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MOMENTS, MEMORIES AND MADNESS WITH STEVE CAMERON: A few minutes with some good friends

| August 9, 2020 1:15 AM

It was a night fitting of a farewell.

Unnaturally dark, cool, misty, with swirling fog.

For anyone so inclined, it would have put you in mind of the final scene in the famous movie, “Casablanca.”

But instead of Morocco, this was Kansas City on Oct. 4, 1972 — and easily, the most remarkable evening in the many decades I’ve covered major league baseball.

Where to start?

Well, it was scheduled to be the last game ever played in old and venerable Municipal Stadium, a historic venue that had hosted the best of the Negro Leagues, then the Kansas City Athletics (until they’d moved to Oakland), and eventually the expansion Royals — who played their first game at Municipal in 1969.

EVERYONE knew we were seeing the end, since construction on what is now Kauffman Stadium was nearly complete.

Even more amazingly, though, the Royals were managed on this final night of the ’72 season by Bob Lemon — who had already been fired two days earlier.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Lemon had been dumped by owner Ewing Kauffman in favor of a longtime minor league manager, Jack McKeon.

At a weird and sometimes contentious press conference, Kauffman had said: “I want to go with a younger man.”

That’s age discrimination, of course — and thus it was illegal.

Lemon chose not to argue the issue and, in fact, he even agreed when Kauffman bizarrely asked him to manage the final two games of the season.

Losing Lemon was a blow to me personally.

My father had died just prior to the 1971 season, and Lemon — whose personality was eerily similar to my dad’s — became kind of a surrogate father during those first couple of years that I covered and traveled with a big league ballclub.

ANOTHER time, I’ll do a separate column simply on Bob Lemon stories (they’ll be worth re-telling, I promise), but right now I want to concentrate on the final game of the ’72 season.

I knew I’d feel emotional, on a lot of levels, but it started when I saw the Royals lineup.

Regular first baseman John Mayberry was not on the card.

I went into the clubhouse to find out if something was wrong.

(FYI, the Royals’ record was a disappointing 75-78, so the outcome of this finale meant nothing to Kansas City, nor to the visiting Texas Rangers.)

When I quizzed Mayberry about his absence from the lineup, he simply said the game didn’t mean anything, so he would just take the night off.

I had gotten to know John personally (very well, in fact), and his blasé attitude made me angry.

“How can you do that to Lem?” I said. “You want to sit on your butt for his last night as manager, after all that man has done for you? Lem kept you in the big leagues, and he deserves some thanks.

“I can’t believe it.”

BACKING UP ...

Mayberry had been obtained in an off-season trade with Houston.

GM Cedric Tallis had his eye on this young power hitter, and he’d told me before the MLB winter meetings: “I’m going to get (Astros general manager Spec Richardson) drunk and keep him up until I get Mayberry.”

Then, one night during the meetings, I got a call from Cedric at 2:45 in the morning.

He was giddy.

“I stole Mayberry for Jim York and Lance Clemons,” Cedric said, cackling. “We have our first baseman. Oh, and Spec is asleep on the couch in my suite.”

As Tallis predicted, Mayberry became the Royals’ regular first baseman for most of the decade — and a power hitter they’d really needed.

But early in 1972, as we all waited for the big left-handed hitter to give a Royals a huge boost in the middle of the lineup ...

John struggled.

And that’s putting it mildly.

At the end of May, Mayberry was hitting .216 with three homers and 14 RBI.

There was much howling to put John on the bench, or demote him to Triple-A Omaha, in search of his stroke.

Lemon, however, wouldn’t budge.

He told Mayberry to relax, he was the everyday first baseman, and to just go ahead and hit the baseball.

LEMON was right.

Mayberry went on to have an excellent year, a preview of what he would provide the Royals in the future.

That’s why I was upset with John before that last game in Municipal Stadium.

“I’m disappointed in you,” I told him. “I thought you had more loyalty than this.”

Leaving the clubhouse in a poor mood, I went to the Royals dugout as it was getting close to the time that media members had to be out of the areas for players and coaches only.

I happened to find Lem and George Strickland — his best friend from their playing days back in Cleveland and now the Royals’ third base coach — all alone in a corner of the dugout.

“Hey, come and stick around with us a few minutes,” Lem said. “We’ve had a lot of fun, haven’t we?”

I told him it was past the time when I had to get out of the dugout and clubhouse area, and Lem said: “I’ll take responsibility. What are they going to do, fire me?”

He and Strick just laughed.

I really wanted to prolong those few minutes, too, so I ignored MLB rules and stayed in the dugout, which was deserted except for my two friends.

LEMON was grinning at me.

“What did you say to Mayberry?” he asked.

“Oh, why?” I replied.

“He asked back into the lineup,” Lem said,

At that point, Lemon and Strickland were in the corner of the dugout, where the equipment manager had placed a large jug of coffee for the chilly night.

“Come on and after a cup with us,” Strick said. “We’re celebrating our time together.”

We were now about 15 minutes until the first pitch, and I had no business in the dugout.

But Strick held out a cup of coffee and said, “The skipper wants you included in our memories of Kansas City.”

SO, I took the cup, had a sip, and ...

Discovered it was about two-thirds bourbon.

I peeked up, and Bob Lemon — Hall of Famer — was smiling at me.

“This is the way we should finish,” he said. “Cheers to good friends.”

It was one of the most meaningful compliments I’ve received in all the time I’ve been in sports.

Later in the evening, by the way, Mayberry doubled home a run in the Royals’ 4-0 victory — giving him exactly 100 RBI for the season, a nice complement to his 25 home runs.

Lem took him out of the game midway through the top of the ninth inning, so that John could get some nice applause from the crowd.

Afterwards, Mayberry actually thanked me for scolding him, and said: “Man, being out there was the right thing to do.”

Lemon, Strickland and I had a couple more shots of bourbon with a group of people after the game, too.

But nothing will ever match those minutes alone in the dugout.

Nothing.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball, once per month during the off season.