I know its been way too long since I updated the countdown, and I assure you I am working on it. Here is a look back at the 1989 season, the first season as a fan I thought the Royals had a great shot of winning it all. This entry appeared in the Royals Authority 2009 Annual by Craig Brown and Clark Fosler.
1989 in a Box:
Only twice in franchise history would the Royals win more games than they did in 1989, however by October the team was sitting at home watching the mighty Oakland Athletics dominate the post-season. Three American League Western Division ballclubs would win 90 games or more that year, more than the Eastern Division champion Toronto Blue Jays. The Royals would win the third most games in all of baseball, but in the days before the wild card, there was little recourse for a great team stuck in a great division.
The 1989 Royals had the right combination of seasoned veterans from the 1985 Championship team combined with young players in their prime. They had terrific pitching, with young arms from the minors ready to contribute. Their offense, while not great, was solid with a mix of power and speed. On paper, it looked like a complete ballclub. But they had those defending American League Champion Athletics to deal with.
Record: 92-70 (2nd place, 7 GB)
Runs Scored: 690 (11th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 635 (3rd in AL)
General Manager: John Schuerholz
Manager: John Wathan
Attendance: 2,477,700 (6th in the AL) - 30,589 per game
Stadium: Royals Stadium
Longest Winning Streak: 9 (August 15 to 23)
Longest Losing Streak: 6 (May 17 to April 23)
How they started: The Royals got off to an uncharacteristically good start, winning six of their first eight, and finishing April with a 16-8 record.
Best month: August. The Royals went 21-8 and pulled within two and a half games of first place by the end of the month.
Worst month: July. It was the Royals only losing month that year, at 13-14.
Best game: August 26 – Kansas City 2 Oakland 0. Bret Saberhagen continued his mastery over the Athletics with a four-hit shutout and Willie Wilson surprised even himself with a 415 foot home run. The win brought the Royals to within two and a half games back of first.
Worst game: September 6 – Detroit 11 Kansas City 5. The Royals were still just two and a half games back with just a few weeks to play when they came to Detroit to play the last place Tigers. The Royals gave up 26 runs in the three game series, and were swept by a team that would go on to lose 104 games. Charlie Leibrandt, already having a terrible season, was rocked in the series finale, and the team committed three errors behind him. It was the Royals thirteenth consecutive loss in Tiger Stadium, a streak that had spanned three seasons.
Loved to face: California and Seattle. The Royals went 9-4 against the competitive Angels and hapless Mariners.
Hated to face: Cleveland. The Indians were awful that year, but they had the Royals’ number, taking eight of twelve contests.
Say Hello To: Bob Boone, Steve Crawford, Terry Leach (acquired in June), Larry McWilliams (acquired in September)
Say Goodbye To: Jaime Quirk
What Went Right: The Royals had a terrific pitching staff anchored by Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen, who posted a league best 2.16 ERA. Rookie sensation Tom Gordon would pitch well as a starter and reliever. Jeff Montgomery emerged as a dominant closer. The Royals had four players – George Brett, Bo Jackson, Danny Tartabull and Jim Eisenreich – post an OPS+ over 120. The club stole 154 bases, third in the league.
What Went Wrong: Willie Wilson and Frank White continued to decline offensively. Just three players reached double digits in home runs. The team finished twelfth in slugging. Veteran lefties Charlie Leibrandt and Floyd Bannister struggled mightily. Injuries hit the club – only Kevin Seitzer played more than 135 games. The Royals were stuck in the same division as Oakland.
Youngsters (25 or under)— 5 (youngest semi-regular was 21 year old Tom Gordon)
Prime (26-29)—7 semi-regulars
Past-Prime (30-33)—6 semi-regulars
Old Timers (34+) — 7 (oldest was 41 year old Bob Boone)
Rookies: Tom Gordon, Luis Aquino, Matt Winters
Top Prospect— Twenty-one year old first baseman Bob Hamelin slugged .640 with sixteen home runs in 68 games for AA Memphis. Twenty-one year old lefty Dennis Moeller went 10-1 with a 2.06 ERA in seventeen starts between A ball and AA.
