The Kansas City Royals have waited quite a while for this—29 years, to be exact—but at long, long, looooong last, they're returning to the postseason.
With their 3-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Friday night, the Royals clinched a playoff berth for the first time since—c'mon, you can do the math!—1985. Finally.
Folks, that's an eternity in the sports world, as Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star reminds:
That’s the longest drought in North American sports, and longer than many of the players on this [Royals] team have been alive. Salvador Perez, the Royals’ two-time All-Star catcher, was born five years after the 1985 World Series.
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/spt-colu
Heck, it's an eternity in the real world, too. To put things in context, back in October 1985, Ronald Reagan was president, the No. 1 song on the charts was "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits and the highest-grossing film at the box office was Back to the Future, starring Michael J. Fox.
"It's been a long time. It's been a challenging road," general manager Dayton Moore said to Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated in the Aug. 25 issue. Talk about an understatement. Then again, Moore has been in the organization only since 2006.
It's taken the Royals 29 years to make it back to the playoffs—to paraphrase Doc Brown: "Great freakin' Scott!"—but the last time they were there, they won it all. So who knows?
While a good amount went right this year for Kansas City to put an end to this unfathomably long rut, clearly a lot more went a whole lot wronger to keep it going as long as it did.
What follows is a rundown of 29 mishaps—various flops, follies and faux pas—that helped define the Royals' nearly three full decades worth of regular-season futility. There are more out there, we just liked these best.
1. The Royals have become notorious for many things, but one that sticks out is the club's consistent lack of power throughout its history. Even this season, K.C. ranks dead last in homers—by quite a bit, too.
In 1985, though, slugging first baseman Steve "Bye Bye" Balboni smacked his 36th and final home run on the third-to-last day of the season. Alas, that total remains in the Royals' record books as the most by any player in a single season—and the lowest by any MLB franchise ever.
2. Trading away promising or even productive young players became a staple of the Royals during this period. No one better embodies that than David Cone, a third-round selection by Kansas City in 1981 who actually was born in the city, too.
Well, despite all that, the club traded the right-hander not once but twice. The first swap came in 1987 when he and Chris Jelic were sent to the New York Mets for catcher Ed Hearn and pitchers Rick Anderson and Mauro Gozzo, none of whom amounted to anything in the majors.
The second time the Royals traded Cone came in 1995, two seasons after he'd re-signed with the franchise as a free agent. The Toronto Blue Jays sent future utility man Chris Stynes along with infielder Tony Medrano and pitcher David Sinnes, the latter two of which never even reached the majors.
Cone, of course, wound up winning 194 games in his 17-year career, and he pitched in 21 postseason games across eight different Octobers with the Mets, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees, going 8-3. All told, he won five titles.
3. One of the most exciting players in not one but two sports in the 1980s, Bo Jackson was both an All-Pro running back for the Los Angeles Raiders and an All-Star outfielder for the Royals.
Having hit a memorable leadoff homer and winning MVP of the 1989 All-Star Game, his baseball career was just starting to take off when he suffered a career-threatening hip injury in January 1991—while playing in an NFL game. Making matters worse for the Royals, it was a Raiders playoff game, too.
"Four days before I had the hip injury," Jackson told ESPN in 2012 (h/t Silver and Black Pride), "my wife and I sat down and talked about my sports career and I was planning on announcing my retirement from football that season...I swear to you."
Just 28 years old at the time, Jackson was never the same and eventually required hip-replacement surgery. Sure, he wound up coming back to baseball, but it wasn't with the Royals—and he wasn't the same Bo.
4. In 1989, K.C. went 92-70, winning the third-most games in all of baseball but still fell short of October, because the eventual-champion Oakland Athletics won the AL West with a 99-63 mark. Back then, there were just four divisions and only the division winners made it to October.
5. Another regrettable trade of a top pitcher to the Mets, this one from 1991: Right-hander Bret Saberhagen, who had won two Cy Young Awards with the Royals in 1985 and 1989, was jettisoned with Bill Pecota (yes, that Bill Pecota) for a package of an aging Kevin McReynolds, fringe utilityman Keith Miller and one-time top prospect Gregg Jefferies.
Jefferies, the No. 20 overall pick in 1985 (there's that year again!), would play only one season in Kansas City before being dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for Felix Jose and Craig Wilson.
|Top 5 Strikeout-to-Walk Ratios in MLB History (Modern Era)|
|Phil Hughes||Minnesota Twins||2014||11.63:1|
|Bret Saberhagen||New York Mets||1994||11.0:1|
|Cliff Lee||Seattle Mariners/Texas Rangers||2010||10.3:1|
|Curt Schilling||Arizona Diamondbacks||2002||9.6|
|Pedro Martinez||Boston Red Sox||2000||8.9|
Injuries plagued Sabes as a Met, but he also set an MLB record with an 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (broken this year by Phil Hughes) and finished third in the 1994 Cy Young voting while in New York.
