Resuming the countdown on this off-day, the #32 Royals player of all-time is UL Washington.
26 HR 228 RBI
UL Washington was a long-time starting shortstop for the Royals best known for constantly playing with a toothpick hanging out of his mouth. Announcers would warn children viewing at home not to replicate UL's toothpick fetish, lest they choke to death in a toothpick accident.
"I've got a lot of people scared for me, so there's no need for me to be scared, too. I get a lot of mail saying it's a bad influence on kids. But it's okay, if they're coached right."
UL had terrific speed. He was a raw basestealer who got better and better at swiping bases, culminating in a forty-steal season in 1983. He was also very difficult to retire on a double play. In 3124 plate appearances, he grounded into just 33 double plays in his career. In comparison, Jim Rice twice topped that mark in a single season.
Bill James lists UL as the 123rd best shortstop in baseball history, right behind former Royals shortstop Kurt Stilwell. James laments that the Royals attempts to make him a switch-hitter kept UL from being a much better offensive player. UL actually posted a lower on-base percentage as a right hander, but slugged ninety points higher as a right hander, with 23 of his 27 career home runs coming from that side. Bill asserts that right-handed, UL was "as good as Cal Ripken". I'd say that's overstating things a bit - right-handed UL was probably more like Orlando Cabrera. But I do agree that the Royals probably erred in trying to make him a switch-hitter.
UL was born in Stringtown, Oklahoma with the full name of "U L". The unique name was not an abbreviation or nickname, and I'm not sure many other people could have pulled off such a name, but UL Washington somehow made it very cool. UL was a football player in Stringtown, who had played very little baseball. His brother was an usher at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City who one day approached Royals Director of Player Development Lou Gorman and asked if the Royals would be willing to let his brother participate in their brand new "Baseball Academy". The Academy took raw athletes who were not experienced at baseball and taught them to play the game. The Academy was the revolutionary brainchild of owner Ewing Kauffman and would later produce All-Star second baseman Frank White.
Gorman agreed to have Washington come in for a try out. UL impressed the scouts with his speed and arm strength. He then took the field at shortstop to take a number of ground balls. He missed every single one. He stepped into the batter's box. He would miss pitches by a wide margin. He took various tests the Royals had compiled and failed miserably at all of them except a vision test. Many, including owner Ewing Kauffman, felt Washington was a lost cause and should be out of the program. Gorman stuck with Washington, and after UL spent a year in the academy, Gorman assigned him to Rookie ball in 1973. Washington hit .283 and made the All-Star team. By his third season, he was in AAA Omaha. In 1977, the Royals called him up for a cup of coffee.
In the spring of 1978, UL made the ballclub as a utility player. He would appear in 69 games, with 142 plate appearances, and hit .264/.314/.295 with twelve stolen bases for the division-winning Royals. In 1979, long-time shortstop Fred Patek began to decline and it became clear he would file for free agency at the end of the season. In late August, the Royals benched Patek in favor of Washington. He would reward the Royals faith on September 21 in Oakland, with four hits and two home runs, including one from each side of the plate. UL would finish the season hitting .254/.299/.358.
With Patek departing for California, UL was entrenched as the starting shortstop, teaming up with fellow Baseball Academy alum Frank White as the double-play combo. As a full-time starter, UL excelled, hitting .273/.336/.375 with twenty stolen bases. In comparison, the average American League shortstop hit .260/.309/.353 that season. UL also finished third in the league with eleven triples. The Royals again won the division and UL hit .364 against the Yankees in a sweep of the American League Championship Series. UL hit .273 in the World Series, but the Royals fell just short to the Phillies.
UL got off to a great start in 1981, but a 7-66 slump brought his average under the Mendoza Line. When the players went on strike in June, he was hitting just .210. UL rallied with a strong September when play resumed, but finished with a .227 average and was successful in just ten of twenty stolen base attempts. With Washington slumping and young Onix Concepcion playing well in the minors, UL was the subject of trade talks that winter. The Mets discussed acquiring the shortstop for outfielder Lee Mazzilli. Howeverthe Royals did not want to disrupt their double play combo and a deal was never made.
UL got off to a terrible start in 1982 and by May he was on the disabled list with a bad back and a .183 average. Onix Concepcion played well with UL out of action, and trade talks again began to swirl. Orioles veteran pitcher Jim Palmer was disgruntled and wanted out of Baltimore, and published reports had the Royals offering Washington in exchange for the former All-Star. The Royals vigorously denied such reports and when UL returned from the disabled list he was still in a Royals uniform.
"Most teams would rather have an offensive shortstop than a defensive one. So I'll just keep making the plays in the field and try to chip in where I can at the plate.''
Now healthy, UL went on a tear, hitting .329 over June and July. He slammed three home runs in a series against Baltimore in August, and hit .294 with four home runs in September to close out a career best season. UL finished with a .286 average, 10 home runs and 60 RBI, all career highs. He slugged .412 and stole twenty-three bases. According to TucsonRoyal, it was the third best season by a Royals shortstop in terms of "Wins Above Replacement Level" (WAR).
*-In the future I would like to revise this list using WAR, as it rewards players for excellence rather than sustained mediocrity. Win Shares is based largely on playing time, while WAR reflects how much better a player performed in comparison to a baseline of "replacement level." I have little doubt I would rather have one season of Chili Davis than seven seasons of Brent Mayne.
Highest OPS+ for a Royals Shortstop (min. 350 PAs)
1. Mike Aviles 2008 - 122
2. Jay Bell 1997 - 115
3. UL Washington 1982 - 106
4. Angel Berroa 2003 - 101
4. Kurt Stillwell 1988 - 101
UL slumped badly in 1983 with a .236 average, although he did steal a career high 40 bases. In 1984, he found himself on the disabled list three times, missing almost a hundred games. When healthy, he hit just .224. Onix Concepcion was playing more and more so that winter, the Royals dealt Washington the Montreal Expos for two journeymen minor leaguers.
UL hung around a few more seasons with the Expos and then the Pittsburgh Pirates before retiring in 1987. He played two seasons in the Senior Professional Baseball League before getting into coaching. He briefly served in the Royals organization and now serves in the Boston Red Sox organization.