Note: This post was first published on Pine Tar Press on February 25, 2015
There are plenty of thoughts that, as a longtime Royals fan, should make me sad. The 2004-2006 seasons, the 29 years without a playoff game, the 17 losing seasons out of 18…and that’s just on the field. The off-the-field stuff, like Dick Howser and Dan Quisenberry dying too soon is a whole other story. But one of my biggest regrets is that I’m just a little too young to remember the great teams of the 1970s and early 1980s. My earliest Royals memories are from about 1982 on. That means I missed the glorious 1980 season. I missed the franchise’s first World Series appearance, and the revenge over the hated Yankees. I missed George Brett being the best baseball player on the planet. Sigh.
Setting The Stage
The 1979 season was a trying one for everyone; the Royals failed to win the division for the first time in four years. General manager Joe Burke wasted no time after the season firing manager Whitey Herzog, who had been openly critical of the team’s disinterest in signing free agents. Of course, Herzog was immensely popular not only among the fanbase, but with the players. Brett and catcher Darrell Porter criticized the move in the media. Herzog probably didn’t help his cause with his comments, but the 1979 team’s failure was largely out of his control—practically every pitcher on the staff had a worse year than they did in 1978.
Three weeks later, the Royals hired Orioles hitting coach Jim Frey to be the manager. With that drama settled, it was time to fix the roster in hopes of returning to October.
Comings And Goings
Besides the manager, the Royals bid farewell to relief pitcher Al Hrabosky and shortstop Freddie Patek in free agency. Hrabosky would go to Atlanta; Patek headed to the team that had unseated the Royals in the AL West, California.
The day after Patek signed with the Angels, the Royals and their AL West rival completed a trade, the Royals’ biggest move of the offseason. They dealt outfielder Al Cowens and infielder Todd Cruz for first baseman Willie Aikens and infielder Rance Mulliniks. Kansas City had been searching for a power hitter since trading away John Mayberry right before the 1978 season started. Aikens filled that need. The trade also opened up right field for promising youngster Clint Hurdle.
How It Played Out
With a new manager and all, it’s not surprising the Royals took a bit to gel. It also didn’t help that Porter missed the first month of the season after he checked himself into a rehabilitation program to fight his alcoholism. Porter had left the Royals during spring training to receive treatment; his first appearance of the season was as a pinch-hitter on May 2. The Royals Stadium crowd welcomed him back with a standing ovation.
Once the expected starting lineup was together, the Royals began winning. They went 17-10 in May. Side note: on May 21, Brett went 0-6 in a 14-inning loss to Oakland. His batting average stood at .247. The Royals took over first place on the 23rd, and would stay there the rest of the year.
The highlight of June was an eight-game winning streak. The Royals ended the month at 44-30 and with an eight-game lead in the AL West. Even more impressive, they did much of that without Brett, who tore a ligament in his foot on June 10 and missed a month. He came back hot (17-29 in his first seven games), and the team stayed hot. They went 18-9 in July to hold a 12-game lead, then followed that up with a 23-7 August that was as blisteringly hot as the heat wave that gripped the nation that summer. Brett would famously raise his average above .400 at home against Toronto on August 17. Soon after, “George Brett For President” bumper stickers began appearing around the Midwest.
With a whopping 20-game advantage in the standings, the Royals dedicated September to playing the bench players more and following Brett’s quest to be the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941. That storyline was put on hold when Brett injured his hand on a check swing on September 6. He would miss nine games. When he came back, he raised his average to .400 on the 19th, but an 0-4 the next day knocked him back down to .396. He would not see .400 again, ending the season at .390. Meanwhile, the team wrapped up the division title on the 17th. Kansas City would only go 8-18 in September, although they did win four of five games in October to end the season with a 97-65 record.
Once again, they would face the hated Yankees in the American League Championship Series. This time, of course, the result was different. Kansas City thrashed New York in Game One, held on for a one-run win in Game Two (the sort of playoff game the Royals had lost to the Yankees before), and clinched the series behind Brett’s mammoth three-run home run off Rich Gossage in Game Three.
The World Series against Philadelphia started off promising, with the Royals taking a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the third in Game One. But the Phillies scored five runs in that inning, going on to a 7-6 win. They won Game Two with a four-run rally in the eighth inning. When the Series shifted back to Kansas City, the Royals evened it with a walkoff win in Game Three and a four-run first inning in Game Four. But the Phillies won Game Five with another late rally, then finished off the Series with Steve Carlton shutting down the Royals’ bats in Game Six.
What Went Right
As you might expect, quite a bit. Beyond Brett’s season for the ages, Hal McRae, Hurdle, Willie Wilson, and Aikens all had an OPS+ well over 100. Porter, Amos Otis, and U.L. Washington were all close. Frank White was the weak link offensively (77 OPS+) but he won a Gold Glove, so he still found a way to contribute (and his home run gave the Royals their first lead in ALCS Game Three). Even the bench—John Wathan, Jamie Quirk, and Pete LaCock, mostly—had good seasons.
On the mound, the pitching staff bounced back nicely from the disappointing 1979 season. Larry Gura led the staff with an 18-10 record and 2.95 ERA. Dennis Leonard won 20 games, and Paul Splittorff won 14. The back end of the rotation, Rich Gale and Renie Martin, combined to win 23 games. And Dan Quisenberry, in his first season as the closer, won 12 games and saved 33. He and Marty Pattin combined to solidify the back of the bullpen, for 217 1/3 innings combined.
What Went Wrong
The middle relief was kind of weak, and…eh, let’s face it: the World Series loss was what went wrong. As I said, I don’t remember the Series firsthand, but I’m guessing there was plenty of hope in the heartland, although I also imagine most pundits predicted a Phillies win. The Royals had won 97 games to Philadelphia’s 91, and had the best player. They had the better starting pitching overall, even though Carlton was likely the best pitcher on either team. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Part of the problem was Frey’s refusal to use Splittorff. Seeing the Phillies’ predominantly right-handed lineup, and with Splittorff’s exit in the sixth inning of ALCS Game Three fresh in his mind, Frey banished the veteran lefty to the bullpen. Instead, he went with a rotation of Leonard, Gura, and Gale. Truthfully, Gale might have had a slightly better season, but the difference was slight. Splittorff was a veteran and probably deserved the benefit of the doubt. But he would only pitch 1 2/3 innings in the Series.
That decision started sowing the seeds of resentment among the Royals players. Frey was probably in a no-win situation anyway; rookie manager replacing a very popular manager of a veteran team…that’s probably not going to end well. Frey would be fired shortly after the 1981 players’ strike was resolved, and Howser brought in as manager.
Royals MVP: Probably U.L. Washington. No, obviously it was the American League MVP, Brett. Seriously: .390/.454/.664.
Royals Cy Young: Gura was the Royals’ best pitcher, actually by a good margin over Leonard. Gura had two fewer wins but an ERA almost a full run lower and better peripheral numbers.