Sunday, November 1, 2009

Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part II: 1986

If you're interested enough in the Royals to be reading this, I imagine you know all the details about 1985. Of course, the Royals won their one (and only?) World Series title that year. It was the culmination of 17 years of Royals baseball, and the end of a decade's worth of postseason frustration. So perhaps a hangover of sorts was inevitable. But I'm sure no Royals fan imagined the season going awry in the way that it did.

The Royals followed up their 91-71 championship season* with a 76-86 record in 1986. That put them in third place, 16 games behind California. Heck, the usually (in the 1980s, anyway) mediocre Texas Rangers were able to finish second that year.

*History seems to have determined the Royals really weren't that good in 1985, just lucky. Well, they did win 91 games, although they outperformed their Pythagorean record by five games. So I suppose they were a bit lucky, but I would say a low-scoring team with a very good pitching staff would be a good candidate to seem lucky--they are likely to win more close, low-scoring games. Were they as good as the Blue Jays and Cardinals, the teams they beat in the postseason? Probably not, but they managed to get hot at the right time. And they did come back twice from 3-1 deficits. Don't let anyone kid you--the 1985 Royals were a good team.

The Royals brought back essentially the entire 1985 team for an encore. The pitching staff that had been so good in 1984 and 1985 was not filled with old-timers, although some of the core position players were entering the final phase of their careers. So what happened?

The Royals played basically .500 ball for the first three months of the season. That was nothing new for the mid-'80s Royals, though. In fact, through 72 games, the 1985 and 1986 teams had identical 37-35 records. The difference, of course, is that in 1985 the team got hot and stayed that way. In 1986, the Royals got to 37-35, then suffered through an 11-game losing streak in late June and early July. Then came the All-Star Break.

The 1986 All-Star Game should have been a celebration for the Royals and their fans. George Brett and Frank White were both selected as reserves, and of course Dick Howser was the AL manager, since his team had won the league the previous year. White ended up hitting a home run in the game--the eventual winning run for the AL--off Mike Scott of the Houston Astros, who was having a season for the ages and pitching in front of his home fans in the Astrodome.

But something was wrong. Howser seemed distracted and forgetful. Players thought he looked tired. Royals GM John Schuerholz insisted Howser go see a doctor. Soon after the All-Star Game, the diagnosis was in: Howser had a brain tumor. Howser's right-hand man, Mike Ferraro, took over managerial duties for the final 74 games.

Under these circumstances, a disappointing season was all but certain. The long losing streak had pretty much knocked them out of contention (8.5 games back and in fourth place when it ended, with 79 games left) and now their manager, the man who had inspired them and led them to two division titles and a World Series win in the previous two seasons, was fighting for his life in a hospital. Actually, the Royals played roughly .5oo baseball after the losing streak ended, but they could never really get in gear or put together a hot streak.

Hoswer would attempt a brief comeback in spring training in 1987, but had to give it up after only one day. Three months later, less than a year after his diagnosis, he passed on. He was only 51.

So 1986 saw two of the biggest reasons the Royals have not made a postseason appearance since that magical October of 1985. First, Howser's untimely death cut short what might have been a very good managerial career. In one full season with the Yankees and four with the Royals, he had won three division titles and a World Series. Yes, managers probably do not make that much difference in a team's record, but after Howser, the Royals began a managerial procession of retreads (Billy Gardner, Buddy Bell), former Royals from the "glory days" (John Wathan, Hal McRae), possibly crazy people (Bob Boone, Tony Pena Sr.), and uninspiring Eeyore types (Tony Muser, Buddy Bell). With Howser still in the dugout, perhaps some of the second- and third-place finishes over the next few years would become division titles. We'll never know, of course.

Also, after the 1986 season, the Royals traded away two young pitchers to try to fortify an offense that had been next to last in the league in runs scored. First, they sent Scott Bankhead to Seattle for outfielder Danny Tartabull. That move worked out well for the Royals. Second, they sent David Cone to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn. That move would haunt the Royals for years. Had Cone been a part of the Royals in the late '80s and early '90s, perhaps they could have won another division title or two. And they might not have signed Mark Davis and Storm Davis as free agents after the 1989 season. That may or may not be foreshadowing for the next installment of this series...

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