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A look back at the 1994 Royals

In a way, the current Royals run bears a strong resemblance to a run 20 years ago.

In many ways, the Royals franchise history has two distinctive eras - "pre-1994" and "post-1994." "Pre-1994", the team was one of the most successful franchises in baseball, certainly one of the most, if not the most successful expansion franchise ever. They had stable ownership, attendance near the top of the league, a sure-fire Hall of Famer in George Brett and season after season of winning baseball.

That all changed in 1994, the first full season following the tragic death of owner Ewing Kauffman. It was also the first season without Hall of Famer George Brett. It also was the first major labor stoppage since 1981, and it would foreshadow cloudy times for the Royals.

The 1994 team was a team that few thought would contend. They were built on pitching and defense with a staff led by David Cone and Kevin Appier and a slick defense with Wally Joyner, Chico Lind, Greg Gagne, and Gary Gaetti. It was a mediocre team that hovered around .500 most of the year, but caught fire at just the right time - in August. Stop me if you've heard this story before.

The following is a post I wrote on my dead blog many years ago, but it seems pertinent now with the Royals back in contention.

1994 in a Box:

Record: 64-51 (3rd place, 4 GB)
Runs Scored: 574 (9th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 532 (3rd in AL)
Park Factor: Batting - 104/Pitching - 104 (over 100 favors batters)

General Manager: Herk Robinson
Manager: Hal McRae

Attendance: 1,400,494 (10th in the AL) - 23,737 per game
Stadium: Royals Stadium

Longest Winning Streak: 14 (July 23 – August 5)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (six times)
How they started: Lost four of their first five, but then won five in a row. Finished April 9-11.
Best month: July. They went 18-10 and began a fourteen game winning streak.
Worst month: April. Their only losing month with a 9-11 record.
Best game: August 5 - Kansas City 8 Seattle 0. Tom Gordon allowed just three hits over eight innings as the Royals won their fourteenth in a row in front of 25,663 walk up fans in a game that was moved to Kansas City at the last minute because of damage at the Kingdome.
Worst game: April 12 - Boston 22 Kansas City 11. Kevin Appier gave up six in the first, but it was an eight run sixth inning that made this a real laugher as Stan Belinda absolutely imploded. Infielder David Howard had to pitch the last two innings, yielding just one run.
Loved to face: Oakland. The A’s were in transition, and the Royals went 7-3 against their former rivals.
Hated to face: Baltimore. The Royals dropped four out of five to the O’s.

Say Hello To: Vince Coleman, Dave Henderson, Bob Milacki, Tom Goodwin, David Glass
Say Goodbye To: George Brett, Kevin McReynolds, Mark Gardner, Chris Gwynn, Keith Miller (released in May), Hubie Brooks (released in July)

What Went Right: The four man rotation of David Cone, Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon and Mark Gubicza threw 612 innings with a 3.85 ERA, 26% better than the league average ERA of 5.23. The infield of Gary Gaetti, Greg Gagne, Jose Lind and Wally Joyner was perhaps the best defensive infield in baseball with the quartet committing just twenty-nine errors combined.

What Went Wrong: Outside of Bob Hamelin, the offense was still pathetic. Felix Jose had a surprisingly decent year, and Wally Joyner, Mike MacFarlane and Gary Gaetti held their own, but the rest of the lineup was pretty awful. The team didn’t draw walks, didn’t slug, didn’t hit home runs, but they did make lots of contact and steal lots of bases. They were playing a 1985 offense in the dawn of the offensive explosion.

Youngsters (25 or under)— one (24 year old Hipolito Pichardo)
Prime (26-29)—11 semi-regulars
Past-Prime (30-33)—8 semi-regulars
Old Timers (34+)— 2 (Gary Gaetti and Dave Henderson)
Rookies: Bob Hamelin
Top ProspectMichael Tucker and Joe Vitiello. As a 23 year old, Tucker hit .276/.366/.468 with 21 homers in Omaha. Vitiello hit .344/.436/.526 in Omaha as a 24 year old.
1994 Draft: Matt Smith (16th overall), Jed Hansen, Jaime Bluma, Matt Treanor, Tim Byrdak, Jose Rosado, Lance Carter, Jose Santiago

