As the 2020 season nears, Royals fans are understandably excited about the stockpile of pitching prospects the team has accumulated. We’re all anxious to see them make it to the majors and (let’s hope) lead Kansas City back to the postseason. Of course, the concept of a group of young pitchers making an immediate impact and bringing playoff glory to KC is not an original one in franchise history. The tale of the 1984-85 Royals rising from the ashes of a drug scandal and capturing a World Series title on the backs of Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, and Danny Jackson kept many a fan going through the dark years.
It’s a neat story, although the rougher patches have been worn smooth with time and retelling. None of the three ended their careers in Royal blue, and of course the team never made it back to the postseason with those three in the fold, despite the fact all three had very good careers. In fact, the first one to make the majors was also the first one to leave, only two years after reaching that title.
Danny Lynn Jackson was born on January 5, 1962, in San Antonio. By the time he reached high school, though, he was living in the Denver area. Jackson starred in three sports at Aurora Central High School. Oakland drafted him in the 24th round as a high school senior in 1980, but Jackson chose to go to Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad, Colorado, instead. In 1982, the Royals, with the first pick in the January secondary phase draft (at the time, players who had been drafted previously but did not sign were placed in this draft pool), chose Jackson. This time, the young hurler turned professional, eschewing a scholarship from the University of Oklahoma.
Jackson wasted little time getting to the majors. Being drafted in January allowed for a full 1982 season in the minors; after a 10-1 mark and 2.62 ERA at Class A Charleston, he was promoted to Class AA Jacksonville. He continued to impress there, with a 7-2 record and 2.39 ERA. For the year, he had 136 strikeouts and 81 walks in 194 ⅓ innings, an encouraging mark for a hard-throwing young lefthander. The only bad news from his 1982 season was a broken foot late in the year, which may have cost him a September callup.
However, Jackson’s 1983 season was more of a struggle. After a good spring training with the major-league club, he was assigned to Class AAA Omaha for the start of the year. He battled tendinitis in his shoulder and was not as effective as he had been the year before, struggling to a 7-8 record and 3.97 ERA. Still, he did get that September summons, making his major-league debut on September 11 and making three starts before the season ended. That made him the first of the trio of young pitchers he will always be linked with in team history to reach the majors.
After a year of injuries, losses, and a drug scandal, the Royals were ready for a new start. Jackson began the year in the rotation but struggled, and eventually was demoted to reliever in favor of Charlie Leibrandt. Then he was demoted to Omaha. But he seemed to find himself there, posting a 3.67 ERA and 82 strikeouts against 45 walks in 110 ⅓ innings. So he returned to the majors in September, making five starts with a 3.68 ERA in 29 ⅓ innings as Kansas City went 17-11 to capture a surprising AL West title. However, he did not appear in the ALCS as Detroit swept the Royals in three games.
The 1985 season, then, became the first one where Jackson at last showcased his ability at the major-league level for a full season. He got off to a great start, with 18 straight shutout innings in his first two starts (the Royals couldn’t score in the first nine innings of his first start, ultimately losing 1-0 in 10 innings) and ended April with a 1.53 ERA in four starts.
May was a bit rougher for Jackson, as he failed to make it to the fifth inning in his first two starts of the month. A better start was followed by another bad one before he picked up two wins in his last two appearances of the month. As May turned to June, Jackson had a 4-2 mark and 3.63 ERA, still a solid overall performance.
A rainout and off days allowed KC to skip Jackson’s next turn in the rotation, so he only made four starts in June. First up, another hard-luck 1-0 loss for the Royals, then another clunker, and then two straight very good games against Minnesota. In those two games, Jackson held the Twins to one run over 17 innings, picking up two victories and dropping his ERA to 3.25.
Jackson continued to roll in July, with the exception of one bad start when the Orioles chased him from the game after just four innings. Overall, Jackson went 4-2 in July with a 2.74 ERA in six starts. His steady performance was a welcome one for the team, which started July 3.5 games out of first, fell to 7.5 back within two weeks, then recovered to end the month just 2.5 games behind California.
Jackson began August with four more strong starts, dropping his ERA to 3.05 before a bad outing in Milwaukee left him with a 3.18 mark and 12-8 record as the month concluded. The Royals were still in second place and still 2.5 games back, but with seven games left against the Angels, anything could happen.
In the first September series between the two teams, Jackson took the mound in Anaheim on September 11 after the teams had split the first two games. He scattered five hits and three walks over seven innings, and after allowing a single to start the eighth, watched from the dugout as Dan Quisenberry nailed down the save in a 2-1 win. That put the Royals up 2.5 games with 24 left.
However, Jackson’s next three starts were all struggles, and the Royals lost all three games. The last one of those, on September 28, was followed by a loss the next day, and KC headed home one game down in the division, with seven games left and a four-game series with the Angels up next. The teams split the first two games, then the Royals took the third game to climb back into a first-place tie. Jackson got the nod for the fourth game. Before the game, he returned to an old minor-league ritual of his: listening to a cassette tape (kids, ask your parents!) of “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.
“I was in a slump, a bad one. And here we were with the biggest game of the year, and maybe the biggest game of my life. I needed to do something…I was more or less in my own little world. I closed my eyes and visualized my whole delivery. I went through the whole windup in my head, the release point, and where the ball would/ end up.”–Jackson, quoted by Bob Nightengale, The Sporting News, March 24, 1986
It worked. With the highest stakes he had faced to that point, he held the Angels scoreless for eight innings, despite allowing nine hits in that span. But all nine hits were singles, and with the help of two double plays, Jackson entered the ninth with a 4-0 lead. After getting two outs, a single and California’s first extra-base hit, a run-scoring triple, ended Jackson’s evening. Quisenberry got the final out, and the Royals had a division lead they would not relinquish. Kansas City won the next two games to clinch the division.
