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A look back at first year Royals players from 1989

What, no wildcard?

Kansas City Royals Kevin Appier... SetNumber: X57689 TK3 F19 R12

The 1989 Royals were another example of so close yet so far. They finished the campaign with a record of 92 and 70, which was the third-best mark in all of baseball. The only obstacles were the Oakland A’s, a powerhouse at the time, bested the Royals by a full seven games. Those A’s then went on to win the World Series over the Giants in what was remembered as both the Bay Series and the Earthquake Series.

Had a Wild Card playoff system been in effect, say something like the four teams with the highest win percentage in both leagues make the playoffs, the Royals would have secured Wild Card spots in 1971, 1973, 1975, 1982 and 1989. How different would we think of them had that been the case? Granted, from 1990 to 2014, they still would have dreadful, but think about the dynasty they would have claimed from 1971 to 1989. That would have meant 12 playoff appearances in 19 seasons. Who knows, maybe even another World Series championship or two. Sometimes I wonder if the money players make today affects their desire for excellence.

What I mean is back in the earlier days of baseball, say from 1940 through the mid-1980s, a playoff and World Series check might have made the difference between a player selling appliances at Sears in the off-season compared to being able to take the winter off and spend it with his family. Today, the average player makes enough money that they can live in comfort whether they make the playoffs or not. For some players does that dim their competitive fire? I don’t know, I’m just asking the question.

One player who did not need extra motivation was Bo Jackson. Bo hit 32 home runs and drove home 105 in 1989 and announced his presence in the All-Star game by mashing a leadoff home run. Then he went out and averaged 5.5 yards a carry for the Raiders in what he called his part-time hobby of football. Was there anything this guy couldn’t do? Bret Saberhagen led the staff with an excellent 23 and 6 record which earned him his second Cy Young award.

Anyway, this essay is about the 1989 first-year players of the Royals, not about what drives a modern player to excel. First, a mea culpa. Somehow, I missed a first-year player from both 1987 and 1988. One was an all-timer and the other had some good years. Here are the makeup vignettes.

1987 - Danny Tartabull

Tartabull, son of former Kansas City Athletic Jose Tartabull, was originally drafted by Cincinnati in 1980. The Mariners selected him from the Reds as a free agent comp pick in 1983. He made his major league debut in 1984 as a 21-year-old and hit his stride in 1986 when he blasted 25 home runs and drove in 96 for Seattle. Whereas his father had been primarily a singles hitter, Jose had two home runs in his nine-year career, Danny was a beast. His career high came in 1987 with the Royals, when he pounded 34 long flies. Tartabull had come to the Royals in a December 1986 trade that sent Scott Bankhead, Mike Kingery and Steve Shields to the Mariners.

It was a good trade for the Royals. In his five Kansas City seasons, Tartabull slashed: .290/.376/.518 with 124 home runs and 425 RBI. He gave the Royals a legitimate power threat in the middle of their lineup. When his contract expired, Tartabull signed with the Yankees for a little over $5 million a year, which was a reasonably big contract at the time. Tartabull eventually grew tired of New York and the Yankees accommodated him by sending him to Oakland in July of 1995. He played 24 games with the A’s before leaving as a free agent. He spent 1996 with the White Sox and just three games with Philadelphia in 1997 before calling it a career at the age of 34. His personal life got a bit messy in retirement. Tartabull was named the top deadbeat dad in Los Angeles after allegedly balking on more than $275,000 of child support. His son Quentin broke into Danny’s car and when Danny called the police to report the break-in, he was arrested. Stuff like that makes the holiday’s interesting.

1988- Jeff Montgomery

Yeah, this one was a serious oversight. How could I miss Jeff Montgomery? The Royals career leader in saves and the current color analyst of their television broadcasts, was originally drafted by the Reds in the 9th round of the 1983 draft. The Reds considered him a marginal prospect and eagerly dealt him to the Royals in February of 1988 for outfielder Van Snider in a trade that was certainly one of the ten best in club history. Montgomery appeared in 45 games for KC in 1988, posting a 7-2 record as a middle reliever. He became the Royals closer in 1990 and during his 12-year Kansas City career, set still-standing club records of 304 saves and 686 appearances. He saved a league-leading 45 games in 1993. He made three All-Star teams and picked up some MVP votes in 1993. In 1990, he became just the ninth American League pitcher to throw an immaculate inning, in an April 29th game against Texas. He retired following the 1999 season and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2003, his first year of eligibility.

The 1989 Rookies

Kevin Appier

Another giant in Royals history, Appier was drafted by the club in the first round of the 1987 draft. He blew through the Royals' minor league system, needing just 64 games to get the call to Kansas City. He made his debut June 4th in a start at Anaheim as a 21-year-old. His best season with the Royals came in 1993 when he went 18-8 with a league-leading 2.56 ERA. He also led the league in ERA+ and FIP that season which earned him a third place showing in the Cy Young vote. Black Jack McDowell won the Cy that year, with Randy Johnson taking second, but the truth is, Appier was the best pitcher in the American League and maybe in baseball that summer.