1989 Draft: Brent Mayne (13th overall), Ed Pierce, Andres Berumen
Best OPS+: Danny Tartabull, 128
Most Runs Created: Bo Jackson, 77
Highest Batting Average: Jim Eisenreich, .293
Lowest Batting Average: Willie Wilson, .253
Most Home Runs: Bo Jackson, 32 (4th in the league)
Most RBI: Bo Jackson, 105 (4th in the league)
Most Stolen Bases: Jim Eisenreich, 27 (9th in the league)
Moneyball Award: Kevin Seitzer, 102 walks (4th in the league)
Angel Berroa Award: Willie Wilson, 27 walks in 423 plate appearances
Best Position Player: Bo Jackson
Worst Position Player: Frank White
Most Wins: Bret Saberhagen, 23
Most Losses: Mark Gubicza, Charlie Leibrandt, 11
Most Saves: Steve Farr, Jeff Montgomery, 18
Best ERA: Bret Saberhagen, 2.16
Worst ERA: Charlie Leibrandt, 5.14
Most Innings: Bret Saberhagen, 262 1/3
Best Pitcher: Bret Saberhagen
Worst Pitcher: Charlie Leibrandt
Career Best Seasons: Bo Jackson, Jim Eisenreich, Bret Saberhagen, Tom Gordon, Jeff Montgomery, Steve Crawford
Career Worst Seasons: Charlie Leibrandt
Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Pitcher Bret Saberhagen was called on as a pinch-runner three times, scoring once. He even pinch ran for what many considered one of the greatest athletes of his generation – Bo Jackson.
Home Sweet Home: The Royals won 55 games in the friendly confines of Royals Stadium, more home wins than any team in baseball.
Hey Big Spender: The 1989 Royals fielded the highest payroll in the league at nearly $19 million. Only the Dodgers and Mets had a higher payroll in baseball.
Hall of Fame Milestone: On September 8 at home against Minnesota, George Brett singled off Twins starter Roy Smith, the 2,500th hit of his Hall of Fame career.
The 1988 Royals had compiled a winning record, but a slow start and clubhouse dissension buried them in the wake of a runaway Oakland club that went on to win the pennant. Kansas City still had some of the key veterans from their championship team from 1985, but those players were slowly being overshadowed by young hitters in their prime like Kevin Seitzer, Danny Tartabull, and Bo Jackson. This talented group had failed to win more than 84 games in the three seasons following Kansas City’s championship season. They had fielded competitive teams, but they lacked that final piece to the puzzle that could take them back to the top.
For three years the Royals had sought a backstop to that could be their long-term catcher. With Ed Hearn not living up to his billing, and with injury concerns surrounding young minor leaguer Mike MacFarlane, the Royals looked for a free agent veteran to fill the role.
In December of 1988, the California Angels signed All-Star catcher Lance Parrish, putting long-time starter Bob Boone’s playing time in jeopardy. Boone began to look elsewhere, and when the Royals offered him a one dollar raise over his previous salary, Boone happily accepted. Boone was just the second free agent the Royals had ever signed, the first being infielder Jerry Terrell in 1978.
Having released veteran relievers Dan Quisenberry and Gene Garber the previous summer, the Royals looked for someone to fill those shoes as a stopper in the pen. They had gotten by in 1988 with journeyman reliever Steve Farr, but the Royals wanted someone with more experience as a proven closer. They flirted with free agent Dodgers lefty Jesse Orosco and Orioles righty Tom Niedenfuer, and showed interest in trading for Phillies closer Steve Bedrosian or White Sox closer Bobby Thigpen, but nothing ever materialized.
Half of baseball inquired about Royals rightfielder Danny Tartabull, and the Royals were willing to listen if the deal involved a proven closer for their pen. The Blue Jays offered hard-throwing closer Tom Henke, a Missouri native, as well as outfielder Lloyd Moseby to the Royals. The Astros also offered their closer, Dave Smith, as well as outfielder Kevin Bass. The Giants offered starting pitcher Scott Garrelts and outfielder Candy Maldonaldo, but the Royals wanted slugger Kevin Mitchell in return.. In the end, the Royals were not overwhelmed by any offers and decided to hang on to their young slugger.
There were rumors at the Winter Meetings of the Royals having talks with the Red Sox about perennial All-Star third baseman Wade Boggs. Boggs was coming off a batting title, but was also going through a publicly damaging palimony suit by Margo Adams, his mistress for four years (a Kansas City radio station would hand out masks of Margo Adams when the Red Sox were in town). Danny Tartabull was mentioned as being the main target of a possible trade for Boggs.
Talks extended into spring training with the Royals offering Seitzer and pitcher Floyd Bannister to the Red Sox. Discussions heated up and rumors began to swirl. Mets General Manager Joe McIlvane later revealed that a huge four-team blockbuster that would have sent Tartabull to the Mets, Boggs to the Royals, Mets third baseman Howard Johnson and pitcher Sid Fernandez to the Mariners, and Seattle pitcher Mark Langston to Boston came close to fruition. However, such a deal never took place. Talks between the Royals and Red Sox eventually sputtered and Boggs stayed in Beantown while the Royals opened up the season with Seitzer at the hot corner.
