Saturday, October 31, 2009

Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part I: 1983

Before I start, this bit of genius just has to be pointed out: Dayton Moore vs. Insanity Wolf. Go on, read it. I'll wait.

OK. As I said before, I really started following the Royals in 1983. So I suppose that season wasn't that much of a disappointment to me--I didn't know any better. But I imagine to someone who had been a Royals fan prior to that season, 1983 was a real bummer of a summer, as Ned Flanders might say.

The 1982 Royals went 90-72 and were in the division race all the way to the end. In fact, they were tied for the division lead on Sept. 19, then got swept in a three-game series by the Angels, who ended up winning the division by three games. They suffered no major losses in the offseason (except trading a minor leaguer named Cecil Fielder to Toronto for outfielder Leon Roberts--ugh). So although I don't really remember it, I assume the Royals were expected to contend in 1983.

Of course, that didn't happen. Well, it did somewhat. On August 10, the Royals were five games behind Chicago despite being only 54-55 on the year. At a time when the Royals needed to get hot, it was instead the White Sox who caught fire, going 39-12 the rest of the way and starting my lifelong disdain for the Pale Hose. The Royals ended up in second place, but were under .500 at 79-83 and 20 games behind Chicago.

So what happened? Looking at the stats from 1982 to 1983, I think it was a combination of key players getting old in a hurry and injuries taking down the staff ace. Plus, apparently some other important players had a drug problem...more on that shortly.

The '83 season was the last year in a Royals uniform for one of the best players in team history, Amos Otis. After hitting .286 with 11 homers and 88 RBIs in 125 games in 1982, AO could only manage .261, 4 and 41 in 98 games in 1983. One thing I regret as a Royals fan is that I did not get to see Otis play in his prime--I think he would have been fun to watch. But in 1983, he was struggling.

On the pitching side, Larry Gura went from an 18-12 mark in '82 to a league-leading 18 losses in '83. His ERA jumped almost a full run, from 4.03 to 4.90, while his K/BB ratio went from 98:64 to 57:76. Yep, he walked almost 20 more than he struck out. And still the Royals let him start 31 games and pitch 200 innings. Gura would have a slight bounceback in 1984, going 12-9 despite an unsightly 5.18 ERA. But he was essentially done after 1982, and the Royals couldn't make up for it elsewhere--the young pitchers who would be an important part of the 1984 and 1985 titles just weren't quite ready.

The Royals may have been able to absorb Gura's decline had Dennis Leonard pitched all year. Although Gura got the Opening Day start, I think Leonard would have been considered the staff ace after winning 20 games three times in his eight previous full seasons. But on May 28, his career was derailed when he ruptured his patellar tendon while pitching to Cal Ripken. Leonard would make a valiant comeback and pitch again for the Royals in 1985 and 1986, but his injury helped torpedo the Royals' 1983 season.

Finally, the thing I imagine the 1983 season is most remembered for actually happened after the season. In mid-October, outfielders Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin, first baseman Willie Aikens and pitcher Vida Blue were arrested and charged with misdeameanors related to possession of cocaine. Blue had been released by the Royals in August, but the other three were still on the roster at the time. Martin became a free agent after the season and ended up with the Mets; while Aikens would be traded to the Blue Jays for Jorge Orta, who of course was involved in perhaps the most famous play in franchise history. Wilson would be suspended for the 1984 season by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, but on appeal that was reduced to the first month-and-a-half of the '84 campaign. All four players served 81 days in federal prison.

At the time, I'm sure this was a big scandal, at least as big as it could be without the prevalence of ESPN and 24-hour news channels, and without the existence of websites, to let us know how these men had destroyed our innocence. As it turned out, cocaine was a widespread problem in baseball, and let's face it, in the early '80s there were a lot of cocaine problems in all of society. So thankfully, this episode is more or less a footnote in baseball history, although it is a bigger part of Royals history.

Out of the ashes of the 1983 season, though, the Royals would win the division in 1984, and of course win it all in 1985. One thing about the '83 season, it gave the Royals a chance to start clearing out some of the veterans who had starred on the great teams of the late '70s. Youngsters like Saberhagen, Jackson, Gubicza, Motley, Sheridan, Balboni and Leibrandt would move into important roles and the Royals would quickly reap the benefits.

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