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A look back at Royals first year players in 1983

A huge hit, and a huge miss

Sports Contributor Archive 2019 Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

By 1983, the Pine Tar season, the Royals were getting very old. Hal McRae was 37. Amos Otis was 36. Frank White and John Wathan were 32 and 33 respectively. The pitching staff was downright ancient. Late season acquisition Gaylord Perry was 44. Larry Gura, Vida Blue, Steve Renko, Paul Splittorff, and Dennis Leonard were all on the wrong side of 32. The team needed an infusion of fresh blood in the worst way and in 1983, the first critical infusions started to arrive.

Butch Davis

Davis was a 12th-round pick by the Royals in 1980 out of East Carolina University. He hit well in the minors at every stop, highlighted by .317 he hit between AA Jacksonville and AAA Omaha in 1983, which earned him a late-season callup. He did a bit of everything, hit for average, had some doubles and home run power, drew a few walks, stole some bases. He made his debut on August 23rd, 1983, in a game against the White Sox and collected his first hit and RBI that night, with a 6th inning double off Dick Tidrow.

For the first nine games, he hit like a wild man, collecting 11 hits in his first 31 at-bats (.355). He hit a mini-slump, 4 for his next 29, before turning it on again with a 27 for 62 stretch to finish the season (.436) which brought his slash up to .344/.359/.508 over 33 games. He capped off the season by going 3 for 5 against Oakland which included a leadoff home run. It looked like the Royals had a new star in their outfield. Of course, we now know the dangers of small sample sizes and Davis’ career was a prime example.

In 1984, he could only muster a .147 average in 41 games. He spent all of 1985 in Omaha before the Royals released him. He was out of baseball in 1986 before resurfacing with Pittsburgh. He made it back to the show with the Pirates in late 1987 for seven games.

Davis never quit and you must admire a guy like that. He played until the age of 36, getting some time with Baltimore, the Dodgers and the Rangers for short spells. Most of those years he spent in AAA, playing in outposts like Vancouver, Rochester, Charlotte, Albuquerque, Syracuse, Las Vegas and Oklahoma City. He saw a lot of the United States in those years. He did pick up a career-high 62 games with the Rangers in 1993 and hit a respectable .245.

After retiring as a player, Davis spent several years as a minor league hitting coach and for two seasons was the first base coach for the Minnesota Twins. In his career, he played in 1,440 minor league games. This made me think of him as a real-life Crash Davis. Coincidently, he had a cameo appearance as a baseball player in the movie Bull Durham. Life imitates art.

Cliff Pastornicky

I think Cliff Pastornicky is a perfect example of why major league baseball is one of the hardest sports to break into. Pastornicky was an All-Conference shortstop at BYU in his college career, and for several years held the career home run mark for the Cougars, which was later broken by Sports Illustrated cover boy Cory Snyder. The Cougars have had some decent players come through Provo: Snyder, Wally Joyner, Dane Iorg and Vance Law come to mind.

The Royals took Pastornicky in the 8th round of the 1980 draft. He was outstanding at Class A Charleston in 1982 so the Royals bumped him to AAA Omaha for the 1983 season. The Royals brought him up in mid-June to cover a stretch when George Brett was injured. He appeared in ten games picking up 32 at-bats. He only collected four hits (.125) which included two home runs. He made the most of his four hits, driving in five runs with them.

The first home run, on June 19th at Royals Stadium, was a seventh-inning three-run shot off Matt Young, which provided the winning margin in a 4 to 2 victory. Pastornicky struck again on June 21 against the A’s. His second-inning, two-run dinger staked the Royals to an early lead in a game they won 4-2.

The next night, he got his last major league hit, a seventh-inning single off Tim Conroy. He appeared in three more games before Brett returned. He split 1984 between Memphis and Omaha before the Royals released him. He hooked on with the White Sox and spent 1986 at AA Glens Falls. Next came a stint in the Indians organization, split between AA and AAA. He retired after the 1986 season at the age of 27. Pastornicky’s son, Tyler, also made it to the majors, playing 124 games over parts of three seasons with Atlanta.

Danny Jackson

Jackson was a three-sport star at Aurora (CO.) Central High School who was pegged to go to the University of Oklahoma when the Royals took him with the first pick of the 1982 January Secondary Phase draft. Jackson, who possessed a devastating slider, blew through the Royals minor league system, splitting 1982 between Charleston and Jacksonville. He spent most of 1983 in Omaha before the Royals called him up in late September. He made four appearances, including three starts. He threw 19 innings and got roughed up a bit, to the tune of a 5.21 ERA.

Jackson made the club out of spring training in 1984 and appeared in ten games before being sent to Omaha for more work. He returned in September for a five-game stint which included a tough luck 2 to 1 loss to Seattle in which he allowed only four hits, one which was a walk-off jack to the Mariners' Alvin Davis. He was back in Kansas City for good in 1985 and made 32 starts in helping lead the Royals to the World Series championship.

