him and then have him go down like that really hurt. I don’t think anyone was mentally prepared for that. This was also the first year that any of us got a glimpse of Bo Jackson. He had been drafted No. 1 in the NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April. The Royals drafed him in the fourth round. He signed to play baseball with us. He came up in September with a couple of other guys – Kevin Seitzer for one. Seitzer was a more polished baseball player than Bo, a better fielder, a better hitter. We knew Seitzer was going to make the squad no matter what the next year because they were already trying to move George over to first.

Bo … Bo was different. He was a high-powered, well-talked-about Heisman Trophy winner, but he was naive about things in baseball. And he was cocky – not confident in baseball just yet. He was cocky because he was trying to impress. It would have been different in football because he had won the Heisman Trophy and he had a reputation as a football player, but he didn’t have a reputation as a professional baseball player. There also were things you had to do in the Major Leagues just to survive. When Bo first got here, we couldn’t joke with him because he couldn’t take it. He would want to fight you all the time. I didn’t know how to joke with people when I became a pro baseball player, either. But he was different than I was. I learned how to take a joke in the minor leagues. Bo never really had a bunch of minor leaguers joking with him. Now, he has Major League players joking with him. If you can’t take a joke in the big leagues, you will drive yourself crazy. I mean, we had a champion with the needle, just poking at Bo – Hal McRae. The first time Bo came up he was handing out his Heisman pictures, putting them on our chairs around the locker room About five or six chairs behind him, Hal was picking them up. When Bo finally figured it out, he looked back at Hal kind of angry off, and Hal said, We don’t care about your Heisman. You ain’t done nuthinup here, yet. He was joking with him, just being Hal. Bo was so mad he started stuttering, like F … F … F … you. I mean you know what Hal was like. Then at the very end, Hal stuck the needle in again and said, Hey, if you ever get any tickets for the football games at Tampa Bay, I live in Bradenton over the winter. Can I have a couple? Bo would get so frickinangry because everybody is laughing now. You could see he just wanted to choke McRae to death. But Hal did that to everybody. That’s just the way he was. And if you couldn’t take it, he would do it even more. Hal took everything to the limit.

But man … Bo was the biggest, strongest, fastest dude I had ever played with. I mean he was really fast and strong. When he threw a baseball, it was so effortless. I mean, the ball just went, Bweeeek! and it was just there. I had never seen that. I had heard stories about people who could throw it like that, but I had never seen it before. I saw Dwight Evans throw. I saw Ellis Valentine throw. I saw Andre Dawson throw. I saw Dave Parker make a great throw in the All-Star game. But I had never seen anybody who just flipped the ball. It wasn’t like he reared back and threw up. He just flipped it, and it was like a BB – like it was shot out of a rifle. He was just so much of a raw talent. You knew that if he ever learned to play the game the way you were supposed to do it, he would be a superstar. He was so raw, he was hitting home runs and he didn’t even know where the ball was going. I saw him hit one in Yankee Stadium He got jammed on the pitch and connected with the ball. He stood at home plate and looked at left field. Then he looked at center field. When he finally looked at right, the ball was going over the fence. He was just so freaking strong. I mean, who breaks bats over their head or over their thighs? You would break your leg or your kneecap if you try that. He hit the longest home run I ever saw, up around the flags in left-center, using my bat. Then he wanted to take the bat. It was a little short dog, like a 32 (inch), 30 (ounces). He just goes up there and, Whap! The crowd all goes, Ooooooh. He comes back to the dugout and he goes, Who … who bat is this. I go, You see the 6 on the handle. It’s my bat. He says he’s going to take it. No, you ain’t. That’s my bat. You can’t just take my bat. Bo used to not ask anybody, he would just go up there and take whatever bat he wanted. One bat was everybody’s bat. He didn’t know everybody had their own model, their own bat and you put your numbers on the bat so when you would go to the bat rack, you would know it. Bo was just a different dude, man. But damn, I wasn’t going to just let him take my bat. That’s just how he was, but once he got to know you he was the best friend you could have. The next year me and him and Danny Tartabull became really good friends. The Royals always had really good talent coming up in September. What we tried to do as players – at least I did – was try and teach them about playing in the Major Leagues. As much as I talked about Amos (Otis) in those first few years, he was my mentor. I learned later that he treated me bad to learn about my character or to see how my drive was. But he also did the greatest thing he ever could have, and that was to teach me how to play center field. Bo was playing left field most of the time. But toward the end of my career with the Royals some days I would play left and he would play center. You could see the greatness there, but it was raw. About the time he really started to know how to play baseball, he got hurt (playing football). He was just doing stuff and having so much fun doing it.

Willie James: BEGINNING OF THE END Photo Gallery




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Willie Lewis Brown, father of Speaker Willie Brown, in a photo taken

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