Jackson made his postseason debut with a scoreless relief inning in the first game of the ALCS, a Toronto win. He did not appear again until he got the start in Game Five, with the Royals at home but facing elimination with a 3-1 series deficit. Again, Jackson responded well, tossing an eight-hit shutout with six strikeouts and one walk in a 2-0 victory which launched the Royals’ comeback win in the series.
In the World Series, Jackson got the start in Game One. Again, he pitched well, holding St. Louis to four hits and two walks while striking out seven, but a lack of run support meant he took the loss by a 3-1 score. The next time he took the mound, it was Game Five and once again the Royals faced elimination as the Cardinals held a 3-1 lead in the Series. This time, the bats came around and Jackson was just as good, allowing five hits and three walks in a complete game 6-1 win. Of course, the Royals won the next two games as well to earn their first World Series title. For the year, Jackson was 14-12 with a 3.42 ERA in 208 innings, with a 3.5 WAR (fourth-best on the pitching staff behind Saberhagen, Quisenberry, and Leibrandt). It was a terrific season for a 23-year-old in his first full major league season. The Royals’ bet on young arms had paid off in amazing fashion.
Jackson was arguably better in 1986 than he had been in 1985, but he and the team both had to endure a frustrating season. After a good spring training, Jackson was shagging fly balls in the outfield just five days before Opening Day when he stumbled on a sprinkler head. The resulting torn ligaments in his left ankle meant he did not make a start until May 12. Then, despite a 3.20 ERA and 3.3 WAR (in only 185 ⅔ innings), Jackson wound up with an 11-12 record. That was because his teammates scored two or fewer runs in 13 of his 27 starts. He was 2-9 in those games but 9-3 when they could just manage three or more runs.
And 1987 was more of the same. Jackson wasn’t quite as effective, as he issued more than 100 walks (109) for the only time in his career, albeit in 224 innings pitched. That contributed to an ERA jump to 4.02. But one thing he did well was avoid the home run ball; the 1987 season saw a spike in long balls, but Jackson led the majors by only allowing 0.4 homers per nine innings. So his WAR number actually improved to 3.7, but his won-loss record was an unsightly 9-18, although it was not reflective of how well he pitched. And once again he was a victim of a distinct lack of run support; in 17 of his 34 starts, the Royals failed to score more than two runs.
Ironically, that lack of offense may have helped end Jackson’s time as a Royal. Even the 1985 team was no one’s idea of an offensive juggernaut, and the Royals were always looking to improve the lineup, specifically at right field and shortstop. Seemingly all of the young pitchers, prospects or major leaguers, were rumored to be on the block. Jackson was mentioned as a trade chip for hitters like Dave Winfield, Danny Tartabull, Kent Hrbek, and Chili Davis (a decade later, after the 1996 season, the Royals traded Gubicza for Davis, so I guess the rumors were sort of correct!). The Royals eventually upgraded right field by trading Scott Bankhead for Tartabull after the 1986 season. But it wasn’t until after the 1987 season that they solved the shortstop problem by trading Jackson and shortstop Angel Salazar to Cincinnati for Kurt Stillwell and relief pitcher Ted Power.
And yes, the trade did work for the Royals. Sort of. Stillwell hit .251/.322/.399 in 1988, which was good for an OPS+ of 101 and a massive upgrade over Salazar’s laughable .205/.219/.246 line in 1987. But while that was happening, Jackson was having a career year, leading the National League in wins with 23 and complete games with 15. He made the All-Star team for the first time, finished ninth in the MVP vote, and only finished second in the Cy Young vote because Orel Hershiser pitched 59 straight scoreless innings. Even worse for Royals fans, David Cone finished third in the Cy Young voting after going 20-3. I would argue the Royals did the right thing, trading pitching prospects for offensive help since they already had a solid rotation, but did a poor job of executing the plan.
Anyway, Jackson had some problems staying healthy after that 1988 season, although he was able to help the Reds to a World Series title in 1990. After pitching for the Cubs and Pirates, he had a brief resurgence with the Phillies in 1993 and 1994, with 12-11 and 14-6 marks in those years. That 1994 season saw him make the All-Star team for a second time and finish sixth in the Cy Young voting. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after that 1994 season, but overcame it to return to the majors. After 2.5 seasons in St. Louis, Jackson ended his career with a few months in San Diego and retired in August, 1997.
In retirement, Jackson joined the many former Royals who have made a permanent home in Kansas City, with his wife and four children. His first post-career venture was a bowling alley and entertainment center in Overland Park, followed by coaching youth baseball teams.
Jackson (and Saberhagen and Gubicza) had a fine career. Perhaps not as great as expected at the beginning, but he won 112 games and two World Series titles. It’s just unfortunate it didn’t all happen in Royal blue.
Danny Jackson’s best games of 1985:
6/25 @ MIN: Allowed four hits and two walks in complete-game shutout, winning 3-0
4/10 vs TOR: Tossed nine shutout innings, allowing five hits with no walks and three strikeouts in 1-0 loss in 10 innings
7/11 @ CLE: Scattered six hits while striking out four and walking one in 1-0 win.
7/31 @ DET: Picked up season-best 10 strikeouts and allowed one earned run in 5-2 win
10/13 vs TOR: Struck out six and held Blue Jays to six hits in 2-0 win in ALCS Game Five
About the card
That’s a good action shot, and the Royals should bring back the powder blue road uniforms. At least every once in a while. And if you want to read perhaps the nerdiest (but fascinating) thing ever, check out this breakdown of the printing design/effects of the 1985 Fleer set.