By Phil Ellenbecker
There weren’t too many good things to root about with the Kansas City Royals in their first couple of years. One was Amos Otis, probably their first legitimate star player. Another was Cookie Rojas. Cookie wasn’t exactly a star, but he was an All-Star, a five-time All-Star, including four straight years with the Royals from 1971-74.
It was his appearance in the 1972 Midsummer Classic to which we draw attention for the next installment in this series.
Remember how thrilled and proud you were as a Royals fan when Eric Hosmer, on the strength of a homer and two RBIs, won the 2016 All-Star Game MVP award? Well, Rojas was likely in the running for the same honor in 1972.
That’s because when Rojas pinch hit for Rod Carew in the top of the eighth inning that Tuesday night, July 25, in Atlanta Stadium, with two out and Carlton Fisk on first, Octavio delivered a homer off Bill Stoneman. That gave the American League a 3-2 lead. And it appeared Rojas had won the game — which would have given the AL two straight wins in the series for the first time since 1959. It was also the first time a foreign-born player hit an All-Star Game homer.
But the NL tied the game in the bottom of the ninth and went on to win 4-3 in the bottom of the 10th. That gave the NL 10 wins in the past 11 games and began a string of 11 straight wins on top of the senior circuit’s nine straight from 1962 to 1970.
So Cookie, who in a 16-year career spent seven years with the Phillies before eight with the Royals, was denied a chance to be the hero — and make his parents very proud, at least I think. I recall reading once that Cookie’s parents were in attendance and seeing their son play for the first time. But I couldn’t find confirmation for this online. But it makes a good story, and I don’t think I could make this up. Let’s go with it.
By the way, Joe Morgan won the MVP award after singling in Nate Colbert with the winning run in the 10th. It was Morgan’s lone hit in four trips to the plate, so it’s safe to say whoever drove in the winning run was up for the game’s MVP.
Rojas and Otis came to the Royals in the 1970 season in a pair of steals pulled off by general manager Cedric Tallis that helped make the team respectable ahead of schedule, placing second in the AL West in 1971 in their third year of existence. Freddy Patek, John Mayberry and Hal McRae were three other mainstays who came aboard in trades where the other team either got little in return, and/or players coming off successful seasons who were ready to go in the tank.
The success of those deals is reflected in All-Star game appearances. Otis was a five-time All-Star and Patek was selected three times, while McRae and Mayberry were picked twice each. (For more on the magic of Cedric Tallis, see the Hardball Times article, “The Royals of Sir Cedric,” by Steve Treder, at http://www.hardballtimes.com/the-royals-of-sir-cedric/.)
Otis almost entered the All-Star spotlight himself in 1970. It was Otis who fielded the ball in center field and threw home on the single by Jim Hickman that drove in Pete Rose with the winning run — a play made famous by Rose barreling over AL catcher Ray Fosse and dislodging Fosse’s shoulder from its socket. (Some say the play ruined Fosse’s career, but it really didn’t. He played eight more years and made one other All-Star team.)
Otis was the Royals’ lone All-Star in 1970. He was joined as an All-Star by Rojas in ’71, and those two were joined next year by Patek, Lou Piniella and Richie Scheinblum.
Other notes on Rojas, from his Society for American Baseball Research biography:
He was one of a handful of major leaguers who played every position in his career including pitcher.
After considering retiring following the 1970 season, at the age of 32 in 1971 he had arguably the best season of his career, batting .300, leading AL second basemen in fielding percentage with a .991 mark, and he finished 14th in MVP voting.
Hall of Fame Royals broadcaster Denny Mathews said of Rojas: “He brought the element of experience, class and big-league smarts to the team. That really helped the expansion team at the time.”
Of his own worth, Cookie said of his career: “I came in with a reputation of not being able to hit and I developed a reputation as a winning player who would do anything and play anywhere to help you win, who could not only contribute with his bat and glove but with the experience he passed along to the other players.”