Note: This post was first published at Pine Tar Press on April 30, 2014.
Funny thing about the Royals, although they’ve had some great closers, until Greg Holland came along, they never had one that fit that closer stereotype of a flamethrower who piled up the strikeouts and basically threw one pitch. Joakim Soria threw in the low 90s, which is fast but nothing special in this era. He relied instead on great control, a cut fastball, and the occasional mesmerizing slow curve. The previous “great closer” in Royals history was Jeff Montgomery, who earned the franchise’s all-time saves record by throwing four different pitches and keeping walks and home runs to a minimum.
Of course, the “Royals closer Mt. Rushmore” is not complete without the first great Royals closer, Dan Quisenberry. Not only was he the first Royal to record 40 saves in a season, he was the first to record 30. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his emergence was immediately followed by the Royals getting over the ALCS hump and making their first World Series in 1980.
Daniel Raymond Quisenberry was born on February 7, 1953 in Santa Monica, California. After starring at Costa Mesa High School, he went to Orange Coast College and then the University of La Verne, a Division III school in California. He was certainly not a top prospect, and he wasn’t selected in the 1975 draft. The Royals signed him as an amateur free agent after the draft; he would have a more successful career than anyone the Royals had picked in that draft.
Quiz didn’t exactly rocket through the minor leagues, either, despite some pretty good numbers. For example, in 1977 at Class AA Jacksonville, he posted a 1.34 ERA in 74 innings, picking up six saves, striking out 33 and walking only 11. His WHIP was below 1.00. Did that earn him a promotion? No, he was sent back to Jacksonville for the 1978 season, and didn’t make it to Class AAA Omaha until 1979. But he was only there for half of that season, and made his major league debut on July 8, 1979.
He actually had a decent rookie season, appearing in 32 games, going 3-2 with a 3.15 ERA and five saves in 40 innings pitched. But it was during spring training of 1980 that Quisenberry’s career would change forever. New manager Jim Frey asked his young reliever to adopt the submarine-style delivery of Pirates reliever Kent Tekulve. Quisenberry, who had been throwing sidearm to that point, agreed.
“(Tekulve) showed me the mechanics of throwing his sinker and convinced me it was better than mine. The lower one gets, the more pronation [the act of turning the palm downward] occurs and the more the ball sinks.”—Quisenberry, quoted by Ron Fimrite in Sports Illustrated, June 9, 1980
Quisenberry would go 12-7 and pick up 33 saves (tied with Goose Gossage for the MLB lead) in 1980. As an aside, closer usage was much different (and in my opinion, more optimal) in those days. Rather than wait until the ninth inning, managers would use their best relievers in the eighth or even seventh inning if the situation was dire. So Quisenberry pitched 128 1/3 innings in 75 games that year (compare that to Holland’s 67 innings in 68 games in 2013). Quiz finished fifth in the Cy Young voting and eighth in the MVP vote, and he picked up the win in Game Three of the 1980 ALCS, pitching the final three innings after George Brett’s legendary home run. After the Yankees had won the 1976 and 1977 series with runs in their final at-bats, it was refreshing indeed for Royals fans to see a reliever shut down their nemesis.
The strike-interrupted 1981 season saw Quisenberry record just 18 saves, the only time from 1980-1985 he would not lead the AL in saves. In 1982, he was back on top, with 35 saves and a 2.57 ERA in 72 games. Then came the finest two seasons of his career: in 1983, he picked up 45 saves, a franchise record (and at that time, a major league record) that stood until Holland broke it last year. Quiz finished second in the Cy Young vote that year and again in 1984, when he recorded 44 saves. Overall, he went 6-3 with a 2.64 ERA, 41 strikeouts, and just 12 walks in 129 1/3 innings as the Royals won the AL West for the first time in four seasons. Fittingly, he was on the mound when the Royals clinched the division title.
