The Royals came into 1981 riding high off the first World Series appearance in franchise history. They had won the division title in four of the last five seasons, and had finally bested their longtime rivals, the New York Yankees to win the pennant. They had several good players in the prime of their careers including the returning American League MVP, the Silver Slugger winner at Designated Hitter, and the Rolaids Relief Award winner. However they fell into a rut following their post-season success with squabbles over salary, an abrasive manager, and parts that did not fit quite right. Luckily, they would be saved by a work-stoppage that produced one of the oddest seasons in Major League history.
Runs scored: 397, 3.85 per game, 12th in the league (out of 14 teams)
Runs allowed: 405, 3.93 per game, 5th in the league
Best player: Willie Wilson .303/.335/.364 34 SB, 4.1 rWAR
Best pitcher: Larry Gura 11-8 2.72 ERA/3.40 FIP 172 1/3 IP, 3.7 rWAR
Worst player: John Wathan .252/.298/.312 1 HR 19 RBI -0.4 rWAR
Worst pitcher: Juan Berenguer 0-4 8.69 ERA/5.96 FIP 19 2/3 IP -1.2 rWAR
All-Stars: George Brett, Frank White
Say hello to: Lee May, Cesar Geronimo, Juan Berenguer, Jerry Grote
Say goodbye to: Darrell Porter, Jose Cardenal, Pete LaCock, Marty Pattin, Jerry Terrell
1981 Draft: Dave Leeper (23rd overall), Mark Gubicza, David Cone, Tony Ferreira, John Davis, Bill Pecota (January Draft), Russ Morman (January Draft)
Top prospects: 23-year old lefty Atlee Hammaker had a 3.64 ERA in 146 innings for AAA Omaha. His teammate, 21-year old outfielder Darryl Motley, hit .298 and slammed 18 home runs.
Talent slips through: The Royals gave up some Major League talent in overlooked moves, losing Tom Candiotti to the Brewers in the Rule 5 draft, and trading outfielder Marvel Wynne to the Mets for pitcher Juan Berenguer. Candiotti would become a knuckleballer and win 151 games, while Wynne would be a solid semi-regular for eight seasons.
The Royals finished 1980 feeling like they had achieved one of their goals - finally defeating the Yankees - but were left rather empty after letting opportunities fall through their fingers in losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. Royals players got a glimpse of the top of the mountain, and they wanted more.
"I think the players want it more for the city than for themselves. This city has been looked down on by a lot of people for a long time. This is more than a four-out-of-seven game benefit....We're going to win it all. They're going to want it all."
However with additional success, players wanted to get paid. The Royals had won the pennant in 1980 with the seventh-lowest payroll in baseball, and despite being signed to long-term deals, Frank White, Hal McRae, and Amos Otis fueled trade rumors with public grumblings about their salaries, with White even saying he would welcome a trade to the White Sox. Frank White and Hal McRae shared an agent who tried to use the younger White as leverage to get a new deal for the older McRae. This infuriated Royals General Manager Joe Burke, and also upset White, who fired agent Tony Pace and replaced him with Steve Fehr, brother of future MLBPA chief Donald Fehr.
Dennis Leonard, who was in his last year before free agency, also grumbled about the lack of movement on a new deal, rejecting a five-year, $3.4 million contract extension in spring training. In May, the Royals would finally reach agreements with Leonard on a five-year, $4.5 million extension, making him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball, and Frank White on a reported $2 million long-term deal.
Amos Otis grumbled he was paid just a fraction of the large salary of superstar George Brett and expressed his desire for a four-year deal at age 33. He was further upset the Royals were trying to move him from center field to left field to accommodate young Gold Glover Willie Wilson, who the Royals felt was wasted in left field. He finally relented to a switch in spring training, but it was only a few weeks into the season that manager Jim Frey switched Otis back to center.
The most significant free agent was former All-Star catcher Darrell Porter. The 28-year old Porter was coming off a down year and had to leave the team early in the year for drug rehab. Porter wanted to stay in Kansas City, offering a hometown discount, but the Royals were unwilling to match his price tag and he reunited with former Royals manager Whitey Herzog, now in St. Louis.
