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A look back at first year Royals players from 1987

So close, yet so far.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It didn’t seem like it at the time, but 1987 will be looked back upon as one of those “what if” years for the Royals. Playing in a weak division, the veteran Royals won just enough games to stay in first place through June 8th before slumping. Between June 27th and July 5th, they got hot again, winning 9 out of 10 to pull into a tie for first place, but that was it. They finished the season two games back of the Minnesota Twins, with a record of 83-79. The Twins then caught fire, romping past the Tigers in the ALCS before besting the Cardinals in a classic seven-game World Series.

Many a Kansas City fan had to be wondering if that could have been us. 85 measly wins got the Twins into the playoffs and ultimately, a World Series championship. The season killer for the Royals was June and July, where they only went 22-34. The death of beloved manager Dick Howser on June 17th also cast a pall on the season. Billy Gardner started at the helm but was replaced by John Wathan after 126 games. The team employed 38 players in 1987, 13 veteran first-year players and only four rookies. Fifteen of those 38 players were pitchers, but with Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Charlie Liebrandt, Danny Jackson, Steve Farr, and Bud Black eating most of the innings, there wasn’t a lot of additional work to go around.

The Rookies

Gary Thurman

Thurman was the Royals’ first-round pick in the 1983 draft, two picks after the Red Sox nabbed Roger Clemens. Thurman hit well in the minors, played decent defense and he stole some bases, which earned him a late August call-up to the Royals. In 27 games and 90 plate appearances, he hit a surprising .296. Of course, we now know more about the danger of small sample sizes and Thurman was exhibit A. Over the next six seasons, he bounced between Kansas City and Omaha, but only slashed .245/.297/.299. The Royals waived him prior to the 1993 season, where he hooked up with Detroit. Over the next six seasons he spent time in the Tigers, White Sox, Mariners, Mets, Expos, and Angels systems, making it back to the majors in 1995 with Seattle and 1997 with the Mets. His career ended in 1998 after spending 29 games with Newark of the Atlantic Independent League.

Mike MacFarlane

MacFarlane was the Royals fourth-round pick in the 1985 draft out of the University of Santa Clara. The Royals started him out at AA Memphis, a level he repeated in 1986. The Jim Sundberg era ended after the 1986 season and the Royals found themselves without a catcher, which ultimately led to the disastrous David Cone trade. MacFarlane started 1987 in Omaha but by late July the team knew that the likes of Ed Hearn, Jamie Quirk, and Larry Owen were not the long-term answer, so ready or not, MacFarlane was given the job.

Despite battling a litany of injuries, MacFarlane was the Royals’ primary catcher for most of the next ten seasons, save for a one-year hiatus spent in Boston. His career numbers as a Royal were rarely spectacular, but solid: .256/.327/.439. with 103 home runs and 398 RBI. He was mostly an excellent backstop, attested by his career .992 fielding percentage (64th all-time among American League catchers), yet never won a Gold Glove, consistently being overshadowed by first Bob Boone, then later Ivan Rodriguez.

He did have a knack for getting hit by pitches, averaging 16 HBP’s between 1992 and 1995, while twice leading the league. His career 97 hit-by-pitches still ranks him #100 all-time. His tenure in Kansas City ended in April of 1988, when the team dealt him to Oakland for Shane Mack. MacFarlane played two seasons with the A’s before retiring at the age of 35. The Royals were mostly competitive during the MacFarlane years. The annus horribilis for the Royals didn’t really start until 1997. With almost 15 career WAR, MacFarlane remains one of the more overlooked Royals of the 1990s.

John Davis

John Davis, a 6’7, 215 right-handed pitcher, only appeared in 27 games for the Royals, all in the 1987 season, but for a journeyman pitcher, what a way to start a career. His first five appearances were made in order: Baltimore Memorial Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Royals Stadium, Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park.

Davis was the Royals’ seventh-round selection in the 1981 draft out of Centennial High School in Pueblo, Colorado. Over the next six seasons, he stair-stepped his way through each level of the Royals minor league system. The Royals tried turning him into a starter at the Class A and AA level, but by the time he made his debut, he was strictly working out of the bullpen.

After the 1987 season ended, the Royals packaged Davis with three other young pitchers, Chuck Mount, Greg Hibbard, and Melido Perez to the White Sox for Floyd Bannister and Dave Cochrane in one of those trades I didn’t understand then or now. Bannister had a couple of good years in his prime (1983, 1987) but by the time the Royals got him, he was already 33 and had over 2,000 innings on his arm. Banny appeared in 45 games for the Royals over parts of two seasons, going 16 and 14. The loss was the potential development of Hibbard and Perez. The Royals netted 1.90 WAR in that trade and gave up 16.4.

