The Royals’ 1990 season was a little bit of everything. The Royals’ 1990 off-season was something else. The 1989 team had missed the playoffs despite having the third-best record in all of baseball. No participation trophies in those days.
In response to being that close, the team made a splash in the free agent market in an attempt to vault them back into the World Series. The fireworks started on December 7th when they signed pitcher Storm Davis away from their bitter division rival Oakland. Davis had been a 19-game winner in 1989 and in those pre-analytic days, 19 wins was big medicine. Of course now we can look back and apply advanced metrics to his 1989 season and see that it was basically smoke and mirrors, worth 0.2 WAR. The Royals paid $1.16 million for that smoke, which in 1990 was a decent sum of money.
Four days later the team dropped another bombshell when they signed reigning National League Cy Young winner Mark Davis away from San Diego with a three-year, $9.4 million deal. Davis had saved a league-leading 44 games for the Padres in 1989 while making the All-Star team and finishing sixth in the MVP vote. I was driving down Buckeye Avenue in Abilene, Kansas when I heard the news on my car radio and let out a yell so loud that several people on the sidewalk jumped. I drove home and told my dad that we needed to start thinking about getting some World Series tickets because the Royals were going.
The team was so confident in the Davis boys that on December 15th they traded reliable starter Charlie Liebrandt to Atlanta for first baseman Gerald Perry, who had been an All-Star in 1988. Alas, the excitement didn’t last. Both Davis’s turned into pumpkins: Mark went 2-7 with a 5.11 ERA and was so bad that the Royals literally tried to hide him in the bullpen. Storm wasn’t much better: 7-10 in 21 appearances with a 4.74 ERA.
The implosion of their two high-dollar free agents prompted a musical chair of pitchers through Royals Stadium in 1990. Thirteen new pitchers to be exact. Understand, they already had Tom Gordon, Mark Gubicza, Kevin Appier, Bret Saberhagen, Jeff Montgomery and Steve Farr. No way they can screw that up, right? Right. The Royals had been so flush with young pitching talent that between 1982 and 1987 they parted with Atlee Hammaker, Scott Bankhead, David Cone, Melido Perez and Greg Hibbard in mostly ill-advised trades with the only decent return on all those young arms being Danny Tartabull. Sometimes you’re just better off keeping the players you have. Or as former Texas football coach Darrell Royal once said, “Dance with the one who brung you.”
The 1990 season might have been the starting point for the Royals’ long spiral into irrelevance. For example, in March 1990, the team signed a 19-year-old free-agent pitcher named Dan Miceli. Before he could develop, in 1993 they sent him and another young pitcher, Jon Lieber, to the Pirates for veteran pitcher Stan Belinda. Belinda appeared in 60 games for the Royals over two years and was worth exactly 0 WAR. Miceli only ended up with 2 career WAR but he did pitch for 14 years. Lieber was an even bigger miss. He too pitched for 14 seasons and was worth 24 WAR in his career. The team got nothing in the 1990 amateur draft. 1990 was the last year of the Bo Jackson experience. In a January of 1991 football playoff game, Jackson suffered a severe hip injury and the Royals, possibly frustrated by his two-timing ways, or perhaps swayed by the medical reports that said Jackson would never play again, released him in March of 1991.
John Schuerholz, perhaps realizing that the cupboard was getting bare, bolted for Atlanta in October of 1990. In his place, the Royals appointed loyal foot soldier, Herk Robinson as the next general manager. The team entered 1990 with such high hopes, but crashed to a 75-86 record, good for sixth in the seven-team Western Division and their worst finish since the 1970 season.
There were some good things. George Brett became the first player to win batting titles in three decades with his league-leading .329 mark. More than 2.2 million fans went through the turnstiles at Royals Stadium. There might have been a couple more highlights, but I’m grasping here. The team used 46 players in 1990, 23 pitchers and 23 position players. As often happens in a bad year, the team took a look at a lot of rookie talent, eleven rookies to be exact. The team brought in ten veterans in an attempt to win some games. Here’s a look at the vets.