6. The entire organization became more or less rudderless in the early 1990s. In '90, GM John Schuerholz, who had built the successful squads of the previous decade, left to take over decision-making duties with the Atlanta Braves, who went on to be one of the consistently great teams of the '90s.
Then in 1993, franchise founder and owner Ewing Kauffman died—the stadium was named in his honor a month before his passing—and the Royals were turned over to a trust, to be run by a board of directors for seven years until Wal-Mart honcho David Glass bought the team in 2000.
"We didn’t have an owner for seven years," longtime Royals scout Art Stewart said to Harvey Araton of The New York Times in 2012. "That's what killed us."
7. Simultaneously hilarious and dangerous, perhaps the best word to describe this April 1993 tirade by manager Hal McRae is infamous:
8. The 1994 players' strike came at a bad time for the sport as a whole, but it was especially ill-timed for the Royals, who won 14 consecutive games—the second-longest streak in franchise history—from July 23 through Aug. 5 to climb back into the AL Central race.
K.C. was 64-51 and only four games out of first when the season was canceled and would have had six more weeks to try to run down Chicago White Sox and get to October. If that had happened, almost an entire decade would have been wiped off the 29-year drought. Instead, the Royals went on to eight straight losing seasons starting with 1995.
9. Tony Muser became Kansas City's manager in 1997, but he took an awfully circuitous route to get there.
A big league first baseman in the 1970s, Muser went on to become the third base coach of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1985. He was in line to become the club's manager, succeeding George Bamberger, when a scary gas explosion in the Brewers clubhouse during 1986 spring training injured him so badly that he nearly lost his life and missed the entire season.
"When I opened the door, Muser was on fire," Brewers public relations director Tom Skibosh said via The Associated Press in the aftermath of a blaze that injured 10.
So third base coach Tom Trebelhorn took over late in '86 and stayed on the bench for five more years, while Muser returned as the hitting coach through 1989. At that point, though, he was sent to the minors to manage Milwaukee's Triple-A affiliate. From there, Muser joined the Chicago Cubs as hitting coach until 1997. That's when he was named K.C.'s manager midway through the season, taking over for Bob Boone.
All in all, after Muser lost out on the Brewers job because of a freak accident, it took him more than a decade to land his first MLB managerial gig—and it came with the Royals, who wound up going 317-431 (.424) in his six-year tenure.
10. While on the topic of managers, it's worth noting here that since last reaching October the Royals have used three different managers in a single season—on three different occasions:
|When the Royals Used Not One, Not Two, But Three Managers|
|SEASON||1ST MANAGER (W-L)||2ND MANAGER (W-L)||3RD MANAGER (W-L)|
|1991||John Wathan (15-22)||Bob Schaefer (1-0)||Hal McRae (66-58)|
|2002||Tony Muser (8-15)||John Mizerock (5-8)||Tony Pena (49-77)|
|2005||Tony Pena (8-25)||Bob Schaefer (5-12)||Buddy Bell (43-69)|
Sure, there were some interims in there, but the above typifies the general lack of cohesion in the clubhouse over an extended period of time.
11. Here's the great Joe Posnanski, a former Kansas City Star columnist and general Royals apologist/sufferer, on Kansas City's 77-85 2000 season, which was the first of new GM Allard Baird—and right before things would go from bad to worse in the early part of the aughts:
The Royals pulled off a rather remarkable feat in 2000, something I did not realize in the time:
They led the league in hitting but had a below league-average on-base percentage.
I bolded and italicized that little factoid because it had not happened in the league since 1961, and in many ways I think that sentence perfectly reflects the Kansas City Royals of the 2000s. They were always aiming for the wrong thing. The 2000s decade in baseball may be remembered for our emerging sense of performance enhancing drugs and also for the statistical revolution that, in many ways, changed the way the game was observed, scouted and played. The Royals throughout the decade always would seem one step behind the times. And so, it’s appropriate that the Royals entered their decade of doom leading the league in a category that SEEMED important—batting average—but eighth in the category that WAS important, on-base percentage.
