For Kiko Garcia, memories of ‘79 series are still fresh in mind

It’s been more than 30 years since the 1979 World Series, a slice of Orioles history that represents both the best and worst for Kiko Garcia, the shortstop on the team that lost a three games to one series lead to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Now 58, Garcia recently made his first trip to Baltimore since the final game at Memorial Stadium in 1991, and got his first in-person look at Camden Yards. Speaking following the Orioles Advocates Hall of Fame Luncheon last week, where he feted former double-play partner Rich Dauer, Garcia recalled the magical team that let a Fall Classic slip from its grasp to the “We Are Family” Buccos.

An Oriole for the first five of his 10 major league seasons, from 1976-85, Garcia was a .247 hitter with five homers and 24 home runs in 1979. But his bat came alive in the World Series, when he hit .400 with two doubles, a triple and six RBIs. Had the Orioles beaten the Pirates, he might have been declared the Most Valuable Player.

Kiko Garcia HR Trot tall.jpgBut that didn’t happen, and Garcia has spent the past 33 years replaying one critical play in his mind, wondering if a different outcome might have kept a scoreless game intact, rewarded Jim Palmer for a sterling start and given the O’s a sixth-game victory and the third world championship in team history.

With the Orioles ahead three games to two, Palmer got the start before a raucous 53,739 at Memorial Stadium on Tuesday night, Oct. 16. Palmer and the Pirates’ John Candelaria matched zeros through six innings before Pittsburgh scored twice in the seventh en route to a 4-0 victory that evened the series at three games apiece.

With one out in the seventh, Omar Moreno singled to right field, putting a speedy runner at first and a good contact hitter in Tim Foli at the plate. That’s when a seemingly routine play provided anything but a routine result, allowing the Pirates to pull ahead in a tense pitchers’ duel. What looked like a sure double-play bouncer up the middle wasn’t, and the Orioles weren’t the same after that.

“It was tied. They had a runner on first and it was a perfect double play ball that was going to bounce over Palmer’s head,” remembered Garcia. “But Jim, being as good athlete as he was and a taller guy, he tried to catch it. He popped it up a little, it just kind of glanced off his glove, but it just kind of changed the trajectory of the ball. On Astroturf, it would have bounced right to me and it would have been an easy double play. But it landed in the dirt and took a poofy (bounce) and I missed the ground ball. And that opened up the floodgates. I run that play in my head. I’ve run it for the last 30 years.”

The ball skittered through Garcia, was ruled an infield single and the Pirates quickly took advantage of the break. Dave Parker’s single to right scored Moreno from second to unknot the scoreless standoff and sent Foli to third. Willie Stargell followed with a sacrifice fly to left - deep enough to both score Foli and advance Parker to second. John Milner skied out to center to end the inning, but the damage had been done. The next night, Oct. 17, Stargell’s two-run sixth-inning homer off Scott McGregor erased a 1-0 Orioles lead and sent the Pirates to a series-clinching 4-1 victory (Dauer homered for the lone Baltimore run).

Garcia has another vivid memory from that World Series: the Pirates’ strategy of running pitcher after pitcher onto the mound after short stints, especially after they were put into an all-hands-on-deck situation down three games to one. Starting pitchers were suddenly relievers - including future Baseball Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven.

“Their ploy, after we went up on them 3-1, they used all their (starting pitchers) in one, two, three innings,” Garcia said. “Nobody was going however long they’d normally go. I think when a hitter doesn’t see the same guy over and over, it slows you down. I don’t know if that was their strategy or not, but it stuck in my mind, ‘Wow, that was a hell of a move.’ “

It was a tough end to a memorable season for a collection of Orioles, many of whom had risen through the organizational ranks together.

“It was just a great year from start to finish. ... It was such a fun group, a fun year. To almost win it - I mean, I wish we’d have won it - but it was just a great time,” he said.

“I think we all felt it. We were really tight. At the same time, we were home-grown. The Orioles hadn’t traditionally gone out a lot into the free-agent market - at least not really big - so this was a team that came up to the minor leagues, got to the big leagues together, made a few trades - but the bulk of it was the Orioles’ home-grown talent.”

The Orioles were welcomed home by thousands of fans after clinching the American League Championship Series in Anaheim over the Angels. But Garcia wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of O’s faithful that jammed downtown to celebrate a World Series that almost ended in victory.

“All I can say is it was very exciting, Garcia said. “It was something you don’t forget. My most enduring memory was the parade after we lost in the World Series. It looked like the whole state of Maryland was out there - and we had lost. It was a great time. It felt like it was family.”

Garcia played with the Orioles through 1980 - he was a lifetime .232 hitter with nine homers and 78 RBIs in 392 games in black and orange - before an April 1, 1981 deal that sent him to the Astros for outfielder Chris Bourjos and cash. Garcia spent two seasons in Houston before ending his major league career with a three-year stint as a Phillie - ironically, he was part of the 1983 squad beaten by the Orioles.

“I played on three teams, but I ... spent the most time with any one team here,” he said. “I have a lot of friends here.”

Back home in California, Garcia helps run a non-profit called KG Hitters, which operates five elite girls’ fast-pitch softball teams. Garcia is the head coach of the under-14 squad, one of five in the program.

“I love it. I love teaching and I love working with the kids,” he said.

Still, Garcia hadn’t traveled from his home in Martinez, Calif., to Baltimore since taking part in the final game festivities at Memorial Stadium. While in Baltimore for Hall of Fame weekend, Garcia ventured to the old ballpark’s former site at 33rd Street to remember where he spent some of the best times of his professional career.

When he found his table at the O’s Hall of Fame Luncheon, Garcia immediately picked up where he left off with some former teammates he hadn’t seen in years.

“It’s the camaraderie,” he said. “We had so many laughs. We get together, laugh, tell lies. We remember the stuff we did and we fall into the same roles we were in way back then. It’s fun to be back in it.”

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