He would have one more outstanding season, saving 37 games for the World Series champs in 1985. The cracks were beginning to show a bit in that season, though. His WHIP, which had been under 1.00 in 1983, ballooned to 1.225 in 1985. He was getting hit harder than anytime since his rookie season, with opposing hitters slugging .376 against him. He was still good, but not as good. Of course, he was 33, and perhaps had lost a bit on his fastball, which was never overpowering anyway. Or maybe it was the pressure of finishing a league-high 76 games (and appearing in a league-leading total of 84), as he tried to drag the Royals’ subpar offense into the postseason. Whatever the cause, his dominant period was over.
Like nearly everyone else in blue in 1986, Quisenberry struggled. He only recorded 12 saves, although part of that was the overall decrease in save chances. But he was demoted from the closer role in May, and manager Dick Howser clearly wanted to keep Quiz from facing left-handed hitters.
I’m at a loss to explain Quisenberry’s 1987 season. New manager Billy Gardner promised to restore Quisenberry’s role as closer, and he had six saves, two wins and a 1.71 ERA through the end of May. But then Gardner seemed to shift to a closer-by-committee approach. Quiz would only pick up two more saves the rest of the season, while Gene Garber collected eight and four other Royals collected at least one.
The end came swiftly. Quisenberry struggled for the first half of the 1988 season, and on July 4, he was unceremoniously released by the Royals.
“I’m not going to be popping any champagne. There is some sadness. So much has happened here, on the field, in the locker room and the uniform. But it was obviously over here and I knew it. It’s been tough since the middle of 1986.”—Quisenberry, quoted by the Associated Press, July 4, 1988
Quisenberry would picked up by the Cardinals, then went to the Giants after the 1989 season. Early in 1990, he tore his rotator cuff and decided to retire at age 37.
Many old ballplayers go into broadcasting, or coaching, or just play a lot of golf. Not Quisenberry. Just like his pitching motion, just like his humble personality, he had to be different from nearly every other professional athlete. So he took up poetry. He had always had a way with words, such as when he explained the end of a slump by saying “I found a delivery in my flaw.” Or his musing on the passage of time: “I have seen the future and it’s much like the present, only longer.” Or one of my favorites, one that crosses my mind nearly every time I do yard work: “Natural grass is a wonderful thing for little bugs and sinkerball pitchers.”
The old sinkerball pitcher’s second career began to take off in the mid-90s, as he was published in literary journals and anthologies. This wasn’t a case of, “Oh, it’s a famous ballplayer, let’s publish that.” He was writing very good poetry. For example, his remembrance of his former manager Howser, who had died from a brain tumor:
this small man
who fought big
now looked us in the eyes
just a man
who no longer talked of winning
but hinted at life beyond champagne
Quisenberry was working on completing a full-length collection of poems, titled On Days Like This, in early 1998 when he was diagnosed with a Grade IV malignant astrocytoma. A brain tumor. The most severe form. He fought hard, but in the end, it was too much. Quisenberry passed away on September 30 of that year.
The Quisenberry stories are many. The man had a gift for touching the lives of those around him, whether through grand gestures like his tireless work with Harvesters to help feed the hungry, or through smaller gestures like his tradition of using the bullpen hose to cool down fans in the right field GA section on blistering hot days.
The Royals inducted Quisenberry into the team’s Hall of Fame in May 1998. On that occasion, he told the crowd, “This is more than I deserve.” I disagree. Having Dan Quisenberry in our lives was more than we deserved.
Dan Quisenberry’s best games of 1984:
9/25 vs. CAL: Pitched four innings, allowing two hits and no runs while striking out four, in a 6-5 win that gave the Royals a 1.5 game lead in the division with four to play.
5/16 @ CHI: Picked up a save by hurling three scoreless innings, striking out two, in a 7-6 win.
6/23 @ CAL: Threw 2 2/3 perfect innings for the save in a 6-5 win.
9/15 @ SEA: Worked three innings, allowing just one hit, for a save in an 8-5 victory.
About the card:
OK, I cheated a little by using the special All-Star card instead of the base card. I especially appreciate that on the back, where instead of the usual stats you get a bit of personal info about the player. That was a big deal before the Internet. On the front, all that blue makes it look like he’s warming up in old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. That’s funny, because he wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated’s 1990 baseball preview issue about his favorite and least-favorite bullpens, and Detroit was “the absolute worst.” I guess that’s why he looks displeased.