KANSAS CITY — Strike three to Reggie Jackson had been history for more than a half-hour, a final out that enabled Kansas City's Bret Saberhagen to make history on this chilly Monday night in Missouri.
By beating the Angels, 3-1, Saberhagen forged a first-place tie atop the American League West standings while becoming the major leagues' fifth youngest pitcher to win 20 games in one season. The man he supplanted: One George Herman (Babe) Ruth, who won 20 games as a 21-year-old with the Boston Red Sox.
It was party time. Or, at least Saberhagen thought so.
"Hey, isn't anybody going to help me drink this champagne?" Saberhagen yelled to anyone within earshot. Two bottles of the bubbly remained lodged in a bucket of ice at the foot of Saberhagen's locker. Only a swig had been taken out of one. The other was still unopened.
This greatly distressed Saberhagen. He hasn't been able to drink this stuff--legally, at least--for too long. "Less than a year," said Saberhagen, who turned 21 in April.
Obviously, he wanted to make the most of this opportunity.
Still, his teammates ignored him. Finally, in mock frustration, Saberhagen reached down, grabbed some plastic cups and began pouring. Then, he handed them out to anyone who wandered by--clubhouse attendants, a team publicist, anyone who looked familiar.
One man who accepted Saberhagen's offer was former Royal Paul Splittorff, who won 20 games for Kansas City in 1973.
It was a passing of the torch in reverse--the Royals' first 20-game winner taking a toast from the latest.
And the latest, at least in the view of Kansas City Manager Dick Howser, could be the best.
"I know how I feel and how the rest of this team feels," Howser said. "He's a 20-game winner, a Cy Young candidate. When you consider what he's done--against the East, the West, in warm weather, in cold--it's amazing."
Saberhagen is 20-6 overall with a 2.79 earned run average. He is 10-2 against the American League West, 10-4 against the East. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio is better than 4-to-1 (152 strikeouts, 36 walks).
"His most impressive numbers are his strikeouts to walks," Howser said. "Think about it. (Dwight) Gooden may be be the only other guy with those numbers. That combination is going to make him an outstanding pitcher for a long time."
Howser laughed. "I hope he's capable of this for as long as my contract goes," he said.
People were throwing around comparisons about Saberhagen the way Saberhagen was throwing strikes past Angel batters. Howser likened him to Catfish Hunter and Ron Guidry. Jackson said he was reminded of Gooden.
Asked if he had ever seen such poise from such a young pitcher, Jackson replied: "Only in the dictionary, only at Shea Stadium."
This is hardly the scenario Saberhagen could have imagined when he stepped off the Dodger Stadium pitcher's mound in June, 1982, having ended his career at Reseda's Cleveland High by throwing a no-hitter in the Los Angeles City championship game.
"I never even realized I'd be in the big leagues this early," Saberhagen said. "I thought I'd give it four or five years in the minors and if I didn't make it by then, I'd do something else."
Saberhagen spent exactly one year in the minors. As a rookie with the Royals in 1984, he went 10-11 with a 3.48 ERA.
As a second-year pitcher, he wins 20 games.
For the record, Saberhagen officially became a 20-game winner at the age of 21 years 5 months 19 days. Ruth was 21 years 7 months 11 days old.
"I didn't even know Babe Ruth won 20 games," Saberhagen said. "I knew he was a pitcher, but I bet if you asked around, not many people could tell you that he once won 20 games as a pitcher.
Saberhagen will stay on the mound, where Howser believes he will win the Cy Young Award some day.
Maybe some day in 1985.
"We had lost three in a row, we had to get turned around tonight, and that starts with good pitching," Howser said. "I was not crazy about having to face (the Angels' John) Candelaria, his numbers and what he did to us in Anaheim (a 7-1 victory). But, we also had the Cy Young guy going for us.
"I really think it's got to be Bret. The other guy in New York is a good pitcher. It's going to be between them."
The other guy in New York is Guidry, who has 21 victories this season. Saberhagen can tie that with a win in his last start.