The 1997 Royals were a zombie franchise. The franchise that was once a crown jewel and a champion a decade before were now set adrift, without an owner or any sense of direction. The team was ostensibly in a youth movement, but seemed focused on adding veterans to prop up a Potemkin village for a potential new owner. The result would be one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
The 1997 Royals
General Manager: Herk Robinson
Manager: Bob Boone (36-46), Tony Muser (31-48)
Record: 67-94, 5th place, 19 games back
Say hello to: Jay Bell, Ricky Bones, Hector Carrasco, Scott Cooper, Chili Davis, Jermaine Dye, Jeff King, Gregg Olson, Dean Palmer, Scott Service, Jaime Walker
Say goodbye to: Tom Goodwin, Mark Gubicza, Bob Hamelin, Doug Linton, Keith Lockhart, Mike Magnante, Jon Nunnally, Joe Randa, Michael Tucker, Julio Valera
All-Stars: Jose Rosado
Team payroll: $31,225,000 (21st out of 28 clubs)
Highest paid player: Jay Bell, $5,000,000
Rookies: Jim Pittsley, Glendon Rusch, Jamie Walker
Top Prospect: A young 19-year old outfielder named Dee Brown was absolutely destroying the Northwest League with a line of .326/.404/.564 with 13 home runs and 17 steals in 73 games. That helped make up for the disappointing season in Wilmington for outfield prospect Carlos Beltrán.
1997 Draft: Dan Reichert (7th overall), Jeremy Affeldt, Kris Wilson
Best player: Jay Bell
Worst player: Jermaine Dye
Best pitcher: Kevin Appier
Worst pitcher; Ricky Bones
What went right: Acquisitions of veterans like Jeff King, Jay Bell, and Chili Davis would all end up helping the lineup immensely. Kevin Appier was still one of the better pitchers in baseball.
What went wrong: What few young players they had would underperform. Early bullpen issues and a very thin lineup past a few sluggers would ultimately doom the club and give them their worst season in a quarter-century. No moves were made to help the team for the long-run.
The Royals were coming off a 75-86 season in 1996 in which they had finished dead last in the league in runs scored. They were counting on some young hitters to begin helping the lineup, like Johnny Damon, Michael Tucker, Joe Vitiello, Joe Randa, and Mike Sweeney.
Hanging over the club, however, was the uncertain ownership status of the club. Muriel Kauffman died in 1995, and since then the club had been run by a board of directors headed by Wal Mart CEO David Glass. They had cut costs to make the team more attractive for a sale, but under a new labor deal struck before the season, the Royals would be getting an extra $5 million as MLB would institute its first revenue-sharing system.
This allowed General Manager Herk Robinson some flexibility to go after players in an attempt to improve the club, and he was eager to trade pitching depth for some bats. Two days after the World Series he traded long-time veteran Mark Gubicza to the Angels for designated hitter Chili Davis. Davis had long been a target of the Royals (they had considered a deal for him when he was with the Giants in the late 80s with Gubicza as a return), and Robinson had actually agreed to a deal during the 1996 season before Gubicza broke his leg, nixing the trade.
Robinson poked around for any other slugger that might be available, with the Royals connected to rumors about Jason Giambi, Ryan Klesko, Derek Bell, Paul O’Neill, Fred McGriff, David Justice, Matt Williams, Glenallen Hill, and Cecil Fielder. He even asked free agent Don Mattingly if he might be interested in ditching pinstripes for Royals blue, but balked at the high price tag (over $1 million), and Mattingly instead retired.
Robinson also wanted to upgrade at shortstop, with light-hitting David Howard seen as more of a reserve player. The Orioles outbid them for free agent Mike Bordick, and trade talks for Marlins shortstop Kurt Abbott and Braves shortstop Rafael Belliard were fruitless.
The Pittsburgh Pirates presented an opportunity to fill both needs when they began shopping first baseman Jeff King and shortstop Jay Bell to cut costs. The Pirates were interested in top prospects like catchers Sal Fasano and Mike Sweeney, outfielder Rod Myers, and pitchers Jim Pittsley and Glendon Rusch. In the end, the Royals would not have to part with any of their top prospects, instead trading third baseman Joe Randa, and three pitchers - Jeff Martin, Jeff Wallace, and former first-round pick Jeff Granger. It seemed like a coup.
“I like Joe Randa, but come on. Not to pat myself on the back, but this trade is unbelievable.”
The trade infuriated Indians General Manager John Hart, who insisted they offered a better package of prospects and called the deal a “joke.”
But the move was a bit curious for a team like the Royals. Both players were impending free agents after the season, but Robinson insisted adding the veterans wouldn’t affect the youth movement. The club was counting on Johnny Damon to blossom into a star, even after an underwhelming rookie season in 1996. They were also counting on Michael Tucker, a former first-round pick, ranked the #32 prospect in baseball by Baseball America before the 1995 season. Tucker had one of the sweetest swings in the game, but had hit just .260/.346/.442 with 12 home runs in his first full season in 1996.
It was still a huge surprise when, at the end of spring training, the Royals shipped Tucker and infielder Keith Lockhart to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Jermaine Dye and pitcher Jaime Walker. Dye showed some power with 12 home runs in 98 games as the Braves starting right fielder for their pennant-winning club, but he struck out 67 times to just 8 walks.
“There’s only one possible explanation for the Royals’ trade Thursday, a deal that sent Michael Tucker to the Atlanta Braves.
The Royals have lost their minds.”
Flanny wasn’t alone.
“This was just one of those moves that hurts a team, even if Dye turns out to be good, which is no guarantee by the way. Dye had a reasonably good half-season for the Braves, but they were not sold on him. It’s hard to be sold on a guy who walks less than Marlon Brando.
