BASEBALL PLAYOFFS : Sundberg Shows He's a Winner, After All : All Those Years With Losing Teams . . . and Now This With Royals

Times Staff Writer

Jim Sundberg broke open Game 7 of the American League playoffs and powered the Kansas City Royals into their second World Series Wednesday night by bouncing a Dave Stieb pitch off the top of the right-field railing with the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

Not below the railing--or over the railing--but on top of the railing. The cue shot of a lifetime.

Two inches farther and it's a home run. Two inches less and maybe Toronto's Jesse Barfield makes the catch.

It was a one-in-a-million shot.

Kind of like the odds Sundberg once held for his chances of ever appearing in a World Series.

Yes, there were doubts. Serious doubts. When you spend a decade with the Texas Rangers, veto a trade that would send you to the Dodgers and wind up with a Milwaukee Brewers ballclub that finishes 36 1/2 games out of first place in 1984, you tend to look at October as a great time to wall-panel the den and take the kids on that trip to Six Flags they've been pining for all summer.

"I thought it was never going to happen," said Sundberg, a 12-year major league veteran and a three-time All-Star catcher. "I always thought I had the ability and the confidence and the intense desire to win. I just wondered if I'd ever get the chance."

It wasn't going to come in Texas, which greatly distressed Sundberg. He still calls Arlington home, and he broke in with a 1974 Ranger club that finished runner-up in the AL West, five games behind the eventual world champion Oakland A's.

It was an exciting debut, but the follow-up was major frustration. The Rangers never came closer to the playoffs during Sundberg's next nine years with the team.

"I'd always been on winners, from Little League all the way through," Sundberg said. "I got into the pros and I won in the minors, too.

"My first year in the big leagues, Oakland edged us out in the last week. Then, we started losing.

"All those years of losing start to drain on you after a while. Eventually, you lose that edge."

Through it all, Sundberg kept punching the clock and doing his job, earning a reputation among baseball observers as "a gamer." He was steady--always batting around .275, always driving in around 60 and always fielding his position with style. He won six Gold Gloves from 1976 through 1981.

In 1983, the Dodgers tried to rescue Sundberg from the Texas treadmill. A trade was conceived, both teams agreed to the terms, everything was set.

Except Sundberg.

"The L.A. thing was a goofy situation," Sundberg said. "I had a no-trade clause in my contract, but they made a trade without asking me. Then, when I talked to the Dodgers, they wanted to sign me to a contract and cut me 35%.

"I thought this was a weird deal. Who in their right mind would sign a contract to take a one-third cut in salary? So I vetoed it. There was nothing else to do."

That didn't make the Rangers happy. "I spent one year in Texas with a team that didn't want me," Sundberg said. "Then came 1984. That was a year of recovery, a year of getting my feet back on the ground."

That was the year of Sundberg's trade to Milwaukee. Initially, he thought: a pennant at last. The Brewers had won one in 1982 and were still considered contenders two years later.

"I went to Milwaukee thinking this was a team that was very capable," Sundberg said. "Then they got so many people hurt. Nothing was jelling. I thought, 'Golly, is it ever going to happen?' "

Yes, although it took another trade, one Sundberg describes as "almost a miracle" to do it. Last winter, Sundberg requested a trade back to Texas. If he wasn't going to win, he might as well do it back home.

"I wanted to find out what the Brewers intended to do with their catching situation, so I asked for a trade," Sundberg said. "I knew they had a young catcher (Bill Schroeder) and by asking for the trade, I found their intentions were to go with him. I didn't want to be platooned; I didn't think I was ready for that."

Kansas City, however, crept unexpectedly into the picture when the Royals decided a veteran catcher would help solidify a very promising--but a very young--pitching staff.

"I was not dissatisfied with our catching last year," Royal Manager Dick Hoswer said. "John Wathan and Don Slaught both did a good job. But we went out and got him to handle our young staff. He's done an excellent job."

Wednesday, he did more than that. He helped culminate a Royal comeback that turned a 3-1 deficit in this series into a berth in the World Series against St. Louis.

Sundberg drove in Kansas City's first run of the game with a second-inning single. Then, with the Royals leading, 2-1, and the bases loaded in the sixth, Sundberg cleared the bases with his pinball triple off the top of the fence.

"We got him for his catching, but he's been a big RBI man for us," Howser said. "Everybody knows about his defense and how he works with pitchers, but throw out his first few years in the majors and he's been an excellent clutch hitter. I know I didn't like to see him coming up in the late innings when he played against us."

Sundberg said he didn't know what to think as he watched his fly ball head for right field. "I didn't know if it was going out. Maybe Barfield would catch it. I just ran as far as I could," Sundberg said. "Golly, just to have it hit the fence. I'm not going to gripe."

Sundberg received a hero's welcome in the Royals' champagne-drenched clubhouse. Danny Jackson greeted his entrance by hooting, "Here comes my idol!"

Moments later, Dan Quisenberry ambushed Sundberg with a champagne bottle, spritzing him with a bazooka blast. "Our hero from Texas!" Quisenberry shouted. "He finally made it to the World Series! Say, did they make you MVP?"

"No," said Sundberg, laughing and spitting out champagne. "They gave it to George."

That's George as in George Brett. The Franchise. But as Brett accepted his playoff Most Valuable Player trophy from AL President Bobby Brown, he tipped his cap to Sundberg.

"As far as I'm concerned, Jim Sundberg is the MVP tonight," Brett said. "Without Jim Sundberg, I would not be standing here today."

Next up for Sundberg are the St. Louis Cardinals and all those AstroTurf burners, major headaches for any catcher.

Sundberg didn't want to think about that. Not yet. He let the champagne drip off his forehead, soak his jersey and sting his eyes. "Ahhhh. This feels great," he said.

A 12-year wait was over.

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