The Royals are still in the afterglow of a championship season, but they will enter a difficult and uncertain transition period where the team will say goodbye to veterans and hello to new young players. While many expect some dark days ahead, sometimes the transition can happen quicker than expected. One team that saw its rebuilding process happen sooner than expected was the 1984 Royals. They had few hopes of contending, but with a young crop of players, hung around .500 in a mediocre division and got hot enough to make the playoffs. While the season did not end in total success, they did set the stage for the championship club that would come a year later.
Say hello to: Steve Balboni, Mark Gubicza, Dane Iorg, Danny Jackson, Charlie Leibrandt, Darryl Motley, Jorge Orta, Bret Saberhagen
Say goodbye to: Willie Aikens, Mike Armstrong, Vida Blue, Cesar Geronimo, Don Hood, Amos Otis, Gaylord Perry, Steve Renko, Paul Splittorff
All-Stars: George Brett, Dan Quisenberry
Team payroll: $7,279,000 (18th out of 26 teams)
Highest paid player: George Brett, $1,000,000
Rookies: Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson, Darryl Motley, Bret Saberhagen
Top Prospect: Baseball America ranked outfielder John Morris as the top prospect. The Seton Hall grad was the Royals’ top pick in the 1982 draft, and had hit .288/.420/.516 with 23 HR, 30 stolen bases, and 109 walks for AA Jacksonville in 1983. He would cool down in Omaha in 1984, but still looked poised to be an impact outfielder for the Royals.
1984 Draft: Scott Bankhead (16th overall), Luis de los Santos, Chiti Martinez, Kevin Koslofski.
How they started: The Royals were hobbled by injuries and a suspension to Willie Wilson and dropped 20 of their first 32 games.
Best month: The Royals finished strong, going 17-11 in September.
Worst month: April was a slow month with the Royals going 8-11
Best game: September 12. The Royals took the lead in the ninth against the Twins to win 3-2 in Minnesota, tying the Twins in the standings for first place. The Royals would be in first place the rest of the season.
Worst game: July 18. Bert Blyleven of the Indians defeated the Royals four times in 1984, including a 2-1 loss in late July. The loss capped a series in which the Royals dropped three out of four at home to the Indians and fell to 40-51, the most games under .500 they would reach all season.
What went right: Young pitchers developed sooner than expected and gave the Royals a decent rotation and the fewest walks allowed. Led by Dan Quisenberry, the Royals had the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the American League. The young outfielders were better than expected.
What went wrong: The club was hit hard with injuries. George Brett played in just 104 games. Six different players started at shortstop. The offense was dead last in walks and third-worst in home runs.
The Royals were four years removed from their first pennant in franchise history, in 1980. Two of the three seasons since then had been losing seasons, with a playoff appearance in 1981 only because of the odd strike-shortened post-season (the Royals had a losing record overall, but won the second half). The 1983 club had lost 83 games, their first losing record in a full-season in a decade. The club was an old club, with the average age of the team well over 30. Veterans Cesar Geronimo, Steve Renko, Vida Blue, Gaylord Perry, and long-time popular All-Star outfielder Amos Otis were let go in favor of a younger crop of Royals players.
The biggest story of the off-season, however, was the effects of the drug scandal that had enveloped the Royals during the 1983 season. Royals pitcher Vida Blue, first baseman Willie Aikens, and outfielder Jerry Martin and Willie Wilson were all arrested as part of an FBI sting operation relating to drug trafficking. Martin and Blue were both veterans past their prime, so it wasn’t difficult for the Royals to part ways with them. But Aikens was their young, slugging first baseman. Wilson was the 1982 batting champ and one of the fastest baserunners in baseball.
The players plead guilty to misdemeanors for drug possession and were sentenced to three months in jail over the off-season. During that time, the Royals decided to trade Aikens to the Toronto Blue Jays for veteran outfielder Jorge Orta. The Royals held onto Wilson, but soon received a stunner when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn handed out yearlong suspensions to all of the players involved.