Baller, he of the great sports name, was originally drafted by the Phillies in the 4th round of the 1979 draft. The big right-hander had a four-game stint with the Phils in 1982 before being packaged in a blockbuster to Cleveland for Von Hayes. Cleveland had him for three minor league seasons before shipping him to the Cubs. He got into 79 games for Chicago before spending time in the Mariners and Expos systems. The Royals signed him as a free agent, and he appeared in three games for KC without distinction. After his Royal days ended, he went to Houston and eventually back to Philadelphia, where he got into eight more games in 1992. He spent 1994 pitching for the Orix Blue Wave, in the Japanese league, before calling it a career at the age of 33.
Codiroli was another veteran pitcher on the tail end of his career when the Royals signed him in June of 1990. He was originally drafted by the Tigers in 1978, but after being released and signed by Oakland, he had some success. In his six seasons with the A’s, he appeared in 124 games, winning a career-high 14 in 1985, a year in which he led the American League in starts with 37. He got into six games as a Royal, giving up 11 runs in 10 innings of work. He pitched in the Orioles’ minor league system in 1991 before hanging it up at the age of 33.
Part of me thinks that every time the Royals even think about signing a high-dollar free agent, someone in the home office pipes up and says, “I hope we don’t screw this up like the Davis boys signing”. Mark Davis saved 96 games in a 15-year major league career. 72 of those saves came in 1988 and 1989, right before the Royals wrote him a big check. To his credit, Davis stayed with it. After the Royals traded him to Atlanta for the much-traveled Senor Smoke Juan Berenguer, Davis ended up playing for the Braves, Phillies, Padres and Brewers before calling it quits at the age of 36. In retirement, Davis worked as a pitching coach for the Diamondbacks and Royals organizations.
Like it or not, in the minds of older Royal fans these two guys are tied at the hip. When Davis was signed, Royals pitching coach Frank Funk said, “We don’t want pitchers with good ERA’s, we want pitchers with wins”. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that statement. With Davis, Funk and the Royals got neither. In two seasons in Kansas City, Storm appeared in 72 games, threw 226 innings and finished with a record of 10 and 19 and an ERA of 4.85. After the 1991 season, the Royals traded Davis to the Orioles for Bob Melvin. Davis closed out his 13-year career with a reunion in Oakland and a two-year stint in Detroit before retiring at the age of 32. He was part of two World Series winners (Baltimore in 1983 and Oakland in 1989).
The Royals have long had an identity as an organization that signs a lot of over-the-hill vets, hoping they can stall father time for one last summer. Dotson fit that to a T. Dotson had some moments early in his career, especially during the ten years he spent with the White Sox. He posted an excellent 22-7 mark in 1983 and started 250 games for the Sox, winning 97 of them. By the time the Royals got him, arm injuries had sapped his once bright future. Dotson appeared in eight games, including seven starts, but was only good for 28 innings. The Royals let him go in late June and at the age of 31, he called it a career.
Filson, a right-handed pitcher, was originally drafted by the Yankees in 1979 but made his debut with the Twins in 1982. He spent most of his career with Minnesota, making some starts, doing some middle relief, even saving a game or two. He came over to the Royals as a free agent in May of 1989 and worked his way back to the big leagues in the summer of 1990. He got into eight games, making seven starts. His best game as a Royal came on July 21st, when he went 6 2⁄3 innings against the Red Sox, holding them to two runs in a 4 to 2 Royal victory. He retired after the 1990 season at the age of 31.
The well-traveled McGaffigan was the last of the over-the-hill gang on the 1990 Royals pitching staff. McGaffigan spent time with the Yankees, Giants, Expos and Reds before signing with Kansas City in May of 1990. He was pretty decent in 1990, appearing in 24 games, including 11 starts. He gave the Royals 78 innings and posted a respectable ERA of 3.09. He got into four more games in 1991 before the Royals released him. He spent the remainder of the 1991 season with the Brewers AAA Denver affiliate before calling it a career at the age of 34.
