MLB Network has announced it will begin a new original documentary series, much like ESPN's "30 for 30" or NFL Network's "A Football Life." The first one will explore the friendship between former Giants players Bruce Bochy and Tim Flannery, which on the surface seems like an odd and boring choice to start off with, but who knows.
So it got me thinking, what stories in Royals history might make for a good subject for a MLB Network documentary? With nearly five decades of ups and downs, this franchise is chock full of fascinating subjects. Here are the some of the most interesting subjects for a Royals documentary.
The Royals Academy
Ewing Kauffman made his fortune being an innovative entrepreneur in the pharmaceutical industry, and he brought that same innovative spirit to the Royals. In 1969, the Royals constructed a facility in Florida with the intention of taking athletes not scouted by any baseball teams, and turning them into professional baseball players. Over 7,000 athletes tried out, but only 42 were accepted in the initial class.
It was a substantial investment with a long-shot of producing Major League talent, but the Academy ended up producing a handful of big leaguers, including catcher Ron Washington, starting shortstop U.L. Washington, and its prized pupil, long-time All-Star second baseman Frank White.
The 1984 Drug Suspensions
In late 1983, a federal judge sentenced four Royals players - Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, and Jerry Martin, to one year of federal prison for possession of cocaine. They became the first active Major Leaguers to serve prison time, although the sentence would be lightened to ninety days. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended the four for the entire 1984 season, but an arbitrator would later reduce those punishments as well.
The scandal embarrassed owner Ewing Kauffman and highlighted a growing problem in baseball that would be capped off by the highly embarrassing Pittsburgh Drug Trials. Blue and Aikens would continue to struggle with substance abuse and legal problems, with Aikens serving thirteen years in federal prison for intent to distribute crack cocaine. Catcher Darrell Porter, a one-time teammate of Aikens and Wilson on the Royals, would later lose his life on a cocaine overdose
The Yankees Rivalry
From 1976 to 1985, both the Royals and Yankees each won 90 games or more six times, with the Royals reaching the playoffs seven times over that period, and the Yankees making five post-season appearances. The teams would directly face each other four times in the American League Championship Series and there was no love lost between the two.
There were many iconic moments between the two teams. There was Chris Chambliss' walk-off, series ending home run off Mark Littell to win the 1976 American League pennant. There was George Brett's monster upper-deck blast off Rich Gossage in Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS that capped off a Royals sweep to their first pennant. There was George's three homer game against the Yankees in the 1978 ALCS. There was Hal McRae obliterating Willie Randolph with a slide at second in the 1977 ALCS. There was George Brett's brawl with Graig Nettles in Game Five of the 1977 ALCS. And of course, there was...
The Pine Tar Game
On July 24, 1983, George Brett lofted a two-run home run off Rich Gossage in Yankee Stadium to give the Royals a 5-4 lead in the ninth inning. Yankees manager Billy Martin had been waiting for just this moment to use a technicality in the rule book to invalidate the home run. Martin cited MLB Rule 1.10(c) which said, "The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game."
Home plate umpire, alerted to the excessive pine tar on Brett's home run bat, called Brett out, inciting a riot with the future Hall of Fame slugger. The game was finished under protest, but American League President Andy MacPhail upheld the protest, ruling the spirit of the rule was to keep baseballs from being thrown out, not for competitive advantage. The game was resumed on August 18, in a bizarre scene in which 1,200 fans were in the stands and Billy Martin played pitcher Ron Guidry in centerfield (to replace Jerry Mumphrey, who had been traded to Houston) to make a further mockery of the game.
Even the resumption of the game could not be played until two lawsuits were resolved, and the Royals even had to produced a signed affidavit that Brett had touched first base. The last four outs of the game were quickly recorded, and the Royals won in one of the most bizarre and infamous games in baseball history.