With Wilson possibly out for the season, pending appeal, the Royals would be relying on a lineup with only three holdovers from their 1980 pennant-winning ballclub - George Brett, Frank White, and Hal McRae. They considered adding a veteran outfielder like Glenn Wilson from the Tigers in a proposed three-team trade that would have sent shortstop UL Washington to the A’s and pitcher Tim Conroy to Detroit. But ultimately, they decided to go with youth in the outfield. Butch Davis, Pat Sheridan, and Daryl Motley would get the Opening Day assignment, none of whom had a full season of big league action.
The Royals did look externally to replace Aikens at first, kicking the tires on free agents like Bruce Bochte and Darrell Evans. They considered signing Denny Walling to platoon with John Wathan at first base, which would have produced a big drop in power from what they were getting from Aikens.
The Cubs offered them Bill Buckner in exchange for young minor league pitcher Danny Jackson, but the Royals shot it down. Instead, they turned to their old rivals, the New York Yankees. The Yankees had a slugger stuck in AAA who had mashed 92 home runs over three seasons in AAA Columbus, earning the name Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni. The Royals picked up the 27-year old with pitcher Roger Erickson in exchange for pitcher Mike Armstrong and minor league catcher Duane Dewey.
"People say he can hit it out of the Kansas City ball park and every other park. He's just a guy who needs to be given an opportunity...We know he swings and misses a lot, but he's a threat."
Everyone expected the 99-win White Sox to repeat as American League Western Division champs, as no other team in the division had finished with a winning record in 1983. Many Western Division clubs were in a rebuild movement, and the hapless 92-loss Twins were in danger of being relocated to Tampa. Still, some warned against counting out the Royals, including White Sox manager Tony LaRussa.
"Don't underestimate the Royals. They still have a lot of great players, and those pitchers are the real thing."
Those young pitchers began to impress immediately in spring training. The Royals had veteran lefties Bud Black, Larry Gura, and Paul Splittorff to anchor the staff, but the rotation was a competition among young guys like Danny Jackson, Tony Ferreira, Frank Willis, Roger Erickson, Keith Creel, and phenoms Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza. Gubicza broke north with the club as a starter - one of a club record five rookies on the Opening Day roster - with fellow rookie Saberhagen making the club as a long reliever.
But any excitement generated by the pitchers was tempered by the news that star third baseman George Brett would miss the first six weeks with a torn meniscus in his knee. Brett, who had battled back and knee injuries in 1983, was as frustrated as anyone.
"The whole thing is awful. It's just frustrating. I just don't know why. Everything that could happen just happens.”
Coupled with the Wilson suspension (which was shortened to 32 games by an arbitrator) and a third knee surgery to pitcher Dennis Leonard, the Royals looked like a non-factor in the division. Oddsmakers had them at 100-1 to make the playoffs. Royals fans didn’t seem too hopeful for the season - just 10,006 showed up for Opening Day, the smallest crowd for the opener in club history.
The early part of the season gave fans little reason to get excited. Paul Splittorff looked to be at the end of his career, and was quickly sent to the pen in favor of Danny Jackson. Saberhagen joined the rotation as a fifth starter, but the club was just 12-20 by mid-May. Wilson returned to a standing ovation at Royals Stadium, and George Brett made his season debut on May 18, going 3-for-3 with two doubles.
Brett, who was in the middle of a five-year deal, had been complaining about how many players had exceeded his salary, as free agency was beginning to explode in baseball. The Royals, flush with cash after Ewing Kauffman brought on minority owner Avron Fogleman in 1983, rewarded Brett with a five-year contract extension to make him among the five highest-paid players in the game, with an average annual salary of $1.78 million for the deal. Brett showed his superstar status by receiving more All-Star votes than any other American League player that summer.
