I was late to playing baseball. Not Lorenzo Cain late, but it wasn’t until the summer before fourth grade that I started playing. The late start can probably be attributed to my apparent lack of athletic ability and complete disinterest in playing sports, and looking back, I think my parents did the right thing by not signing me up for baseball. The piano lessons were a much better fit.
But that summer before fourth grade, my younger brother, who was very athletic and incredibly interested in sports, was old enough to start playing, so I think my parents asked me out of courtesy if I’d like to play as well. I had recently made some friends who played baseball, so I said “Sure!” without really thinking it through.
It doesn’t seem like you’d learn much in tee ball and coach pitch, but apparently you do. To say that I was overmatched was an understatement. I didn’t get a hit – or even make contact – all year. I spent the last couple innings of each game standing in right field secretly hoping that nothing would be hit my way. It was brutal, but I stuck it out.
The next year I came back for more, and I actually got a few hits. I wasn’t a great right fielder, but I picked up a few fundamentals and started getting better. A couple years later, I moved to first base where my long reach and 20-grade arm were a better fit, and was one of the best hitters on the team. I’d become a decent ball player. And, more importantly, I loved playing baseball.
And when a kid loves playing baseball, he starts looking for baseball heroes. This was the late ‘80s, and the ‘88 Oakland A’s were about as cool as it got. The Bash Brothers were sensational. It’s easy to forget, but Jose Canseco was legitimately amazing back then. That was his 40/40 season, and he just oozed ‘80s swagger (still kinda does). Mark McGwire was just getting started in his career, but he was incredible too. They had Dennis Eckersley, who was the first shutdown closer, and I remember thinking he looked so intimidating on the mound. They lost the World Series that year, thanks to some Kirk Gibson heroics, but I remember watching it and being invested in every game. I still consider the A’s my second AL team because of those guys.
The A’s may have been the standard bearers for coolness back then, but I remember thinking the ’88 Royals were pretty cool, too. Bo Jackson was around at that time, and he was a megastar. Mark Gubicza was an ‘80s hair god, and I loved Bret Saberhagen. Kevin Seitzer could rake, and Danny Tartabull hit the ball a ton. Tom Gordon got a cup of coffee that year, and it was the first full season of Jeff Montgomery. Frank White, Willie Wilson and Dan Quisenberry were still around from the previous core, and even though George Brett wasn’t the player he had been a decade prior, he still slashed .306/.389/.509 that year.
That’s a pretty cool team.
But the thing about being a kid is that you really don’t know anything. You end up loving a player for very superficial reasons — because he hit a home run at a game you went to or because he plays the same position that you do or because he has a cool haircut. You know that a player is good because your parents say so or because his baseball card is worth a bit more than the others or because you can buy a poster of him at Spencer’s. At ten years old, you really don’t know who’s good, but you have opinions nonetheless.
Bo Jackson, for example, was irresistible to me as a kid because he did superhuman things, and he was such a phenomenon that Nike invented an entirely new kind of shoe for him (I saved my allowance to buy a pair of those cross trainers). Grownup me, on the other hand, knows that he was an incredible athlete and a really fun player to watch, but an average baseball player because of the strikeouts and adventurous outfield routes. Charlie Leibrandt, on the other hand, was a pitcher who looked like a dad and was named “Charlie Leibrandt.” I remember my own dad saying he was a good pitcher; I was not inspired. But I look back on him now and realize that he had a great career and was a lot more valuable to his team than Bo Jackson was (Leibrandt was worth 5.4 bWAR in ’88 to Bo’s 1.7). That’s just not fathomable as a kid.
I may have whiffed on Bo and Charlie Leibrandt, but my kid instincts on that ’88 team were pretty good overall. Mark Gubicza was a whole lot more than a cool haircut, he was the most valuable player on that ‘88 team and one of the best pitchers in baseball, worth a whopping 7.7 bWAR. I’ll be honest, I knew he had a nice career, but I had no clue how great his ’88 season was. He finished third in AL Cy Young voting that year and arguably should have won it. And right behind him were Saberhagen and Liebrandt, making that rotation something really special.
The trio of Brett, Seitzer and Tartabull were fantastic at the plate, too. Brett and Seitzer both struck out less than 10% of the time, which blows my grownup mind, and all three had walk rates over 11%. But the dropoff after those three was fairly steep. Defensively, Frank White and Kurt Stillwell were solid up the middle, but the rest of the team was dismal. As a result, they were good but not great, winning 84 games and finishing third in the AL West.
But I still think they were a pretty cool team, and they were the first Royals team I remember really connecting with. I was just a bit too young to truly appreciate the ’85 World Series win, but by ’88 I was ready for baseball and, fortunately, there were some players to get excited about in Kansas City at that time. I probably owe my Royals fandom to that team.
I look at today’s Royals, and even though they haven’t been very good lately, I feel like there are some players on the squad that kids can get excited about whenever baseball returns. Jorge Soler is an obvious example. Whit Merrifield is a great hitter who plays lots of positions, which is something a kid could really dig. Adalberto Mondesi makes amazing defensive plays and steals a lot of bases — that’s fun stuff. And Salvy is... Salvy. He’s basically a kid in a giant catcher’s body.
Those are all great players for a kid to grow up loving. And that makes me feel good.
When did you get into baseball? Who were the players that you loved as a kid?