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A look back at the 1986 season

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Repeating as champion is tough.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The 1986 Royals got to defend a World Championship for the first time in franchise history. However rather than take a second victory lap, the Royals had one of the more tragic seasons in franchise history, not only stumbling to a losing record, but losing manager Dick Howser to a brain tumor that would end his career and ultimately take his life. In a lot of ways, the 1986 season closed the book on the most successful chapter of Royals baseball, a decade of division titles and a championship.

A Chili Winter

The Royals were the champs, and didn't have many major free agents to deal with the way the 2014 Royals dealt with. Thirty-nine old* designated hitter Hal McRae filed for free agency, but quickly re-signed, hoping to one day play with his son Brian who had just been drafted in the first round by the Royals. Bench player and World Series Game Six hero Dane Iorg left the team wanting more playing time, but the team brought back role player free agents Lynn Jones and Jaime Quirk.

*-McRae would admit that summer he had fudged his age - he was actually 40.

General Manager John Schuerholz wanted to add to the offense that finished second-to-last in the league in runs scored the previous season. He wanted a bopper, preferably a right-fielder, who could hit in the middle of the order. He was said to be pursuing:

"Someone who could add to our offense, be it a person who can drive in runs or create runs with his speed or his batting average. It could be an outfielder or a designated hitter."

The Royals were rumored to be interested in Tigers slugger Kirk Gibson, and Gibson expressed an interest in coming to Kansas City. But the Royals quickly denied any interest, saying they wouldn't take the free agent route. It would later be revealed that Major League teams had been colluding not to bid on free agents such as Gibson in order to keep player salaries from increasing.

The Royals looked to the trade front to improve the club, but were not interested in old stop-gap veteran solutions like Larry Parrish, Dwight Evans, or Tony Armas. They sought a young outfielder with pop, and offered their surplus of pitching in return. They were said to be interested in young Mariners outfielder Phil Bradley, a one-time Mizzou football star, as well as Giants outfielder Chili Davis. The Royals reportedly rejected an offer of Davis for pitcher Mark Gubicza, outfielder Pat Sheridan, and a minor league pitcher during the Winter Meetings. They also reportedly rejected an offer of Angels outfielder Brian Downing in exchange for a minor league pitcher named David Cone.

Instead the team stood pat going into spring training. When the projected right-field platoon of Pat Sheridan and Darryl Motley failed to hit in the Grapefruit League, the Royals re-engaged in trade talks with the Giants for Chili Davis. But they again rejected a deal for Gubicza, Motley, and minor league outfielder Van Snider and a deal was never hatched. Ironically, several years later Gubicza and Davis would be swapped for each other near the end of their careers.

"This is a tough year for all the Royals personnel – from the top to the bottom."

-Dan Quisenberry

One feelgood story in spring training was the comeback of one-time ace Dennis Leonard. The 34-year old Leonard, a former three-time 20-game winner, had made just 31 starts over 1982-1985, including just two innings of work over the last two seasons due to knee injuries. Leonard told the club to not keep him around for "sentimental reasons", but he was able to finally stay healthy and break north with the club.

Not making the club were Pat Sheridan, shortstop Onix Concepcion, and reliever Joe Beckwith, who were all released at the end of camp. Particularly surprising was the release of Concepcion, who was projected to be the starting shortstop. The Royals ended up acquiring light-hitting shortstop Angel Salazar from the Mets, but the position would continue to be an offensive black hole.

Defending the Crown

The Royals discovered they had still not shaken their drug scandals when they were told outfielder Lonnie Smith would be suspended for one year for his testimony in the 1985 Pittsburgh Drug Trials where he admitted to facilitating drug distribution. Smith would be allowed to play if he submitted to drug testing. The Royals signed speedy outfielder Rudy Law, who had been cut in White Sox camp due for salary reasons, to serve as insurance in case Smith relapsed.

The Royals suffered from early injuries to Bret Saberhagen and Danny Jackson, but got a big lift when reclamation project Dennis Leonard got off to a terrific start. Leonard pitched a complete game shutout in his first start, and posted a 1.89 ERA over his first ten starts through May, providing one of the more inspirational stories for the Royals.

Mark Gubicza, on the other hand, struggled mightily. This only continued to fuel reports he would be shipped to San Francisco with ESPN even at one point reporting it was a done deal. Gubicza would miss time after being hit in the head during batting practice, and upon returning would be demoted to the bullpen in June with an ERA near five. Reliever Dan Quisenberry would also get a demotion after struggling in May, losing his closing job to a bullpen-by-committee with Bud Black and Steve Farr.

But it was the offense that continued to struggle the most. George Brett was still a good hitter, but was far from the MVP-type performance he had put up in 1985. Frank White had one of the best offensive seasons of his career, but there was little else in the lineup to help score runs. Center-fielder Willie Wilson began to show his age, designated hitter Hal McRae only made 299 plate appearances, and the Royals had too many sub-par offensive players in the regular lineup to finish higher than 13th in the league in runs scored.

Bo Knows Baseball

The Royals did acquire the big bopper they were looking for that summer, but it wasn't Chili Davis, it was a running-back out of Auburn named Bo Jackson. The Royals selected the Heisman Trophy winner in the fourth round of the 1986 draft as a gamble that the outfielder who hit .401 with 17 home runs his junior season at Auburn, would want to play baseball.

"We felt like we drafted him where we could take a calculated gamble, and we did. We feel good about it....We didn't draft Bo Jackson to attract attention. We think he has the potential to be an outstanding baseball player and has some interest in playing baseball. How much remains to be seen."

