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Remembering the career of Jim Wohlford

California dreaming

Over the years, the Royals have been blessed with an abundance of outstanding centerfielders. The first was Amos Otis, who was arguably the best in the game at the position in the 1970s and early 1980s. Eventually, Father time caught up with Amos and he was supplanted by Willie Wilson, who was also a fantastic player. Willie had center to himself until 1990, with the occasional break while Bo Jackson plied his superhero powers there. Next came Brian McRae, who had some excellent seasons. Tom Goodwin and Johnny Damon split the position until Carlos Beltran came along. Young Beltran was a fantastic centerfielder. After Beltran was squeezed out of town, the franchise went into a bit of a funk, with guys like David DeJesus, Joey Gathright, and Mitch Maier keeping the seat warm. That ended when Lorenzo Cain grabbed the position in 2012 and gave the Royals their next star centerfielder. Lorenzo, hugely popular with the fans, left in free agency after helping the Royals win the World Series. The position is once again up for grabs.

Left field (and more famously right) has had a more checkered history. The Royals had a perfectly good left fielder in the beginning with Lou Piniella. Sweet Lou won the American League Rookie of the Year in 1969 and through the end of the 1973 season had slashed .286/.327/.404. But Lou, who was always a bit of a red ass, clashed with manager Jack McKeon which led to him being traded to the New York Yankees in December of 1973 (along with pitcher Ken Wright) for aging reliever Lindy McDaniel. The trade ended up being quite possibly the worst deal of the Cedric Tallis era. Lou played for 11 more seasons in New York, slashing a combined .295/.338/.413 for the Yanks. McDaniel, who was a fantastic pitcher for a number of years and helped invent the role of closer, appeared in 78 games and threw 184 innings over two seasons for the Royals before retiring at the age of 39.

It turns out that Piniella’s issues with McKeon were not all on Lou. Other players clashed with McKeon, most famously star pitcher Steve Busby, who threatened to quit the team rather than play another game for Trader Jack. The other thing that hastened Piniella’s departure out of town was the development of Jim Wohlford. Wohlford had good speed, which the Royals coveted even in 1974, and had put up excellent numbers at every stop in the minor league system. In five minor league seasons, Wohlford had slashed .296/.369/.413. Piniella had battled some injuries in 1971 and McKeon had been looking to move him to make room for Wohlford, who McKeon thought would be the next Royals star.

Wohlford was a California native, born and raised in Visalia, California. Visalia, in the San Joaquin Valley, is a city of about 140,000 and one of the gateways to Sequoia National Park. Wohlford certainly had the California look, with a boyish grin and a mop of reddish-blond hair. He looked like he’d be just as comfortable on a skateboard or surfboard as he would holding a bat.

The California Angels originally drafted Wohlford in the 11th round of the 1969 draft. The two sides were not able to come to an agreement, so Wohlford went to The College of the Sequoias, also located in Visalia. Wohlford was first team All-Conference and a Junior College All-American performer at third base for the Giants, a community college with just over 11,000 students. The Giants have produced a surprising roster of major league talent including former Kansas City Athletic Jack Aker and former Met and Red Sox pitcher Bob Ojeda. Also listed on the college’s notable alumni is Steve Perry, former lead singer of Journey. You haven’t lived until you’ve closed down a bar singing Don’t Stop Believin’. Living on a Prayer will also work in a pinch.

The Royals drafted Wohlford in the third round of the 1970 amateur draft, secondary phase. They also picked up Tom Poquette in the 4th round of the regular draft and those two would combine to play 782 games for the Royals between 1972 and 1979. Wohlford made minor league stops in Billings and San Jose, where he was teammates with Doug Bird, Steve Busby, Al Cowens, and John Wathan.

Wohlford hit at every level in the minors and was named the American Association Rookie of the Year in 1972 at Omaha and also appeared in the American Association All-Star game.

Wohlford made it to the show in 1972, arriving for a late-season cup of coffee. He collected his first hit on September 4 with a leadoff single off Don Stanhouse. Wohlford started that game at second base, while the man he was being groomed to replace, Piniella, started in left. The 1972 Royals also had Richie Scheinblum in right field and Amos Otis in center. They had a very solid outfield. Scheinblum hit .300 that season which earned him a trade to Cincinnati in the Hal McRae deal. The next night, Wohlford rapped a double and two singles for his first multi-hit game. He had his first career four-hit game on April 9, 1974, against Oakland and Catfish Hunter. Later in April of 1974, he collected three hits and swiped three bases against Boston.

By 1974, Wohlford was pretty much the Royals everyday left fielder, though he did find time in center and right. Later in his career he also played a few games at third base. That season also happened to be his best season at the plate for the Royals. He ended with a slash of .271/.327/.343 while posting career highs in just about every offensive category. Wohlford was reputed to have good speed, though the numbers suggest not. His career high in stolen bases was 22 in 1976, which is a solid number, but he got caught 16 times. For his career, he stole 89 bases while being thrown out 68 times. Ouch. Never a power hitter, he stroked his first major league home run on May 18, 1973, with a solo shot off Ken Holtzman in Oakland. Wohlford primarily played third and second base in college and the minors, but the Royals already had two top prospects in their system at those positions. You may have heard of them, couple of guys named Brett and White. That prompted the Royals to switch the versatile Wohlford to the outfield and gave them the idea that he could replace Piniella. Wohlford worked hard on the transition and in 1975 his nine outfield assists tied Amos Otis for the club lead.

Wohlford also played a part in one of the Royals’ most iconic moments. He hit a pinch-hit single off the Yankees Grant Jackson in the eighth inning of game five of the 1976 ALCS, with the Royals trailing by three runs and time running out. The next batter of course was George Brett, who deposited a Jackson fastball into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium, tying the game and quieting the Bronx Zoo for an inning.

In December of 1976, the Royals sent Wohlford, Jamie Quirk, and pitcher Bob McClure to Milwaukee for pitcher Jim Colborn and Darrell Porter. The trade ended up being huge for Kansas City as Colborn gave the Royals 239 innings while winning 18 games. Porter solidified the catching position with four outstanding seasons. The duo helped the Royals win a still-standing club record 102 games in 1977.

Wohlford played in 238 games over three seasons in Milwaukee, hitting .260. He left in free agency and signed with the San Francisco Giants where he played in exactly 238 games over three seasons and hit .252. He was steady if nothing else. In the 1983 off-season, the Giants traded Wohlford to the Montreal Expos where he enjoyed a bit of a career rebirth. He appeared in 318 games over the next four seasons and hit a career-high .300 in 1984, which included five home runs, another career high.

1986 would be his last year in the majors and fittingly, he hit the final home run of his career on August 23rd at Dodger Stadium, a first-inning shot off Rick Honeycutt. His last hit came on October 1, a fourth inning single off Sid Fernandez of the soon-to-be World Series champion New York Mets.

The Expos released him in the off-season, and he signed with the Cincinnati Reds. Wohlford spent 33 games playing for their AAA Nashville affiliate, but after only hitting .210 he decided to call it a career at the age of 36. During his playing days, Wohlford was credited with the saying, “ninety percent of this game is half-mental”. Sounds like something Yogi Berra would have said.

When his playing days ended, Wohlford returned to Visalia and went to work as an investment advisor. He had prepped for that career by selling life insurance during his off-seasons with the Royals, back in the day when players most often had to work a second job.