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RetroNews: Royals Sign Mark Davis (12/12/89)

The Royals at one time made a huge free agent splash with the highest paid free agent in the game.

In the winter of 1989, the American League West was becoming an arms race. Oakland looked like the most dominating team in baseball after an easy sweep of the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. With sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, aces Dave Stewart and Bob Welch, and closer Dennis Eckersley, a mini-dynasty looked like a possibility.

The California Angels had won 91 games that year, but still finished far back of the A's. They were ready to spend whatever it took to catch them. At the Winter Meetings, they signed ace free agent pitcher Mark Langston to the largest contract in baseball.

The Royals had won 92 games, the third-best win total in all of baseball, but still seven games back of Oakland. They had the reigning Cy Young winner with Bret Saberhagen as well as former All-Star Mark Gubicza. They bolstered that staff by poaching A's pitcher Storm Davis to a lucrative contract. But they still felt like they needed to add one more piece to keep up with Oakland. The piece they pursued was reliever and 1989 National League Cy Young Winner Mark Davis.

Davis, like most closers, was a failed starter. After bouncing around in Philadelphia and San Francisco, he landed in San Diego and was named closer midway through the 1988 season. He followed that up with a 1.85 ERA in 92 innings with a league leading 44 saves and the Cy Young Award, the perfect resume-builder for an impending free agent.

The twenty-nine year old lefty had originally wanted to stay in San Diego, where he was comfortable, and to show loyalty to the team that had given him a chance. But his high demands frustrated the Padres, who offered a four year-$12 million "take it or leave it deal." The Padres were being sold from the Kroc family, and when the Hendricks brothers, who were representing Davis, stalled, the Padres signed reliever Craig Lefferts and anointed him closer.

The Royals bowed out of the bidding early on when it appeared the asking price was too high. They had offered four years, $13 million during the Winter Meetings, but reports began to leak that the Yankees had offered five years and $16.5 million. However, the Yankees were a mess of an organization at the time, coming off an 87-loss season, their worst in over two decades. Detroit, Seattle, and Philadelphia all had offers better than the Royals on the table as well, but all were cellar-dwellers, and Davis was interested in winning. He accepted the Royals offer, making him the highest paid player in baseball.

"Kansas City was high on my list of teams from the beginning. I'm really a family guy, and this is a family-type atmosphere - the stadium, area and team.

I talked to players who have played here and other people who've lived in the area, and everyone had good things to say. It was definitely an important consideration."

The Royals knew they would have trouble outbidding other larger markets for free agents, but hoped their winning tradition could give them an edge.

"The amount of money you're going to get no matter where you go is more than any human being could possibly consumer, [Royals General Manager John] Schuerholz said. "Players now are looking at lifestyle and the tradition of the clubs."

Schuerholz did not enjoy playing the free agent arms race, but felt he needed to do what it took to make the Royals competitive.

''My other feeling is that this is the marketplace, and if we want to compete, we have to belly up to the bar. It's crazy, but the Royals want to stay competitive, and our owners have given us the resources to keep up.''

The Davis signing did not go over well in St. Louis, where Cardinals fans were upset management did not pursue Davis to replace injured closer Todd Worrell.

''I'm really a family guy, and this is a family-atmosphere type of stadium, area and team,'' Davis said at a news conference Monday.

Davis could have had all of that, and more, in St. Louis. The Cardinals could have provided a spacious NL ballpark; great defense; NL hitters he was used to facing; 3 million fans; and a manager, Whitey Herzog, who wouldn't burn him out.

But Davis wound up on the wrong side of the state.

-Bernie Miklasz

The signing did not go over particularly well with reliever Jeff Montgomery, who had done a fine job in 1989 as closer, ending the year with eleven consecutive save conversions and a miniscule 1.37 ERA in 92 innings.

"I think what it does is put me on the best pitching staff in baseball and wanting to leave it," Montgomery said. But Montgomery said he would not ask to be traded. "I don't have enough service time in the majors to do that."

With Davis, the Royals were the first team ever to have two reigning Cy Young winners on the same club. The excitement would be short lived.

Davis converted three of his first four save opportunities in April. But he would have a disastrous May, blowing three saves and giving up 12 runs in 13 innings. By Memorial Day, he had lost his closer's job to Montgomery. Davis would end the year with an awful 5.11 ERA. The Royals, picked by many to win the division, finished sixth, the lowest they had ever finished in the standings.

Davis would stink again in 1991, even after the Royals tried him as a starter, gave him his own personal pitching coach, and hired a psychologist. By 1992, both sides were ready to move on, despite two years left on the deal. After a terrible start, the Royals were able to dump his contract to Atlanta, who was now headed by - John Schuerholz.