The 93rd Greatest Royal of All-Time is Jim Sundberg
Jim Sundberg only spent two seasons in Kansas City, but he is known for being the starting catcher for the 1985 World Championship team. He was an excellent defensive catcher, perhaps the best defensive catcher in the league between the careers of Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez. He won six Gold Gloves in his career, fourth most all-time among catchers. In eight of his first eleven seasons, he threw out at least 40% of would-be base-stealers. From 1975-1978, he picked off 37 baserunners, leading the league in the category each season. He was also extremely durable, appearing in at least 150 games every season from 1975-1980.
Jim Sundberg was a Hawkeye. In 1973, Texas made him the second overall pick in the January Secondary Phase of the amateur draft behind Dick Ruthven. After just half a season in A ball, he made the jump to the big leagues in 1974. Being rushed to the big leagues did not faze Sundberg as he hit .247 with 3 HR 36 RBI and 62 walks, was named to the All-Star team and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year balloting.
His offense dropped quite a bit in 1975 as he hit under the Mendoza Line and he wouldn't fare much better in 1976. In 1977 his average went back up to .291 and he posted a 105 OPS+. With his stellar defense, he was able to finish 15th in MVP balloting for a surprisingly good Texas Rangers ballclub that finished second to the Royals.
Sundberg would spend a decade playing for the Rangers from 1974-1983. He is still second in franchise history in games played behind only Rafael Palmeiro. He invested himself heavily into the Dallas-Fort Worth community and became a fan favorite. He signed a large contract with the Rangers that included a no-trade clause, and loved playing in Texas so much that he rejected a proposed trade that would have sent him to the perennially contending Dodgers.
In 1983, after hitting just .201, the Rangers finally dealt Sundberg to Milwaukee in a controversial deal for backup catcher Ned Yost. The Rangers wanted to dump part of Sundberg's salary, but the deal happened primarily because of harsh criticism of Sundberg by manager Doug Rader. It turned out to be an awful trade for the Rangers as Sundberg hit .261/.332/.399 and was named to the All-Star team while Yost posted a 28 OPS+.
Because he was traded in the middle of a multi-year contract, Sundberg had the right to demand another trade. He used that leverage to try to negotiate his contract with Milwaukee with a provision to make him the team's number one catcher. Milwaukee had a young catcher named Bill Schroeder and refused to give in to the 34 year old Sundberg. In January, the Brewers dealt Sundberg in a four team trade in which they received P Danny Darwin, P Tim Leary and a minor leaguer. The Royals received Sundberg after giving up P Frank Wills and C Don Slaught.
"What he can do for us is bring the stability and leadership and high-caliber catching he has demonstrated to a team that is built substantially around a young pitching staff,...The mere addition of his presence should help immeasurably."
-Royals General Manager John Schuerholz
Sundberg really didn't do much with the stick in his two seasons with Kansas City, but he was credited for shepherding a young pitching staff and molding them into contenders. His defense fell off some - he threw out just 26% of would-be basestealers in 1985, a career low. However, many around the team saw Sundberg as the veteran leader key to the Royals' success in 1985.
In Game 7 of the 1985 ALCS, Sundberg hit a big three run triple, paving the way for the Royals second AL pennant in franchise history. As George Brett was awarded the ALCS MVP he proclaimed, "As far as I'm concerned, Jim Sundberg is the MVP tonight...Without Jim Sundberg, I would not be standing here today."
In his only World Series, Sundberg performed admirably. He hit .250, but had a hit in six of the seven games, and drew six walks. The high flying Cardinals stole 316 bases in the regular season, but in the World Series Sundberg held them to just two swipes, while nailing them on the basepaths three times (in fairness, the Cards were without their best base-stealer, Vince Coleman).
In 1986, Sundberg's performance slipped a bit more as his average fell to .212, although he did nail 39% of would-be base-stealers. During spring training in 1987, the Royals acquired the soon-to-be infamous catcher Ed Hearn from the Mets for a young pitcher named David Cone. To give the young catcher playing time, they decided it was time to part ways with Sundberg. Days before opening day, they sent the Galesburg, Illinois native to his hometown Cubs for outfielder Thad Bosley and pitcher Dave Gumpert.
"I'm not angry. I'm a little hurt. I've had pleasant memories here (in Kansas City). Coming to Kansas City gave me a world championship. They've treated me fair in Kansas City. The Royals are the best organization I've played for."
After two seasons in Chicago, Sundberg returned to his true love - Texas. He retired from the game in 1989 as a Texas Ranger. To this day, the team award for community involvement is named after Sundberg. Jim has had a very successful post-playing career, spending some time in the booth for the Rangers television broadcast. He is now executive director to the president of Texas Rangers Baseball and a motivational speaker. While his career will always be synonymous with the Texas Rangers, we still remember him fondly behind the plate for our World Champion Royals.