Out of the Gate
Despite all the trade talk, the Royals ended the off-season with virtually the same team they had ended with the previous season. Royals star George Brett was in his decline phase, but was still a well-above average player at first base. Long-time teammates Frank White and Willie Wilson were declining much more rapidly and bristled at constant talk of replacing them with younger players. The club had many young players in their prime including shortstop Kurt Stillwell, third baseman Kevin Seitzer, and power-hitting outfielders Bo Jackson and Danny Tartabull. Veteran catcher Bob Boone had been brought in to be a field general and handle the pitching staff. Pat Tabler, known for his clutch hitting, would spend most of the time at designated hitter. Infielder Brad Wellman, designated hitter Bill Buckner and outfielder Jim Eisenreich would make up the bench.
The trio of Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and Charlie Leibrandt had been together since 1984, and together they formed one of the best rotations in the league. Floyd Bannister was coming off a disappointing season after a big trade had brought him to Kansas City. The veteran lefty did have over 100 wins in his career, so the Royals were optimistic he would rebound. The Royals had a few starting pitchers in the pipeline ready to step up if called upon including minor leaguers Kevin Appier, Luis Aquino and Jose DeJesus.
The bullpen was the big question mark to open the year. The Royals were willing to let Steve Farr close ballgames, but the personnel in charge of getting the lead to him were untested. Setup man Jeff Montgomery had pitched well in 1988, but many wondered if it was a fluke. Lefty Jerry Don Gleaton had been a journeyman. The wild card was Tom Gordon, the most promising pitching prospect in the organization. He was assigned to the bullpen to begin the year, although many felt he would be in the rotation before too long.
''I don't like to brag or get overly cocky, but I feel we have the best staff in baseball. From one through nine, we're the best in baseball.''
-Manager John Wathan.
Determined not to let a slow start bury them again in 1989, the Royals won six of nine games on their opening homestand. They ended the month of April winning nine of ten. On May 3, they were 17-8, the third best record in baseball – and also the third best record in their division. Curiously, the rotation pitched poorly to begin the year, while it was the maligned bullpen that carried the club. Farr proved to be trustworthy, but it was young Jeff Montgomery, a former failed starter, who emerged as the team’s best reliever. The club also got surprisingly good performances from Steve Crawford, a reclamation project released by the Red Sox, and Terry Leach, a sidearming veteran the Royals acquired from the Mets in June.
The Odd Case of Bret Saberhagen
Let’s compare two pitchers:
Pitcher A – 19-8 2.85 ERA 237 2/3 IP 163 K 45 BB 75 ER
Pitcher B – 9-12 3.70 ERA 177 1/3 IP 111 K 38 BB 73 ER
Pitcher A is Bret Saberhagen. Pitcher B is….Bret Saberhagen. The first line is Saberhagen in odd-numbered years in Kansas City, taken as an average. He won the Cy Young in 1985 and 1989, and won 18 games in 1987. The second line is Saberhagen in even-numbered years in Kansas City, taken as an average. He struggled in 1986 and 1988 and missed fifteen starts in 1990. Sabes finally broke this mold upon leaving Kansas City, but for about eight years he had a bizarre pattern you could pretty much rely on.
Saberhagen was sensational in 1989, easily the best season of his career. He led the league in wins, ERA, innings pitched, complete games, strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP. He finished third in strikeouts and won his only Gold Glove. In three starts against the mighty Oakland Athletics, he gave up one earned run over 24 innings, winning all three games including one where he set a career record for most strikeouts in a game. He won fourteen of his last fifteen starts down the stretch, pitching into the seventh inning every time. He was a near unanimous selection for the Cy Young Award, the second of his career.
Bret would win just eighteen more games over the next two seasons in Kansas City, before being dealt to the Mets in an unpopular trade. But at least for 1989, an odd-numbered year, Bret was even keel.
In early May, the Royals found out they would miss slugger George Brett for a month with a knee injury. Undeterred, they went on to win seven of eight ballgames, capped off by an 8-1 win over Minnesota in which Bo Jackson became the first right-handed hitter to reach the right field upper deck with a home run. That win brought the Royals in a three-way tie with the Angels and A’s for the best record in baseball.