Best OPS+: Bob Hamelin 146
Most Runs Created: Bob Hamelin, 73
Highest Batting Average: Wally Joyner .311
Lowest Batting Average: Vince Coleman .240
Most Home Runs: Bob Hamelin, 24 (9th in the AL)
Most RBI: Bob Hamelin, 65
Most Stolen Bases: Vince Coleman, 50 (2nd in AL)
Moneyball Award: Bob Hamelin, with 56 walks in 374 plate appearances
Angel Berroa Award: Chico Lind drew just 16 walks in 315 plate appearances
Best Position Player: Bob Hamelin
Worst Position Player: Chico Lind

Most Wins: David Cone, 16
Most Losses: Mark Gubicza, 9
Most Saves: Jeff Montgomery, 27
Best ERA: David Cone 2.94
Worst ERA: Mark Gubicza 4.50 (Bob Milacki had a 6.17 ERA in 55 2/3 innings)
Most Innings: David Cone 171 2/3
Best Pitcher: David Cone (Cy Young Award Winner)
Worst Pitcher: Stan Belinda

All-Stars: David Cone
Team Payroll: $40,481,334 (4th out of 28 teams)
Highest Paid Player: David Cone - $5,000,000
Career Best Seasons: Bob Hamelin, David Cone, Billy Brewer
Career Worst Seasons: Dave Henderson, Stan Belinda
Nicknames: Bob "The Hammer" Hamelin, Jose "Chico" Lind, Tom "Flash" Gordon

1994 was a transitional year in many ways for the Royals. It was the end of an era in two respects – longtime owner and founder of the Royals, Ewing Kauffman, passed away on August 1, 1993, and future Hall of Famer and franchise player George Brett retired at the end of the 1993 season. The team off the field would be left in the hands of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation while five limited partners, including Wal-Mart CEO David Glass, ran the ballclub. The Kauffman Foundation would cover annual losses, estimated at $14 million for 1994, but the club would have to trim the $40 million payroll and raise $50 million in charitable donations to make the franchise attractive to a local buyer.

Glass, named Royals CEO, departed from the vanilla marketing themes the team had under Kauffman and implemented more ballpark entertainment. The team promoted "family fun" with parking-lot barbecues, picnic areas, roving bands, and fireworks after home runs. The club also began wearing dark blue tops on Sunday home games. These moves were made to stem the decline in attendance. The Royals in 1992 and 1993 drew under two million fans for the first time in a decade, thanks largely to lackluster clubs.

Meanwhile, the team on the field would be left with deep pitching, but a lineup short on offense. Even with Brett, the Royals in 1993 finished dead last in the league in scoring, with just 675 runs scored. They were able to attain an 84-78 record anyway by finishing third in the league in pitching, although for the year they were outscored. They had a definite ace in Kevin Appier who had a career year in 1993 winning 18 games and the ERA title, and a solid number two in David Cone, who had a 3.33 ERA in what was considered a "disappointing" season for the free agent. Tom Gordon, Hipolito Pichardo and Chris Haney all made decent rotation candidates, and the club decided to re-sign free agent Mark Gubicza, their last link to the 1985 World Champions, to compete for a staff role.

Winter Rumors
Jeff Montgomery was coming off his finest season as a Royal, tying for the league lead in saves. But with the acquisition of setup man Stan Belinda the previous summer Stan Belinda, rumors that winter speculated that Monty might be moved to bring in an impact bat. The most persistent rumors involved the Atlanta Braves, who employed former Royals GM John Schuerholz. Kansas City was rumored to be interested in either Ron Gant or David Justice. However, manager Hal McRae put an end to speculation, when he proclaimed:

"''If we trade Monty for a power hitter, we just move our problem around. 'We'd lose games late instead of early.''

There were also whispers of the Dodgers trying a salary dump with Darryl Strawberry headed to Kansas City, but Royals officials quickly put the clamp on that rumor. There was even a rumor of Yankee outfielder and former Royal Danny Tartabull returning to the club in a trade, but his expensive contract made that deal unlikely. A more reasonable trade rumor had Stan Belinda headed to Philadelphia for first baseman Ricky Jordan.

What hovered over all of the trade rumors was the uncertainty of the Royals financial future. Salaries in the game were escalating and with Ewing Kauffman’s death, the Royals went into belt-tightening mode. To compound this problem, the Royals had ten players eligible for arbitration in the winter of 1993 including stars like Kevin Appier and Brian McRae, as well as regulars Tom Gordon, Mike MacFarlane and Stan Belinda. There were rumors of the team trading Appier to relieve themselves of his $3.8 million salary, but ultimately the Royals hung on to him. They did receive some cash in a swap of disappointing $3 million outfielders when they swapped Kevin McReynolds to the Mets for Vince Coleman in what was their only significant off-season move.

