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A look back at Royals first year players in 1982

It was a big class.

The 1982 Royals, coming off two consecutive playoff appearances, were starting to age. Six position players who saw action in at least 120 games, and all four starting pitchers, were over the age of 30. The Royals served a lot of coffee in 1982 and these were the players who got it. I’m always a bit fascinated by the stories of players who appear in a handful of games, never to be heard from again - the Moonlight Grahams of modern baseball. Every team has dozens if not hundreds of these players, but you still must tip your cap to them. Even if they just played one game, they’re part of an exclusive fraternity. Since the founding of organized baseball in 1876, only 19,811 men have played at the major league level. Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to explore the stories of these players. Here’s the 1982 crop of new players for the Royals.

Steve Hammond

Hammond, a 6’2 outfielder, had been drafted by the California Angels in 1974, but opted to play in college instead. In April of 1978, the Atlanta Braves signed him as a free agent. He toiled in their minor league system until the Braves sold him to Kansas City in April of 1982. He started the 1982 season in Richmond, followed by 36 games in Omaha where he hit a blistering .379. That caught the attention of Kansas City’s brain trust and Hammond made his debut on June 28th in a game against Oakland at Royals Stadium. Hammond picked up two hits in his first three at-bats. He hit well in his first 24 games, posting a .282 batting average. collected his first and only major league home run on July 20th, a fifth-inning shot off Dave Stieb in Toronto. He had the first and only three-hit game of his career on August 14th at Tiger Stadium. The early returns looked promising.

Major league pitchers, as they are wont to do, adjusted. Hammond slumped, hitting just .164 over the final 22 games. Hammond spent all of 1983 and 1984 in Omaha before getting his release from the Royals. He spent two seasons in the Cubs minor league system, which included a .330 season at Iowa in 1986. He played the final year of his career in Japan for the Nankai Hawks before retiring from baseball at the age of 30. His brother, Chris Hammond fashioned a respectable 14-year major league career with seven teams from 1990 to 2006. Ironically, Chris Hammond’s final appearance came against the Royals.

Don Slaught

Some players have names that fit their positions. Johnny Bench. Yogi Berra. Thurmon Munson. Their names sound like catcher’s names. Same with Don Slaught. With a name like that, he had to be a catcher. A native of Long Beach, Slaught, nicknamed ‘Sluggo”, was a star at UCLA. He hit .428 in 1979, a Bruin record that stood until 2001. He was originally drafted in 1979 by Milwaukee but didn’t sign. The Royals selected him the next year in the seventh round.

In his second minor league season, he hit .329 between AA Jacksonville and Omaha. That production put him on the fast track to Kansas City. The Royals gave him his first start on July 6, 1982, in a game against the Red Sox at Royals Stadium. Vida Blue was on the mound for the Royals and the Sox trotted out a lineup that included Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Tony Perez, Wade Boggs and Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski. The big stage didn’t seem to bother Slaught as he singled in his first at-bat. He hit his first career home run three nights later in Milwaukee and the early returns suggested that Kansas City had found their next catcher.

Slaught ended his rookie campaign by hitting .278 in 43 games. He followed that up by stroking .312 in 83 games in his sophomore season. Slaught hit a respectable .264 in his third season, but for some reason, John Schuerholz didn’t think that was good enough. In January of 1985, Schuerholz sent Slaught to Texas and pitcher Frank Wills to the Mets in a multi-team trade in exchange for 34-year-old catcher Jim Sundberg.

I’d always admired Sundberg as a player, he was one of the best catchers of his era, but when the Royals got him, he was 34. He did help the Royals win the 1985 Series, but his two-year slash was only .227/.305/.349. Slaught just continued to play solid ball, slashing .260/.314/.427 in three seasons as a Ranger. He eventually ended up in Pittsburgh, who wisely platooned him. In six seasons as a Pirate, Slaught slashed .305/.370/.421, while playing solid defense. In fact, he only made 87 errors in 6,722 career chances, a fielding percentage of .987. He finally retired after his 1997 season in San Diego at the age of 38 with a career WAR of almost 20. In retrospect, this was another botched trade by Schuerholz. I’m beginning to wonder about Schuerholz. Was he as good as advertised or did he make his bones on other people’s players?

Ron Johnson

Johnson, another product of Long Beach was a terrific high school athlete. He turned down a football scholarship from UCLA, back when playing for the Bruins was big medicine. Instead, he chose to play baseball at Fresno State. The Angels selected him in the 1976 draft, but he elected to return to Fresno, where he became a college All-American. The Royals took him in the 24th round of the 1978 draft.