That was the story of Appier’s career, often pitching in the obscurity of Royals teams that were often out of contention, he was never fully appreciated on a national scale for his excellence. During his 13-year Royals career, he finished with a record of 115 and 92 and an ERA of 3.49. He somehow only made one All-Star team, that coming in 1995. His name still dots the Royals career record book, and he remains the club’s all-time leader in strikeouts.

Disillusioned with the direction of the team, he requested a trade in 1999. The Royals dealt him to Oakland for three young pitchers, Jeff D’Amico, Blake Stein and Brad Rigby. Appier bounced around a bit in the latter part of his career: Oakland to the New York Mets, to Anaheim, then back to the Royals before calling it a career after the 2004 season at the age of 36. He made the playoffs with Oakland in 2000 and again with Anaheim in 2002, which resulted in his only World Series championship. His pitching motion was unmistakable: the windup followed by a brief pause while he loaded his weight on his back leg, then the explosive thrust towards the plate. In his prime, it was a frightening thing. Appier threw an above-average fastball, and at time possessed an excellent slider and forkball that left hitters looking foolish. He was selected to the Royals Hall of Fame in 2011.

Rick Luecken

Luecken was a big right-handed pitcher, 6’6 -210 pounds who was originally drafted in the first round of the 1979 draft by the Giants. I’m not sure why he didn’t sign, but he should have. Instead, he went to Texas A&M and in 1982, the Reds took him in the 12th round. He didn’t sign and finally in 1983, the Mariners selected him in the 27th round and he did sign. How much money that costs him, I can’t tell you, but I’m sure it was something. In December of 1986, the Mariners sent him to the Royals in the Tartabull-Bankhead trade. He spent 1987 at AA Memphis then split 1988 between Memphis and Omaha. He started 1989 in Omaha but received a callup on June 6th, where he made his debut against his former team. He made 19 appearances in 1989 pitching 23 innings of middle relief. In December of 1989, the Royals sent Luecken and Charlie Liebrandt to Atlanta for Jim LeMasters and Gerald Perry. Luecken got into 36 games with the Braves before being DFA’d. Toronto claimed him and he appeared in one game as a Jay. He spent 1991 with the AAA Iowa Cubs and that was that.

Jeff Schulz

Schulz was taken by the Royals in the 23rd round of the 1983 draft out of the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. He fought and clawed his way through the Royals minor league system, which is what you have to do as a 23rd-round pick. From Butte to Charleston to Ft. Myers to Memphis and finally Omaha, Schulz paid his dues. He was actually a good hitter in the minors, ending with a career .296 average over 1,038 minor league games. He got his long-awaited call up and made his debut on September 2nd. His first at-bat came as a pinch hitter against none other than Nolan Ryan. Schulz rose to the occasion, stroking a single off the Express. Schulz got into 30 games in the 1990 season as an injury replacement for Danny Tartabull. He hit a respectable .258 in 66 at-bats, with his best game coming on September 11th when he went 3 for 4 against Toronto. He collected his last major league hit on September 25th with a single off 22-game winner Dave Stewart. The Royals let him walk after the 1990 season and he hooked on with the Pirates. He appeared in three games for Pittsburgh but went hitless. He spent all of 1992 in AAA, first at Nashville then later at Iowa before his career ended at the age of 31.

Matt Winters

I’ll be honest. I have absolutely no memory of Matt Winters, but the guy did have a colorful career. He was originally drafted in the first round of the 1978 draft by the Yankees, one pick before the Royals took Buddy Biancalana. That was a decent first round with the first four picks being Bob Hoerner, Lloyd Moseby, Hubie Brooks and Mike Morgan. Kirk Gibson went at #12 with Tom Brunansky and Nick Esasky following. People forget what a good hitter Esasky was before being felled by vertigo. This was the Rex Hudler draft, with the Wonder Dog going to the Yankees at #18. Winters labored in the Yankee minor league system until they released him after the 1985 season. He hooked on with the White Sox, who a year later traded him back to the Yankees as part of a six-player deal.

The Yanks let him go a second time and he signed with the Royals prior to the 1987 season. He split time in 1987 and 1988 between Memphis and Omaha and flashed some decent power. The Royals called him up on May 30th and he stroked a pinch-hit double off the Twins pitcher Roy Smith in his first major league at-bat. He collected his first major league home run on July 7th with a blast off the White Sox Richard Dotson. He collected his last hit on September 14th with a pinch-hit double off the Rangers’ Mike Jeffcoat. The Royals released him after the 1989 season, and he signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters. He stroked over 30 home runs in his first four seasons and became a bit of a cult hero with his outgoing personality. During rain delays he would perform magic tricks and entertain the crowd with impromptu dances. He retired after the 1992 season and later worked as a scout for the Fighters.