Jeltz, born in Paris, France to a military family, was raised in Lawrence and played college ball for the Jayhawks. He is only one of seven French-born players to ever play in the majors. He was originally drafted by the Phillies in 1980 and made his debut with them in 1983. He hit five career home runs. Two of those came in a game that Pirates broadcaster and former Royal pitcher Jim Rooker said that if the Pirates lose (they scored ten runs in the first inning) that he’d walk back to Pittsburgh. The Pirates did lose, 15 to 11. Jeltz came to the Royals just before the 1990 season opener in a trade for pitcher Jose de Jesus. Jeltz, who could play third, short and second, appeared in 74 games for the Royals and slashed .155/.200/.194. Dayton Moore would have loved him. He retired after the 1990 season at the age of 31.
An Independence native, Morman was originally drafted by the Royals in the 7th round of the 1981 draft out of Iowa Western Community College. He didn’t sign, instead electing to attend Wichita State, where he was a star. The White Sox took him in the first round of the 1983 draft. Of the 20 players who played in the majors out of that first round, the Royals eventually ended up with five of them: Tim Belcher, Kurt Stilwell, Terry Bell, Gary Thurman and Morman.
Morman made his debut with the Sox in 1986 and came to the Royals prior to the 1990 season as a free agent. Over parts of two seasons, he appeared in 24 games, hitting .267. He stroked his only home run as a Royal in just his second game, off former KC hurler Bud Black. The Royals released him after the 1991 season, and he spent time with the Reds and Pirates organizations before finally making it back to the majors in 1994 with the Marlins. He retired after the 1999 season at the age of 37. After his playing days ended, Morman coached and managed in the Marlins, Red Sox and Giants systems.
Perry was originally drafted by the Braves in the 11th round of the 1978 draft. He made his debut with Atlanta in 1983 and had his best season as a pro in 1988 when he hit .300 while reaching career highs in hits (164), runs (61) and RBI (74) and made his only All-Star team. The Royals got him in a trade for Charlie Leibrandt. Leibrandt still had some gas in the tank and was worth over 9 WAR to the Braves while contributing to their run to the 1991 and 1992 World Series. Perry only played one season in Kansas City. He wasn’t horrible: .254 with 8 home runs and 57 RBI, but he wasn’t what they thought they were getting. The team let him walk at the end of the season and he signed with the other Missouri team, where in five seasons he had some success, hitting .337 in 1993 and .325 in 1994, primarily in part-time and pinch-hitting duty. He retired after the 1995 season at the age of 34.
The 1990 team had a huge class of first-year and rookie players. Eleven rookies made their major league debuts in 1990.
Berry, a Los Angeles native, was originally drafted in 1984 by the Red Sox, but elected to attend UCLA. The Royals took him in the 1986 draft with the 9th overall pick of the January phase. He made his debut September 17th in a game at Minnesota and collected his first hit the next evening with a third inning double off Scott Erickson. The Royals traded him to Montreal in August of 1992, and he spent four seasons in Montreal. The Expos traded him to the Astros in 1996 and he had his best professional season that summer, slashing .281/.328/.492 with 17 home runs and 95 RBI. He played his last games in the majors with Boston in 2000. In retirement, Berry has been employed at various times as a hitting coach for the Astros and Padres and in the Marlins and Orioles systems.
Campbell, a right-handed pitcher, was the Royals 32nd round pick in the 1987 draft. I had read that less than 7% of all players drafted after the 21st round ever made the major leagues. Campbell spent the majority of his seven-year career in the minor leagues, all of that in the Royals organization. In late August of 1990 however, the team needed some spot starts and brought Campbell up from Omaha. He appeared in two games, pitching 9 2⁄3 innings in which he gave up 15 hits and 9 runs. He had been quite good at times in the minors but unfortunately that didn’t translate to the majors. He retired after spending the 1993 season at Memphis at the age of 27.
