Commentary

25 years of Royal misery

Once a winner on par with Yankees, Kansas City unable to reclaim magic

Updated: September 18, 2010, 11:42 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

RoyalsGetty ImagesThe Kansas City Royals, once perennial winners alongside the Yankees, have not won consistently since their World Series championship in 1985.

KANSAS CITY -- Back in the day, though not the real old days -- just before cell phones, the Internet and steroid-enhanced baseball players -- the Kansas City Royals operated as a buttoned-down, IBM-like franchise, ruling the American League in the late '70s and early '80s alongside George Steinbrenner's Yankees.

These days, the franchise is forever rebuilding and chasing another last-place finish. But back then it fielded one of the game's most charismatic stars and purest hitters, George Brett, backed by an exciting, almost entirely homegrown supporting cast -- Frank White, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae & Co. -- that played the turf game of speed, defense and athleticism to the hilt, swaggering every night.

And why not? The Royals were partly designed by one of the game's up-and-coming young executives, John Schuerholz, now seemingly destined for Cooperstown. Scouting and player development were primo. Newly inducted Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog, followed by Jim Frey and the late Dick Howser, managed the show on the field. Upstairs sat civic-minded Midwestern owner Ewing Kauffman, known affectionately about town as "Mr. K," who fancied the glass half-full and did not fear dipping into his personal fortune to ensure his ballclub stayed near the top.

The Royals, born in 1969 after eccentric owner Charlie O. Finley bolted with his A's for Oakland, matured overnight into an expansion juggernaut. They produced a winner after two seasons and, in a 10-year stretch beginning in 1976, earned seven postseason appearances, highlighted by two World Series gigs.

It all came to a celebratory climax almost 25 years ago on a crisp late October night, as the Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to take the I-70 World Series. An umpire's blown call and the coming of age of two kid pitchers -- Bret Saberhagen and Danny Jackson -- punctuated the series.

But almost before the confetti touched the ground, it all came crashing down. And, but for a few flirtations since, good baseball ended in Kansas City.

•  Howser, the spunky field general, never managed again after being diagnosed with brain cancer at the 1986 All-Star break. He died a year later.

•  Schuerholz left three years later for Atlanta to run Ted Turner's bumbling franchise.

•  Minority owner Avron Fogelman, groomed to eventually assume full control of the club, absorbed a huge financial hit in the real estate market and sold back his interest to an ailing Kauffman in 1991. Two years later, Kauffman died, and the team was run by a charitable foundation until sold in 2000 to current owner David Glass.

•  The players who made up the '85 championship team grew old and faded without able replacements.

In the 25 years since winning its only World Series, the Royals' franchise is, by leading measurables, the game's most consistent and biggest loser. The Royals rank No. 1 in most games lost, at 2,171. They top the charts in 100-loss seasons with four. No city has experienced a longer playoff drought. And only the lovable Chicago Cubs have cycled through more managers, though by a modest 15-to-13 count.

"It is frustrating to know that kids born in 1990 have pretty much never seen a winning season," said Wilson, the former fleet-footed center fielder. "That is tough. It is frustrating to be an alumnus."

The Season

To understand how poorly things have gone in the past 25 years, one must first step back and appreciate how perfectly things fell into place for the '85 Royals.

The Royals didn't achieve the title with superb talent. Graybeards like Wilson, McRae and White still swear their 1977 team was a superior club, winning 102 games before a gut-wrenching loss to the Yankees in the deciding game of the American League Championship Series.

From the start of the '85 season, though, Schuerholz, the general manager, enjoyed a near Midas touch with every move. Brought in during the offseason was catcher Jim Sundberg, a sage handler of pitchers, to work with young, hard throwers Saberhagen, Jackson and Mark Gubicza, each hustled to the big leagues only the prior season. The trio flourished in a rotation with veteran lefties Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black, both acquired in earlier trades. Only 21, Saberhagen took home the Cy Young Award.

[+] EnlargeMuriel and Ewing Kauffman
Getty ImagesFormer Kansas City Royals owner Ewing Kauffman and his wife, Muriel, before the start of a World Series game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Royals at Royals Stadium in October 1985.

Interchangeable bench players were added. And in May, the tinkering was capped with the theft from the Cardinals of another hard-nosed speed guy in Lonnie "Skates" Smith.

"That was a magical year," said Schuerholz. "Magical in how the guys as a group performed as a team. Magical in how the acquisitions worked and came together. And magical in the ultimate result, becoming world champions.

"There were a number of teams that had more talent in the American League that year, but there was not another team that played as well and effectively as a team than our team. That is a credit to Dick [Howser]. They really were the epitome of a team with real complementary parts, which is always the goal of a general manager when you're putting a club together.