12. Mark Quinn was the very epitome of the Royals' utter lack of attention to OBP around this time.
A year after finishing third in the 2000 Rookie of the Year voting, Quinn went an astonishing 60 straight games—and 241 plate appearances—without registering a single (unintentional) walk. His streak became so well known that when he finally did take a free pass, on Aug. 30, 2001, the team celebrated by setting off fireworks.
Here's an account of the occasion from Ken Corbitt of the Topeka Capital-Journal:
As Quinn trotted to first base, the sparse crowd of 12,159 gave him a standing ovation and fireworks—normally reserved for a home run—were set off.
'It was all in good fun,' Quinn said. 'I'm glad to get that monkey off my back. Now everybody can find something else to blow up and make a big deal out of.'
13. Johnny Damon pretty much was the Kansas City Royals in the mid-to-late-1990s. But just as he was about to get expensive while approaching free agency, the club traded him to the Athletics as part of a three-team swap also involving the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason before the 2001 campaign.
The return? Try closer Roberto Hernandez, catcher A.J. Hinch and shortstop prospect Angel Berroa. Damon, you might remember, finished his career with more than 2,700 hits, 1,600 runs and 400 stolen bases—and helped the Boston Red Sox end the 86-year Curse of the Bambino in 2004.
14. Speaking of Berroa, now is a good time to revisit the three Royals who won Rookie of the Year during this span. That should be a good thing, right? Well, each instance turned out poorly for K.C.
Pudgy, bespectacled designated hitter Bob Hamelin (.282 BA, 24 HR, 65 RBI) won the award in 1994, followed by outfielder Carlos Beltran (.293 BA, 22 HR, 108 RBI, 27 SB) in 1999 and then Berroa (.287 BA, 92 R, 17 HR, 21 SB) in 2003.
Thing is, both Hamelin and Berroa's first-year performances were fluky, and each would be demoted to the minors the very season after they earned Rookie of the Year. Hamelin eventually called it quits in the dugout during a Triple-A game in 1997, and Berroa returned to the majors but put up the lowest on-base and slugging percentage in the sport in 2006.
While Beltran was a true star-in-the-making, well...
15. ...he became yet another stud the Royals traded away in his prime.
In June 2004, Beltran was a 27-year-old switch-hitting center fielder—just about the most valuable commodity there is—and Kansas City unloaded him to the Houston Astros for a package of infielder Mark Teahen, catcher John Buck and pitcher Mike Wood. Oh, and cash.
In his half-season with the 'Stros, Beltran went bonkers, launching 23 homers, swiping 28 bases and scoring 70 runs in only 90 games. That propelled them to the playoffs, where he hit .435 and established a new record with eight homers in a single postseason before Houston bowed out in the NLCS.
As fate would have it, Beltran became one of the best October performers in MLB history—while Royals fans were left merely to wonder "What if..."
16. Let's just go ahead and polish off here the bad trades K.C. made involving what had been a young, dynamic outfield core that was one of the finest around and together from 1998 through 2000. Damon and Beltran have been covered, so that leaves Jermaine Dye, who actually was the second of the three to go.
When it came time to unload Dye in July 2001 before (you guessed it) his salary got too steep, the Royals shipped him out and all they received for a 27-year-old who was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2000 was...shortstop Neifi Perez.
For realz, Allard Baird? Like, the same Neifi Perez who in 2002 posted the second-worst season* (based on FanGraphs' wins above replacement) by any player since 1933?
Between the trades involving Damon, Dye and Beltran—all of which happened between January 2001 and June 2004—the Royals proved they were really, really good at giving away productive, in-their-prime talent and getting next to nothing in return.
*The player with the lowest WAR post-1933? That would be none other than outfielder-slash-headcase Jose Guillen, on whom the Royals would choose to make one of their rare free-agent splurges at the price of $36 million in December 2007—10 years after his -3.1 WAR 1997.
17. Beyond their problems with trades, the Royals were pretty inept (or at least, unlucky) when it came to the draft, too.
While they eventually figured things out enough to rank as the No. 1 farm system in baseball in 2011, according to Baseball America, here's a rundown of their top picks from 1993 (the year after Damon) through 2001 (the year before Zack Greinke) and how they fared—or you know, didn't:
|Royals' Top Draft Picks From 1993-2001|
Another way to look at that crop? "Combined, they acquired 36 wins and 190 hits in the major leagues," as Chris Rasmussen of Kansas City's The Pitch puts it.
However you want to put it, that is almost impossibly bad.
18. "And with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, the Kansas City Royals select...Luke Hochevar."
As bad as the club's top draft picks from 1993-2001 were, perhaps the biggest bust (or misfire) came in '06, when the Royals owned the top choice for the only time in franchise history—and didn't even have a GM at the time they made the selection.