With the rest of the nucleus intact, the Royals looked to add veteran depth to the roster. They showed interest in Rangers reliever Jim Kern and Mariners outfielder Leon Roberts, but could not acquire either. Baseball had a re-entry draft back then, requiring teams to "draft" free agents they wanted to retain the right to bid on, and the Royals passed on every single major free agent. Instead, they signed 38-year old bench bat Lee May, then swung a trade for 33-year old outfielder Cesar Geronimo, a former Gold Glover for the Big Red Machine.
Geronimo would platoon with right fielder Clint Hurdle, with Wilson and Otis flying around the outfield. The infield would be anchored by George Brett at third and slugger Willie Aikens at first, with Frank White and UL Washington up the middle. With Porter departing, the Royals planned to begin the year with John Wathan competing with Jaime Quirk and veteran Jerry Grote for the backstop position. Hal McRae was the best designated hitter in the game and Dan Quisenberry had emerged as the best closer in the gem. The rotation featured lefties Paul Splittorff and Larry Gura with righties Dennis Leonard and Rich Gale.
The defending pennant-winners stumbled badly out of the game, dropping 16 of their first 22 games. After a sweep in a Memorial Day doubleheader by the lowly Mariners, they were 11-24, already 13.5 games out of first place.
"You have to grind it out, two out of three, three out of four, and then you look up and you're challenging for the lead. The biggest mistake is to figure your must win five or six in a row. It's like a fighter going for the knockout punch from the start."
-Manager Jim Frey
The loss of Porter was taking its toll, and the Royals were rumored to be interested in trading for a catcher like Pittsburgh's Steve Nicosia or Milwaukee's Charlie Moore, but were unwilling to deal swingman Renie Martin to close a deal. The players were also irritated by Frey, who was known for being abrasive. Frey once harangued Willie Wilson for not wearing a suit jacket for the team flight, and he reportedly called the team "quitters" and "losers" after they did not appear to be upset after a loss to the Yankees.
The tension was getting to players too. George Brett got off to a lukewarm start and was irritated by questions as to why he wasn't hitting like he was in his MVP season in 1980. After stranding a runner in a close game against the Twins, Brett took a bat to a Metrodome toilet and did about $2,000 in damages. Brett would still hit .314 that year, but with just six home runs in 89 games. It was a solid season, but a far cry from his MVP season.
The Royals struggled offensively all season, finishing third-worst in runs scored. The team got very little offensive production from catcher, shortstop, or right field, leading Frey to platoon those positions. Hal McRae joined Brett in having a solid season, but a big decline from his 1980 campaign. Larry Gura and Dennis Leonard did a great job anchoring the rotation, but Rich Gale did not step up like the team had hoped, and Paul Splittorff was demoted to the bullpen after ineffectiveness.
Looming over the entire season was an impending labor battle. Players had won the right to free agency through the courts in 1976, but owners had negotiated a compensation system to drag down salaries, allowing teams that lost a free agent to draft from a pool of players from the team that signed the free agent. Players wanted to limit the pool to make compensation less of a drag on free agent salaries and were prepared to go on strike that year to do so.
"We just can't afford to invest so much in talent, then have it walk away with nothing in return."
-Royals owner, Ewing Kauffman
On June 11, the Royals defeated the Blue Jays 10-5, to improve to 20-30. After the game, 650 players around baseball went on strike.
Salaries had been exploding around baseball, mostly due to owners hoping to retain talent and keep players from leaving via free agency. Free spenders like George Steinbrenner, who had just inked slugger Dave Winfield to a record-breaking contract, did their part to aid salary inflation. Royals owner Ewing Kauffman was reportedly one of the hardliners, as rising salaries for a successful team made things difficult for the small market owner. The owners had a $44 million war chest in the form of a Lloyd's of London insurance policy to wait out the striking players. The players were led by the steady hand of union chief Marvin Miller, but still many had apprehensions.