He always hit well in the minors, including .336 in 1982 at Omaha, which earned him a cup of coffee at the tail end of the 1982 season. A right-handed hitting first baseman, who could also play some catcher, he got his first start on September 25th in Oakland and picked up his first hit, a fifth-inning double off Tom Hammond. Also playing in that game were Steve Hammond, Buddy Biancalana and Derek Bothelo, all featured in this essay. The Royals played a lot of rookies in 1982. Johnson never got much of a chance in KC, appearing in 17 games between 1982 and 1983, hitting .268. In December of 1983, the Royals shipped him to Montreal for a pitcher named Tom Dixon, who never played another game in the majors. Johnson got five at-bats in five games for the Expos, collecting one hit. And that was that.

He spent 1985 in AAA between the White Sox and the Tigers. Once his career ended, the Royals immediately hired him as a coach in their system. Over the next 25 summers, he coached and managed in the minor league systems of the Royals, Red Sox, and Orioles, earning much praise along the way. Johnson was described as a player’s manager, one who was at times pragmatic, creative, motivated, and with a vile sense of humor.

Terry Francona gave him his first big league job in 2010 as first base coach of the Red Sox. When that stint ended with Francona’s dismissal, Johnson returned to managing at the AAA level, where his 830 games of AAA playing experience came in handy. He was named International League Manager of the Year in 2015. During his time managing in the Royals organization, his teams posted winning records in six of the eight seasons. I wonder if he ever received an interview when the Royals had a job opening. His son Chris enjoyed an eight-year big league career and even finished second in the 2013 batting race with a .321 average while playing for Atlanta. Tragically, Ron Johnson passed away on January 26th, 2021, at the age of 64 from COVID.

Mark Ryal

The Royals served up a lot of coffee in 1982 and one of those cups went to an outfielder from Dewar, Oklahoma named Mark Ryal. Ryal was a third-round selection by the Royals in the 1978 draft. He never hit a ton in the minors, his best year coming in 1982 when he hit .285 with 20 home runs in Omaha. That earned him a late-season call-up to Kansas City. He got into six late-season games, garnered 14 plate appearances, and collected exactly one hit. That hit, a fourth-inning single off Mariners pitcher Mike Moore, was Ryal’s only hit as a Royal.

He spent the next two seasons in Omaha without much distinction before the Royals released him. The White Sox picked him up and in late 1985, he made it back to the show. He spent most of 1986 in the Angels system before earning another late-season call-up. This coffee had more taste, as Ryal hit .375 in 32 at-bats, including his first two big league home runs, the second of which came off the Royals Mark Gubicza. He also became one of only five left-handed players ever, to play shortstop in a September 4th game against the Yankees.

He later spent time with the Cardinals, Phillies and Pirates. In all, he played in 127 games over parts of six different seasons, never giving up on his dream. When the offers finally dried up, he went to Japan and played 124 games over two seasons for the Chunichi Dragons. His son, Rusty Ryal, played in 134 games over two seasons for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Buddy Biancalana

There were ten men named Buddy who have been major league baseball players. The Royals can claim two of them, Bell and Biancalana. Buddy Biancalana was the Royals’ first-round pick in the 1978 draft out of Redwood High School in Larkspur, California. Biancalana was a high school all-American, but pro ball proved tougher. He took the traditional route through the minors - Rookie ball followed by A ball followed by AA then finally AAA in 1982.

He played in three late-season games for the Royals in 1982 and picked up his first hit, a triple off the A’s Brian Kingman. Biancalana tried to stretch the hit into an inside-the-park home run but was thrown out at home. Wouldn’t that have been something? He spent most of 1983 and a good part of 1984 in Omaha, with 72 games in Kansas City sprinkled in. He came up for good in late 1985 and manager Dick Howser gave him the starting shortstop job down the stretch, displacing Onix Concepcion.

Biancalana didn’t hit much but he did play impeccable defense. He picked up four hits in the ALCS win over Toronto, then went 5 for 18 (.278) in the World Series win over St. Louis. Even before his Series heroics, Biancalana became a household name thanks to David Letterman, who ran a “Buddy Biancalana hit counter” next to Pete Rose’s hit total as Pete chased Ty Cobb’s record. Biancalana had the last laugh that fall, appearing on the Late Show as a world champ. And he gave as good as he got, telling People Magazine that “he was closer to Rose than Letterman was to Carson”! That’s a big-time burn.

In July of 1987, the Royals sent Biancalana to the Astros straight up for pitcher Mel Stottlemyre Jr., who pitched in 13 games for the Royals in 1990. Biancalana played in 18 games for Houston but was released after hitting only .042. The Royals resigned him whereupon he played 91 games in Omaha in 1988 before calling it a career at the age of 28.

Bud Black

Bud Black has had two baseball careers, 15 years as a player and 15 years (and counting) as a manager. We’re just going to talk about his playing days. Black had been drafted twice, once by the Giants and a second time by the Mets but didn’t sign. The Mariners drafted him in the 17th round of the 1979 draft out of San Diego State. His early minor league career was modest and gave no indication of future success. He appeared in two games for the Mariners in 1981, both relief appearances.