First-year players

Bob Boone

Boone, originally drafted by the Phillies in the 6th round of the 1969 draft, was one of those signings by the Royals that I questioned at the time. The Royals signed him as a free agent after the 1988 season when his contract with California expired. Despite all of his career accolades, four-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner, what sense did it make to sign a 41-year-old catcher? Despite having Mike Macfarlane and Rey Palacios on the roster, Boone proved many, including me, wrong as he slashed .274/.351/.323 over 131 games while winning his seventh and final Gold Glove. His age caught up with him in 1990, as he was limited to 40 games by a broken finger and Macfarlane finally laid claim to the position. But what a career. He made his debut with the Phillies way back in 1972 and helped them win their first World Series title in 1980 by lacerating the Royals to the tune of .412/.500/.529. In retirement, Boone came back to manage the Royals from 1995 to 1997. He also managed the Reds from 2001 to 2003. The Boones are a baseball family. Bob’s father Ray was a very solid infielder from 1948 to 1960 and two of Bob’s sons. Aaron and Bret also had very good major league careers.

Bob Buchanan

Buchanan, a left-handed pitcher, is another of those players that I have absolutely no recollection of. He was drafted by the Reds in the second round of the 1979 draft. He made his major league debut with the Reds in 1985 with a 14-game late-season cup of coffee. The Royals picked him up prior to the 1988 season, which he spent in Omaha. To his credit, he hung with it and made it back to the bigs in 1989, making two July appearances for the Royals in Yankee Stadium. He split the 1990 season between the Toronto and Houston organizations, before coming back to Omaha for 1991 and finally the last year with the Reds AAA affiliate in Nashville. He never made it back to the majors, hanging it up at the age of 31.

Stan Clarke

Clarke, a left-handed pitcher, was the Blue Jays 6th round pick in the 1981 draft out of the University of Toledo. By 1983, he was in Toronto for a ten-game audition. He made it back to the majors for a stretch between 1985 and 1987. The Royals signed him as a free agent prior to the 1989 season, of which he spent most in Omaha. He made two appearances in 1989, one in relief and one start. The Royals elected not to re-sign him after the season end, and he hooked on with the Cardinals. He made his last big-league appearances with a two-game stint with St. Louis in 1990. He retired after spending the 1991 season at AAA Louisville.

Steve Crawford

Crawford was a big righthanded pitcher (6’5 225 lbs.) out of Pryor, Oklahoma. He signed with the Red Sox as a free agent in May of 1978 and by 1980 was in Boston. Crawford, nicknamed Shag for his long hair and world-class mustache, did a bit of everything for Boston: spot starts, middle relief and even the occasional close. He won two games in the Sox 1986 postseason run, including Game Five of the ALCS against the Angels, which was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen in my lifetime and Game Two of the World Series.

As the 1989 season rolled around, Shag was out of baseball and looking for a job. He called several teams, including the Royals, asking for a tryout. The Royals liked what they saw signed him just prior to the start of the 1989 season. He started the year in Omaha but was called up on July 5th and had arguably his best career year: 3 and 1 with a 2.83 ERA in 25 appearances. He played for the Royals from 1989 to the end of the 1991 season, going 11 and 7 with a 4.23 ERA in 104 appearances. He retired from baseball after the 1991 season at the age of 33. In retirement, Crawford spent some time doing pregame and postgame analysis for the Royals on WDAF radio. From 1995 to 2001 he worked as a minor league pitching coach in the Royals organization.

Terry Leach

Leach, a right-handed pitcher, originally made his debut with the New York Mets after a stint in the Atlanta minor league system. He made his debut in 1981 and in his 7 seasons with the Mets, he had some moments. One occurred on October 1, 1982, when in his only start of the season, Leach threw a ten-inning, one-hit shutout against the Phillies. He enjoyed his best season in 1987, when he went 11 and 1 with a 3.22 ERA over a career-high 131 innings.

The Royals picked him up in a June 1989 trade and he appeared in 30 games for the Royals, notching 73 innings of work. After being released by KC, he signed with the Twins and played a part in their 1991 World Series championship. After his Minnesota days ended, he bounced around between the Expos, White Sox and Tigers. He retired after the 1993 season at the age of 39.

Larry McWilliams

McWilliams, who was born in Wichita, Kansas, was the last of the veteran relievers brought in by the 1989 Royals. McWilliams was taken by the Braves with the 6th overall pick in the January phase of the 1974 draft. That was a strange first round with the Royals eventually having ties to five of the top 24 picks (McWilliams, Tucker Ashford, Ken Phelps, Mark Souza and Mike Armstrong). McWilliams made his debut with the Braves in July of 1978 and in just his 4th start was the winning pitcher in the game that stopped Pete Rose’s 44-game hitting streak. The Braves traded McWilliams to the Pirates in June of 1982, and he had his best year in baseball with the Pirates in 1983. He made 35 starts and went 15 and 8 with a 3.25 ERA over a career-high 238 innings of work. He came to the Royals in early September of 1989, part of a late-season push to win the division. He appeared in 21 games for the Royals between the 1989 and 1990 seasons, but at age 36 and with 1,500 innings on his arm, the end was near. The Royals released him on May 14th, 1990, and McWilliams promptly retired.

We’ll finish this series with a look at the first-year players from 1990, the last year of the Schuerholz regime. Then I’ll do a deep dive and analysis into the Schuerholz years to see if the results match the perception.