In fact, if not for Jackson, the Royals wouldn’t have made the Series, let alone win it. His Game Five complete-game shutout of Toronto in the ALCS changed the course of that series. He did it again in Game Five of the World Series. With the Royals once again down 3 games to 1, his complete game five-hitter kept the Royals alive. Not only that, but in the 7th inning of that game, Jackson accomplished the rarest of feats, pitching the only Immaculate Inning in World Series history. Three men, nine pitches, three strikeouts. Those two games remain as two of the most clutch and crucial victories in Royals post-season history.

Following the 1987 season, the Royals, in dire need of a shortstop, traded Jackson to Cincinnati for Kurt Stillwell and Abilene, Kansas native Ted Power. Stillwell and Power were good players for the Royals but when Jackson went 23 and 8 with a 2.73 ERA in his first Reds season, there was a lot of grumbling in Kansas City about the trade. Jackson finished second in that years Cy Young voting to Orel Hershiser and his 59 scoreless innings. Former Royal teammate David Cone finished third in the National League Cy Young vote, which added more angst to Royals fans. Mark Gubicza took third in the AL vote, which in a perverse way gave the Royals three of the top six pitchers in baseball, had they held onto all of them. Jackson ended up pitching for seven teams over 15 seasons, but aside from that one magical season in Cincy, the Royals got the best years from him.

Frank Wills

One of the interesting things about some of these players is revisiting names that you hadn’t thought about in years. Frank Wills was one of those. Wills was an outstanding high school athlete, starring in three sports at De La Salle High in New Orleans. He stayed close to home, attending Tulane University, where he was an All-American on the baseball team and the punter for the football team. The Royals selected him with the 16th pick of the first round of the 1980 June draft.

Wills breezed through the Royals minor league system, though the team did have him throw 449 innings in the two and a half seasons between 1981 and 1983, which we now know is a big load for a young arm. He made his debut in Kansas City on July 31st, 1983, and appeared in six games that summer, including four late-season starts. His career never really took hold in Kansas City and in January of 1985 the team sent him to the Mets as part of a four-team trade that brought Jim Sundberg to the Royals. This was the trade where the Royals parted with 1982 rookie Don Slaught.

Wills never pitched a game for the Mets, as they traded him to the Mariners during spring training. After one season in Seattle, he had two in Cleveland followed by four in Toronto. Despite a career 5.06 ERA, he managed to squeeze out a nine-year career. In retirement, Wills was named to the De La Salle Hall of Fame, the Tulane Hall of Fame and the New Orleans Baseball Hall of Fame. On May 11th, 2012, he was found dead in his bed after not reporting for work. He was only 53.

Cecil Fielder

Fielder didn’t make his major league debut until 1985, and that was with Toronto, but I had to include him on this list as the Royals traded him to Toronto in February of 1983 in what remains one of the teams’ worst trades, period. The Royal had selected Fielder out UNLV in the 4th round of the June 1982 secondary draft. He played in just 69 games at Rookie League Butte and played well, slashing .322/.417/.645 with 20 home runs and 68 RBI. He was only 18 years old that summer.

For some reason, John Schuerholz thought he needed 32-year-old outfielder Leon Roberts, whose last decent season was three years prior. Note to any General Managers reading this: Never trade a promising 18-year-old prospect for any player over the age of 32. Never. There was talk that the Royals thought Fielder was too heavy to have any major league success. Whatever. Many teams passed on Albert Pujols because they thought he was older than he claimed to be. When players like Fielder or Pujols hit like they do, believe your eyes. Don’t quibble about age or weight. Don’t outsmart yourself.

The cliff notes on Fielder, post-Kansas City are this: Made his debut with Toronto in 1985. Wanted to play every day, so he signed to play in Japan for a million dollars. He hit a lot of home runs in Japan, so the Detroit Tigers wisely signed him. He became a Tiger legend. Played for five teams over 13 seasons, hitting 319 career home runs. Was an absolute beast for Detroit between 1990 and 1996. Finished 2nd in the MVP vote, twice. The Royals, and John Schuerholz, gave him away for 8 home runs and 27 RBI of Leon Roberts. If you saw Fielder play during his prime years, you understand. He had one of the sweetest power swings you will ever see. This trade alone should have kept John Schuerholz out of the Royals Hall of Fame. That’s all I have to say about this.

Mark Huismann

A native of Littleton, Colorado, Huismann pitched for the Colorado State Rams before being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 23rd round of the 1979 draft. He elected to return to CSU and after going undrafted, signed with the Royals as a free agent. He toiled in the Royals minor league system from 1980 to 1983, primarily as a reliever. He made his debut in August of 1983 and appeared in 13 games down the stretch. He was back in KC for 38 games in 1984 but found himself blocked from the closer role by Dan Quisenberry. In May of 1986, the Royals traded him to Seattle, where he spent two seasons. He continued to hang on, playing for Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore and Pittsburgh appearing in 152 career games over nine seasons. Not bad for an undrafted free agent signee.

As a recap, Jackson was an excellent draft choice. No argument there. Losing Fielder for basically nothing, tanks this year’s class. No disrespect to the other guys. They had some moments and some memories, which is all you can ask for. Next: the 1984 class.