"I thought that group, if you measure each guy position to position, we probably had one, for sure, maybe two guys that might have been viewed as the best in their positions. But as a team, I don't think there was any team that was any better."

Brett enjoyed a monster year in '85, batting .335 with 30 home runs and 112 RBIs. He stood proudest, though, of his first Gold Glove. It was arguably his finest year other than his .390 season in '80. Come September, the Royals rode his big hits in overtaking the California Angels.

Two months into the '85 season, with the young pitching keeping the club in the pennant race, Smith joined Wilson as another table-setter to hit in front of Brett.

"Basically, they needed someone else to get on base ahead of George," Smith recalled. "Everything was based on George getting a chance to drive in runs, because they knew that he would come through."

Even so, the Angels of Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew & Co. led the division nearly the entire summer and seemed on the verge of locking it up until a September slump. The Royals finally grabbed the lead with four games to play and won the division by a game. Brett proved a one-man wrecking crew over the final six games, going 9-for-20 with five homers and nine RBIs.

"It was like playing blackjack and always getting the number you want," remembered utility infielder Greg Pryor of the closing act. "Everything seemed to happen in the right way. The Angels could have put us away. I'm sure they sit back and say, no way they shouldn't have won the division that year."

The Series

The postseason wasn't new for the Royals' franchise, though it had experienced mostly angst and disappointment. It started badly even before the first pitch.

On the eve of the Royals' first-ever playoff game in 1976 against the Yankees, Kauffman, then 60, was the subject of an extortion attempt. According to an FBI file obtained by ESPN.com, Kauffman received a typewritten letter two days before the game from someone threatening to blow up Royals Stadium during Game 1 if he didn't receive $100,000.

[+] EnlargeUmpire Don Denkinger
AP Photo/The Kansas City Star/Patrick SullivanThe play at first base in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series that prompted death threats against umpire Don Denkinger. Denkinger ruled Jorge Orta safe, and the Royals went on to win the game and eventually the World Series.

"IF YOUR PLAYERS AND CUSTOMERS MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU, THE INSTRUCTIONS WILL BE CARRIED OUT TO THE LETTER," the demand warned.

On the afternoon of the game, a Kansas City police officer bearing a strong resemblance to Kauffman arrived at the designated drop site with two suitcases, but no one showed up to retrieve the money. FBI records do not indicate anyone ever being charged.

So the Show-Me Series against the Cardinals, by comparison, proved a breeze for Kauffman and his Royals. The veterans had borne the frustration of three painful postseason eliminations at the hands of the haughty Yankees. And then the '80 World Series defeat to the Philadelphia Phillies, followed by first-round playoff eliminations in 1981 (Oakland) and again in 1984 (Detroit).

Maybe the sudden looseness under pressure could be tied to expectations not being quite so high after the Royals had scrapped and clawed to win their division during the season's final days. In the American League Championship Series, they survived a 3-1 deficit against the Toronto Blue Jays, managed by Bobby Cox. Then, down again by a 3-1 margin and seemingly out of it against the Cardinals, they rallied behind brilliant pitching from Jackson and Saberhagen, clutch hitting and umpire Don Denkinger's blown call for their only world championship.

If nothing else, the Royals proved resilient.

"You kind of mirror your manager," Wilson said. "Dick [Howser] just never faltered. He never got excited or really pissed off if we lost. He was always positive. And your manager is your key guy. It got to a point where we were saying, 'If he's not going to panic we're not going to panic.' That was a key.

"The core -- George, Frank, Quiz, me, Hal McRae -- we had all been there in the '70s, early '80s. Losing to Philly [in '80]. We just knew we had to play, to keep fighting. Then, things happen and you don't know why. You don't know why we got together and won. You don't know why it was Buddy Biancalana who had six RBIs all season had a helluva series. You just don't know why. It is unexplainable. And by all rights we should have probably lost both of the series.

"We were down 3-1. What are the odds of Toronto and St. Louis not winning one more game? It is slim. So just think about all the stuff that had to go right. All the stuff that was going through our minds, their minds. Everything had to be perfect for us. And it worked perfect. You just don't know why."

The Demise

One of the stars of the Series victory was the light-hitting Biancalana, who may go down as the most unlikely World Series hero ever. At the time, his lack of hitting prowess was the brunt of late-night David Letterman jokes. But the lifetime .205 hitter batted .278 in the series -- including the game winner in Game 5.

"I had a zone experience in the World Series," said Biancalana, who consults these days with athletes on their mental approach to the game. "It was by far the best baseball I ever played throughout my amateur and major league career. And a year and a half later, I was out of the big leagues, because I had no idea how to repeat it."

The same could be said about the Royals.