Baird had just been fired at the end of May, and while an agreement was in place to make Moore (then an assistant with Atlanta) the new GM, he stayed on with the Braves to help them through the draft. And so the Royals were left with interim Muzzy Jackson to call the shots before Moore took over on June 8—after all the picking had been done.
What's crazy is that the '06 draft turned out to be one of the best since the turn of the century, so it was a tough one to whiff on, even sans GM. Here's a rundown of five players who went in Round 1 that the Royals passed on:
|Top 5 2006 MLB Draft 1st-Rounders by Career WAR to Date|
|Clayton Kershaw||Los Angeles Dodgers||7||41.2|
|Evan Longoria||Tampa Bay Devil Rays||3||39.9|
|Max Scherzer||Arizona Diamondbacks||11||24.1|
|Tim Lincecum||San Francisco Giants||10||22.2|
|Ian Kennedy||New York Yankees||21||10.5|
By comparison, Hochevar (currently out with Tommy John surgery) has accumulated 2.5 WAR in his seven seasons with K.C. Making matters worse, the big right-hander had been the Dodgers' first pick the season before, but Hochevar failed to sign and headed to independent ball for a year, thus teeing up the bust for the Royals.
19. After having never lost 100 games in a season in franchise history from 1969 through 2001, the Royals wound up with—count 'em—four triple-digit-loss seasons in five years from 2002 through 2006.
(Hey, we told you earlier it was going to go from bad to worse.)
|Royals' 100-Loss Seasons in History|
20. As for that 2003 team that managed to avoid the 100-loss distinction, it wasn't anywhere near as bad as the others during that five-year stretch, but it was more disappointing.
Managed by former big league catcher Tony Pena in his first full season as a skipper, K.C. surprised everyone by winning its first nine games to open the year and 16 of its first 19.
Alas, that only served to up the excitement and raise expectations that ultimately would crash when the Royals entered the All-Star break with a seven-game lead in the AL Central—only to watch it evaporate by Aug. 1, just two weeks later.
21. A bizarre—and extremely scary—incident occurred in a game between the Royals and White Sox on Sept. 19, 2002, at Comiskey Park when two bare-chested fans ran onto the field and attacked Kansas City first base coach Tom Gamboa.
''I had my hands on my hips, and I was looking at the next batter,'' Gamboa said afterward via the The New York Times. ''I felt like a football team had hit me from behind. Next thing I knew, I'm on the ground trying to defend myself.''
22. As noted earlier, the Royals are a small-market organization, so they only have so many financial bullets to fire. In 2004, they wasted one by inking Juan Gonzalez for $4.5 million.
OK, so it wasn't a ton of money to spend on a former two-time MVP coming off a 24-homer, 70-RBI half-season with the Texas Rangers, but it was a big gamble on a 34-year-old who had played just 152 games the previous two years.
Unsurprisingly, Juan Gone just couldn't get or stay healthy. He was initially considered day-to-day after straining his back early on, only to wind up going—and staying—on the disabled list.
He played his final game for K.C. on May 21, so the Royals got all of five homers, 17 RBI and 33 games—and a bad back—for their $4 million.
23. Ken Harvey was a fifth-round pick by the Royals in 1999 who split his four seasons in Kansas City between first base and designated hitter. Given his defensive ability (or lack thereof), the team should have just kept him at DH.
Then again, that would have deprived us of Harvey's various misadventures in the field from 2003 through 2005, including the time he was hit in the back by a relay throw from right field to home plate because he was in a crouch watching the runner come in from third.
Or this dandy:
24. In 2005, the Royals endured a seemingly ceaseless 19-game losing streak that is the longest in the team's 46 seasons, as well the longest in the majors since the wild-card era began in 1995.
When the slide began, on July 28, Kansas City was 38-64, and when it ended on Aug. 20—more than three full weeks later!—the club was 39-82.
During the course of what was already a tough time, the Royals suffered through a particularly brutal three games from Aug. 6-9 in which they lost 16-1 and 11-0 to the Athletics and then blew a 7-2 ninth-inning lead against the Cleveland Indians by allowing 11 runs and ultimately falling 13-7.
Sheesh, no wonder it wound up being the worst season in franchise history.
25. Merely four years apart, two of Kansas City's prized young pitchers, Zack Greinke and Danny Duffy, briefly stepped away from baseball and contemplated quitting the game.