The 1976 Batting Title
Teammates George Brett and Hal McRae went into the last game of the 1976 season, essentially tied for the batting title, with McRae holding a lead of .00005 on Brett. The Royals were in Minnesota, where ironically, Twins players Rod Carew and Lyman Bostock were also engaged in the batting title race going into the series, although they had fallen by the wayside by the final game. Brett and McRae both went 2-for-3 to begin the game. McRae’s batting average stood at .33269, and Brett was at .33229.
In the ninth inning, Brett and McRae were scheduled to hit back-to-back with the Royals trailing 5-2. Brett lofted a fly-ball to left-field. Twins left-fielder Steve Brye broke the wrong way, and the ball landed in front of him, bouncing over his head for an inside-the-park home run. Brett's average was now at .333. Hal McRae grounded out to shortstop. His average stood at .332.
McRae accused the Twins of deliberately misplaying the ball, due to racism. "Things have been like this a long time. They're changing gradually. They shouldn't be this way, but I can accept it...I know what happened. It's been too good a season for me to say too much, but I know they let that ball fall on purpose."
Brye and manager Gene Mauch vehemently denied the accusations and Brett graciously offered to share the batting title. McRae, who grew up in the South, was probably exposed to his fair share of legitimate racism over the years, and spent much of his life playing with a chip on his shoulder. The 1976 batting title was perhaps a microcosm of race-relations in baseball, and perhaps in American society at the time.
ESPN already had a "30 for 30" on Bo, one of the most popular documentaries they have had in the series, but a closer inspection of his baseball career would be a terrific subject. Bo always claimed baseball was his first love, which is why he was so outraged when the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers got Bo ruled ineligible to play college baseball by paying for his plane trip to Tampa. The move angered Bo so much, he vowed never to play for the Buccaneers, opening the door to his professional baseball career.
The Royals took a flyer on Bo Jackson in the fourth round of the 1986 draft, and Bo, taken by the "class" organization, signed a contract to play for them. Mocked by many, Bo silenced doubters with a terrific half-season in AA Memphis, and shooting up to the big leagues by that September.
There are dozens of "Bo Jackson Stories" from his days with the Royals from the mammoth shot off Nolan Ryan in Arlington to the upper-deck home run in right field at the Metrodome, to the routine infield grounders he beat out, to the time he hit a fly out on an intentional walk, to the times he broke bats over his knee following strikeouts. For a brief period, a Royals outfielder was one of the most famous athletes on the planet, and in a flash, it was all gone.
in 1981, the Royals hired former Yankees manager Dick Howser to manage the final 33 games of the season. He rallied them to win the second-half division title in the strike-shortened season, leading them to the playoffs. Howswer would guide the team through the troubled years of drug scandals and disappointing seasons, and in 1984, when the team was rebuilding with young players, he guided them to another division title.
The soft-spoken Howser would then guide his young Royals to a Championship in 1985, the crowning achievement in franchise history. Howser went on to manager the American League All-Star team in 1986, but was disoriented and confused in the dugout. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor that week and he handed control of the team coach Mike Ferraro. Howser planned to come back for the 1987 season, but had to end those plans in spring training. In June of 1987, Howser died of brain cancer at the age of 51.
The 2014 Season
The season we just experienced was a magical season in so many ways. The Royals looked like a team headed towards futility in mid-July, another year wasted. They went on to have the most exciting two months of baseball in Kansas City in nearly three decades, making the playoffs for the first time since 1985. They capped off an exciting regular season with the most exciting comeback in Wild Card game history, followed by an amazing run where they swept the Angels and Orioles. To top it all off, they took the San Francisco Giants to seven games, coming two runs short of being World Champs.
Others: The story of Dan Quisenberry, Whitey Herzog's "Whiteyball", the sad demise of Darrell Porter, Clint Hurdle's career bust, John Schuerholz's split to Atlanta, the 1994 winning streak, the awful years under David Glass, Frank White's rift with the organization, the 2003 season.
What story would you most like to see made into a "30 for 30"-style documentary?