When the Royals hosted the All-Star Game in 2012, at the behest of my friends at 810 WHB I wrote a look back at the 1985 season for their All-Star Game program which was distributed throughout the city. With the Royals back in the playoffs for the first time since then, I thought this would be a good time to share that article with you here. This is the first half of that article.
Here’s the thing about the 1985 Royals, the only Kansas City team to win a World Series: they weren’t the best team in Royals history. Not even close.
The 1977 Royals won 102 games, the most in the majors, and seemed to be able to steamroll opponents at will – at one point in September, they won 24 of 25 games. In 1980, George Brett hit .390, Willie Wilson stroked 230 hits and stole 79 bases, and the Royals led the division by 20 games at the end of August before engaging the cruise control.
The 1985 Royals? That team won 91 games, tied for the fifth-highest total in franchise history. They had one elite hitter in their entire lineup, which might explain why they ranked next-to-last in the American League in runs scored. Their rotation was so wet behind the ears that three of their five starters couldn’t legally rent a car.
They weren’t the best team the Royals ever had. They probably weren’t the best team in the majors that season. They just happened to win the final game of the season.
And that’s why we love them so much. Guys like Buddy Biancalana and Darryl Motley, Pat Sheridan and Onix Concepcion accomplished something that eluded Amos Otis and John Mayberry and Darrell Porter: win a championship in Kansas City.
For most of that season, it looked like the story of the 1985 Royals was going to be the death of a dynasty. After winning 90 games five times in six years from 1975 to 1980, the franchise had gone stale. They had a losing record in 1981, and after winning 90 games and narrowly missing the playoffs in 1982, the Royals were stung by the scandalous cocaine trials of 1983. Four Royals, including Willie Wilson, spent time in jail, and missed the first six weeks of the 1984 season. The Royals squeaked back into the playoffs that year, winning the AL West with an 84-78 record, but they were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS.
When the Royals sputtered into the All-Star Break in 1985, they were 44-42, and this time a .500 record wasn’t going to keep them in contention – they were 7.5 games out of first place. It had been a great run, the pundits said, but the glory days in Kansas City were over.
Rumors of their demise were premature. The Royals won 11 of their first 13 games to open the second half, closing to within two games of the California Angels. They still couldn’t hit, but they could pitch, thanks to a trio of young starters who were blossoming in their second season in the majors.
Mark Gubicza, the Royals’ second-round pick in the 1981 draft, made their rotation out of spring training in 1984, at the age of 21, and posted a solid 4.05 ERA in 29 starts. He replicated his efforts in 1985, making 28 starts and fashioning a 4.06 ERA, and would go on to make two All-Star teams and finish third in the league in the Cy Young vote later in the decade, before his shoulder gave out in 1990.
Left-hander Danny Jackson, the #1 pick in the now-defunct January draft in 1982, got a cup of coffee in the majors in 1983, and spent half the 1984 season with the Royals, fashioning a 4.26 ERA. Jackson made the 1985 rotation out of spring training, and began the year with 18 shutout innings. He would finish with a 3.42 ERA in 208 innings, and he allowed just seven home runs, the best ratio in the AL. After solid seasons in 1986 and 1987, Jackson was traded to the Reds, and in 1988 he won 23 games and finished second to Orel Hershiser on the Cy Young ballot.
The real prize among the Royals’ young guns was Bret Saberhagen, perhaps the greatest scouting find in the team’s history. Saberhagen’s prowess on the mound was so little-regarded in high school that he was drafted in the 19th round – as a shortstop. But after just a single season in the minor leagues, Saberhagen was deemed ready for his closeup, making the Royals’ roster out of spring training in 1984. He made his major-league debut a week before his 20th birthday; he is still the youngest player ever to wear a Royals uniform. Used as a swingman as a rookie, Saberhagen had an excellent 3.48 ERA, and even earned a start in the ALCS against the Tigers.
Saberhagen arrived in camp in 1985 throwing harder and better than ever, and he got better as the season went on. He was 7-4 with a 3.23 ERA through the end of June, and from that point on Saberhagen won 13 of 15 decisions with a 2.60 ERA. He finished the season with 20 wins, a 2.87 ERA, gave up the fewest baserunners per inning in the league – and won the Cy Young Award. Arm injuries probably cost Saberhagen a Hall of Fame career; he holds the all-time record for days spent on the disabled list. But even so, he won a second Cy Young Award with the Royals four years later, and won 167 games in his career.
But the biggest surprise in the 1984 Royals’ rotation was a retread left-hander named Charlie Leibrandt. Leibrandt had pitched – poorly – for the Cincinnati Reds from 1979 to 1982, but in the summer of 1983 was languishing in the minors when the Royals traded for him, sending Bob Tufts to Cincinnati in exchange. (Tufts would never pitch in the majors after the trade.) Leibrandt began the 1984 season in the minors, but after going 7-1 with a 1.24 ERA in his first nine starts, was promoted to Kansas City, and went 11-7 with a 3.63 ERA the rest of the way. In 1985, Leibrandt – not Saberhagen – led the Royals with a 2.69 ERA, and he would remain effective through the early 1990s, serving as the veteran mentor for the great Atlanta Braves rotations in 1991 and 1992.
Rarely in the annals of baseball history has a team turned over 80% of its rotation, or graduated three pitchers to the major leagues who would each win over 100 games in their careers. The 1984 Royals did both. The 1985 Royals reaped the rewards.
After Kansas City closed the gap on first place, the Royals and Angels engaged in an epic dogfight the rest of the season – from August 12th on, the teams were never separated by more than three games in the standings. From September 19th until October 2nd, the teams were never more than a single game apart.
The Royals entered the final week of the season one game behind California, and hosted the Angels for four games with the division on the line. The Angels had a talented, veteran team, one that would win the division the following year. But the Royals had George Brett.
Brett may not be the greatest player of all time, or even the greatest third baseman of his era, depending on how you feel about Mike Schmidt. But when Brett got hot, he could carry a team on his back like few players in the history of the game. In the final week of the season, George Brett got hot.
On Monday, Brett homered in the 4th to tie the game at 1, then hit a sacrifice fly in the 8th as the Royals won, 3-1.
On Tuesday, Brett had an RBI single and a walk, but it wasn’t enough, as the Angels won, 4-2.
On Wednesday, the Royals knew if they lost, they’d be two games behind with four games left. Brett hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the first to take the pressure off. He added a double and a single for good measure. The Royals won, 4-0.
On Thursday, Brett walked in the 1st and scored on Frank White’s home run. He added a homer of his own in the 5th inning. The Royals won, 4-1.
On Friday, the Oakland A’s came to town. Brett singled in a run in the 4th to give the Royals a 3-0 lead. In the 7th inning, after Oakland had closed to within 3-2, Brett led off the inning with a home run. The Royals won, 4-2. The Angels lost in Texas, and the Royals had a two-game lead with two games left.
On Saturday, the A’s had a 4-0 lead heading to the bottom of the sixth, and the Angels were winning in Texas. Brett hit a two-run homer to cut the lead in half. In the seventh, Brett walked and scored as part of a two-run rally to tie the game. Willie Wilson hit a walk-off single in the tenth inning, and the Royals were AL West Champions.
On Sunday, George Brett rested.
In six games, with the season on the line, the Royals won five times – and Brett homered in each one. He hit .450 in those six games, and drove in 11 runs. He was at his best when the Royals needed him the most.
To be concluded tomorrow.