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A look back at Roger Nelson

Looks can be deceiving

Many years ago, I used to watch MTV. This was back in the day when MTV actually played music videos. Whenever a music video from Prince would play, the VJ would invariably say, “Prince, whose real name is Rogers Nelson.” An interesting tidbit, which everyone probably knows by now. I only bring it up because every time I heard that, it made me think of the former Royals pitcher, Roger Nelson.

The two couldn’t have been more different. Prince Rogers Nelson was slick and polished, with a look that I would describe as psychedelic GQ. Roger Nelson, with his mop of dark hair, long sideburns and black glasses looked like he was a sidekick to Toad Fields from American Graffiti, which makes sense, as Nelson was raised in American Graffiti country, Altadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, squeezed between Pasadena and the Angeles National Forest. In those pre-contact lens days, Nelson often wore heavy black framed glasses. Today, athletes who style themselves as fashion poseurs, often wear similar glasses to “look smarter”, a trend that I find somewhat offensive. Few ballplayers in those days wore glasses. Only Nelson, Cookie Rojas and Paul Splittorff come to mind for the Royals. Split wore something akin to aviator shades, while Nelson and Cookie went for the science professor look. During those years, Royal Roger Nelson was no Prince, but when he was healthy, he made some beautiful music on the mound.

Nelson was signed by the Chicago White Sox as a 19-year-old amateur free agent prior to the 1963 season. He spent the first four seasons of his career in the minors before getting a September call up with the Sox. He threw seven innings over five games, striking out four and posting a 1.29 ERA.

Nelson was involved in two trades in his career and they were both blockbusters. The first came in the 1967 off-season when Chicago sent Nelson, Don Buford and Bruce Howard (father of future Royal David) to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for John Matias (another future Royal), Russ Snyder (who broke in with the Kansas City A’s) and future Hall of Famer, Luis Aparicio.

Nelson pitched well for Baltimore, going 4-3 over 71 innings with a 2.41 ERA, including a sparkling seven shutout inning relief stint in a late season game against Boston. The Orioles were loaded with good pitchers in those years and Baltimore left Nelson exposed to the expansion draft. Royals General Manager, Cedric Tallis, determined to stock his club with younger talent, jumped on Nelson, and made him the #1 overall pick. Five of the Royals’ first eight picks in the draft were pitchers.

Nelson had a classic windup, bringing the glove and ball over his head at the beginning then following through with a strong leg kick and a three-quarter delivery. He started 29 games for the expansion Royals and threw a career high 193 innings. Nelson pitched well, despite only having a record of 7-13, throwing eight complete games with an ERA of 3.31. He received minimal offensive support from his young teammates. In his 13 losses, the Royals were shut out six times and lost three other games by one run. 1969 was also the first time Nelson battled shoulder pain.

Those shoulder woes limited Nelson to ten innings in 1970 and the Royals started him in Omaha in 1971, before recalling him in late June. Nelson threw 34 innings out of the bullpen in 1971, posting a 5.29 ERA. He didn’t figure into the Royals plans for 1972 and came to camp fighting for a roster spot. He made the team as a reliever and was terrific. During that bullpen stretch he threw seven brilliant innings against Texas (in a game that lasted 17 innings), only allowing three hits, striking out nine and only walking one. He picked up his first win on June 25th, with 2 2/3 innings of one-hit relief against the Twins.

On July 4th the Royals moved him back into the rotation and he blew up like a firecracker, tossing a 1-0 complete game shutout against Detroit, limiting the Tigers to four hits. He threw another shutout on July 27th (White Sox) and yet another on July 31st (Angels). He tossed another shutout against Texas on August 11th. Nelson went 4-0 in August of 1972. His masterpiece was a 3-0 complete game amputation of Boston on August 23rd. The only hit the Red Sox could muster was a single with two out in the 8th by Ben Oglivie. Nelson struck out nine Red Sox and only allowed one walk. The game scored a 93 and remains one of the best games ever thrown by a Royals pitcher.

Nelson capped the season by throwing a two-hit, complete game shutout against the Texas Rangers on October 4th. The game was the last game played in Municipal Stadium and had an announced crowd of 7,329. Royals good luck charm Don Denkinger was the first base umpire. To say Nelson was electric in 1972 would be an understatement. He finished with an 11-6 record over 173 innings.

Nelson set four club pitching records in 1972 that still stand. His 2.08 ERA still stands as the best ever by a Kansas City starter. His WHIP of .871 led the American League in 1972 and is still the club record. He threw six shutouts in 1972, which was good for fourth-best in the league (despite not starting until July 4th) and that still stands as the Royals single-season club record. He also set a still standing club record by only allowing 6.23 hits per nine innings. Given today’s managers aversion to letting their starters finish games, Nelson’s mark of six shutouts may stand for a long, long time. For those three months in the summer of 1972, Roger Nelson was as good as any Kansas City pitcher has ever been.

On November 30, 1972, Tallis shocked the Royals faithful by trading his best pitcher (Nelson) and one of his best hitters (Richie Scheinblum - .300/.383/.418 in 1972) for a sore-armed pitcher named Wayne Simpson and a utility player named Hal McRae. McRae was still recovering from a gruesome broken leg and only played in 61 games for the Big Red Machine in 1972. Many fans, including myself, thought that Tallis had lost his mind. Simpson washed out of Kansas City after appearing in only 16 games. Arm troubles kept Simpson sidelined in 1974 and 1976 and he only threw 152 more innings before retiring after the 1977 season.

Scheinblum lasted 29 games in Cincy before the Reds unloaded him on California. He rebounded with the Angels and hit .328 for them over 77 games. Tallis, obviously suffering from seller’s remorse, decided he needed more Scheinblum, so in 1974 he sent Paul Schaal back to the Angels for Scheinblum. The trade opened third base for some guy named Brett, but Scheinblum never regained his 1972 magic and was out of the league after the 1974 season.

Unfortunately, Nelson’s arm troubles returned, and he only pitched in 28 games over two seasons with the Reds. He did pitch 2 1/3 innings of no-hit relief in game three of the 1973 National League Championship Series, but that was his last hurrah. He missed the entire 1974 season with more arm trouble and after a three-game stint with the Royals in 1976, Nelson called it a career.

After a slow start to his Royal career, McRae, powered by the gospel of Charlie Lau, became one of the Royals all-time greats. His hard-nosed play set the tone for the next decade and propelled McRae into the Royals Hall of Fame. The trade also reaffirmed Cedric Tallis’ reputation as a baseball savant, selling high and buying low. How is this guy not in the Royals Hall of Fame?

Nelson, along with Steve Busby, will go down in Royals history as the two great cases of “what if”. Had today’s surgical and rehab techniques been available, they would have lost a season to surgery then quite possibly came back stronger than ever. Many nights, when I set by the fire with a tumbler of Templeton Rye, my mind plays out the 1976-77-78 ALCS with a healthy Nelson and Busby. And with Lou Piniella manning left field for Kansas City. In my mind, that Royals team wins the World Series each of those seasons. And Cedric Tallis takes his rightful place in the Royals Hall of Fame.