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Remembering the career of Dick Drago

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The Godfather was the Royals’ first ace

In baseball parlance, the word “Ace” was used to describe a team’s number one starter. A guy that could be counted on to give 7+ innings every time out and stop losing streaks before they got out of hand. The Royals have had a few Aces in their past, guys like Steve Busby, Dennis Leonard, Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Appier and Zack Greinke. You can make a lessor case of David Cone, who was a true Ace, but unfortunately spent many of his best years in Toronto and New York. Cone posted a 27-19 mark in a little over two seasons with Kansas City, including winning the 1994 Cy Young Award. Despite his potential, and later production, the Royals brass felt it necessary to trade Cone, not once, but twice, for what was essentially a bucket of used baseballs. Their return included players with the names of Anderson, Gozzo, Hearn, Medrano, Sinnes and Stynes. I wish I were joking, but I’m not.

To take the Ace concept to a higher level, there are also true Aces. Hall of Fame Aces. Guys like Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver. If a franchise can have one of those guys every generation, they are blessed.

When the Royals began operations in 1969, they spent heavy draft capital on young arms, looking for a guy who might be their Ace. Guys like Roger Nelson, Jim Rooker and Wally Bunker had potential to be that guy. From 1969 to 1973, the player who emerged from that draft and filled the role of Ace for the Royals turned out to be Dick Drago, who was selected with the 31st pick in the draft. Drago had narrowly missed making the roster of the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 campaign, which saw the Tigers defeat the St. Louis Cardinals for the World Series championship.

Drago grew up in Toledo, Ohio where as a youth, he was a Connie Mack All-Star. He caught the attention of scouts and the Detroit Tigers signed him to a free-agent contract in 1964. It was a dream come true for Drago, who rooted for the Tigers as a youth. In 1966, while pitching for the Tigers affiliate in Rocky Mount, N.C., Drago threw a seven-inning no-hitter against Greensboro. In the nightcap of the doubleheader, his roommate, Darrell Clark, threw another no-hitter. Based on my research, I believe this is the only time in baseball history where no-hitters were thrown in both games of a double header.

By 1968, Drago was pitching for his hometown team, the Toledo Mud Hens, where he won 15 games for the third consecutive season. The ’68 Tigers were loaded with pitching including 31 game winner Denny McLain and star lefty Mickey Lolich. Also, on that Detroit staff were future Royals Jim Rooker and Jon Warden as well as 40-year-old Roy Face, a late season acquisition who went 18-1 for the Pirates in 1959.

Detroit left Drago exposed in the 1968 expansion draft and Cedric Tallis selected him with the 31st pick. Said Drago, “I was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico when I found out I was going to Kansas City. I was shocked and disappointed. All I ever wanted to do was pitch for the Tigers. I was heartbroken. At the time I didn’t even know where Kansas City was. I fell in love with Kansas City. It was a beautiful place and it was a bunch of guys starting a whole new team. It really didn’t feel like you were on a big-league team, other than you were traveling and playing big league teams.”

Drago started the 1969 season in the bullpen, but soon moved into the starting rotation and became a workhorse for the Royals. He threw the first complete game in Kansas City history in his first start, a five hit, 3-2 win against the Angels on May 2nd, 1969. Drago threw nine complete games in that inaugural season and threw 53 complete games in his five-year Royal career, which still ranks as fifth best all-time. To show you how much times have changed, the Royals have had 54 complete games thrown in their last 15 ½ seasons. The high-water mark for pitchers has been the six complete games thrown by Zach Greinke in 2009.

Baseball people are obsessed with pitch counts, and probably for good reason. Has adhering to a strict pitch count helped save arms? I think it’s still up for debate. There still seems to be a fair number of pitchers who have Tommy John surgery in today’s game. Pitchers had arm trouble in the old days too. But there were also workhorses like Bob Feller, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan who between the four of them threw an astounding 987 complete games in their careers. I can almost assure you that had Ned Yost tried to remove Bob Gibson in the middle of the seventh inning to bring in someone like Brad Boxberger, Gibson might have assaulted Ned on the mound. Those pitchers were tough as nails and wanted to finish what they started.

The same can be said for Dick Drago. Drago was known for his great control. At one stretch in his career, from 1969 to 1973, he only threw 12 wild pitches in 921 innings. Drago said his philosophy was “to give seven strong innings every time out. I’m not trying to walk anybody. When I get to a 3-1 count, I didn’t try to finesse anyone. I won’t just lay the ball in there, but I might give up more of the plate and try to throw a little bit harder. I give up some singles that way, but not many long balls. Singles are no worse than walks. When they’re hitting the ball your defense at least has a chance to get the hitters out.”