Conine was selected by the Royals in the 58th round of the 1987 draft out of UCLA. Talk about a strange story. How did Conine last until the 58th round? After all, the guy played in the majors for 17 seasons. Turns out that Conine was a middling relief pitcher at UCLA, not even a prospect. He got exactly one at-bat in his college career and was hit by a pitch. Royals scout Guy Hansen told John Schuerholz that Conine was UCLA’s best hitter, so Schuerholz took a late draft flyer on him.
Conine tore up AA pitching at Memphis in 1990: .320/.425/.522 with 15 home runs and 95 RBI, so the Royals called him up in September. He got a nine-game audition in which he hit .250. He spent all of 1991 and most of 1992 in Omaha before getting 28 more games with the Royals in 1992. The Royals left him unprotected in the expansion draft and the Florida Marlins jumped on him.
Conine spent eight seasons in Miami where he earned the nickname “Mr. Marlin” while finishing 3rd in the 1993 Rookie of the Year vote and making two All-Star teams. The Royals, desperate to rectify their earlier mistake, got him back in a trade prior to the 1998 season. Conine appeared in only 93 games, hitting .256 with just 8 home runs, so the Royals unloaded him a second time, this time to the Orioles for pitcher Chris Fussell. Conine was steady and productive in his six seasons in Baltimore. He spent his last three seasons with Philadelphia, Cincinnati and the New York Mets before retiring at the age of 41. In his 17-year career, he collected 1,982 hits and drove in 1,071 worth almost 20 WAR while being part of two World Series winners. In retirement, Conine has participated in triathlons and has done some color work for the Marlins television network.
Encarnacion, a right-handed pitcher, was originally signed by the Cleveland Indians as an amateur free agent in 1984. The Royals picked him up in the 1987 Rule 5 draft. He spent 1988, 1989 and most of 1990 playing for Memphis and Omaha. He got a four-game stint in Kansas City in late July, good for 10 innings of work in which he allowed 14 hits and 9 runs. Baseball is hard. He spent all of 1991 in Omaha before calling it a career at the age of 27.
Kansas City signed Maldonado as an international free agent prior to the 1986 season. He spent five seasons bouncing through the Royals’ minor league system before finally getting a taste of the big time in late September 1990. He made four appearances, giving up six runs in six innings. The Royals traded him to the Brewers prior to the 1993 season and he made it back to the bigs for 29 games with Milwaukee, primarily as a middle reliever. He retired after spending the 1994 season with Oakland’s AAA affiliate in Tacoma.
Mayne, a catcher, was an All-American at Cal State Fullerton when the Royals took him with the 13th overall pick in the 1989 draft, ahead of future big leaguers Cal Eldred, Mo Vaughn and Chuck Knoblauch. It didn’t take Mayne long to reach the majors, making his debut on September 18th, 1990, just a little over a year after being drafted and with only 122 minor league games under his belt. Mayne ripped a single off the Twins Scott Erickson in his first major league at-bat, which always must be a thrill. Over the next five seasons, Mayne appeared in 394 games, hitting .247 in 1,100 at bats.
In December of 1995, the Royals traded him to the Mets and that marriage lasted one season. From there he spent time with Oakland, San Francisco, Colorado, Kansas City again, followed by time with Arizona and Los Angeles. He retired after the 1994 season at the age of 36, capping a 15-year career in which he played in 1,279 games. Mayne was the catcher when Bret Saberhagen threw the Royals' last no-hitter on August 26, 1991. While playing for Colorado, he became the first-position player to win a game since Rocky Colavito did so in 1968.
When examining the greatest father-son duos to play major league ball, I believe the McRae’s are often given short shrift. They often show up on the honorable mention lists, but unless I’m missing someone, their combined hit total stands seventh all-time. Hal was a force of nature, a hitting machine with a non-stop motor and toughness that was off the charts. Brian was a very different player from his father. He was far superior in the field, faster (almost twice as many steals in 730 fewer games). I hesitate to say he was a better baserunner. Hal McRae was in a class by himself on the basepaths. Just ask Dick Green. Or Willie Randolph.