The Royals picked him up in March of 1982 as the Player to be named later in a seemingly non-descript trade for infielder Manny Castillo. The Royals didn’t know quite what to do with him, shuffling him between Kansas City and Omaha for a few seasons, then from the bullpen to a starting role. The payoff came in 1984 when Black had a career year, going 17-12 with a 3.12 ERA over a career-high of 257 innings and a league-leading 1.12 WHIP. I’ve started to wonder about John Schuerholz acumen as a general manager, but I give him his props on this trade. Just the 1984 year alone won that trade.

Black pitched in Kansas City from 1982 until Schuerholz sent him to Cleveland in June of 1988 for Pat Tabler. Schuerholz lost that trade. Tabler was worth a negative 2 WAR in Kansas City, while Black was worth 8 WAR over the remainder of his career. After Kansas City, Black bounced around a bit, going from Cleveland to Toronto, then to the Giants before coming back to Cleveland for the final season of his career at the age of 38. Once his playing days were over, he started coaching, then eventually found himself managing, first with San Diego and currently with Colorado.

Keith Creel

What is it about pitchers from Texas? The state has a history of producing tantalizing high school fireballers, from Nolan Ryan to David Clyde to Jon Peters to Todd Van Poppel to Josh Beckett to Clayton Kershaw. The Royals dipped their toes into the Texas waters with a pitcher named Colt Griffin in 2001. Prior to Griffin, the Royals took University of Texas star Keith Creel with their first pick of the 1980 June secondary draft.

Creel had been a star at Duncanville High School and was the sixth-winningest high school pitcher of all-time with 66 victories between 1974 and 1977. He once threw 15 innings against Irving High School, a game where he threw an estimated 250 pitches. Despite that abuse, he jumped through the Royals minor league system and made his major league debut on May 25th, 1982, with a 5 2/3 inning start against the Chicago White Sox. Creel picked up the win as Dan Quisenberry threw 3 13 innings of scoreless relief. Creel gave up one long ball, to future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. No shame in that.

He split 1983 between Kansas City and Omaha and all of the 1984 season in Omaha. The Royals traded him to Cleveland in October of 1985 for Dwight Taylor, who will show up in these essays in a couple of weeks. Creel spent the remainder of his career primarily in AAA with short stints in Cleveland and Texas before the end finally came after the 1987 season at the age of 27 with a career record of 5 and 14. I don’t know much about Creel, but I’m thinking he was another in a long line of pitchers whose arms were misused and abused during that era.

Derek Botelho

There must have been something in the water in Long Beach, California back in the mid-1950s. Botelho was born there in 1956, as were Don Slaught and Ron Johnson. Steve Hammond went to college there. Botelho was a right-handed pitcher who was drafted three times before finally signing with the Phillies after they took him in 1976. In February of 1979, the Phillies sent him to the Cubs in a multi-player deal. He only pitched four games for AAA Wichita before the Cubs released him. He was out of baseball for a year before the Royals signed him to a free agent contract.

Over the next two seasons, he worked his way from A ball all the way to Royals Stadium. He made his major league debut on July 18th, 1982, and threw seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball against the Red Sox to pick up his first major league win. He appeared in eight games for the Royals, throwing 24 innings and posting a 4.13 ERA. He spent all of 1983 in Omaha before being traded to the Cubs in March of 1984. He spent all of 1984 and most of 1985 at AAA Iowa, before getting another crack at the majors. He made it back with the Cubs in late 1985, appearing in 11 games including six starts. His best outing came on September 1st, when he threw a complete game six-hitter against the Braves for his only win of the season. After being released by the Cubs, he hooked on with the Reds, then back to the Royals and finally the Cardinals organizations, spending all of 1986, 1987 and 1099 with their respective AAA affiliates before retiring at the age of 31. In retirement, he has spent several seasons as a minor league pitching coach.

Looking over this list, trading Slaught was the big miss. He played well with the Royals and throughout the rest of his career. Could the Royals have won the 1985 title with Slaught instead of Sundberg? Nobody knows. Could the 2015 Royals have won the title by calling up Whit Merrifield instead of trading for Ben Zobrist? Again, nobody knows. I think the answer to both questions is maybe. Sundberg delivered some timely hits in the ALCS and the World Series. Would Slaught have done the same? The acquisition of Zobrist gave the Royals and their fans the feeling that they couldn’t be beat. Would the team have felt the same with an untested rookie with a similar skill set? Nobody knows. We do know that had Merrifield been called up, Sean Manea would have stayed in the organization and that might have extended their competitive window.

William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and many other wonderful films, once said “Nobody knows nothing”. I believe that quote covers a lot of ground, in sports, politics, the economy and life in general. Nobody knows nothing.