-General Manager John Schuerholz

The gamble paid off. Jackson signed that summer and was assigned to AA Memphis, where he was a media sensation, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated. Bo struggled at first, but after 53 games was hitting .277/.368/.473 with seven home runs. Bo would get a cup of coffee with the Royals that September, and his first Major League hit was a fairly innocuous ground ball that Bo would beat out for an infield single. His first Major League home run was a mammoth shot off Mariners pitcher Mike Moore that landed at the top of the grassy knoll, believed to be the longest home run ever hit in the stadium. A legend was born.

The Tragic Loss of Dick Howser

The Royals got off to a mediocre start in 1986, trading wins for losses, but by June 1 they were tied for first place with a .500 record. In late June, the Royals would begin an eleven-game losing streak, losing all nine games of a road-trip, including sweeps to the hands of the lowly Twins and Mariners. Bret Saberhagen would give up eight runs in one inning of work against the Twins, beginning a run in which he would post a 5.46 ERA over his last fifteen games of the year. By the end of the losing streak, the Royals would fall to seven games back of the first place Rangers. George Brett would miss the entire month of July with a rotator cuff injury. The Royals dropped 17 of 26 in July, at the time, the worst July in franchise history. By August the Royals were over ten games out of first.

"Our pitching is bad. Our hitting is bad. Everything is bad."

-Steve Balboni

At the All-Star Game in Houston that July, Manager Dick Howser led the American League squad despite complaining about headaches and neck pain for weeks. His recent change in demeanor was attributed by his coaching staff to the club's recent losing streak, although some raised questions as to why the skipper was suddenly so quiet. More worrisome however, were Howser's gaffes, like stating that Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker would start in left-field, or referring to catcher Jim Sundberg as "Sabes", the nickname of pitcher Bret Saberhagen.

It would be the last game Dick Howser would ever manage. Third base coach Mike Ferraro managed the club against the Indians following the All-Star break, and the next day, the Royals disclosed that Howser had been diagnosed with a tumor in his left frontal lobe. Howser had surgery the following week and would miss the remainder of the 1986 season while Ferraro took the reigns.

"I think you just have to put baseball out of your mind and hope he has a good recovery and leads a normal life. Baseball is secondary. People talk about him coming back to manage, but that’s not really what’s important. Having him recover is what’s important."

-Dennis Leonard

By mid-August the writing was on the wall, the Royals would miss the playoff for just the fourth time in eleven seasons. They shipped outfielder Darryl Motley to the Braves and writers speculated the team could begin a fire-sale. With three players - George Brett, Willie Wilson, and Dan Quisenberry, under lucrative "lifetime" contracts the team was beginning to regret, the club announced they would no longer hand out multi-year contracts.


"When you say ‘Kansas City Royals’, you think of post-season play. It’s just natural for us to expect to be included."

-General Manager John Schuerholz

There were some bright signs for the future - rookies Kevin Seitzer, Bo Jackson, Mike Kingery, and David Cone had shown some talent in very limited action. But it was clear the Royals were now transitioning. The Royals showed just how hard it was to repeat as champions, and they began a 29-year playoff drought that would last until the magical 2014 season.

Starters Age PA HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG OPS+ rWAR
C Jim Sundberg 35 491 12 42 1 .212 .303 .322 70 1.1
1B Steve Balboni 29 562 29 88 0 .229 .286 .451 97 -0.5
2B Frank White 35 620 22 84 4 .272 .322 .465 111 4.0
SS Angel Salazar 24 313 0 24 1 .245 .266 .326 60 1.4
3B George Brett 33 529 16 73 1 .290 .401 .481 138 3.9
LF Lonnie Smith 30 568 8 44 26 .287 .357 .411 108 2.2
CF Willie Wilson 30 675 9 44 34 .269 .313 .366 84 1.9
RF Darryl Motley 26 229 7 20 0 .203 .241 .350 58 -1.5
DH Jorge Orta 35 361 9 46 0 .277 .321 .411 97 0.2
Bench Age PA HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG OPS+ rWAR
OF Rudy Law 29 341 1 36 14 .261 .327 .388 94 0.4
DH Hal McRae 40 299 7 37 0 .252 .298 .378 82 -0.5
UT Jamie Quirk 31 238 8 26 0 .215 .273 .370 73 0.6
RF Mike Kingery 25 223 3 14 7 .258 .296 .388 84 -0.3
SS Buddy Biancalana 26 209 2 8 5 .242 .298 .337 72 -0.3
Team Totals 30.9 6128 137 618 97 .252 .313 .390
Rank in 14 AL teams 12 10 12 12 12

Rotation Age W L ERA G GS SV IP BB9 SO9 ERA+ rWAR
Charlie Leibrandt 29 14 11 4.09 35 34 0 231.1 2.5 4.2 104 3.3
Dennis Leonard 35 8 13 4.44 33 30 0 192.2 2.4 5.3 95 1.4
Danny Jackson 24 11 12 3.20 32 27 1 185.2 3.8 5.6 132 3.3
Mark Gubicza 23 12 6 3.64 35 24 0 180.2 4.2 5.9 116 3.4
Bret Saberhagen 22 7 12 4.15 30 25 0 156.0 1.7 6.5 102 2.0
Scott Bankhead 22 8 9 4.61 24 17 0 121.0 2.8 7.0 92 0.7
Bullpen Age W L ERA G GS SV IP BB9 SO9 ERA+ rWAR
Dan Quisenberry 33 3 7 2.77 62 0 12 81.1 2.7 4.0 154 1.7
Bud Black 29 5 10 3.20 56 4 9 121.0 3.2 5.1 133 2.2
Steve Farr 29 8 4 3.13 56 0 8 109.1 3.2 6.8 136 2.5
Team Totals 27.2 76 86 3.82 162 162 31 1440.2 3.0 5.5
Rank in 14 AL teams 9 5 1 12 8 3 11