Hal had far better power at the plate and a penchant for driving in runs. Brian was probably the better overall athlete. Brian was a surprise first-round selection by the Royals in the 1985 draft. He had been set to attend the University of Kansas as a dual sport athlete, but the Royals made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He made his major league debut on August 7th, 1990, and collected two hits that night, including a second-inning triple off the White Sox Alex Fernandez in his first major league at bat. He spent five seasons with the Royals before they traded him to the Cubs for a couple of stiffs in April of 1995. He made the Royals brass look bad by having his two best statistical seasons in 1995 and 1996. In the latter part of his career, he played for the Mets, Rockies and Blue Jays before calling it a career at the age of 31. He’s kept busy in his post-baseball life, doing some baseball commentary on ESPN, as well as organizing a charity called 50 in 50, which has raised more than $1 million for cancer research.
Shumpert was an All-American at the University of Kentucky when the Royals drafted him in the 2nd round of the 1987 draft. Six picks later, Cleveland took Albert Belle, who developed into one of the most feared power hitters of his generation. Shumpert certainly had the pedigree as a hitter as his Kentucky stats show. Like I’ve written many times: baseball is hard. Despite having average hitting numbers in the minors, the Royals brought up Shumpert on May 1st and he responded with three hits in his first seven at bats. In fact, over his 14-year major league career, Shumpert’s batting average was just about identical to his minor league batting average. He spent parts of five seasons in Kansas City with the remaining nine seasons split between Boston, San Diego, Colorado, Tampa and Pittsburgh and their respective AAA affiliates. He retired after the 2004 season at the age of 37.
Smith, who went professionally by Dar, was a right-handed pitcher originally drafted by Texas in 1980. You must respect a guy like this. He bounced from the Rangers to Cleveland to the Phillies then to the White Sox, spending most of those ten summers in AA. He was out of baseball in 1989 before signing with the Royals, who assigned him to Memphis. He had some success there, so the team bumped him to Omaha, where he continued to throw well. Finally, on September 18th, at the age of 29 he took the mound in a game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, pitching the last two outs of a blowout loss to the Twins, getting Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti in order. A couple weeks later, he got the start in Cleveland and pitched six solid innings, leaving with the score 3 to 2 Indians. And just like that, it was over. He spent 1991 in Omaha, was out of baseball in 1992 and 1994. He spent some time in the Orioles and Yankee systems and played a couple seasons in China before calling it a career after the 1996 season. A tip of the cap to you, Dar Smith.
Mel Stottlemyre Jr.
Stottlemyre was a first-round pick of the Astros in the January phase of the 1985 draft. His father, Mel Sr. was a solid and often underrated pitcher (43 WAR) who had a ten-year career with the Yankees. His younger brother Todd also had a decent career (23 WAR) with a variety of teams from 1988 to 2002. The Royals picked up Stottlemyre in a straight up trade for Buddy Biancalana in July of 1987. He made his debut on July 17th during a game at Yankee Stadium, a nice touch for a kid who grew up around the Yanks. He made 13 appearances between July and September, including a couple of starts. His best outing came on September 5th, when he threw seven innings of one-hit shutout ball against the White Sox. The Royals lost the game in the bottom of the 8th in the most Royal fashion when Steve Farr walked the bases loaded then gave up two consecutive run-scoring singles. Stottlemyre retired after the 1990 season at the age of 26. In retirement, he’s worked extensively as a pitching coach in the Arizona, Mariners and Marlins systems.
Wagner, a right-handed pitcher, was signed by the Royals as an International free agent in May of 1986. The Royals were impressed with his potential and elevated him to the big club in September of 1990 at the age of 21. He made five appearances covering 23 innings. He made it back to the Royals for two games in the 1991 season before needing rotator cuff surgery. He missed the entire 1992 season before making a comeback in 1993 with Wilmington and Memphis. After being released by the Royals, he played in the Chinese league and the Atlantic Independent League before calling it a career in 2002 at the age of 33. Tragically, Wagner succumbed to cancer in 2017 at the age of 48.
This wraps up this series on first-year and rookie players of the Schuerholz era. Next, we’ll take a look at the highs and lows of the John Schuerholz years.