Corresponding with the departure of Schuerholz to Atlanta after the 1990 season, the Royals went from one of the best-run organizations to one of the worst. Financial resources tightened up with the death of Kauffman, the club's patriarch and founding owner. Top scouts and player development folks eventually jumped ship. The great Bo Jackson experiment went bust. And, as the franchise floundered in search of direction, it badly handled the crapshoot that is free agency, unable to keep its own quality talent and at other times throwing money at middle-of-the-road or washed-up players.

John Schuerholz
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesPresident John Schuerholz of the Atlanta Braves is one of baseball's most respected executives. He pieced together the 1985 World Series team and was a key figure in the Royals' early success.

"I think when John left, a lot of what made the Royals what it was left also," Fogelman said. "I think John saw where things were headed with the Royals. I think he saw a great opportunity [in Atlanta]."

The franchise remains in a deep funk two decades later. Schuerholz went on to play a masterful hand in the Braves' resurrection -- highlighted by an unprecedented 14 straight division titles and a World Series championship. But Schuerholz, who still has a great affinity for Kansas City and the memory of Kauffman, downplays the state of the Royals as a factor in his decision.

"When I left, it wasn't because I was dismayed about the possibilities of the Royals ever winning again," said Schuerholz, a suspender-wearing executive and former Baltimore schoolteacher. "I had this remarkable challenge that I thought was appropriate for me. That was more the reason I took this job. I didn't leave there because there were leaks in the side of the ship."

Yet if the Royals weren't taking on water, nor were they the steady franchise of old.

When McRae took over as manager in 1991, he found an older, less-talented group than the teams he'd played for in the late '70 and '80s. McRae cobbled together a winning record in three of four seasons and had the Royals at 64-51, four games off the lead when the 1994 strike halted play, but he acknowledges the success probably wasn't sustainable long-term.

"With the good teams, the players were there for a long time," McRae said. "You just sort of filled in around those players. So what happened is the players at the top got old -- guys like George, Frank and Willie -- and then the minor league system didn't produce players of that caliber to replace them."

The deep-pocketed Kauffman, who passed away in 1993, was no longer around to write the checks and calm the uncertainty. To ensure the franchise stayed in Kansas City, Kauffman had arranged a complex succession plan bequeathing his team to a charitable trust. The gesture was incredibly well-intended and rare in American sports -- proceeds from the sale went to local charities -- but an offshoot was the Royals were left ownerless as efforts to sell the club dragged on painfully through the decade.

There seemed for the longest time to be no leadership, no direction. Brett, long the face of the franchise, suffered hurt feelings when his group's ownership bid was one of those rejected. Ultimately, in 2000, the Wal-Mart CEO and then-Royals board chairman David Glass had his $96 million bid accepted. Glass had turned off some during earlier baseball labor talks by championing the fact of Wal-Mart's success having been built by nonunion workers. As one union player rep recalled, "I knew then that he wasn't Mr. K."

During the tumultuous decade that saw the Royals ownerless, longtime executive Herk Robinson, who slid into Schuerholz's old chair, was tasked with selling off quality, big-money players like David Cone and Kevin Appier. He was helpless as top scouts left for more secure positions and potential draft picks with high salary demands were avoided.

"You sometimes felt like you were treading water because you couldn't dig in and get set for the long haul," Robinson said. "Everyone in baseball knew the club was for sale. We didn't have an organization that in any way resembled what we were in the '70s and '80s, because the structure wasn't there.

"We lost front-office people and a lot of good scouts because of the uncertainty. It kept going longer than anybody thought it would. Everyone thought by '93 the club would be sold and would have new ownership. It was 2000 before David closed on the club. And with that came rumors every day of who was going to buy it and run it."

At the time, the Royals weren't drafting as high as in recent years, but the ownership instability caused the club to back away from certain players.

"I've never admitted this before, but we may have shied away from a Scott Boras prospect because we knew we weren't going to break the bank," Robinson said. "There wasn't anybody that really felt they were capable of making a decision. I know that David Glass, who had as much authority and power as anybody during that time [as chairman of the board] had to be so careful of self-serving. If he signed a player for $15 million, well, the potential owner [Glass] isn't spending it but the potential owner [also Glass] does get benefits. So we had those issues, too, which put a governor on things."

Later, his successor as GM, Allard Baird, was forced to sell off three future top stars -- Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran -- rather than pay what they could earn in pending free agency.

"They came to us with very substandard, 30-cents-on-the-dollar-type offers," said Boras, who represents Damon and Beltran. "You've got to remember that Johnny Damon has earned somewhere in the area of $90 million since his Kansas City days. And Carlos Beltran has earned $120 million. So those commitments were never in the landscape for the Royals."

