When I do these yearly reviews, in my mind, I often hear the year spoken in a sultry lady’s voice, something like Scarlett Johansson – Nineteen eighty-four. Weird, right? 1984 marked the second year in a row that I did not see a Kansas City game in person. Life was starting to get in the way, and it didn’t help that I lived 500 miles away.
DNA profiling was developed in 1984. The U.S. had a mild recession which led to 70 bank failures. In July, a gunman walked into a McDonald’s in suburban San Diego and killed 21 people. The AIDS virus is first identified. The Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. Mary Lou Retton won Olympic gold in gymnastics. People started wearing parachute pants and checked sneakers. Mullets were the rage.
Van Halen released the album Jump, which might have been the last decent album until Nirvana came out with Nevermind in 1991. Marvin Gaye was shot to death…by his father. Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones Temple of Doom dominated at the box office. Robert Redford starred in a nice little baseball movie called The Natural.
In the world of baseball, the San Diego Padres, who like the Royals, started play in 1969, won their first National League West crown. The Chicago Cubs, under first-year manager Jim Frey, won the National League East. In August, I had moved back to the town my parents lived in, Abilene, Kansas, and taken a part-time job at Asling Clothing Store. The owners, Cliff and Wanda Asling, had a small television they kept tuned to WGN, so every afternoon we were treated to Harry Carey and the Cubs pennant run. The Padres overcame two games-to-none deficit, to capture the National League crown, which sent Cliff into a minor depression.
In the American League, the Detroit Tigers exploded out of the gate, winning 35 of their first 40 games, on their way to a 104-58 record and the American League East crown. In the West, our Royals only went 84-78, but that was good enough to best the Angels, who finished three games back at 81-81. Had the Royals been in the East, they would have finished in sixth place. Yikes!
In the ALCS, Detroit was looking like a team of destiny as they rolled over the Royals. The Royals played Detroit tough in games two and three but couldn’t match the Tigers firepower. The Padres didn’t provide much resistance in the World Series, as Detroit took the Series in five games.
1984 got off to a rough start for Dick Howser and the Royals. Popular former coach Charlie Lau passed away on March 18 after a long bout with cancer. His instruction was instrumental in the development of Hal McRae, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson and most famously, George Brett. Lau was also credited with reviving the career of Cookie Rojas. Lou Piniella called him “the greatest batting instructor of them all.” George Brett missed time early in the season due to injury and Willie Wilson missed the first 32 games with a suspension. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn originally suspended him for the entire season over drug charges that led Wilson to serve 81 days in jail, but his suspension was reduced on appeal.
The Royals got off to a rotten start and were at 39-43 at the All-Star break. They were eight games out of first after a loss to Cleveland on July 18, which left them at 40-51. Then something clicked. A 21-year-old rookie pitcher named Mark Gubicza threw a complete game seven hitter the next night against Baltimore and the Royals kept winning. They closed the 1984 season with a major league best 44-27 kick, to reclaim the West division title, their fifth in the last seven non-strike seasons. Gubicza had been drafted by the Royals in the second round of the 1981 draft and made a rapid climb through the Royals minor league system, completely bypassing AAA Omaha.
Pitching was the story of the 1984 Royals. Along with Gubicza, 22-year-old Danny Jackson and 20-year-old Bret Saberhagen saw considerable time on the mound. The young arms were needed because staff ace and workhorse, Dennis Leonard missed the entire season due to injury. Two recent acquisitions, Bud Black and Charlie Leibrandt, both 27, pitched extremely well. Black led the staff with 257 innings and posted an 17-12 mark. Liebrandt threw 143 innings and went 11-7. Larry Gura rebounded with a 12-9 mark. Dan Quisenberry appeared in 72 games and led the American League in saves for the third straight season with 44.
In a somewhat sad note, Paul Splittorff retired during the season. Splittorff was the first draft choice of the expansion Royals to make it to the big leagues. His last appearance was on June 26 when he pitched the first game of a double header against Oakland. Splitt worked four and two thirds innings and gave up seven runs on eight hits before being relieved by a young right hander named Bret Saberhagen. Splittorff ended his career with a 166-143 mark and a 3.81 ERA. He was an immensely popular player with fans and teammates alike. He later became a color commentator for Royals television broadcasts and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1987. Unfortunately, we lost Splitt to cancer on May 25, 2011.
