A few weeks ago, I was driving across the length of Nebraska, the great state that gave us the Cornhuskers, The Runza and Alex Gordon. Once you clear the NASCAR stretch between Omaha and Lincoln, well, there’s not much out there. I did find a couple of interesting stops in the western half, Chevyland USA near Elk Creek and the excellent Robert Henri Art Museum in Cozad. All those open miles gave me plenty of time to think and one of my thoughts was: who is the second-greatest Royal of all time? There is no disputing the greatest. Until another player collects 3,000 plus hits, wins multiple batting titles, a World Series championship and goes into Cooperstown wearing Royal Blue, the GOAT is still George Brett.
I’ve been fortunate to have been watching the Royals since their inception in 1969 and there’s hardly a player I haven’t seen. That said, this is just my opinion and I’m sure it may conflict with someone else’s view. When I dug into this, I eliminated several players whose Kansas City careers were too short to justify the title of second best. That eliminated several players who were not only wildly entertaining, but also excellent on the field of play. That meant goodbye to John Mayberry, Darrell Porter, Bo Jackson, Steve Busby, David Cone, Wade Davis and Zack Greinke.
Speaking of pitchers, I also elected to eliminate them, primarily because a starter will see action once every four to five games and a top reliever might only throw 80 innings a year. So, let’s call this the second-best position player in Royals history. That was a tough decision because Kevin Appier and Bret Saberhagen both had strong resumes, but the fact is Appier appeared in 1,843 innings as a Royal and Saberhagen logged 1,660 innings. By comparison, Willie Wilson played in over 14,000 innings as a Royal. So right or wrong, pitchers are out. That’s not to diminish their importance. I fully believe that pitching wins championships, but for this exercise, I’m sticking to position players.
There are a couple of players on the current Royals team who could climb this list before their careers end: Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi. Merrifield continues to improve every season and Mondesi has so much tantalizing raw talent, it’s tempting to dream that someday he could easily ascend into the top five.
Before we start the countdown from six to two, let’s quickly review number ten through seven.
#10 – Sal Perez – Sal could easily move up this list before his playing days are over. He’s a six time All-Star, has won five Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. He’s the heart and soul of the team and the inventor of my all-time favorite Royal celebration, the Salvy Splash. Enough said.
#9 – Mike Sweeney – Had the unfortunate timing to play on some absolutely horrible Royals teams under some absolutely incompetent front office types, but when he was healthy, he could rake. Ended his Royals career with 1,398 hits and five All-Star appearances and still holds the club record for most RBI in a season with 144.
#8 – Carlos Beltran – Could have easily claimed the number two spot if his Royals career had been longer. And it should have been. It’s almost beyond comprehension that the team would not hang onto a generational talent like Beltran at all costs. In seven years, he collected 899 hits, went to one All-Star game and won the 1999 Rookie of the Year.
#7 – Lorenzo Cain – Another guy the team should have held onto. In seven seasons, he collected 765 hits while slashing .289/.342/.421 and playing some sublime centerfield. He finished third in the 2015 MVP race and always looked like he was having a great time. And he’s still producing, unfortunately for another team.
And now onto the top five.
#6 – Hal McRae – Mac’s influence goes beyond numbers. When he came over from the Red’s, he changed the culture. The artificial turf and large outfield in Kansas City was a perfect fit for McRae. Once he fell under the tutelage of Charlie Lau, he began to hit. In his 15-year Royals career, he pounded out 1,924 hits, good for a line of .293/.356/.458 and 1,012 RBI. He was a three time All-Star, led the league in doubles twice and RBI once and picked up MVP votes in five seasons. He still holds the club record for doubles in a season (54) and extra base hits in a season (86), both set during his outstanding 1977 season.
#5 – Frank White – Is there a better story than Frank White? Grew up close to Municipal Stadium. Worked on a construction crew at Royals Stadium. Was the first graduate of the Royals Academy to make it to the big leagues. During a stellar 18-year career, he collected 2,006 hits, was a five time All-Star and won eight Gold Gloves. I’ll always remember the way he would leap and seem to hang in the air forever before snatching a line drive hit away from some unfortunate soul at the plate.