From the start, Glass was cast as a disinterested owner, never basking in the warm connection Kauffman enjoyed with the fan base. Kauffman and his wife, Muriel, were nightly fixtures at the ballpark, waving down from the owner's suite during the seventh-inning stretch. Glass still calls Bentonville, Ark., home. Though he's active in key Major League Baseball committees, he's left his son, Dan, to oversee the day-to-day operations of the club.

Kauffman latched on to the Royals after his doctor advised him to pursue a hobby. Ownership stakes weren't as steep back in the day, but Kauffman still liberally dipped into the fortune amassed from his successful pharmaceutical company, Marion Laboratories.

As for how the late Mr. K might view the club's ownership since his passing, his daughter, Julia Irene Kauffman, said, "My father had such an attitude of letting somebody lead their own life. He used to say, 'Why hire a man and then do the job yourself?' He'd probably say the Glasses are doing fine because they are doing what they choose to do. Now what he would say to me at home alone I don't know.

"But nobody is ever going to replace Mr. K., so the Glasses have two strikes against them, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Those are tough shoes to fill.

"And I don't think the Glass family has it for the same reasons my father did. I think theirs is more a matter of a family asset that will go up in time. And I think they have wanted to be more frugal to tell you the truth."

The Future

That frugality, though, has noticeably given way to a breath of fresh air -- or what could be called the Atlanta Braves Blueprint. The days of slashing payroll to the bone and paying lip service to scouting and player development came to an end four years ago with the hiring of general manager Dayton Moore, a Schuerholz protégé from Atlanta. Moore got a commitment from ownership to buy into his grand plan -- one also followed by teams patiently built through the amateur draft like Minnesota, Colorado and Tampa Bay.

Make no mistake: The Royals are still a bad baseball club. But there's finally a glimmer of hope. Kauffman Stadium is fresh off a $250 million face-lift and was tossed a bone by commissioner Bud Selig with the hosting of the 2012 All-Star Game. More importantly, the Royals' farm system is showing real signs of life after having invested huge bucks in the draft since Moore's arrival.

Two years ago, Glass & Co. spent a record amount on the amateur draft, shelling out $6 million alone in signing then high school power hitter Eric Hosmer. They've invested heavily, even going over the commissioner's office's recommended slot figure, for prospects like third baseman Mike Moustakas, just named the top player in the Class AA Texas League, catcher Wil Myers and left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery. All of this has brought the Glass family an unlikely advocate in Boras.

"As of late, they have gone out and spent top-round money to sign players," said Boras, some of whose clients benefited from the Royals' recent largesse. "The Glass family has invested a lot of money in draft picks that we have represented. So they are getting the best available players in the draft, which was an approach Kansas City after the late '80s and early '90s did not take."

After two decades of floundering at times without ownership, a competitive budget or philosophy, the Royals are banking that Moore has the goods. He hired Ned Yost, another old Atlanta hand, midseason to manage the ballclub. He's preaching patience in grooming homegrown talent, suggesting it'll require at least a half-dozen years of solid scouting and player development for the club to be competitive.

That's the methodical, from-the-ground-up Atlanta model, after all.

"I feel their bringing in Dayton Moore is the thing that is going to turn it around," said Kauffman, a Royals board member.

But Moore hasn't pitched the faithful on an overnight miracle. The Kansas City roster remains littered with marginal talent, even after clearing out the likes of Jose Guillen, one of Moore's suspect early free-agent signings. Instead, the future is down in the farm system. It rests with youngsters like Moustakas, the second overall pick in the 2007 draft, who has soared through the system to Triple-A (.322, 36 HR, 124 RBIs this summer at Double-A and Triple-A); and Double-A standouts Hosmer and centerfielder Derrick Robinson.

"I believe they can do this through the draft," said Robinson, the former general manager. "The critical thing is when you're up around the top five draft choices for a number of years, you can almost retool the whole franchise. You look at what Tampa Bay did. You look at what other clubs have done. That is where the Alex Rodriguezes and the true stars of the game come from.

"Now, some years those players aren't there. But with the emphasis on scouting and player development, which Dayton Moore has made clear it would take to build the franchise, he now has great number of scouts, more minor league clubs, more people in the front office. And the Royals are drafting extremely high. So Moustakas and Hosmer, they can't fail."

In the meantime, the Kauffman heiress who grew up by her daddy's side can only wait and hope for a return of the glory days.

"I watch Atlanta all the time, because I don't get emotionally involved," she said. "I don't care who wins. I can't watch the Royals because it gets me emotional.

"I hear we're out of the basement. That is all I hear. Is it true?"

They're working on it, Ms. Kauffman.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.