The 41st Greatest Royal of All-Time is former player and manager John Wathan.
John Wathan is one of three men to both play for and manage the Royals. Hal McRae and Bob Boone are the others (Jamie Quirk managed on an interim basis when Tony Muser served a suspension in 1998). Throughout the years, Royals fans have often clamored for the team to hire a popular former player to fill the managerial position. In the early 1980s, fans were irate when the team bypassed beloved former Royals infielder Cookie Rojas to hire Dick Howser. In the late 1990s, some were upset when former Royals catcher Jamie Quirk was bypassed for Tony Muser. And more recently some fans howled when the Royals bypassed former Royals second baseman Frank White in favor of Trey Hillman.
What is the track record for franchises bringing back former regulars to manage the club? Billy Martin (Yankees), Mike Hargrove (Indians), Larry Dierker (Astros), Ozzie Guillen (White Sox), stand out to me as a success stories. Pete Rose (Reds), Joe Torre (Braves), Lou Piniella (Yankees), Jim Fregosi (Angels), Larry Bowa (Phillies), Bill Russell (Dodgers) all had ups and downs. Butch Hobson (Red Sox), Bucky Dent (Yankees) and Alan Trammell (Tigers) were disasters. So its pretty much the same as any random group of managers - some successes, some mixed results, and some disasters.
I think fans like to believe these former beloved players can restore an attitude from glory days. I'm not sure there is much basis for this belief. What can Frank White say? "Hey, we won with great pitching and George Brett carrying us on offense. Pitch like Bret Saberhagen and hit like George Brett!" I suppose Frank could be instructive in developing defensive skills, although Buddy Bell was a Gold Glove third baseman and he managed some awful defensive ballclubs.
I'm not saying Frank White is a terrible candidate for a managerial position. He may well be a terrific manager. But any argument for his candidacy should be based on his managerial philosophy, not on why we loved him as a second baseman.
Best Winning Percentage, Royals History
Whitey Herzog 1975-1979 .574
Jim Frey 1980-1981 .547
Dick Howser 1981-1986 .525
John Wathan 1987-1991 .515
Jack McKeon 1973-1975 .512
John Wathan was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but grew up in San Diego. He attended the University of San Diego and was selected in the first round of the January Amateur Draft by the Kansas City Royals in 1971. He was given the nickname "Duke" for his dead-on impersonation of John "Duke" Wayne. He hit for a good average as a catcher and by 1976 he had earned a cup of coffee with the Royals, even appearing in the 1976 ALCS as a defensive replacement.
Wathan made the big league ballclub in 1977, but played sparingly as a reserve catcher. He hit well when called upon, including a stretch in late August and September when he went 17 for 33 in the thick of the pennant run. He ended the year hitting .328 in just 119 at-bats. He appeared in four games off the bench in the 1977 ALCS, and replaced John Mayberry in Game Four when Mayberry was obviously too hung-over to play.
Wathan was again a key bench player for the Royals in 1978, hitting .300 in 67 games despite suffering a dislocated shoulder. He began spending more time at first base, filling in as a platoon partner for Pete LaCock. He started Game Four of the 1978 ALCS against lefty Ron Guidry, but went 0-3.
Wathan slumped to a career worst .206 in 90 games in 1979. Adding to his miseries was the fact his mother Mary was stabbed to death in June by John's half-brother Mark Yavorsky. Yavorsky, who had stabbed her with an antique sword, was later found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to an institution.
Worst OPS+ in a Season, Royals History (min. 200 PAs)
1. Tony Pena Jr. 2008 - 5
2. Angel Salazar 1982 - 23
3. Onix Concpcion 1985 - 38
4. John Wathan 1979 - 41
5. Neifi Perez 2002 - 44
Despite the setback, Wathan bounced back in a major way as the club began using him as more than a reserve catcher. He began to play the outfield, appearing in 35 games, as well as 77 more behind the plate. The result was a career best season both in playing time and productivity. Wathan hit .305 with a career high six home runs and 58 RBI. He was an adept base stealer, successful on seventeen of twenty attempts. He also became a much more patient hitter, drawing fifty walks - thirty-three more than he had drawn the previous three seasons combined! He appeared in three games of the 1980 World Series, going 2-7 with two walks, but it wouldn't be enough to overcome the Philadelphia Phillies.
With starting catcher Darrell Porter leaving the Royals as a free agent, Wathan was given the everyday catching job in 1981. He slumped to hit just .252 with little power and a large drop-off in walks. Nonetheless, the Royals stuck with him in 1982 and he bounced back to hit .270 with forty-eight walks. The Royals also set him free on the basepaths and he responded by swiping thirty-six bases, the most ever in a single season by a catcher (a record that still stands today).