#4 – Alex Gordon – Has there ever been a player who came to Kansas City with higher fan expectations? It’s a short list. Maybe Clint Hurdle. You must give it up for Gordon. He earned this the hard way, going back to Omaha, early in his career, to learn a new position. His batting numbers are impressive enough, 1,461 hits with 173 home runs and 662 RBI, and counting. He’s a three time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner. He hit one of the biggest home runs in team history, the World Series changing drive off Jeurys Familia, but his defense is what sets him apart. The man is very simply one of the best left fielders I have ever seen. Will 2019 be his last as a Royal? I don’t know, but it has been gratifying to watch him have a resurgence.
#3 – Willie Wilson – Over time, you tend to forget what a terrific player Wilson was. Many people remember him for his speed, and he was fast. He stole 668 bases in his career and led the league in steals for the 1979 Royals. Though Wilson was a big man at 6’3 and 190, he didn’t hit many home runs, only 40 during his 15-year Royal career. He did stroke 1,968 hits and slashed .289/.329/.382. He won an American League batting title in 1982 with a.332 average. He led the league with 230 hits in 1980 and led the league in triples five times!
Unbelievably, he only appeared in two All-Star games. He did receive MVP votes in fours seasons including a fourth-place finish in his outstanding 1982 season. Wilson played a solid left field, until he made the switch to his more natural centerfield, when Amos Otis finally started running out of gas. Wilson still holds Royals single season club records for hits in a season (230), at-bats (705), triples (21), stolen bases (83) and singles (184) and the career mark for stolen bases with 612.
Which brings us to the second-greatest Royal position player of all time.
#2 – Amos Otis – Through the lens of time the trade almost seems absurd. In December of 1969, Kansas City sent it’s starting third baseman, Joe Foy, to the New York Mets for pitcher Bob Johnson and a young outfielder named Amos Otis. General Manager Cedric Tallis got one excellent season out of Johnson before flipping him to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a deal that netted Freddie Patek. In two phone calls, Tallis created 74 net WAR for his young team. Patek was terrific, but Otis was the crown jewel.
He played in 159 games during his first season in Kansas City (1970) and led the American League with 36 doubles while playing Gold Glove caliber defense. Over a stellar 14-year Royals career, Amos was truly a five-tool player, slashing .280/.347/.433 while ripping 1,977 hits, 193 home runs, 992 RBI. He also stole 340 bases (leading the AL with 52 in 1971) and scored 1,074 runs. He appeared in five All-Star games, collected MVP votes in five seasons and won three Gold Gloves. In 1974, Royals manager Jack McKeon called Otis “the most complete player in baseball.”
Otis always seemed a little underappreciated by baseball fans. He didn’t have the dramatic home runs to his credit, like Brett or Gordon and he was so smooth in the field that he truly made it look too easy. Former manager Bob Lemon once benched him for “lackadaisical play”. He led American League centerfielders in putouts, assists and double plays twice and led the league in fielding percentage five times. He still holds Kansas City club records for consecutive hits with eight, and consecutive at-bats getting on base with 11 (those 8 hits plus three walks).
Don’t misunderstand, he had some signature games. On May 1, 1970 he announced his arrival in Kansas City by scorching Cleveland for five hits. That five hit binge was part of a three game streak that saw Otis collect 10 hits in 15 at bats, along with three walks. During that three-game burst, Otis set a still standing club record by collecting 8 consecutive hits and another still standing club record by reaching base 11 consecutive plate appearances.
And these weren’t cheapies either. The three starting pitchers he faced were Mickey Lolich, Sudden Sam McDowell and Dean Chance. And if you’re not familiar with that trio, let me be the first to tell you that in the early 1970’s, they were at their peak and they could bring it. On September 7, 1971, he stole five bases in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the first time that feat had been accomplished in 44 seasons.
My favorite Otis memory though came on July 31, 1972, when he stole home with two outs in the 4th inning against Nolan Ryan. Understand, this was not one of those watered-down double steals, where a teammate tries to steal second base while you break for home. This was a flat out, Jackie Robinson take off with the windup and steal home steal. Against Nolan Ryan. That takes some serious cojones. The run was the difference in a 1-0 Kansas City win.
So, there you have it. Omaha to Ogallala. 330 miles of interstate gives a man plenty of time to think. And reminisce.