For the first time in 14 years, the Royals opened the season without Amos Otis. The Royals elected not to re-sign Otis when his contract expired after the 1983 season, ending one of the most brilliant Royal careers. In his 14 years patrolling centerfield for the Royals, Otis played in 1,891 games and collected 1,977 hits, 193 home runs and 992 RBI along with 340 stolen bases and played outstanding defense. Otis was a five time All-Star in a career that was worth 45 WAR and a spot in the Royals Hall of Fame.
His replacement in center field, Willie Wilson paced the offense with a .301/.350/.390 line and a team leading 163 hits in only 128 games. He also led the team in stolen bases with 47. Hal McRae continued to hit at the age of 38, slashing .303/.363/.397, though his power waned. Mac only hit three home runs and 13 doubles in 317 at-bats. Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni led the team with 28 home runs and 77 RBI in his first season in Kansas City. The Royals had acquired Balboni in the off-season from the Yankees for pitcher Mike Armstrong. When the Royals were shopping for first basemen, the Cubs had offered them Bill Buckner in exchange for Danny Jackson. The Royals brass wisely said no to that trade. George Brett only played in 104 games due to a knee injury and had a very uncharacteristic Brett season: .284/.344/.459 with 13 home runs and 69 RBI. Daryl Motley saw significant playing time in 1984, and acquitted himself well, slashing .284/.319/.441 with 15 home runs and 70 RBI in 146 games.
Many expected the White Sox to repeat as West division champs, but the Royals hung around .500 all summer, got hot late and moved into a first-place tie with the surprising Minnesota Twins after beating the Twins 4-1 on September 5. The Royals won 16 of their final 25 games to win the West by three games.
There were some unusual games. Bert Blyleven, a crafty right-handed for Cleveland, beat the Royals four times in 1984. Blyleven, who was inducted into the baseball Hall of in 2011, owned the Royals. He went 34-22 with a 2.59 ERA against Kansas City in his 22-year career. The 34 wins were the most for Blyleven against any team he faced. He ended as a 94 WAR pitcher, with a career mark of 287-250. He only won 20 games once (1973) but threw 242 complete games and was known for his wicked curveball. The Twins stockpiled an impressive collection of young talent: Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Kirby Puckett, Tom Brunansky, Greg Gagne, Jim Eisenreich and Frank Viola. This core would provide serious competition to the Royals for the remainder of the 1980s.
The Royals got some help in clinching the division from a familiar face. The Cleveland Indians had acquired former Royal and George Brett wingman Jamie Quirk at the trade deadline. On the night of September 27, with the Indians and Twins tied at three, the Tribe sent Quirk to the plate as a pinch hitter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Quirk yanked a fastball from Twins closer Ron Davis over the right field wall at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium to give the Tribe a 4-3 walk off win and end any hopes the Twins had of winning the West division. Wild thing…You make my heart sing. For Quirk, it was his only at-bat as an Indian. They released him in October of 1984 and in February of 1985 the Royals re-signed him for his third stint with the team.
Another milestone game took place on September 17, when Reggie Jackson, playing for the California Angels, hit his 500th career home run against the Royals Bud Black. The historic dong came exactly 17 years to the day that Jackson hit his first home run. Jackson’s first dinger came as a member of the Kansas City Athletics. Jackson hit that shot off the Angels Jim Weaver. Both #1 and #500 were solo home runs and both were hit at Anaheim Stadium.
In the Championship Series, Game One was played at Royals Stadium, despite the Tigers having the better record, because at that time the East and West alternated the opening sites each year. Detroit wasted little time, pushing across two runs in the top of the first off Royals starter, Bub Black. They added single runs in the fourth, fifth and seventh, opening a 5-0 lead, before the Royals finally tallied a run off of Tiger starter Jack Morris in the bottom of the seventh. The Tigers were a steamroller in 1984 and they Royals were nothing more than a roadkill squirrel. Morris pitched seven innings of five hit ball, and Willie Hernandez, who would win the Cy Young and MVP in 1984, pitched two hitless innings in what became an 8-1 Tiger win.