This guy chases bad pitches like Tommy Lee Jones going after the Fugitive.”
At least one columnist like the trade.
“The Royals are a legitimate contender now. Kansas Citians can thank Herk Robinson.”
Dye joined a speedy outfield with Damon, Bip Roberts, and Tom Goodwin. King would anchor the infield with Jose Offerman resurrecting his career with the Royals at second base. On the left side it would be Bell at short with Craig Paquette at third. Mike MacFarlane and Mike Sweeney would share catching duties with Chili Davis at DH.
Kevin Appier and Tim Belcher would top the rotation. Lefty Chris Haney was coming off his best season. Lefty Jose Rosado had impressed in his rookie campaign, and former first-round pick Jim Pittsley would fill out the rotation. Longtime closer Jeff Montgomery would try to hold down an otherwise shaky bullpen filled with Hipolito Pichardo, Jaime Walker (who had been selected as a Rule 5 pick before being traded) serving as a lefty specialist, and a lot of veteran cast-offs. Club President Mike Herman predicted 92 wins. Robinson asserted, “If we’re not competitive this year, there’ll be some sincere disappointment on our part.”
The club was the walking wounded the first month with Davis, MacFarlane, Offerman, Dye, and Montgomery all missing time due to injuries. But by mid-May they were a few games above .500, and could have been even better were it not for their biggest weakness - the bullpen.
“I’m disappointed that our bullpen is just crushing us. We could easily be running away with this.”
-Manager Bob Boone
Montgomery was still nursing a rotator cuff injury from the previous season, so Pichardo had to take over closing duties. The Royals seemingly auditioned any veteran they could find to help the bullpen -Gregg Olson, Mike Perez, Todd Van Poppel, Brad Pennington, Mitch Williams, Mike Williams, anyone named Williams. The club would blow 15 games they led going into the seventh inning that season. Royals relievers allowed 37 percent of inherited runners to score, most in the league.
Near the end of June they were still around .500, just a few games back of what seemed like a mediocre division. Then they lost. And lost again. A trip to Wrigley Field in the first year of interleague play resulted in a Cubs sweep. And Indians sweep made it an eight-game losing streak headed into the All-Star break.
That would be the end for manager Bob Boone. Boone had his fair share of critics and was accused of tinkering with some players too much, drew fire for constantly changing lineups, and clashed with some notable scouts who departed the organization.
Boone was Stanford-educated and was long considered one of the smartest people in the game as a player. As a manager, he seemed to let everyone know it.
That was the thing that made this town hate him. Boone is arrogant. Sure he knows baseball. The guy has played baseball since the dead-ball era. He’s in some of Babe Ruth’s black-and-white home movies. Boone understands the game thoroughly, and he has the instincts and knowledge to be a good manager.
But managing is not just about instincts and knowledge and suicide squeeze plays. It’s about making people in the city feel a part of things, especially in a family town like Kansas City, especially for a team without an owner. Boone never showed much interest in all that. He was too busy explaining why he was a great manager.
To replace him, the Royals hired Cubs hitting coach Tony Muser, who had nearly been hired before the 1995 season, until the club went with Boone instead.
“I believe in what I can bring to this team, I know what they’re feeling, the agony and the pain and the frustration. We’ll get through this.”
The losing continued. The White Sox swept them to extend the streak to 12. After a 14-inning walk-off to give Muser his first victory, the club lost their next four. Robinson tried to right the ship by sending outfielder Jon Nunnally and infielder Chris Stynes to the Reds for veteran relievers Hector Carrasco and Scott Service.
But the team was out of it. They were more than 15 games under .500, more than 10 games out of first place. Despite this, Robinson said he didn’t want to trade his veteran players, in fact, he was looking to add pieces. He tried to add pop by acquiring power-hitting third baseman Dean Palmer from the Texas Rangers in exchange for speedster Tom Goodwin. Palmer was going to be a free agent that winter. Why would a last-place team trade for him?
Sure, this is just the time to make that championship push. Herk Robinson would have been the last guy on the Titanic, the one dumping buckets of water overboard and screaming, “Monaco, here we come. ‘’
The Yankees were interested in Davis, but balked at trading pitcher Ramiro Mendoza or any top pitching prospects like Eric Milton or Tony Armas, Jr. The Marlins were interested in King, but a proposed deal for Jeff Conine never happened. Everyone was interested in Appier, who had a limited no-trade clause he was willing to waive. In the end, the Royals did not move any veterans for prospects, save a minor deal to send Bip Roberts to Cleveland in late August for minor league pitcher Roland de la Maza.
The Royals would stumble to a 67-94 season. The off-season trades actually worked out great - Bell, King, and Davis were the top three hitters on the club. But no other hitter had as many as 10 home runs. No other hitter posted a 100 OPS+ or higher, other than Palmer. Damon continued to be underwhelming. Dye was hurt, making his trade look like a bust. Only two American League teams scored fewer runs.
The promising pitching staff was simply mediocre, with Haney regressing, and young pitchers like Glendon Rusch and Jim Pittsley showing they weren’t quite ready yet. The bullpen did find some footing at the end, and Rosado was a bright spot, but it was clear the franchise wasn’t churning out young talent as they once did.
Worst of all, they seemed old. Of the 13 hitters to get at least 200 plate appearances, just four of them were under the age of 28. Youth movement? What youth movement?
The 94 losses were, at the time, the second-most in club history. It was the first time the franchise had ever suffered three consecutive losing seasons. The Royals had become the laughingstock of the league, only no one had told them. It was a deep hole they were only beginning to dig for themselves, one that would take nearly two decades to dig out of.