Forty years ago this week, the Royals came home from a spring training that felt both familiar and yet strangely new. While lineup mainstays like Amos Otis and George Brett joined veteran pitchers like Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff in Fort Myers, Florida (the only spring training home the Royals had ever known), there were many differences from the past few springs. For starters, the Royals were not the defending AL West champions for the first time in four years. The team’s failure to capture the division crown also meant that manager Whitey Herzog was fired; clashes with the front office were overlooked when the team was winning, but once the California Angels clinched the 1979 crown, Herzog’s fate was sealed despite KC finishing in second, three games back.
Herzog’s departure led to an all-new coaching staff, with manager Jim Frey taking control of a team for the first time in his career, after a decade on Earl Weaver’s staff in Baltimore. His four-man coaching staff would include first base coach Jose Martinez, third base coach Gordon MacKenzie, pitching coach Bill Connors, and bullpen coach Jimmy Schaffer (I don’t know why they didn’t have a specific hitting coach, but the 1979 staff didn’t have one either, with Charley Lau having been fired after the 1978 season)
On the field, the cast of characters was mainly the same, but in an interesting twist, the Royals and Angels had completed a trade in December. Kansas City sent outfielder Al Cowens and infielder Todd Cruz to California for first baseman Willie Aikens and infielder Rance Mulliniks. For additional intrigue, longtime Royals shortstop Freddie Patek had signed with the Angels as a free agent.
With Cowens gone, the right field position was up for grabs, with young Clint Hurdle the favorite going into spring training. At shortstop, Mulliniks and U.L. Washington would battle to replace Patek in the lineup. And besides those two spots, the Royals were looking to sort out their bullpen situation after closer Al Hrabosky left in free agency and veteran reliever Steve Mingori was released. The bullpen had been a primary culprit in the team’s failure to win the division in 1979, so it was evident changes were coming. A submarine-style pitcher named Dan Quisenberry had shown some promise in 1979, but otherwise there were plenty of opportunities for spots.
It had been a frustrating few years for Royals fans. They had finally conquered the Oakland A’s and the rest of the AL West, only to lose three straight playoff series to the hated New York Yankees. Royals fans (and the front office, as evidenced by Herzog’s firing) wanted more. Of course, as the Royals prepared for their first spring training game of 1980, no one knew what all was in store in the summer ahead.
With a record-setting heat wave, a fiercely contested presidential election, and an Olympic boycott as background, the Royals would put forth amazing team and personal efforts. Over the next (nearly) seven months, we will take a daily look at the 1980 Royals, with occasional looks at what was going on in pop culture and the news.
Today’s birthday: Jeremy Guthrie (1979)