The only other addition the team made in the off-season was the signing of free agent outfielder Dave Henderson, a part of the feared Oakland lineup from the late 80s. However, Henderson was now 35, had gimpy knees, and was coming off a season in which he hit just .220. He was brought in as a fourth outfielder, to platoon with Hamelin, and to light a fire under the tail of consistent underachiever Felix Jose. The club also non-tendered Hubie Brooks, Keith Miller, Chris Gwynn and Mark Gubicza, but aside from Gwynn, would bring all of them back at reduced salaries. Brooks and Miller would be released mid-season, but Gubicza would prove to be a steal of a deal, pitching very adequately.

The Hammer
Even though the club failed to make a move for an impact bat in the off-season, the offense did improve considerably, scoring a half run per game more than in 1993, and finishing eighth in the league in runs scored. This came despite significant drop-offs in performance from regulars Mike MacFarlane, Wally Joyner, Greg Gagne, and Brian McRae. What made up for these drop-offs? Two words – THE HAMMER. Bob Hamelin burst onto the scene as a 26 year old rookie in 1994 and made a huge impact, both at the plate and at the post-game buffet. He finished ninth in the league in home runs with 24, was fifth in slugging at .599 and was fifth in OPS at .987.

Bob Hamelin was a portly, bespectacled left handed slugger who appeared to belong more at a beer league softball game than at Royals Stadium. Hamelin had been a highly rated prospect immediately after becoming the second round pick by the Royals in 1988, and put up two great minor league seasons to begin his career. His future was bright and he was in AAA by the age of 22. However injuries would nag him for the next three seasons, delaying his MLB debut. In 1993 he put together a solid season at Omaha hitting .259/.371/.493 with 29 home runs, but only got a cup of coffee. He looked ready to take over as the regular designated hitter in 1994, but nearly jeopardized that by tearing a muscle in an arm-wrestling tournament in January. He recovered and responded with a fantastic April, hitting .361/.432/.721 with six home runs. The season culminated in Rookie of the Year honors, the first Royal to receive the award since Lou Pinella won in the inaugural season of the franchise.

Still, after Hamelin, the team had little in the way of offensive production. Even with his performance, they were still ninth in on-base percentage, eleventh in slugging, twelfth in walks and thirteenth in home runs. The one area in which the team excelled was stealing bases, and boy could they run! They stole one hundred forty bases – Cleveland was the only other AL club to steal at least one hundred. Newly acquired Vince Coleman finished second in the league with 50 swipes, with Brian McRae stealing 28 and reserve Terry Shumpert swiping 18. The club also picked up a speedy outfielder off waivers named Tom Goodwin, but he only appeared in two games in 1994.

Wally Joyner, Mike MacFarlane and Greg Gagne all had years consistent with their career performance. Gary Gaetti, who the club had picked up the previous summer off waivers from the Angels, continued to play adequately with a bit of pop, while the Royals paid him the league minimum. Felix Jose had his only good season with the Royals, although he would never fulfill the potential he always enticed clubs with. Chico Lind continued a steady decline in what little offensive performance he had. Between Gaetti, Gagne, Joyner and second baseman Chico Lind, the Royals had perhaps the best defensive infield in all of baseball.

The Arms
Pitching was what kept the Royals in contention. Their 4.23 team ERA was second in the league, and a full run lower than the league average of 5.23 in the dawn of the age of the offense the game was about to experience. David Cone bounced back from a disappointing reunion with the club in 1993 to win 16 games, finish third in ERA, and win his only Cy Young Award. Appier’s performance slipped a bit, but was still solid. However, he suffered from poor run support and poor bullpen relief, finishing with just seven wins. He made nine quality starts that year that resulted in no-decisions, including a 1-0 loss to Pat Hentgen and the Blue Jays in which Appier gave up three hits, walked one, and struck out ten in a losing cause.

Jeff Montgomery had a down year from his 1993 performance, although if you take out his three worst games, his ERA drops from 4.03 to 2.16. Tom Gordon returned to the rotation after a foray in relieving in 1993, and performed adequately. Mark Gubicza also performed adequately for his new, much cheaper contract. Lefty-specialist Billy Brewer and eccentric long reliever Rusty Meachem performed very well in the bullpen while setup man Stan Belinda and Hipolito Pichardo struggled. Chris Haney never pitched well enough to claim the fifth starting spot in the rotation, so non-roster invitee Bob Milacki ended up making ten starts with disastrous results.