"We just can't go out over this issue. It will kill us and the game. Salaries are up, attendance is up, everything is going so good. It's just not worth it."
-Anonymous Royals player
Players tried to keep busy, but many found a summer without baseball to be boring. A few took jobs to make ends meet, such as Rich Gale, who worked as a bartender at the Hyatt Regency at Crown Center in midtown Kansas City. He happened to be working the night a walkway collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring another 216, at the time, the deadliest structural collapse in American history. Gale was instrumental in helping several people.
Seven weeks later, on July 31, a new labor deal was struck. Players got the limited compensatory player pool they had wanted, with 12-year veteran players being exempted from the process. Once the dust settled, 712 games were cancelled, players lost $28 million in salaries, and owners lost $72 million in revenue after they had exhausted their insurance policy.
The season would resume on August 10, after the rescheduled All-Star Game. To win back fans, MLB announced the 1981 season would be a "split-season", with the teams in first place before the strike declared first-half champions, with a post-strike 50+ game season that would determine the second-half champion. The champions from each half would meet in a divisional series, with the winner of that facing the other divisional winner in a conventional League Championship Series.
"A certain number of fans will be reluctant to return, but on the whole, a large percentage of them will have to have the sport back. It's the responsibility of both sides to make it clear to the fans that this was only a 'family' argument, that we regret the inconvenience we have caused them, that we will do our best to provide entertainment again."
The Royals, who were in fifth-place at the time of the strike, were granted a reprieve from their awful start. But the contrivance proved to be awful for other teams. The first-half winners had nothing to play for in the second half, and thus failed to play with the same kind of intensity. Perhaps the biggest embarrassment was the fact the Cincinnati Reds finished with the best record in baseball overall, but failed to make the playoffs for finishing in second-place in both halves.
The Royals did not exactly set the world on fire after the time off, and 20 games into the second half, they fired manager Jim Frey, replacing him with former Yankees manager Dick Howser. Frey had led the team to their first-ever pennant, and had guided the team to within a half-game out of first place in the second half. But his abrasiveness, poor communication, and conservative tactics led to his dismissal.
"There is a piece missing from the puzzle, and we hope to find that piece as quickly as possible."
-General Manager Joe Burke
Howser immediately abandoned platoons and made starters out of UL Washington and John Wathan. He also gave the green light to steal for many players, and went to a four-man rotation for the pennant run. The Western Division was particularly weak that year, with only first-half champs Oakland playing well the entire season. The Royals got hot in September, winning nine out of ten to take over first place for the second-half title for good. The Athletics were the only other team in the West to finish with a winning record in the second half.
Despite having an overall record of 50-53, the Royals faced the Oakland Athletics in a best-of-five divisional series, becoming the first team with a losing record to make the post-season. The A's finished with the best overall record in the American League, led by 22-year old speedster Rickey Henderson and a talented pitching staff that finished second in the league in ERA.
A's right-hander Mike Norris blanked the Royals in Game One at Royals Stadium, aided by a three-run home run off Dennis Leonard by Wayne Gross in the 4-0 Oakland win. Rookie Mike Jones, who had been terrific down the stretch, matched Steve McCatty for seven innings in Game Two. With a 1-1 tie in the eighth, Tony Armas doubled home Dwayne Murphy to give Oakland the lead. The Royals mounted a rally in the bottom of the inning when George Brett led off with a single, followed by a Willie Aikens walk. But McCatty would shut them down and preserve the 2-1 victory.
The A's carried a 2-1 lead into the fourth inning of Game Three in Oakland when light-hitting Dave McKay rapped a solo home run off Larry Gura. An RBI double that inning from Dwayne Murphy would knock Gura out of the game down 4-1. The Royals mounted a rally in the fifth, but Clint Hurdle was picked off second base, and George Brett lined out softly with the bases loaded. The A's made quick work of the Royals in a 3-0 sweep to advance to the ALCS against the Yankees.
The 1981 season was a tense season for the defending AL champs full of strife and discord between players and management. The Royals may have been hungry for another championship, but it would be another four years before they got their shot.