The 61st Greatest Royal of All-Time was the gritty, slick-fielding Greg Gagne.
Greg Gagne was an excellent defensive shortstop, and a solid hitter who ended a putrid stretch of starting shortstops in Kansas City when he signed as a free agent in 1993. Gagne had made his mark as a member of two World Champions in Minnesota before spending three solid seasons in Kansas City.
Gagne hailed from Massachusetts and was drafted in the 5th round of the 1979 June draft by the New York Yankees. He had a great year in 1981, when at age nineteen he posted a .297/.379/.445 with nine home runs in A ball. The following April, the Twins were looking to dump salary and dealt veteran infielder Roy Smalley to the Yankees for young pitcher Ron Davis, minor league pitcher Paul Boris, and the young Gagne.
Gagne slumped that season to .232, but rebounded the following season to hit .255 with seventeen home runs in AAA, earning him a cup of coffee. Injuries set him back the next year, but by 1985 he was given a shot to compete for the starting shortstop job in Minnesota. He hit just .225, causing him to be benched in favor of Smalley, who had returned to Minnesota. But Smalley's defensive liabilities caused the Twins to turn back to Gagne full-time in 1986.
Gagne spent the next seven seasons as the Twins starting shortstop, generally hitting between .245 - .270 with an OBA around .300 and a slugging percentage around .400. He turned into a solid, although not spectacular defensive shortstop, setting a franchise record with a 47 game errorless streak in 1987. That season he also had a terrific performance in the American League Championship Series, going 5-18 with three doubles and two home runs as the Twins knocked off the Tigers, and later the Cardinals in the World Series.
In 1991, Gagne committed just nine errors all season, tying Alan Trammell for fewest errors among American League starting shortstops. He also cracked a big three run home run in Game One of the 1991 World Series, a series the Twins would go on to win.
Gagne's performance slipped considerably in 1992, when he hit just .246/.280/.361. His relationship with the club had soured, and with the Twins focused on re-signing superstar Kirby Puckett, Gagne began to look elsewhere. The Blue Jays and Red Sox showed some interest in the thirty-year old shortstop. The Royals were committed on spending money that winter after suffering their first ninety-loss season in twenty-two years. They had courted Joe Carter and Wade Boggs, but fell short in landing either. They focused their efforts on landing Greg Gagne and in December signed him to a three year $10.7 million contract.
"They really wanted me here. You could tell during the offseason that they thought I could do the job for them. You come to a situation like that, and you feel good. Like you're accepted."
The Royals also traded for slick fielding Pirates second baseman Jose Lind, then landed one of the biggest prizes of the winter when they signed hometown pitcher David Cone. The Royals lavish spending drew criticism from other clubs, but the Royals were determined to win one more championship for owner Ewing Kauffman.
With Gagne, Lind and first baseman Wally Joyner, the Royals had one of the best defensive infields in baseball. Gagne struggled initially with the bat however, and by May had his average under the Mendoza Line. By August he had heated up, hitting .344 during the month with a four hit game and back-to-back three hit games. The Royals played a few wins over .500 most of the year, but never got hot enough to catch the first place Chicago White Sox.
"Every day, each guy makes plays that wouldn't have been made in the past here. And they're not automatic outs, either."
"He's the best shortstop I've played with."
An incident in a July game in Detroit revealed what a gritty ballplayer Gagne was. The Royals had played a feisty series with the Tigers and the usually reserved Gagne had become so irate he angrily threw his bat and helmet after a check-swing strikeout call by home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether. In the ninth, with the Royals up 10-6, Tigers reliever Mark Leiter gave Gagne some chin music with two fastballs to brush him off the plate. Gagne defiantly spit towards Leiter, which set off the Tigers bench in uproar. Gagne then hit the next fastball into the upper deck, the 10,000th home run in the history of Tiger Stadium.
"I'm not here to fight. All I wanted (Leiter) to do was come back and challenge me with a fastball. I wasn't mad. That's baseball. I understand it. "
Gagne ended the season with a career high .280 batting average, ten home runs and a career high 57 RBI. He committed just ten errors all season, the fewest in baseball for someone with at least 100 games at shortstop. He set a franchise record with a 52 game errorless streak, and tied a franchise record for most home runs by a shortstop. He appeared in all but three games, and even garnered three MVP votes. He was named Royals Player of the Year.
The Royals had made a big push for a pennant in 1993 for Ewing Kauffman, but upon his death late in the 1993 season, the Royals were left in financial uncertainty. The Royals had also lost future Hall of Famer George Brett to retirement, hurting what was already a weak offensive lineup. Expectations were a bit low going into the 1994 season.
Most Career Home Runs at Shortstop in Royals History
1. Angel Berroa 2003-present - 45
2. Fred Patek 1971-1979 - 28
3. U.L. Washington 1977-1984 - 26
3. Kurt Stilwell 1988-1991 - 26
5. Greg Gagne 1993-1995 - 23
Gagne again got off to a slow start, but by May he had his average over .300. By late July the team was just a few games over .500, far back of the first place White Sox. The Royals then went on a fourteen game winning streak, pulling them within one game back of Chicago. Gagne went 15-50 (.300) over the streak with six RBI. Just a week later, play would cease as the players went on strike, a work stoppage that would effectively end the season. Gagne's final numbers stood at .259/.314/.392 with seven home runs and 51 RBI.
When play resumed in 1995 the Royals were a different ballclub. They had traded off high priced veterans David Cone and Brian McRae and were in cost-cutting mode. Despite the cutbacks, the Royals played well through June, but the young Cleveland Indians had already run away with the division title. Gagne got off to a sizzling start, with hits in nine of his first twelve games. By June he was still hitting over .300 when he hurt his knee in June, causing his bat and his glove to both decline. He finished the year at .256 with six home runs and 49 RBI, and made eleven of his eighteen errors in the second half of the season.
That winter, Gagne sought a one year deal, but with eight free agents including slugger Gary Gaetti and closer Jeff Montgomery, the Royals could not afford to keep Gagne. He signed with the Dodgers for $2.6 million to replace the error-prone Jose Offerman. Gagne spent two years playing in Los Angeles, with a steady bat and glove. He hated being away from his kids back in Massachusetts so he asked the Dodgers to decline his option. He offered to play as a reserve for his hometown Red Sox, but when the team lowballed him, Gagne instead retired.
"How do you retire from playing a game?"
A born again Christian, Gagne now resides in Somerset, Massachusetts, and is the head baseball coach at Bishop Feehan High School.