Most Steals by a Catcher, Single Season
John Wathan KCR 1982 - 36
Ray Schalk CHW 1916 - 30
Jason Kendall PIT 1998 - 26
Ivan Rodriguez TEX 1999 - 25
Craig Biggio HOU 1990 - 25
Wathan continued to steal bases in 1983 with twenty-eight swipes. But his bat slumped to hit just .245. In 1984 the Royals decide to go with young prospect Don Slaught with Wathan back in his reserve role. Wathan would slump even further to .181 in 97 games. In 1985, the Royals brought in veteran Jim Sundberg, but kept Wathan on as a reserve. John hit .234 and was kept on the post-season roster, and he appeared in two games in the World Series.
In 1986, MLB teams, looking to save money, agreed to an unwritten rule that they would try to eliminate some jobs by all unofficially playing with a twenty-four man roster, a reduction of one roster spot. The Royals wanted to groom John Wathan to become their future manager and approached him about becoming a coach. They were contractually obligated to pay him anyway, so at the end of spring training, Wathan, sensing his playing career was coming to an end, agreed to become a coach.
In 1987, the Royals sent Wathan to manage their top minor league affiliate in Omaha. Earlier that winter, Royals Manager Dick Howser had resigned due to complications with a brain tumor and been replaced by former Twins manager Billy Gardner. By late August, the team was hovering below the .500 mark and ownership decided to make a change by firing Gardner. They offered the managerial position to hitting instructor Hal McRae, but McRae turned down the job, not wanting to be an "interim" skipper. The Royals then offered the job to Wathan, who accepted.
"We need to get back to the old style of running a little bit more and hitting-and-running a little bit more and not wait for something to happen."
-Royals Manager John Wathan
The Royals went 21-15 under Wathan's leadership to end the year and finished just two games back of first place. The Royals decided to make him the full-time manager in 1988. The club had high expectations, but played around .500 for much of the season. Frustrations began to set in and many players voiced concern in the clubhouse.
"It's not so much tension that I feel in the clubhouse, but it's just not that friendly, outgoing type of clubhouse."
"We've got big problems. I've never gone through a season like this. Never."
"He came to the mound and said 'I'm making a move" I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Do I need a reason?' I have no idea why he took me out, but at this point he may just be trying to protect himself."
Three clubhouse fights erupted over the summer, with some saying racial tensions were in part to blame. Many players also missed the tutelage of Hal McRae, who had left to spend time with his family in Florida. McRae, Lou Piniella and John McNamara were all rumored to be candidates to manage the club in 1989. Despite the turmoil and the disappointing 84-77 record, the team renewed Wathan's contract.
The club got off to a much better start in 1989, but could not keep up with the freight train that was the Oakland Athletics. The Royals were also beset with a number of injuries to key veterans. Despite the injuries, Wathan led the club to the third best record in baseball, although it still finished a disappointing seven games out of first place.
The Royals went on a spending spree that winter in an effort to contend for a pennant. The team signed pitchers Storm Davis, Rich Dotson and Cy Young Award winning closer Mark Davis. Once again they suffered a rash of injuries to begin the year and the free agents turned out to be complete busts. Frustrations again began to mount as Wathan lashed out at his team for missing signs. Still, Wathan maintained a sense of humor when a reporter asked him if he felt he needed the patience of Job. Responded Wathan, "was Job a second baseman?"
The club finished a disappointing 75-86, their worst season since 1970. Nonetheless, the Royals resigned him for 1991.
''It may look strange, but our inclination was to do this anyhow and how it looks up to the standing of the club and the way the club is playing is less important than our feeling that it's the right decision,''
-General Manager John Schuerholz
The club again stumbled to a poor start in 1991, and on May 23, with the team in last place, Wathan was fired by new general manager Herk Robinson. He had managed more games than anyone in Royals history but Dick Howser and Whitey Herzog.*
*-Tony Muser has since passed him. How awful is it that only Dick Howser has managed more games in a Royals uniform than Tony Muser? Not even Whitey Herzog or Jack McKeon could last as long as Muser. And Whitey never had a losing season in Kansas City! McKeon had the first winning season for the young franchise! Jim Frey took us to a World Series! Muser's best season was 77-85 in 2000. And somehow they kept thinking he was good enough. He was the cockroach of Royals managers.
"John Wathan probably does not deserve full blame for this. I wish we had a more creative way to fix a situation like this."
The Royals immediately hired McRae, now serving as an Expos hitting coach. Wathan returned to his home in Blue Springs to spend more time with his family. Just a few weeks after he was fired, I played his son Derek's Little League team. They were a pretty elite team, and we were a team of guys who probably wouldn't play high school ball (I made it to JV!) I managed to somehow get on base. As I got to third, I looked up and saw former Royals manager John Wathan, complete in a "Bombers" uniform. It was surreal.
Wathan became a coach with the Angels in 1992, and filled in on an interim basis when Buck Rodgers was injured in a bus accident. The next year he interviewed for the manager's position with the Marlins, but failed to land the job. He was brought onto the Red Sox coaching staff in 1994 as insurance in case manager Butch Hobston was fired. He did manage one game with Boston on an interim basis, but never got the call to manage again. After a brief stint in the Royals broadcast booth, he became a scout with the organization.
"All I know is that I've been very fortunate during my career to be in the right place at the right time."