Davis appeared in 38 games for the Sox over the next two seasons, before spending time in the Brewers, Padres, and Braves systems. His final major league appearances came with the Padres in the 1990 season.

Melido Perez

Perez, the younger brother of late Atlanta hurler and provocateur Pascual, and older brother of lefty Carlos, was signed as an amateur free agent by Kansas City in the summer of 1983. I remember watching his debut against the White Sox on September 4th, where he went seven innings and only allowed one run on six hits and thinking that maybe the kid had something. We never got a chance to find out what he might have been with the Royals, thanks to the trade mentioned earlier. Over the next eight seasons, Perez had some moments, including a rain-shortened, seven-inning no-hitter against the Yankees in 1990. His best year was 1992 while playing for the Yankees. Despite only having a 13 and 16 record, he threw a career-high 247 innings in 33 starts and struck out 218 batters, second to only Randy Johnson. He finished the year with a sparkling 2.87 ERA. He last appeared in the majors in 1995 and retired after spending 1996 in the Yankees minor league system.

First-year Royals players

Juan Beniquez

Benequez was an interesting player in his era. Signed by the Red Sox as an amateur free agent in 1968, he was in the big leagues by 1971, making his debut as a 21-year-old. For some reason, I remember thinking he was better than the numbers show. After all, he did play for 17 seasons, spending time with eight different teams, all in the American League.

But the numbers don’t lie. Benequez ended up being worth just shy of 10 WAR for his career. His career slash was respectable: .274/.327/.379 with 1,274 career hits. 975 which were singles and he only drove in 476 runs over those 17 seasons. He was involved in three trades in his career, the first which sent him from Boston to Texas in exchange for Fergie Jenkins. The Rangers later flipped him to the Yankees for Sparky Lyle and three other players. The Rangers also gave up Dave Righetti in that deal, so that was a fleecing. The Yanks sent him to the Mariners in 1979 in a package that returned former Royal Ruppert Jones. The Royals picked him up in December of 1986, in a deal with the Orioles. Benequez was already 37 and only played in 57 games for Kansas City, with modest production: .236 with three home runs and 26 RBI. The Royals then did the smart thing and flipped him to Toronto for pitcher Luis Aquino, a trade that worked in the Royals' favor. Benequez played a few games for the Jays early in the 1988 season before getting his release and ending his career at the age of 38.

Larry Owen

Owen had been a star at Bowling Green University before being drafted and signed by the Atlanta Braves in 1977. He made his debut with the Braves in 1981 then spent the next six seasons bouncing between Atlanta and their AAA affiliate in Richmond. He signed with the Royals as a free agent prior to the 1987 season and over two seasons, appeared in 113 games. Owen’s slash with the Royals was only .196/.275/.298. His big hit as a Royal came on July 11, 1987, when he hit a two-run, eighth-inning home run to give the Royals a 2-1 win over Toronto. Owen finished his career in style, collecting a hit in his final major game, an eighth-inning double off the White Sox Jeff Bittiger. Sadly, Owen passed away June 6, 2018, at the age of 63.

Gene Garber

Garber was a repeat first-year player with the Royals. He had an earlier stint in Kansas City during 1973-74 before being sold to Philadelphia. The sidewinding Garber was quite a workhorse for KC in 1973, making 48 appearances and throwing nearly 153 innings. With Philly, he led the league in appearances with 71 in 1975. The Phillies traded him to the Braves in June of 1978 for Dick Ruthven and he really blossomed in Atlanta. In ten years as a Brave, he saved 141 games, which still ranks third on their all-time list. He also famously stopped Pete Rose’s 44 game hitting streak, which captivated the nation in 1978. Afterwards, Rose complained that Garber “was pitching like it was the 7th f***** game of the World Series”. Indeed. The Braves were leading 16-4 at the time and Garber got Pete on a filthy two-ball, two-strike changeup.

Garber had his second go-around with the Royals when they traded catcher Terry Bell (class of 1986) to the Braves in August of 1987. Garber appeared in 39 games over parts of 1987 and 1988 before retiring at the age of 40. Over his 19-year career, Garber appeared in 931 games, saving 218 while throwing over 1,500 innings.