The Royals promptly dropped six in a row, but righted the ship with a five game win streak over Memorial Day Weekend. In early June, the Royals began a six-game homestand against the two teams in front of them in the standings – the California Angels and the Oakland Athletics. The Royals would take the first game against California on a mammoth three-run home run by Bo Jackson to right field in a 6-1 victory. George Brett returned to action in the second game, and drove in two runs in a 5-4 win. The Royals would complete the sweep and tie the Angels in the standings when Bob Boone punished the team that let him go with a go-ahead three run home run in a 5-3 win.
With Oakland coming to town, the Royals had a chance to pull within a half game of first place if they could continue their streak. The opener featured a great pitching matchup between A’s starter Bob Welch and Royals starter Mark Gubicza. Jim Eisenreich would break a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the eleventh with a two-out single that would put the Royals into second place ahead of the Angels. In the second game, rookie Kevin Appier, making just his second career start, would battle for his first Major League victory in the 5-3 win.
In the finale, the Royals trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth with George Brett on first. Bo Jackson would lace a double down the left field line, sending a still gimpy Brett around the bases. Third base coach Adrian Garrett waved the veteran on home, but Brett was thrown out at the plate. The Royals fell to two and a half games behind the A’s. They would have been in first place in any other division.
1989 was truly the coming out party for Bo Jackson. He had been a sensation since his days on the gridiron at Auburn University, where he won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. But many felt his baseball career was a stunt. Writers opined that it was only inevitable that Bo would give up the folly of pursuing a baseball career and would soon play football full-time.
But the detractors never counted on Bo applying himself and getting better. Bo set a Royals franchise rookie record in 1987 with 22 home runs, but his game was still very raw. He hit for a low average, struck out a ton, and made silly mental mistakes. He improved in 1988, but was still a pretty average outfielder.
In 1989, Bo was a man on a mission. He hit four home runs in a single week in April and slugged .647 for the month. He spent most of May and June battling for the home run lead in the American League. If they gave out style points for home runs, Bo would have had a huge lead. He hit the right field upper deck in Minnesota. Just two weeks after striking out four times in a game against Nolan Ryan, Bo hit a mammoth shot off the future Hall of Famer that traveled some 460 feet, the longest recorded home run in Arlington Stadium.
"In Minnesota, I saw him walk into the batting cage, take one swipe at the ball hitting left-handed and hit it in the upper deck in right field at the Metrodome. Then, the other day, he hit a ground ball up the middle, just a routine single to center field, and never stopped, turning it into a double before anyone even realized what had happened."
"Players from both teams watch when Bo takes batting practice. There's always the feeling that you're going to see something you never saw before, and we don't want to miss it."
Bo was the leading vote-getter for the 1989 All-Star Game, and he certainly lived up to the billing. Leading off the bottom of the first, he deposited a pitch from Rick Reuschel into the center field bleachers, 446 feet away from home plate. He became the only player other than Willie Mays to homer and steal a base in an All-Star Game and he was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
He would finish that season with a career high 32 home runs and 105 RBI, fourth in the league in both categories. His .495 slugging percentage would finish sixth in the league, and he would steal 26 bases to boot. He would also strike out a league high 171 times.
Bo would play just one more season in Kansas City, leaving Royals fans to forever wonder what could have been.
Flash of Brilliance
On July 17, the Royals inserted rookie Tom "Flash" Gordon into the rotation to make his first start. Gordon had enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Royals system, dominating three levels of minor league ball in 1988 before experiencing a cup of coffee with the big league club that September. In 1989, Gordon had picked up ten wins as a long reliever that year utilizing a devastating curveball, leading many to clamor for him to be used as a starter. On that July evening against the Brewers, Gordon dominated, striking out ten batters in eight innings for a 3-2 victory.
Flash would reel off five straight victories in August, and by the end of the month he was second in the league in victories with sixteen. But he hit a wall in September, losing five straight decisions, including three games in which he failed to escape the third inning.
"I'm trying to figure out what's the problem with my curve. It's not breaking as sharp as usual. It's getting to me. But it's gonna happen. It happens to everybody."
The slump probably cost Gordon the Rookie of the Year award, but he would finish with a 17-9 record, the most wins ever by a Royals rookie. He finished tenth in the league in strikeouts with 153, despite spending half of the year in the bullpen. Gordon would never win more than twelve games in a season for the rest of his career, but for a few months at least, his curveball was near unhittable.
The Wild Wild West
Gordon’s win in Milwaukee put the Royals within one and a half games of the now first place Angels. But California went on a red-hot streak, winning ten of eleven to end the month of July, leaving the Royals seven and a half games back. Four American League Western Division clubs had better records than the any Eastern Division club. But this was before the days of the wild card, and the Royals had to overcome a ferocious division if they hoped to play in October.
