Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Card #96: Royals Team Leaders

Who Can It Be Now?
It's George Brett leading the Royals with a .314 batting average and Larry Gura's 2.72 ERA showing the way on the pitching staff.

Unlike most expansion teams, it did not take the Royals very long to begin contending. Starting in 1971 -- with a second place finish and a twenty-game improvement over their previous season -- the Royals finished the season under .500 in just 5 seasons and never finished worse than 10 games under .500.  It never hurts when you have a Hall of Famer at third base to pace your club, and with solidly above average outfielders and pitching, you get an excellent team overall.

Thanks to the split season and despite the fact that one of the five seasons under .500 was, in fact, 1981, the Royals still made the playoffs that season. The Royals never dug out from their 20-30 first half of the season under Jim Frey before the strike. After the strike, Frey led the team to a 10-10 record before being fired. The Kauffmans brought in Dick Howser, and the club responded by finishing the season 7 games over .500 for the second half. In the morass that was the AL West at that point, that 30-23 record was good enough for first place. Still, the Royals were swept in the Divisional Series by Oakland.

Thus, in the offseason, changes were needed. General Manager Joe Burke was pushed out of the player evaluation job and into the Team President role to replace Ewing Kauffman. Whether he was pushed or he jumped, the move let the team promote the new young front office superstar -- the then-41-year-old John Schuerholz -- to General Manager.  

The man who later built the Braves dynasty in the 1990s started turning over the roster some and stocking the minor leagues for the team that won the World Series in 1986. In a busy offseason before the 1982 season, Schuerholz started with what looked like a minor trade -- sending utility infielder Manny Castillo to the Mariners for a player-to-be-named-later.  That player ended up being Bud Black, who spent 7 years in the Royals rotation. Indeed, in total, in the time between the end of the 1981 season and the beginning of the 1982 season, Schuerholz released or traded away 14 players in various deals and received back 10 more. While a lot of these players were on the periphery of the team, it helped to refresh the bench some and get in new blood.

That refreshing process appeared to work. The team spent 53 total days in first place during the season and enjoyed a 2 game lead over second place California as late as September 17. But, the problem was that, starting on September 16 and ending on September 28, the Royals lost 10 of their 11 games starting with game 146 of the season.  That streak included a three-game sweep by the Angels from September 20 through September 22 -- a series which started with the two teams tied for first place. A late 5-game winning streak started too late to salvage the division title, leading the Royals to scratch their heads and play the "what-if" game.

Mustache Check: Team leaders on the Royals don't "do" facial hair. Or at least George Brett and Larry Gura did not on this card.

Pass the Dutchie
Not to beat a dead horse, but the Royals in 1982 had a pretty bad drug problem. Two of the players that John Schuerholz traded for were Jerry Martin and Vida Blue. This story from the New York Times news service details how deeply the problem went. The story mentions that, during the 1982 season, Kansas City drug dealer Mark Liebl had a room he called "The Cooperstown Room" to signify the baseball luminaries that had snorted cocaine there. 

The story mentions specifically the Kansas City "Four" who went to prison -- Blue, Martin, Willie Mays Aikens, and Willie Wilson -- but it also drops the names of other Royals who played on the 1982 team and other players in the league who bought cocaine from Liebl. Such players as Don Hood, U.L. Washington, and Al Cowens.  

While the story does not give all the names of the players, it mentions that Liebl's sworn testimony used in the investigative process named a total of thirteen players other than the four who went to prison, and that these players played on the Royals or on at least three other teams. Indeed, Liebl mentioned that orders for cocaine were placed from the telephone in the Royals clubhouse and that drugs were delivered to the stadium.

In other words, owners were probably relieved in the late 1980s when steroids replaced cocaine as the drugs of choice for major league baseball players. As much as many of us complain about steroids "ruining" the game in the 1990s and early 2000s, cocaine likely had as much of an effect -- and probably a more deleterious effect -- in the 1970s and 1980s.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
The Royals of 1982 were an excellent baseball team. Apparently, as the story above seems to hint at, half of them were snorting cocaine and John Schuerholz's trades in the offseason added to that number. Now, other than the guys mentioned in that story above, I have no idea who was and who was not throwing their money away on drugs, nor am I going to speculate about it.  

How did the Royals blow their lead in September? The most difficult part of that losing streak to understand are the 5 losses in 6 games against the two worst teams in the division -- the Oakland Athletics and the Minnesota Twins. The Twins swept the Royals in a weekend series from September 17-19 before a grand total of 22,850 fans for the three games. 

The Friday night game saw Paul Splittorff give up 4 runs in the bottom of the third and reliever Bob Tufts give up a single run in the bottom of the eighth. That single run meant that the Royals' furious comeback in the eighth and ninth innings off Brad Havens and Ron Davis fell a run short.  In Saturday's afternoon game, Vida Blue and Don Hood both were hit early and often, giving up 10 runs by the end of 6 innings. Hey -- stay away from the nose candy, guys!  Then Sunday, the Royals started Bill Castro -- for only the second time that season and the seventh time in his career -- and hit was hit for 5 runs in four innings.  

In short, it was their pitching that did it -- and, frankly, their pitching had been an issue that season. A team ERA of 4.08 was good enough only for 10th in the league, and the club struck out just 650 batters all year.  That just was not good enough, and it made clear what Schuerholz's next steps had to be -- fixing the starting rotation.

Now, for the Brewers and HOF Countdown:

Former Brewers on the Checklist
There are two.

Ken Brett spent all of the 1972 season as a Milwaukee Brewer after spending four seasons in Boston. The Brewers sent him to the Phillies as part of trading for Don Money. 

Jamie Quirk was traded by the Royals to the Brewers after the 1976 season with Jim Wohlford and Bob McClure in exchange for Jim Colborn and Darrell Porter (boy, did the Royals win that trade) and, then, was traded back to the Royals in mid-1978 for a minor leaguer and money.  

Former Brewers Appearing in 1982 for the Royals But not on Cardboard
Brewers castoff Bill Castro -- who came back to Milwaukee later for many years and served as the bullpen coach and, later, as pitching coach -- appeared in 21 games and made four starts for the 1982 Royals. He pitched 75-2/3 innings in KC in 1982.

Future Brewers on the Checklist
Not a single one.

Future Brewers Appearing But Not on the Checklist
Once again, not a single one.

Future Hall of Famers on the Checklist
There's the obvious one, of course -- the hitter on the front of the card. George Brett had a pretty good 1982, hitting .301/.378/.505. Brett's the only one, though.

Future Hall of Famers Appearing in 1982 but not on the checklist
As was the case for the Astros, no one other than Brett played for the Royals in 1982 that made it to the Hall of Fame. 

The only guy who received some consideration for the Hall of Fame was Vida Blue, but Vida's career numbers were affected both by injuries and, more to the point, his personal drug demons. Certainly, he started off his career with an incredible 1971 -- Cy Young and MVP -- but the 312 innings at age 21 might have caused problems in 1972. He rebounded from that, but, from the age of 32 forward, his "decline" phase looked more like a "collapse" phase. 

Other guys who could have been considered: Hal McRae, Frank White, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson. As a collective, that is a lot of talent and is the core of a great team. None of them made it past their first year on the Hall of Fame ballot.

1 comment:

  1. Playing in front of 22,000 total during a three game stretch is tough. Reminds me when I could get dugout seats at PNC for $8 once football season started.