The year 1984 was a strange year for the Royals. They won the Western Division by three games with a record of 84-78. 84 wins. You need that many wins today just to sneak into the Wild Card Round.
All of the power and might was in the Eastern Division that year. Five Eastern teams finished with a better record than the Royals. The Detroit Tigers won the East with a record of 104-58, but that doesn’t quite tell the story. If you were alive in 1984, you knew. Those Tigers were a juggernaut. They won their first nine games and sprinted to a 35-5 record by Memorial Day and basically looked unbeatable. They ended up winning the East by 15 games over Toronto, then swept the Royals in the ALCS before dispatching the Padres in five games in the World Series.
The ALCS was tighter than it looked. Detroit won the first game in a blowout. They took the second game by scoring two runs in the top of the eleventh off Dan Quisenberry. They won the third game by a score of 1-0 even though Charlie Leibrandt pitched a fantastic game, only allowing three hits. The problem was the Royals only collected three hits as well, but couldn’t convert. Who knows what might have happened had the Royals found some way, any way, to get past the Tigers?
The situation in Kansas City was this: their stars were starting to age, but the pitching staff was starting to rejuvenate with an infusion of young arms. General Manager John Schuerholz brought in a lot of established veterans in a desperate attempt to score runs. Some of the vets brought in during 1984 were Steve Balboni, Jorge Orta, Dane Iorg, Lynn Jones, Bucky Dent, Orlando Sanchez, Luis Pujols, Tucker Ashford, Leibrandt and Joe Beckwith. Mike Jones also made his return from injuries received in a car accident. There were also a few rookies who made their debut, including two who would become Royal icons.
Leeper was the Royals’ first-round selection (#23 overall) in the 1981 draft. In taking Leeper, the team passed on Frank Viola, who they had selected back in the 1978 draft. Viola, of course, went on to a fabulous career with division rival Minnesota. Leeper had been a star at USC, so the Royals started him out at AA Jacksonville. He hit a little bit, but without much power. The Royals brought him up for a few games in September of 1984 to see how he handled major league pitching. He only got into four games with six at-bats, and failed to collect a hit. He spent most of 1985 in Omaha, hitting .279 before getting another cup of coffee with the Royals. He went 0-14 in his first seven games before getting off the schneid with a ninth inning single off Toronto’s Tom Henke. He collected two more hits before the season ended. The Royals released him after the season ended and he hooked on with Pittsburgh and later Minnesota, but never made it back to the majors. His career totals ended up being three hits, all singles, and four RBIs. One of those unusual career oddities that you find in baseball.
I don’t recall Scranton playing, but had I seen him, I’d have called him Scranton the scrapper. Scranton was selected by the Athletics in the 15th round of the 1978 draft but didn’t sign. Instead, he attended Palomar Junior College and the University of Arizona. When he went undrafted, he signed with the Royals as a free agent. He didn’t hit much in the minors, a cumulative .229 over seven seasons, yet somehow managed to make it onto the turf at Royals Stadium. The Royals brought him up in September of 1984 and he got into two games with two at-bats. In another of those baseball oddities, those at-bats came against Oakland pitcher Dave Leiper. Also playing for the Royals was Dave Leeper. And yes, he also got to bat against Dave Leiper. Leeper vs. Leiper. Sounds like a divorce case.
Scranton made it back to Kansas City in August of 1985, appeared in six games, going hitless in four at-bats. He did score a run after reaching base on an error in the last game he played. He spent all of 1986 in Omaha, but after hitting only .224, his professional career was over at the age of 26.
In the 19th round of the 1982 draft, the Royals selected a skinny shortstop from Reseda, California. Bret Saberhagen also had some pitching experience, including throwing a no-hitter in the Los Angeles City Championship game, which was held at Dodger Stadium. The Royals wisely converted Saberhagen to a pitcher and the rest is, as they say, history. He literally sprinted through the minors, jumping from AA Jacksonville to Kansas City as a 20-year-old in 1984.
By 1985, he was the ace of the Royals staff, posting a 20 and 6 record and winning the first of his two Cy Youngs along with the MVP of the 1985 World Series. If that weren’t enough, his first child was born during Game 7. Saberhagen came out the next night and pitched the Royals to victory. He pitched for 8 of his 16 years in Kansas City, going 110-78 with a 3.21 ERA.
In December of 1991, the Royals traded him to the New York Mets in a deal that brought Gregg Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds, and Keith Miller to Kansas City. The trade was highly unpopular, but by 1991 Saberhagen’s arm had a lot of miles on it. He never threw more than 180 innings in a season for the remainder of his career and over those last eight years, compiled a record of 57 and 39 with the likes of the Mets, Rockies, and Red Sox. In retrospect, Royals fans got to see the best of Bret Saberhagen, including the last no-hitter in club history, which he threw in 1991 against the White Sox.
He’s often remembered for his amazing control; he only walked 471 batters in 2,562 innings, while striking out 1,715. In 1994, playing for the Mets, he won 14 games and only gave up 13 walks in 177 innings. He remains one of the team’s all-time best draft choices and was selected to the Royals Hall of Fame in 2005.
Gubicza was the Royals' second-round pick in the 1981 draft (after Dave Leeper) out of William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. Much like his teammate Saberhagen, he made the jump from AA to the Royals in 1984. He started 29 games for Kansas City in 1984 as a 21-year-old and really hit his stride in the 1985 season, when he helped pitch the team to their first World Series crown.
In his early years with the Royals, Gubicza was often the victim of poor run support. In his later years, he battled arm and leg injuries, including two shoulder surgeries and a broken tibia, courtesy of a Paul Molitor line drive. Despite that, he remains a Kansas City icon, having played 13 of his 14 seasons with the Royals. He appeared in two All-Star games and finished third in the 1988 Cy Young voting. In October of 1996, the Royals traded Gubicza to the California Angels for Chili Davis. He pitched for one season in Anaheim before injuries ended his career at the age of 34. Gubicza pitched with a distinctive drop-and-drive style, like Tom Seaver. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2006.
Saberhagen and Gubicza make this one of the better rookie classes in Royals history. A team can win a lot of games if they hit on a couple of players like this in every draft. Add in Danny Jackson, who made his debut the year before and the Royals had a solid young threesome in their rotation. This is the scenario that most Royals fans were hoping for with the vaunted 2018 draft class – three or four stud pitchers to carry the team. It could still happen but is looking less likely with every passing season.