Greinke, the team's top pick in 2002, left spring training in 2006 to deal with his anxiety and bouts with depression. Meanwhile, a third-rounder in 2007, Duffy also walked away during spring training in 2010 after suffering an elbow injury that was expected to keep him out until that May.
Fortunately for the Royals, both pitchers found their way back to the club and have had success since, including Greinke's Cy Young season in 2009 and Duffy's rotation-best 2.32 ERA this season.
26. The seasons of 2009 and 2010 were unofficially known as the "Yuni Years"—as in Yuniesky Betancourt, the awful shortstop whose ineptitude served as a muse of sorts for Posnanski.
Yet, somehow Betancourt, despite the worst WAR (-1.8) in MLB over those two years, convinced K.C.'s coaching staff that he was worth starting at short for 221 games.
Even better, after trading him to the Brewers in December 2010, the Royals' decision-makers actually (gasp) brought him back for another go in 2012! His lifetime triple-slash line for Kansas City finished at .248/.276/.395—you know, provided the team doesn't think a third time will be the charm.
27. When Gil Meche, dealing with a right-shoulder injury, chose to retire in January 2011 and forfeit the final year of his five-year, $55 million contract—which called for $12 million—it was an honorable decision but also an odd one. Odd, not as in bad but unusual, as Tyler Kepner of the The New York Times wrote:
When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it. Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t want to have those feelings again...
This isn’t about being a hero—that’s not even close to what it’s about. It’s just me getting back to a point in my life where I’m comfortable. Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million for my life and for my kids, it just wasn’t the right thing to do.
After leading the AL with back-to-back 34-start seasons in his first two years with Kansas City, Meche managed just 32 across 2009-10 before he hung 'em up. And repaid the Royals.
28. May 16, 2011, really wasn't Vin Mazzaro's day. Like, really, really wasn't his day.
The right-hander came into a game against the Indians to start the third inning, but he didn't provide a lick of relief, registering the following line: 2.1 innings, 11 hits, 3 walks and 14 runs. Yes: F-O-U-R-T-E-E-N.
Here's the recap of the wreckage from Dick Kaegel of MLB.com:
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Mazzaro is the first pitcher since 1900 to give up 14 or more runs in fewer than three innings.
According to SABR, the last pitcher to allow 14-plus runs in fewer than three innings was Ed Doheny of the New York Giants on June 29, 1899. Doheny was rocked for 17 runs in 2 2/3 innings.
Mazzaro also established a Royals record for most runs given up by a pitcher in one game. The previous mark was 11, by Brian Bannister on June 12, 2010, at Cincinnati; Luke Hudson on Aug. 13, 2006, at Cleveland; and Zack Greinke on June 10, 2005, at Arizona.
29. Remember when we said we were done with the all-too-frequent trades involving the Royals jettisoning in-their-prime outfielders for nada? Yeah, we lied.
Looking to solidify a shaky rotation prior to the 2012 season, the Royals traded 27-year-old Melky Cabrera—coming off a breakout 2011 in which he hit .305 with 102 runs, 18 homers, 87 RBI and 20 steals—to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Jonathan Sanchez and Ryan Verdugo.
Well, Verdugo made one horrible start in '12, giving up six runs on eight hits in 1.2 innings in what has been his only big league outing to date.
And Sanchez, who actually had a decent track record of success but was also wildly inconsistent, flamed out so fast (7.76 ERA, 2.04 WHIP in 12 starts) that K.C. flipped him to the Colorado Rockies by that July.
Meanwhile, Cabrera followed up his big '11 with an even bigger (albeit tainted) 2012, becoming an All-Star that summer and winning MVP honors of that game*, which just so happened to be played in—you guessed it—Kansas City.
*One of the unfortunate lasting memories from the 2012 All-Star festivities was the incessant booing of the Yankees' Robinson Cano by Royals fans during the Home Run Derby because, as captain of the AL side, he didn't pick Billy Butler.
What started out as a silly act pretty quickly turned obnoxious and even a little vitriolic—at a time when the entire baseball-watching world was focused on Kansas City. Fueling the fervor was the fact that Cano, who had won the derby the previous year with his father pitching to him, went without a long ball.
Since that event, the "slugging" Butler has hit exactly 37 homers: 13 in the second half of 2012, 15 in 2013 and nine this year. Maybe Cano was right after all.
As bad, frustrating and embarrassing as these 29 mishaps have been over the past 29 years, they're a little less so for the Royals and their fans, now that the team finally has made it back to October.
And who knows, if the Royals pull off some postseason miracle and win it all—just like they did in 1985—everyone will look back on these and laugh.
Not that some don't elicit a chuckle already, anyway.
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11