Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Most Disappointing Royals Season? Part III: 1990

It's common to hear that the Royals have "stunk," or "been mired in futility," or however you want to say it, since 1985. Of course, that's not really true. The Royals teams of the late 1980s were still solid ballclubs who just couldn't get over the hump.

The AL West was up for grabs until the Oakland A's dynasty rose up in 1988, but the Royals still had hope. After all, they still had plenty of star power: George Brett was winding down his Hall of Fame career, but would still have enough left to win a batting title in 1990. Bret Saberhagen was dominant enough to win a second Cy Young Award in 1989. Veteran links to the "glory days" like Willie Wilson and Frank White shared the field with up-and-coming stars like Mike Macfarlane, Kevin Seitzer, Kurt Stilwell, Tom Gordon, and Jeff Montgomery. And the Royals also had possibly the most famous athlete in the country, Bo Jackson.

It must be hard for kids today to comprehend a Royals player appearing in national TV commercials, writing an autobiography with a distinguished journalist like Dick Schaap, having his own video game, or any of the other things Bo accomplished off the field. For a time, the Royals had the coolest baseball player on the planet.

Meanwhile, the Oakland A's were assembling a dynasty of sorts, running away with the AL West in 1988, then outlasting the Royals by 7 games in 1989. People who think the Royals have been horrible for 24 straight years now should check out the '89 edition, which had the second-best record in the league. Unfortunately, they were stuck in a division with the league's best team.

Two things were in play here. First, the A's and Royals had a bit of a rivalry going on. There was the minor detail that the A's had jerked Kansas City baseball fans around for 15 years, then bolted town right before the team finally began winning. Then, the Royals ended up chasing those good A's teams in the division standings every year before breaking through with a division title in 1976. Several mediocre years by the A's in the late '70s and early '80s had dimmed the rivalry somewhat, but it had a bit of a resurgence once the A's got good again.

The other factor was the health of Royals founder and owner Ewing Kauffman. Beloved by his employees and by the fans of Kansas City, Mr. K turned 73 before the end of the 1989 season. Who knew how many more years he might have to win a second World Series.

So, after the 1989 season, the Royals went shopping in the free-agent supermarket. For younger Royals fans, it may be tough to imagine a Royals free-agent signing that is not a lower-light like, say, Kyle Farnsworth. No, the Royals were going after big names.

On December 7, 1989, the Royals signed starting pitcher Storm Davis, taking him away from their rivals in Oakland. On December 11, the Royals pulled off an even bigger coup, signing relief pitcher Mark Davis, the NL Cy Young Award winner (this meant the 1990 Royals would make baseball history by having both reigning Cy Young winners). And on December 15, the Royals traded starting pitcher Charlie Leibrandt to the Braves for Gerald Perry, intending to install him at first base and move Brett to DH (he had moved from third to first a few years earlier to make room for Seitzer).

In those simpler days, most baseball fans (myself included) didn't understand or even know about the many advanced stats we take for granted now. So we Royals fans were excited that Storm Davis had won 19 games in 1989. We were excited that Mark Davis had had 44 saves in 1989. And we were excited that Perry had hit .300 in 1988, even though he'd fallen off in 1989. We didn't realize that Storm's 19 wins came despite a 4.36 ERA and a 1.506 WHIP, or that the A's averaged almost 6 runs a game when he pitched. We didn't realize that saves were an overrated stat, and that the Royals probably already had two better relief pitchers in Montgomery and Steve Farr. We didn't realize that Perry's offense was almost devoid of power, a serious shortcoming for a 1B/DH type.

So we all went into the 1990 season expecting a summer-long battle with the A's and the also-formidable-looking Angels for first place. It would begin with an Opening Day battle against Baltimore on ESPN.

I remember racing into the house after school to catch the end of the game. It had been a seesaw affair, and the game was tied at 6 in the 11th. Montgomery was starting his third inning of work. Even at age 14, I thought this was odd. The Royals had spent all that money on Mark Davis, and they wouldn't use him? Monty walked the leadoff hitter, then gave up two singles and the lead run. Then, and only then, did Mark Davis enter the game. When the Royals went quietly in the bottom of the inning, the season was off to a bad start.

It got worse; the Royals had a six-game losing streak in late April, then won a game, then lost four in a row. At 6-16, they were already 10.5 games out. They would not get within 10 games of the division lead for the rest of the season. In one month, the promise of a pennant race had gone up in smoke. KC would end up with a 75-86 record, a mere 27.5 games out of first.

Those offseason acquisitions sure worked out well, didn't they? Storm Davis went 7-10 with a 4.74 ERA and only gave the Royals 112 innings. Mark Davis was a total disaster, going 2-7 with a 5.11 ERA and only 6 saves. Things got so bad that, in desperation, the Royals let him start a couple of game in late July (he got bombed in those games, too). Perry hit .254/.313/.361 for an OPS+ of 90. Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around besides those three. Bret Saberhagen continued his career pattern of good year, bad year, as injuries limited him to only 20 starts. God bless Frank White for all he did for the Royals, but in his last season, he put up a 58 OPS+ in 82 games. The 1990 Royals weren't a bad team, just mediocre. But after the hype of the preceding winter, it was a very disappointing season.

The disappointment would continue into the offseason. Frank White would retire after the season. Willie Wilson would sign a free-agent deal with the A's. And in January of 1991, Bo Jackson would injure his hip while engaged in his "hobby," playing running back for the Los Angeles Raiders. With his athletic ability in doubt, the Royals would release Bo in March of 1991. His hip would eventually require replacement, and while he was able to come back and play baseball, he was never the same combination of power and speed.

The Royals would scrape along near the bottom of the AL West for a couple more seasons. It would not be until 1993 that they would be contenders again. Even then, they were only fringe contenders. Then the 1994 strike hit, and the franchise began its decline. So 1989 still stands as the last time KC reached 90 wins in a season. And 1990 stands as the beginning of what is now a two-decade struggle.

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