Nineteen-eighty five was a crazy year. I spent most of the year traveling the country, which meant I wasn’t going to Royals games. Kansas to Missouri to Georgia to North Carolina back to Missouri then to Kansas again and finally Colorado. Whew. One of the greatest college basketball games ever took place in April, when the Villanova Wildcats played a near perfect game to beat Patrick Ewing and the heavily favored Georgetown Hoyas for the NCAA Championship. Coca Cola decided to change the formula on their classic Coke to what was called New Coke. It was a colossal failure, as the new Coke tasted like Sugar Plum Fairy Gag Juice. Coke fans revolted and within three months, old coke was back on the shelves. Music was a mixed bag in 1985. Whitney Houston hit the charts for the first time and Bruce Springsteen released his classic album Born in the USA. The Dire Straits came out with arguably their best work, Brothers in Arms. Back to the Future, Out of Africa and Silverado were hits at the box office.
In the world of baseball, the National League continued its domination of the All-Star Game with a 6-1 victory at the Metrodome in Minnesota. The win was the 21st in 23 years for the Senior Circuit. Rod Carew collected his 3,000th hit. Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver each won their 300th game. Former Kansas City Athletics slugger Roger Maris passed away at the age of 51. 20-year-old Dwight Gooden led the National League with a 24-4 record, a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts. It’s hard to articulate just how dominating Doc was. If you saw him pitch that season, you know what I am talking about. Billy Martin was hired to manage the Yankees, for the fourth time. Martin led the Yanks to a 91-54 record and had a fight with one of his own players, pitcher Ed Whitson. Some things never change.
There were some terrific pennant races in 1985. In the National League West, the Dodgers went 95-67 for a 5 ½ game cushion over the Reds. In the East, St. Louis needed to win 101 games just to hold off Gooden and the New York Mets, who finished three games back with the third best record in all of baseball at 98-64. In the American League East, Toronto won their first division title with a mark of 99-62, two games better than the Yankees. In the American League West, the Royals finished at 91-71, which was one game better than the California Angels. The West title was the Royals sixth in the last ten years. More on that later.
Heading into the 1985 season, General Manager John Schuerholz made a few moves re-signing utility man Greg Pryor and trading toothpick chewin’ fan favorite shortstop UL Washington to the Montreal Expos for a couple of stiffs. No matter, Washington was near the end and would only play in another 150 games before retiring after the 1987 season. The second major transaction of the off-season was the biggest. On January 18, the Royals sent catcher Don Slaught to the Rangers and pitcher Frank Wills to the Mets as part of a four-team trade. The Royals received catcher Jim Sundberg, a 34-year-old recognized as one of the top defensive backstops in baseball. Sundberg had won six Gold Gloves and was an excellent handler of pitchers. Schuerholz, always ahead of the game, knew this would be important with the Royals, who had several young arms on their 1985 staff.
In May, Schuerholz made three major moves. The first was signing free agent pitcher Steve Farr after his release from the Indians. Farr spent six seasons in Kansas City, appearing in 269 games and was a solid 11 WAR relief pitcher. The second move had Schuerholz ship former first-round pick John Morris to the Cardinals for outfielder Lonnie Smith. Smith was a post-season good luck charm, one of those players that wherever he popped up in his career, he seemed to be in the World Series - Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City, Atlanta. Finally, on May 18, Schuerholz released pitcher Larry Gura. Gura had come to Kansas City in a May 1976 trade with the Yankees and had been fantastic for the Royals, pitching in 310 games and putting up a record of 111-78. Gura made the All-Star team in 1980, collected Cy Young votes in three seasons and was good for almost 19 WAR in his ten-year Royal Hall of Fame career, but at age 37, he was getting by on guile, smoke and mirrors.
The Royals got off to a decent start in 1985, going 11-8 in April and 14-13 in May, then started treading water. After a loss to Baltimore on July 18, the Royals stood at 44-43 and were 7 ½ games back of division leading California. At that point they had the ninth-best record in the American League. There were only 14 American League teams at the time, needless to say, it was not looking good.
Then, as they so often did in the late 1970’s and mid 1980’s. they got hot and won 11 of their next 13 games to close the gap to two games behind the Angels. This mid-season spurt also lifted them to the third-best record in the American League behind Toronto and the Angels. The key to the mid season surge was the reawakening of Hal McRae’s bat. After a slow start, Mac produced almost an RBI per game from July 22 through the end of the season.
The Royals continued to play solid ball and finally grabbed the division lead on September 6 with an exhilarating walk off win against Milwaukee in the first game of a double header in front of 26,400 at Royals Stadium. The two teams went into the eleventh tied at two. The Brewers sandwiched two singles around a fielder’s choice grounder off Dan Quisenberry to grab a 3-2 lead. The Brewers brought on Rollie Fingers to close out the game.For those of you not familiar with Mr. Fingers, just know this: he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Fingers was originally drafted and signed by the Kansas City Athletics and played an integral part in the Oakland A’s championship run in the early ‘70’s. Even though 1985 was the last season of his brilliant 17-year career, he still had something left in the tank.