Thad Bosley

Bosley was another one of those players like Benequez, that I remember being better than he was. He somehow fashioned a 14-year career around being a 2 WAR player. More power to him. Bosley made his debut with the Angels in 1977 as a 20-year-old. He was the epitome of a journeyman, spending time with both Chicago teams, the Brewers, Mariners, Rangers, Angels (twice) and for 95 games between the 1987 and 1988 seasons, the Royals. He didn’t do much in KC: .267/.309/.335 with only one home run and 18 RBI in 176 plate appearances. The Royals released him in late May of 1988. He somehow managed to keep getting contracts through the 1990 season, before the ride ended at the age of 33.

Ross Jones

Jones is a prime example of why drafting baseball players is one of the most difficult endeavors in professional sports. Jones was a star at the University of Miami, which was then a baseball powerhouse. This led to him being drafted with the ninth pick of the 1980 draft by the Dodgers. The 1980 draft was the Darryl Strawberry draft, but after Straw the talent level dropped precipitously. The Royals eventually ended up with three players who were taken in that first round: their own pick, Frank Wills. Dennis Rasmussen, who was chosen one pick after Wills by the Angels, and Ross Jones. They also eventually ended up with Scotti Madison (taken by the Twins) and Danny Tartabull (Reds) from the third round.

Before he donned the Royal blue, Jones was traded by the Dodgers to the Mets, along with Sid Fernandez, for Bob Bailor and Carlos Diaz. Bailor was a decent player, but he was already 32. Diaz, a left-handed pitcher, played for three more seasons. Fernandez though, wow, what a miss by Los Angeles. El Sid ended up being an anchor in the Mets rotation for ten of his fifteen major league seasons. He made two all-star teams, helped New York win the 1986 World Series and was worth almost 33 WAR. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: any GM who trades a promising minor league for any player over the age of 30, deserves all the scorn that comes his way when said trade eventually blows up.

Jones got into 17 games for the Mets in 1984. Seattle signed him in February of 1986 after his New York release. He got into 11 games with the Mariners, before being traded to the Royals for minor leaguer Ricky Rojas. Jones appeared in 39 games as a Royal, hitting a modest .254. The Royals saw no future and released him in the offseason. He spent 1988 in the Yankees and A’s farm systems before calling it quits at the age of 28.

Jim Eisenreich

Eisenreich was one of my favorite Royal players of the early 1990s. How could you not like the guy? Drafted in the 16th round of the 1980 draft out of St. Cloud (MN) State by Minnesota. He made his debut with the Twins in 1982 and hit .303 in 99 at-bats. That 1980 draft also produced Bob Hegman (Royals class of 1985), who Kansas City picked in the 15th round. To me, it’s amazing that a small school, in central Minnesota known primarily as a hockey school, could produce two major league baseball players in the same draft.

If you know the history of Jim Eisenreich, you know that baseball is a secondary piece. He missed the entire 1985 and 1986 seasons while undergoing treatment for Tourette’s Syndrome. The Royals won a waiver claim for him and he clawed his way back to the majors for 44 games in 1987. Eisenreich really hit his stride starting in 1989. For the next nine seasons he slashed .301/.353/.418 with an OPS+ of 110. Unfortunately, not all that success came with Kansas City. The Royals lost him as a free agent to the Phillies prior to the 1993 campaign. He enjoyed five terrific years in Philly, including 1996, when he hit .361 in 338 at-bats. He signed with the Marlins prior to the 1997 season and helped them win the World Series. He retired from baseball at the age of 39, after spending the 1998 season with the Dodgers. He resides in metro KC where his foundation helps children with Tourette’s achieve personal success.

Ed Hearn

Poor Ed Hearn. I can remember when I heard the Royals had traded David Cone to the Mets for Hearn. The Royals were desperate for a catcher, with Jim Sundberg having been traded to the Cubs and no qualified backstops in sight. I had seen Cone pitch and was impressed. When I heard the news of the trade, I cursed and said to my father, “Hearn better be the second coming of Darrell Porter”. He wasn’t, unfortunately. The Royals gave Hearn the starting job in 1987 but he sustained a serious shoulder injury in the season’s 9th game. He rehabbed and returned to the Royals late in the 1988 season, but that stint only lasted seven games. The Royals released him after the 1989 season. He spent one summer in the Cleveland minor league system before calling it a career at the age of 29. Desperation is a dangerous thing in baseball. Cedric Tallis used to feast on desperate teams. This time the Royals were the ones who got served up.

