50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #47: Dennis Leonard Returns (September 6, 1985)

Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.

Dennis Leonard was a workhorse. The numbers he posted pertaining to workload (complete games, innings pitched, etc.) seem completely alien to anyone watching current-day baseball. The man threw 21 complete games in 1977, then followed that up with 20 more in 1978. Last year, the American League combined for 21 complete games. Whitey Herzog, Jim Frey, and Dick Howser all knew that, when they handed Leonard the ball, their bullpen was more than likely getting most of the evening off.

You might expect a pitcher like that to eventually succumb to arm trouble. But not Leonard. On May 28, 1983, Leonard was facing the Orioles at Royals Stadium. While pitching to Cal Ripken, Leonard’s left patellar tendon gave out. 

For many players, especially at age 32, that might have been a career-ender. Leonard’s comeback became exceptionally difficult. Three months after his original surgery to repair the tendon, doctors discovered it had deteriorated. The tendon was rebuilt, and Leonard began rehabbing. He had progressed to throwing off a mound in July of 1984 when doctors determined a fluid buildup in the knee was the result of an infection. More surgery, this time another graft. It took three operations after the original repair to get the tendon right. Meanwhile, Leonard underwent grueling rehab sessions, and he did just about all of it well before his teammates would arrive at the ballpark for night games. At the time, no athlete in any sport had returned from such an extensive rebuild of the patellar tendon. 

But Leonard did return. After four rehab starts in the minors, he was restored to the active roster in September of 1985. And on September 6, Howser summoned Leonard from the bullpen to finish out Kansas City’s 7-1 win over the Brewers. A crowd of 26,403 gave Leonard a standing ovation as he made his way to the mound.

Despite the lopsided score, this was a big moment. The Royals were locked in a tight pennant race with California. Kansas City had already won the first game of this doubleheader with two runs in the bottom of the 11th. The Angels had lost in Baltimore. Now the Royals were three outs away from climbing into first place for the first time since June 8.

Leonard got one out before Paul Molitor singled. But two groundouts later, the game was over, and the Royals were in first place. While Leonard would only appear in one more game in 1985, he would return for a full season in 1986, throwing 192 ⅔ innings, not that far off from the 201 ⅔ he managed in 1981 (a line drive broke two fingers on his pitching hand in 1982).

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