Drago’s best year with the Royals came in 1971 when he went 17-11 in 241 innings pitched with a 2.98 ERA and 15 complete games. That was good enough to earn him a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. The competition in 1971 was tough. Vida Blue won the Cy Young with his seminal 24-8 season, followed by Mickey Lolich, Wilbur Wood and Dave McNally, all 20 game winners.

Drago pitched nearly as well in 1972 with a 3.01 ERA and 11 complete games over 239 innings, but his won-loss record dropped to 12-17. As many baseball statisticians have pointed out in recent years, the reliance on won-loss records can be misleading. In that 1972 campaign, Drago lost six consecutive starts in which his teammates only scored nine runs. In fact, his run support was terrible the entire season. In those 17 losses, the Royals could only muster 30 runs for Drago. Hard to win with that kind of support. In fact a case can be made that Drago pitched as well in 1972 as he did in 1971. His innings pitched were nearly identical, yet he gave up 21 fewer hits in 1972 and struck out 26 more batters than he had in 1971. In those days, everything spun on the won-loss records and the Royals brass quietly speculated that Drago’s best days were behind him.

The 1972 season wasn’t an entire waste. On May 24th, Drago threw arguably the best game in Royals history, a game in which he lost, 1-0 to the Twins and Jim Kaat, who matched Drago pitch for pitch. Only 8,381 were in attendance at Municipal to see Drago throw 12 brilliant innings. Drago limited the powerful Twins to six hits while striking out 13 and only walking one. The Royals had a chance to win the game in the bottom of the 10th when Paul Schaal led off with a double. Manager Bob Lemon yosted himself by having the next batter, John Mayberry, sacrifice Schaal to third. Mayberry, who was just coming into his prime as a slugger, was successful with the bunt attempt, but the next two hitters, Ed Kirkpatrick and Drago, were unable to score Schaal. The Twins finally pushed across a run in the 12th when Danny Thompson led off the inning with a double and Rod Carew nicked Drago for a single to right field, scoring Thompson. The Royals had no answer in the 12th. The game scored a 98 which remains the highest scoring pitching game in Royals history. To illustrate how dominant Drago was that night, he had eight innings of three-up, three-down.

On September 1, 1972, Drago held Boston hit less for the first three innings before he took a line drive off the jaw from Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski. Drago suffered a hairline fracture of his jaw and lost a tooth. Yastrzemski eventually scored in what became a 1-0 Royals loss. Drago missed one start, then came back to throw a complete game win on September 10th against the Twins.

Drago grew one of the all-time great mustaches while with the Royals. His teammates nicknamed him the Godfather. In 1973, Kansas City acquired another free spirit, Kurt Bevacqua. Drago and Bevacqua, in all of their ‘stache glory, quickly became known as the Bolivian Bandits, a nod to the popular movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In 1973, Drago was one of many Royals to clash with new manager Jack McKeon. Drago was traded to the Boston Red Sox in October of 1973, straight up for another character, Marty Pattin. The trade was basically a wash in statistical terms. Drago pitched nine more seasons, mostly in relief, going 47-47 with 8 WAR. Pattin gave the Royals seven productive years, going 43-39 with 8.4 WAR. Drago did find success in the Red Sox bullpen, where he became their key fireman for the 1975 pennant winners. He also pitched the ninth, tenth and eleventh innings of the classic 1975 World Series game six, only allowing one hit to the powerful Cincinnati Reds. The Sox of course, won that game on a Carlton Fisk home run. You’ve maybe seen a replay of it.

Drago closed his Kansas City career with a record of 61-70 with a 3.52 ERA and 13.5 WAR. He still holds a place in the Royals top ten all-time in innings pitched, walks-per-nine innings, complete games, games started, shutouts thrown, career ERA, batters faced and FIP. He also holds the club record for most complete games without issuing a walk with five in his 1971 season. Drago also holds the distinction of giving up Hank Aaron’s 755th and final career home run in 1976. He said the toughest hitters he ever faced were Tony Oliva and George Brett. He had the most success against Milwaukee slugger Gorman Thomas, who went 0-22 against the Godfather.

Drago, always a fan favorite in Kansas City and Boston, retired after his 1981 season with the Seattle Mariners.