Scotti Madison

Every baseball player has a story and Scott Madison has one of the best. Madison was an All-American at Vanderbilt University and still holds the school career home run record with 49. He was also the Commodores quarterback for two seasons. Coming out of high school, he had been offered scholarships as a dual athlete at Alabama and LSU as well. He was drafted on three different occasions, the last time by the Twins in the 3rd round of the 1980 draft. In 1982, the Twins traded him to the Dodgers. In 1984, the Dodgers sold Madison to the Tigers. Through all this, he continued to rake at every level of the minors. He got a six-game cup of coffee with Detroit in 1985 and another two games in 1986, going hitless in 22 plate appearances. He signed with Kansas City as a free agent prior to the 1987 season and appeared in seven games at the tail end of the season. His best game as a Royal, and possibly in the majors came on October 2 when he went 3-for-4 with three doubles against Frank Viola and the Twins. Those were also his first three hits in the majors. Madison got into 16 more games in 1988, before leaving as a free agent. He signed with the Reds and playing for Pete Rose, appeared in a career-high 40 games. He retired after the 1989 season at the age of 29.

Bob Shirley

Okay, let’s see a show of hands: how many of you remember that Bob Shirley briefly played for the Royals? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? I certainly didn’t. Prior to his lightning-fast Kansas City career, Shirley had appeared in 431 games as a starter and swingman. He made his debut with San Diego in 1977 with his best season arguably coming in 1985 as a member of the Yankees. New York released him in June of 1987 after a clubhouse roughhousing incident that sent Don Mattingly to the disabled list. To emphasize the severity of that, imagine a middling end-of-career reliever injuring George Brett in the prime of his career. Yeah, that didn’t go over well. The Royals threw him a rope. Shirley appeared in just three games, giving up 12 runs in 7.1 innings of work. Ouch. That’s a 14.73 ERA in case you’re scoring at home. After the Royals sent him packing, he resigned with the Yanks, spending the remainder of the season with their AAA affiliate.

Rick Anderson

Anderson came to the Royals in the ill-fated Cone for Hearn trade and might have been the best part of that trade for KC. A right-handed pitcher, he appeared in six games and gave up 26 hits and 22 runs in just 13 innings of work. Despite that burning outhouse of a season, Anderson got back into seven more games for Kansas City in the 1988 season. Thankfully, that went better: 41 hits, 17 runs, 4.24 ERA in 34 innings of work. Damn, that was some kind of bad trade.

Bob Stoddard

Stoddard was a journeyman pitcher on the last season of a seven-year train that saw him in Seattle, Detroit, and San Diego prior to his stint in a Royals uniform. His best (?) year came with the Mariners in 1983 when he made 23 starts and threw 175 innings, compiling a 9-17 record. He appeared in 17 games for the Royals between June and September, mostly in middle relief. He spent 1988 and 1989 in the minor league systems of Oakland and Milwaukee. He was out of baseball for six years before making a three-game comeback with the Mets AAA affiliate in Norfolk in 1995 at the age of 38.

Dave Gumpert

Gumpert was another in a long line of pitchers who threw their last innings as members of the Royals. He originally made his debut with the Tigers in 1982, before spending some time with the Cubs. Chicago traded him (and Thad Bosley) to Kansas City in March of 1987 for Jim Sundberg. Gumpert got into eight games, allowing 16 runs in 19 innings of work.

Jerry Don Gleaton

It kind of goes without saying that Gleaton was from Texas. He was an All-American pitcher at the University of Texas before the Rangers selected him in the 1st round of the 1979 draft. Except for Jim Eisenreich, Gleaton was probably the most valuable of the Royals 1987 veteran signees. Over the course of the next three seasons, he appeared in 105 games, mostly in a middle relief role. The Royals traded Gleaton to the Tigers prior to the 1990 season opener. Naturally, he had the best year of his career in Motown, appearing in 57 games and posting a 2.94 ERA. He later spent time with Pittsburgh and one final season with the Marlins AAA affiliate before calling it a career at the age of 35.

Of the rookies, MacFarlane did all right for himself. It would have been nice to hold onto Perez and see how he developed. The team did draft Kevin Appier, Jeff Conine, and Bret Barberie in 1987 but were unable to sign Barberie. He would sign as an Expos draftee had a decent career as a utility infielder but was better known as Mr. Jillian for his then-sports babe wife. Appier became one of the team’s all-time greats. Of the veteran players acquired for the 1987 season, Eisenreich was a great value find and Gleaton was a solid role player for three seasons. I’m going to wrap up this series at the end of the Schuerholz regime, then take a deeper dive into his career as the Royals general manager.