After getting Frank White on a fly to right, Steve Balboni caught a Fingers slider and drove it over the left field fence for his second home run of the game, tying the score. Daryl Motley reached on an error and John “The Duke” Wathan ripped a double, scoring the fleet Motley with the winner and the division lead. The Royals, never a team to make it easy for their fans, proceeded to lose their division lead by choking away five of seven games to the lowly Seattle Mariners between September 16 and September 26. To make matters worse, they lost four of their next five games to drop a full game back of the Angels with five games to play. The losses capped a putrid 5-win 10-loss stretch that put their chances of winning the division in serious jeopardy.
On October 2, Bud Black threw a three-hit shutout at the Angels to pull the Royals back into a first-place tie. Not to be outdone, Danny Jackson and Dan Quisenberry shut down the Angels and Don Sutton the next evening, 4-1, to give the Royals a one game lead with three to play. Mark Gubicza continued the streak of great pitching, teaming with Quiz to beat Oakland on October 4. That win, along with California’s loss to the Rangers, assured the Royals of at least a tie for the West title.
On Saturday evening, October 5, almost 33,000 fans packed Royals Stadium to see if their guys could win the division. The A’s nicked Bret Saberhagen for four runs in the first six innings before George Brett got the boys untracked with a two-run home run off A’s starter Tim Birtsas. The Royals tied the game with a two-out rally in the bottom of the seventh, which sent the game to extra innings. In the bottom of the 10, Pat Sheridan sliced a one-out double. Greg Pryor laced a single, but it wasn’t deep enough to score Sheridan. Lonnie Smith hit a liner to short for the second out, bringing up Willie Wilson. Wilson delivered, looping a single to center which plated Sheridan with the game and division winner.
George Brett led the hit parade, playing in 155 games, slashing .335/.436/.585 with 30 home runs and 112 RBI along with 103 walks and 108 runs scored in his best season since his 1980 tour de force. His OPS of 1.022 led the American League. He made the All-Star team, won the only Gold Glove of his career and finished second in the MVP voting behind Don Mattingly, who had a monster year for the Yankees. Amazingly, no one else on the Royals roster hit over .300, with Willie Wilson’s .278 being the next highest average.
Steve Balboni led the team in home runs with a then-club record 36. Balboni had a world class mustache. He also had a habit of stepping into the bucket, but it never hurt his power numbers. He did strike out a lot, a then club record 166 times. 34-year-old Frank White chipped in with a career high 22 home runs. Of the power surge White said, “On our earlier championship teams, I hit down in the lineup and run production wasn’t my primary objective. Now I am hitting up in the order and its necessary for me to hit with more power and drive in more runs.”
Lonnie Smith and Willie Wilson each sole more than 40 bases to help set the table for Brett, White, McRae and Balboni. The Royals battled the injury bug late in the season. Wilson, who led the league in triples with 21, missed three weeks of action in September when he had an allergic reaction to a penicillin shot. In his place, the Royals signed veteran free agent outfielder Omar Moreno on September 3. Moreno, at the tail end of a decent 12-year career, had been released by the Yankees in Augusst. He got into 24 games for Kansas City, and slashed .243/.280/.429 with 17 hits in 70 at bats. In his first game, on September 4, Moreno collected an inside-the-park home run and a two-run triple to spark the Royals to a 6-5 win over the White Sox. Despite the early heroics, at 32, his once legendary speed was pretty much gone. Due to the late season signing, Moreno was not eligible for the Royals post-season roster.
Sundberg missed 28 starts between in late August and early September with torn cartilage in his left rib cage. John Wathan and Jamie Quick filled in admirably in his absence. White missed a week in early September with a severe thigh bruise.
The Royals were starting to get old. The average age of the team was 31, a number that was held down by a trio of baby-faced pitchers, 21-year-old Bret Saberhagen, 22-year-old Mark Gubicza and 23-year-old Danny Jackson.
About those young pitchers: Saberhagen in his second season went 20-6 with a 2.87 ERA which was good for his first of what would be two Cy Young Awards. Gubicza went 14-10 and Jackson rode his nasty slider to a 14-12 mark. Charlie Leibrandt had an outstanding year, going 17-9 with a 2.69 ERA. The five starters (Bud Black was the fifth) threw 1,064 of the 1,461 innings thrown by Royals arms that season. Those five, along with Quisenberry and Joe Beckwith, threw 88% of all innings in the summer of 1985. Quisenberry was his usual dependable self, appearing in 84 games, throwing 129 innings and collecting 37 saves.
And that was the story of the summer for the Royals: George Brett and a slew of electric young arms. The Royals best month was July, when they won 17 of 27 games. June was their worst month at 12-14. They played an amazing 50 one run games that summer, going 28-22 in those games. The Royals also faced their share of Hall of Fame pitchers in 1985, locking up against Jack Morris, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Bert Blyleven and Rollie Fingers. They also got to face a few that are in the Hall of very, very good including Roger Clemens, Ron Guidry, Dave Steib and Tommy John. The ’85 team showed tremendous resiliency, battling injuries, age and tough competition to win their seventh West division title in the last ten years.
Next week: The Championship Series