Just a note on Hernandez, the guy had a decent career and 1984 was his high-water mark. The MVP in 1984 should have gone to Don Mattingly, Eddie Murray or Alan Trammell, but voters were seduced by Hernandez’s 9-3 record, with 32 saves and a 1.92 ERA over 140 innings. Mattingly had a monster year, slashing .343/.381/.537 with 23 home runs, 110 RBI, 207 hits and 91 runs scored. Murray on the other hand slashed .306/.410/.509 with 29 home runs and 110 RBI with 97 runs scored and 107 walks. Trammell was no slouch at .314/.382/.468 with 14 home runs, 69 RBI and 174 hits while playing Gold Glove-caliber shortstop.
There is also legitimate argument that Hernandez shouldn’t have won the Cy Young. Royal-killer Bert Blyleven went 19-7 with a 2.87 ERA over 245 innings while throwing 32 complete games. Somehow the voters got both of those awards wrong.
Game Two was also played in Kansas City and once again the Tigers struck early. An error and back to back doubles staked Detroit to another 2-0 lead. Kirk Gibson smashed a home run off Bret Saberhagen in the third to make it a 3-0 game. The Royals refused to die and chipped away with single runs in the fourth, seventh and eighth to send the game to extra innings. Detroit settled matters in the eleventh when Johnny Grubb hit a one-out double off Dan Quisenberry to score Darrell Evans and former Royal Rupert Jones. The Royals managed a couple of singles in the bottom of the eleventh off of “Senor Smoke” Aurelio Lopez but escaped with the win when Lynn Jones long fly to right was caught by Gibson.
Game Three moved back to Tiger Stadium on Friday afternoon, October. The game was an unusual 1:00 p.m. start due to the presidential debates that evening between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Charlie Leibrandt took the mound for Kansas City and Milt Wilcox took the hill for the Tigers. The Tigers plated a run in the second with two singles by Barbaro Garbey and Darrell Evans sandwiched around a fielder’s choice by Chet Lemon, that put two men on with one out. Marty Castillo then hit a grounder to Onix Concepcion who flipped the ball to Frank White for the out at second. White’s relay to Steve Balboni was not in time to get Castillo on the potential inning ending double play, as Lemon scored.
The run would be critical, as Leibrandt pitched perhaps his finest game in Royal uniform, only giving up three hits and four walks while striking out six. Wilcox was just as good, only allowing two hits over eight innings, while striking out eight and only walking two. Hernandez pitched the ninth, working around a Hal McRae single for the save. And that was that. 1-0 Detroit for a three-game sweep.
Watching the series, I don’t think it would have mattered had the teams played seven games. Or ten. Or twenty. Detroit was the better team that year. No disrespect to the Royals. They battled and gave Detroit everything they had, but the Tigers were just too strong in 1984. The World Series was no different as Detroit rolled over the Padres four games-to-one. The Padres only win came in Game Two highlighted by former Royal favorite Kurt Bevacqua giving the Padres the win when he hit a three-run home run in the fifth inning.
In the June amateur draft, the Royals used pick #16 to select pitcher Scott Bankhead. Bankhead showed promise and made his Royals debut in 1986 before being traded to Seattle in the off-season as part of a package to acquired Danny Tartabull. The rest of their draft was forgettable. There were some stars selected in 1984: Greg Maddux went to the Cubs with pick #31. Tom Glavine was selected by the Braves with pick #47. Ken Caminiti went to the Astros with pick #71 and Jamie Moyer went to the Cubs with pick #135.
For the Royals, the future looked bright. George Brett and Willie Wilson were bona-fide superstars. Steve Balboni was providing some pop. Frank White and Hal McRae were still formidable players and they had a promising crop of young arms coming up through the system. John Schuerholz had pulled off the dream, rebuilding the team while keeping them in contention every year.