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Remembering the life of Dick Drago

The Royals first ace

When the Royals participated in the expansion draft, they leaned heavily on pitchers taken from two successful organizations, the Baltimore Orioles and the Detroit Tigers. Both of those teams had assembled powerhouse squads in the late 1960’s that the baby Royals hoped to emulate. With the 31st pick in the draft, Cedric Tallis selected one Richard “Dick” Drago off the roster of the Tigers.

Drago had narrowly missed making the roster of the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 campaign, which saw the Tigers defeat the St. Louis Cardinals for the World Series championship.

Drago grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where he was a Connie Mack All-Star. He caught the attention of scouts, and the Detroit Tigers signed him to a free-agent contract in 1964. It was a dream come true for Drago, who rooted for the Tigers as a youth. In 1966, while pitching for the Tigers affiliate in Rocky Mount, N.C., Drago threw a seven-inning no-hitter against Greensboro. In the nightcap of the doubleheader, his roommate, Darrell Clark, threw another no-hitter. Based on my research, I believe this is the only time in baseball history where no-hitters were thrown in both games of a double header.

By 1968, Drago was pitching for his hometown team, the Toledo Mud Hens, where he won 15 games for the third consecutive season. The ’68 Tigers were loaded with pitching including 31 game winner Denny McLain and star lefty Mickey Lolich. Also, on that Detroit staff were future Royals Jim Rooker and Jon Warden.

Detroit left Drago exposed in the 1968 expansion draft and the Royals were delighted to get him.

Said Drago, “I was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico when I found out I was going to Kansas City. I was shocked and disappointed. All I ever wanted to do was pitch for the Tigers. I was heartbroken. At the time I didn’t even know where Kansas City was. I fell in love with Kansas City. It was a beautiful place, and it was a bunch of guys starting a whole new team. It really didn’t feel like you were on a big-league team, other than you were traveling and playing big league teams.”

Drago started the 1969 season in the Royals bullpen, but soon moved into the starting rotation and became a workhorse. He threw the first complete game in Kansas City history in his first start, a five hit, 3-2 win against the Angels on May 2nd, 1969. Drago threw nine complete games in that inaugural season. Drago threw 53 complete games in his five-year Royal career, which still ranks as fifth best all-time.

Drago, known for his great control, quickly became a mainstay in the Royals rotation. At one stretch in his career, from 1969 to 1973, he only threw 12 wild pitches in 921 innings. Drago said his philosophy was “to give seven strong innings every time out. I’m not trying to walk anybody. When I got a 3-1 count, I didn’t try to finesse anyone. I won’t just lay the ball in there, but I might give up more of the plate and try to throw a little bit harder. I give up some singles that way, but not many long balls. Singles are no worse than walks. When they’re hitting the ball, your defense at least has a chance to get the hitters out.”

Drago became the Royals first pitching ace with his best year coming in 1971 when he went 17-11 in 241 innings pitched with a 2.98 ERA and 15 complete games. That was good enough to earn him a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. The competition in 1971 was tough. Vida Blue won the Cy Young with his seminal 24-8 season, followed by Mickey Lolich, Wilbur Wood and Dave McNally, all 20 game winners.

Drago pitched nearly as well in 1972 with a 3.01 ERA and 11 complete games over 239 innings, but his won-loss record dropped to 12-17. As many baseball statisticians have pointed out in recent years, the reliance on won-loss records can be misleading. In that 1972 campaign, Drago lost six consecutive starts in which his teammates only scored nine runs. In fact, his run support was terrible the entire season. In those 17 losses, the Royals could only muster 30 runs for Drago. Hard to win with that kind of support.

The 1972 season wasn’t an entire waste. On May 24th, Drago threw arguably the best game in Royals history, a game in which he lost, 1-0 to the Twins and Jim Kaat, who matched Drago pitch for pitch. Only 8,381 were in attendance at Municipal to see Drago throw 12 brilliant innings. Drago limited the powerful Twins to six hits while striking out 13 and only walking one. The Royals had a chance to win the game in the bottom of the 10th when Paul Schaal led off with a double. Manager Bob Lemon yosted himself by having the next batter, John Mayberry, sacrifice Schaal to third. Mayberry, who was just coming into his prime as a slugger, was successful with the bunt attempt, but the next two hitters, Ed Kirkpatrick and Drago, were unable to score Schaal. The Twins finally pushed across a run in the 12th when Danny Thompson led off the inning with a double and Rod Carew nicked Drago for a single to right field, scoring Thompson. The Royals had no answer in the 12th. The game scored a 98 which remains the highest scoring pitching game in Royals history. To illustrate how dominate Drago was that night, he had eight innings of three up, three down.

On September 1, 1972, Drago held Boston hitless for the first three innings before he took a line drive off the jaw from Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski. Drago suffered a hairline fracture of his jaw and lost a tooth. Yastrzemski eventually scored in what became a 1-0 Royals loss. Drago missed one start, then came back to throw a complete game win on September 10th against the Twins.

Drago grew one of the all-time great moustaches while with the Royals which earned him the nickname The Godfather. In 1973, Kansas City acquired another free spirit, Kurt Bevacqua. Drago and Bevacqua, in all their ‘stache glory, quickly became known as the Bolivian Bandits, a nod to the popular movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In 1973, Drago was one of many Royals to clash with manager Jack McKeon. Unfortunately, the Royals kept McKeon and traded Drago to the Boston Red Sox in October of 1973 straight up for another character, Marty Pattin. The trade was basically a wash in statistical terms but for many Royal fans, it felt like a loss as we said goodbye to one of the teams’ original stars.

Drago pitched nine more seasons, mostly in relief, going 47-47 with 8 WAR. Drago did find success in the Red Sox bullpen, where he became their key fireman for the 1975 pennant winners. He also pitched the ninth, tenth and eleventh innings of the 1975 classic World Series game six, only allowing one hit to the powerful Cincinnati Reds. The Sox of course, won that game on a Carlton Fisk home run, which everyone remembers. What people forget is the titanic, two-out, three-run home run Bernie Carbo hit in the bottom of the 8th inning, to tie the score at six. That set the stage for Drago, who then shut down the powerful Reds to set the stage for Fisk’s heroics.

Drago closed his Kansas City career with a record of 61-70 with a 3.52 ERA and 13.5 WAR. He still holds a place in the Royals Top Ten all-time in innings pitched, walks per nine innings, complete games, games started, shutouts thrown, career ERA, batters faced and FIP. He also holds the club record for most complete games without issuing a walk with five in his 1971 season. Drago also holds the distinction of giving up Hank Aaron’s 755th and final career home run in 1976. He said the toughest hitters he ever faced were Tony Oliva and George Brett. He had the most success against Milwaukee slugger Gorman Thomas, who went 0-22 against the Godfather.

Drago, always a fan favorite in Kansas City and Boston, where he was known as The Dragon, retired after his 1981 season with the Seattle Mariners. Drago had been a resident of the Tampa area for many years post-baseball. Sadly, he passed away on Thursday November 2nd due to complications from surgery. He was 78. All of us at Royals Review pass our condolences to the Drago family.