With the start of the World Series, it seems appropriate to look back at previous champions so that the current crop of players can see the shoulders they stand upon. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the only World Series win by the Kansas City Royals. Over the last several years the Royals have become irrelevant in the American League, so many people have forgotten that they were once a powerhouse winning it all in 1985.
The Series is now primarily famous for Don Denkinger’s blown call in the ninth inning of game six. I’ve even heard people complain that call cost St. Louis the Series. It didn’t. Being unable to get their act together after the disappointment of game six did. The Cards lost game seven 11-0 (tied with a Cardinals victory in 1934 as the biggest blowout game seven ever) and Denkinger didn’t cause that. It also helped that the Royals were a good team. Ewing Kaufmann had away of finding good players who rose to the occasion when needed. They won only the single World Series on his watch, but they were competitive year after year. Dick Howser was an excellent manager who got the most out of his players and had a knack of nurturing new team members. It’s a great shame he died so very early. In fact, the early deaths of Howser and Dan Quisenberry give this team something of a tragic air.
The team itself had a young pitching staff. The four men who started the World Series games were 21 (Bret Saberhagen), 23 (Danny Jackson), and 28 year olds Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black was the geezers (22-year-old Mark Gubicza didn’t pitch in the Series). Closer Dan Quisenberry saved 37 games that season, the last of four consecutive seasons he would lead the AL. Saberhagen picked up the Cy Young Award that season (and another in 1989). None of them went on to greatness, even Saberhagen, the best of the starters. He ended his career 167-117. Jackson had a few good years getting into World Series play in 1990 (with a winning Cincinnati) and 1993 (with a losing Philadelphia), and ending with a 112-131 record. Leibrandt got into the 1991 World Series, lost two games, and is primarily famous today for giving up Kirby Puckett’s walk off in game six. His career record was 140-112. Black now manages at San Diego and went 121-116. Gubicza stayed with KC the longest (to 1996) but finished his career 132-136. Quiz died young but gave KC 244 saves (and for my money rates a serious look for Coopertown). For one year, they all pitched well and led a team to victory.
The infield was solid, if uneven. Steve Balboni hit .243 and led the team with 36 home runs. He also led the league in strikeouts with 166. Shortstop Onix Concepcion hit .204 and was replaced in the Series by Buddy Biancalana who had hit all of a buck-88. While neither tore up the diamond with a bat, both were decent fielders. The other two infielders were two-thirds of the heart of the team. Frank White was a great second baseman. He turned the double play with grace, could catch anything and played wider of the base than anyone else in the AL. He hit .249 with 22 home runs. Hall of Famer George Brett was at third. He led the league in slugging at .585, hit .335, had 30 home runs, 38 doubles, and 112 RBIs. Just your standard George Brett type year.
If White and Brett were two-thirds of the heart of the team, center fielder Willie Wilson was the other third. Leading off he hit .278. stole 43 bases, and led the AL with 21 triples. As an outfielder he was terrific, using his speed to roam all over the grass. Which was just as good because Lonnie Smith played left field. Smith could hit, but he was a terrible fielder. For 1985 he hit .257, stole 40 bases, and had 23 doubles. Today he’s probably most famous for the base running blunder in game seven of the 1991 Series, but for a while he was a winner (appearing on World Series winning rosters in 1980, 1982, and 1985). The Royals platooned Darryl Motley and Pat Sheridan in right field. Motley was the right-handed hitter. Both hit in the .220s, but Motley produced 17 home runs. Both Wilson and Smith were involved in drug allegations that effected their career, which adds an element of sadness about what might have been lost to this team.
The catcher and designated hitter were also solid. Jim Sundberg, lately over from Texas, was considered one of the finest catchers of the era. He hit .259 with 14 home runs in 1985, a major offensive explosion for him. Jorge Orta and Hal McRae split time as the DH (McRae was the right handed hitter). Both had acceptable years, but as the DH was not used in the 1985 Series, both were relegated to pinch hit duties. Orta got the only hit either had; it drove in two runs. No one on the bench hit .250 and none had more than two home runs. Dane Iorg of Denkinger fame (or infamy depending on your point of view) hit .223 with one homer.
The team won the Series by hitting .288 to St.Louis’ .185 and scoring 28 runs to 13 for the Cards (take out the 11-0 game 7 and the numbers were 17-13). White had six RBIs, Brett led the team with a .370 average, and Saberhagen had two wins (including game seven) and picked up the MVP.
That was the highpoint for Kansas City. The pitching didn’t pan out, the hitters got old or faded. But for one year they were the best in baseball and showed the fans that Kansas City was relevant. Too bad that last part’s changed.
Tags: Ewing Kauffmann, Kirby Puckett, George Brett, Bret Saberhagen, 1985 Kansas City Royals, Bud Black, Charlie Leibrandt, Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson, Dan Quisenberry, Steve Balboni, Frank White, Onix Concepcion, Buddy Biancalana, Willie Wilson, Lonnie Smith, Darryl Motley, Pat Sheridan, Jim Sundberg, Hal McRae, Jorge Orta, Dane Iorg, Dick Howser