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A look back at Kansas City’s first year players in 1981

A small, but productive class

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

The Royals made their first World Series in 1980, and with a dugout full of established stars and players, it was difficult for any rookie to break in. But there’s always some turnover in baseball. Guys get traded. Guys get waived. Age catches up to everyone, eventually. 1981 was no different. Here are a few of that season’s first-year players.

Darryl Motley

When most Royal fans think of Motley, they think of his heroics in the 1985 World Series. Even I didn’t realize that he broke in as a 21-year-old in 1981. The Royals called him up from Omaha in early August and he appeared in 42 games, getting 135 plate appearances.

The Royals had selected Motley in the second round of the 1978 draft out of Grant High School in Portland. Motley hit well at every stop in his brief minor-league career. He was in Kansas City for good by 1984, which also happened to be his best season as he slashed: .284/.319/.441 with 15 home runs and 70 RBI. During the 1985 World Series, Motley’s second inning, two-run home run in Game Seven broke the Cardinals spirit. The home run was legendary. As a warm-up, he hit a pitch from John Tudor a mile high and deep, literally over the left field foul pole and despite his best Carlton Fisk impersonation, the ball drifted foul.

No problem. Motley changed bats and slammed the very next pitch deep into the left field stands to stake the Royals to a 2-0 lead. He rewarded the raucous crowd with a curtain call. After helping lead the Royals to the 1985 crown, the Royals traded him to Atlanta in September of 1986 for pitcher Steve Shields. Shields appeared in a grand total of three games for the Royals. Motley didn’t fare much better. He appeared in eleven games for the Braves during the 1986 and 1987 seasons, before bouncing around the minor league systems of the Angels, Expos, Reds and Rangers. He played in Japan and Mexico for several seasons and played in two different independent leagues before finally calling it quits after the 2002 season at the age of 42.

Pat Sheridan

Sheridan was another young outfielder who made his debut late in the 1981 season. The Royals had selected him in the third round of the 1979 draft out of Eastern Michigan University and like Motley, he breezed through the Royals' minor league system. Sheridan hit very well at every minor league stop and by mid-May of 1983, was the everyday right fielder. He had his best year in 1984, hitting .283 with 8 home runs and a career-high 53 RBI, including a team-leading 13 game-winning RBI.

He didn’t hit much in the 1985 playoffs, but when he did, it was big. His ninth inning home run in Game Two of the ALCS of Toronto’s Tom Henke sent the game into extra innings. To put that into perspective, at the time the hard-throwing Henke was one of the best closers in baseball. Sheridan struck again in game five, blasting a solo shot off Dave Stieb to push the Royals to a 2-0 lead. At the time, Stieb was one of the best pitchers in baseball. Sheridan only had three hits in the series, but those two were huge.

The Royals must not have valued loyalty in those days as they released Sheridan before the start of the 1986 season. He hooked on with his hometown Detroit Tigers, where he spent the next three seasons platooning in right field. The Tigers traded him to the Giants in June of 1989, and he even made it back to the World Series for San Fran in 1989, which was the earthquake series. He bounced around at the end, coming back to Kansas City, briefly, then had short stints with the Cubs and Yankees before the end came at the age of 33.

Atlee Hammaker

The Royals selected Hammaker with the 21st pick of the first round of the 1979 draft. Hammaker blew through the minor leagues and made his debut on August 13, 1981. He showed great promise in the ten-game stint, including a sparkling outing versus the Angels where he allowed just one run on seven innings of work.

The Royals were loaded with young pitchers at the time and sent Hammaker to the Giants as part of a six-player trade that brought Vida Blue to Kansas City. The trade was and still is a bit of a head-scratcher. Blue was 32 at the time and his once legendary arm had a lot of hard miles on it. Hammaker was just 23 and full of potential, but what do I know? I’m not a General Manager. John Schuerholz was the general manager.

Hammaker promptly went 12-8 for San Fran in 1982 and followed that up by making his only All-Star team in 1983, a season where he led the National League in ERA, ERA+, FIP and WHIP. Yes indeed. With Blue getting snared in a cocaine scandal, this trade was looking bad. Really bad. Hammaker battled arm trouble in 1984 and was never able to recover the magic he had in 1983. He was however a consistent innings eater and ended his 12-year career with an ERA of 3.66. Hammaker was immensely popular in San Francisco and is part of their Wall of Fame. He’s also the father-in-law of former Cleveland Indian Yan Gomes.

Of this group, Hammaker was the big miss. The Royals got good value from Motley and Sheridan during their time in Kansas City, but they totally whiffed on the Hammaker trade which casts more doubt on the tenure of John Schuerholz (more on that later). The other interesting tidbit I’m seeing in these capsules is how fast most of these players made it through the minor league system. Of the players I’ve profiled, most only spent 2-3 years, total, in the minors. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems today that guys are spending 4 to 5 years in the minors, and many are not making their debuts until they are 26 or 27. Why is that? Are the Royals whiffing on the draft in terms of talent? Is their player development process lagging? In an unrelated note, congratulations to Inside the Crown’s David Lesky and his wife on the birth of their first child.