"No doubt, we're playing in what is probably the toughest division in baseball, but there's nothing we can do about it except work hard and try to rise to the challenge."
The Royals caught fire in August, sweeping a four game series in Seattle, then coming home to host the Angels and Athletics again. Bret Saberhagen pitched brilliantly in the opener against California for a 4-2 win. Game two was delayed over an hour, but long reliever Terry Leach picked up the slack and shut down the Angels for five innings in another 4-2 victory. The next night, Tom Gordon outdueled fellow rookie Jim Abbott in a 6-4 win to extend the winning streak to nine. The Angels would avoid a sweep by winning the finale 5-0, but by then the Royals had knocked the Angels out of first place. Kansas City still trailed Oakland by four and a half games, but they would get their chance to cut into that lead the next night.
In the opener against Oakland, Mark Gubicza would blank the A’s for seven innings in a 3-1 win. In three starts against Oakland that year, Gubie would fail to allow a single run over 25 innings. Saberhagen would shutout the A’s on just four hits the next night, a 2-0 victory that would pull the Royals within two and a half games of Oakland. The Royals would drop the finale, but by then they had made clear it would be a three team race for the division title.
The Clutch of Pat Tabler
"Clutch hitting" is an amorphous concept difficult to define and even harder to ascertain. Some believe that certain players have an innate ability to rise to the occasion, while others believe the concept is a product of small sample sizes and selective observation. Critics of the concept of clutch also point out that many of the players deemed as "clutch" are simply great players who are good in all situations, clutch or non-clutch. The concept of clutch also begs the question – why don’t clutch players perform as well in non-clutch situations? Are they just not trying as hard?
If there was a poster-boy for the concept of clutch it was Pat Tabler. Overall, "Tabs" was a pretty mediocre hitter with little power for a first baseman. But with the bases loaded, Pat Tabler was like Dr. Bruce Banner transforming into the Incredible Hulk. TABLER WANT TO SMASH BALL!
It began in 1983, when Tabler went 11 for 19 with the bases loaded. The next season, he was 5 for 9. In 1985, he was near perfect, going 6 for 7 with a grand slam. His clutch took a year off in 1986, but returned the next year as Tabler went 5 for 9. In 1988, he had an insane run, going 8 for 9 with the bases jammed. That is not just good performance in the clutch, that is near automatic performance in the clutch. During those six seasons, he was an amazing 37 for 63 (.587). With the bases loaded, Tabler was more likely to get a hit than make an out.
Having an ability to hit with the bases loaded makes some intuitive sense because of the unique circumstances of the situation. A pitcher is going to be more likely to give the hitter a pitch he can handle, to avoid walking in a run. This is even more likely when a hitter like Pat Tabler and his .379 career slugging percentage is up. Perhaps Tabler had very good bat control and an ability to handle hittable pitches.
But Tabler’s clutch was not simply confined to situations when the bases were loaded. With a runner at third, late in the game with two outs, Tabler hit 89 for 205 (.434). Even in all situations with runners in scoring position, his numbers were well above his career norms. These numbers also refute the idea that Tabler’s success was a mere product of small sample size.
So perhaps Pat Tabler had some mystical ability to come through in the clutch, mesmerizing opponents with his golden locks. Or maybe he’s just a freakish outlier. Who knows?
Chasing the A’s
The Royals would sweep the Tigers to end the month of August. On September 1, they bested the Rangers 5-3 in twelve innings to pull within one and a half games of first place. They Royals headed next to Detroit to again face the hapless Tigers, a golden opportunity to gain some ground on the Athletics.
Instead, the Royals were swept in Detroit, giving up twenty-six runs in the three game set. They never fully recovered. They tried to right the ship by taking five out of seven on the following homestand. But the following week they dropped four of seven on a homestand against the two worst teams in the Western Division – Chicago and Seattle. Two days later, the Athletics clinched the division.
The Royals ended the year with 92 victories, their most since 1980 and the third most wins in baseball.
In some respects, it was remarkable that the Royals had been as competitive as they were. They outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by five wins. They had numerous injuries to key players, and had just three pitchers make at least twenty starts. But they did have a pretty complete team with solid pitching and an offense that could do a little bit of everything. Had the current divisional alignment been in place in 1989, the Royals would have won the division by eleven games. Instead, they would sit at home and watch the Athletics march through the post-season and easily win a championship.