The Royals got hot and clawed to within a game of .500, but then dropped eight of nine in June. In July they suffered another blow as Frank White missed three weeks with an injury, and the team dropped eight of nine again, falling to 40-51, in sixth place, eight games out of first. The injuries mounted as the club lost shortstops UL Washington and Onix Concepcion, requiring them to pick up veteran Bucky Dent off the street, and give a chance to rookie Buddy Biancalana. The Royals also convinced Paul Splittorff to hang up the cleats, and he gracefully retired with a ceremony in front of fans that summer.
The Royals had a successful August, and by the end of the month were back at .500, just two games out of first. The team they were trailing was not the mighty White Sox, as experts predicted, but the up-and-coming Minnesota Twins, led by young players like Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, and Frank Viola.
The Royals took two out of three in early September against the Twins to tie them in the standings, with Gubicza and late bloomer Charlie Leibrandt picking up the wins. The Royals had picked up Leibrandt the previous summer in a minor trade from the Reds for Bob Tufts. He put up a 1.24 ERA in nine starts with Omaha in 1984, prompting a callup at age 27. Leibrandt did not falter, giving the Royals 23 starts with a 3.63 ERA down the stretch.
A week later in Minnesota, the Royals dropped two out of three, and the two teams were once again tied. They were still tied going into the last week of the season, but the Royals swept a doubleheader against the Angels, then had a walk-off win the next day to open up a 1.5 game lead. The Twins suffered walk-off losses to the Indians on back-to-back nights to clinch an improbable division title for the Royals. They ended the year with just 84 wins.
"We did this in spite of a lot of adversity. Forget about last year and the problems of last winter. We played this season without a lot of key players."
"Nobody thought we'd win. Not even the players on the team though we'd win."
The unexpected post-season appearance brought them face-to-face with one of the most dominant regular season teams in recent history - the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers had won 35 of their first 40 games, and won the East in a rout, with 104 wins.
"It would be unrealistic for me to say we are better than they are. These aren't the 1980 Royals. We've got a lot of young players who are still learning to be bona fide RBI men in the major leagues."
Game One, held in Kansas City because back then home field advantage alternated seasons between the divisions, would be started by Bud Black. But he found out quickly why the Tigers won so many games. Lou Whitaker led the game off with a single. Left fielder Darryl Motley misplayed an Alan Trammell flyball into a triple to score the first run. Trammell would score on a sac fly to make it 2-0. He and outfielder Larry Herndon would tack on home runs in what would eventually turn into an 8-1 laugher.
The Tigers again jumped on the Royals early in Game Two, started by rookie Bret Saberhagen. An error by Onix Concepcion opened the door to back-to-back RBI doubles by Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish. Gibson added a home run to make it 3-0, but the Royals scratched and clawed their way back. Reliever Willie Hernandez, who won both Cy Young and MVP that year, gave up an RBI double to Hal McRae in the eighth to tie the game 3-3. But a two-run RBI double by reserve outfielder Johnny Grubb off Dan Quisenberry gave the Tigers a 5-3 lead. The Royals got runners to second and third in the bottom of the inning, but Lynn Jones flied out to end the game.
Game Three looked to be a coronation of the Tigers in Detroit. Tigers infielder Marty Castillo came up with runners at the corners and one out in the second and hit a slow roller to Concepcion at short. Frank White took his throw and tried to quickly turn the double play to end the inning, but Castillo beat it out, allowing the run to score. That would be all veteran starter Milt Wilcox would need. Over eight innings, Wilcox would allow just two hits, outdueling Charlie Leibrandt in a 1-0 win.
Despite the series sweep, the Royals had to be pleased with how far they had come. They went 44-27 over their final 71 games, the best record in the American League over that time. It was clear they had one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball. The seeds were there for a serious contender.
"We have a brighter future than anticipated. We'll be better next year and better than that the year after."
And in 1985, Schuerholz proved to be right.