Tensions in the Clubhouse
As usual, the Royals got off to a bad start, dropping five of their first six games, including a 22-11 drubbing against Boston. They followed that up with a five game winning streak, then pretty much stayed around .500 until late July, never winning or losing more than three games in a row. However, speculation hovered around the job status of manager Hal McRae all season with the memory of his outrageous tirade against reporters in 1993 fresh in the minds of fans. McRae was also accused of playing favorites and not handling the rookies very well. After a game in July in which he was booed by fans for lifting reliever Rusty Meachem in favor of lefty Billy Brewer, McRae lashed out at fans.

"It's ridiculous....If they are booing the strategy, they are the dumbest fans in the world....It's wrong for me to say, and it ain't going to help me, but I'm going to say it anyway. They can ride me out of this town and I'll go out smiling."

On July 23, the Royals sat 50-47, in third place, 8 ½ games back of Chicago. At that point the team was feeling very restless and there was a lot of speculation that manager Hal McRae would soon be fired. The clubhouse attitude was summed up by normally reserved Tom Gordon who finally exploded:

"What's it going to take for us to get going? Everyone wants to look for reasons we lose, look for excuses, look around for a leader. Why can't we just take it upon ourselves to do our job? I hear other teams talk about what it's like to play on a contender. Well, I don't know what it's like. I've been here six years and we haven't been close."

The Streak
On July 23rd, the Royals would win in Detroit 4-1 as David Cone picked up his fourteenth victory. The next day they beat the Tigers again to split their six game road trip. On the 25th they hosted the White Sox and blew a 3-2 lead in the 8th. The White Sox then took a 4-3 lead in the twelfth. Up stepped The Hammer in the bottom of the twelfth with two on one out against White Sox closer Roberto Hernandez.

"We were fighting so hard to win that game. We wanted it," said veteran Mark Gubicza.

The Hammer delivered with a three run home run to give the Royals a 6-4 victory.

"You could have toe-tagged us if we lose that game," manager Hal McRae said. "We would have been 9 1/2 games out with no realistic chance of catching the White Sox."

The Royals went on to complete a four game sweep of the White Sox, knocking them out of first place, and pulling the Royals to within 5 1/2 games of Cleveland. The next victim was the last place Twins. The streak looked like it might end on July 30 with the Twins up 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth and The Hammer popping out for the first out. But a Kent Hrbek error prolonged the inning allowing for RBI singles by Gary Gaetti and Jose Lind to tie the game at 4-4. The Royals would win it in the eleventh on an RBI single by Brent Mayne on a rally The Hammer triggered with a leadoff single.

The Royals continued to cruise, sweeping Oakland in a four game sweep extending the streak to thirteen. Manager Hal McRae explained the recent hot streak:

"It's believing. When we get behind now, we talk about getting baserunners, not base hits. The chant in the dugout is, 'We need baserunners.' We're pumped up. We're executing. We're pitching. We're getting the clutch hits. The guys believe in executing and playing winning baseball."

The Royals would not lose again until August 6 when they finally fell to the Mariners on a nationally televised game that drew nearly 26,000 walk up fans when the game was moved to Kansas City due to falling roof tiles at the Kingdome in Seattle. The Royals fourteen game winning streak would be the second longest in franchise history and it would draw them within one game of first place.

Bob Hamelin helped carry the team during the streak, hitting .354 with six home runs and thirteen RBI, but it was truly a team effort with Chico Lind, Gary Gaetti and Brian McRae all hitting over .340 over the course of the streak. Twelve of the fourteen wins came at home. David Cone picked up three wins and Jose DeJesus won his only three games all year during the streak. Jeff Montgomery picked up six saves over that time. The Royals outscored opponents 79-40 and the team ERA was 2.47.

Less than a week later, the MLBPA followed through on their approved strike date and playing ceased. On September 14, Acting Comissioner Bud Selig would cancel the season, including the World Series. The next day, the Royals fired manager Hal McRae and declared they would begin a youth movement in 1995. That youth movement would last for over a decade.

We never got to see the end of that story, but perhaps today's Royals will give us a final chapter and a happy ending that even Hal McRae could smile about.