At last, the Kansas City Royals are more than George Brett and Dan Quisenberry. They're Dogfish and Bonesy, an Outmaker turned Hitmaker, and some miracle comebacks. On Sunday the Royals won their eighth straight game, beating Milwaukee 13-11 to finish a remarkable week during which they moved from 2½ games behind the first-place California Angels in the AL West to 1½ games ahead of the second-place Angels.
K.C.'s latest leading man has George's last name for a first name—but with only one "t." His name is Bret Saberhagen, a.k.a. Dogfish, and he's a 21-year-old righthander with a 17-5 record through Sunday and victories in 10 of his last 11 decisions. Yes, Dogfish could win the Cy Young Award.
What Bret, Brett and friends did last week bordered on the spectacular, considering the fact that K.C. had more than a few aches and Royal pains. Indeed, K.C. had just dropped three straight to the last-place Texas Rangers, and second baseman Frank White, catcher Jim Sundberg and centerfielder Willie Wilson were all unavailable. White (bruised thigh) and Sundberg (rib-cage injury) would return later in the week, but Wilson would miss perhaps three weeks because of a freak mishap. Wilson, the leadoff man with 40 steals and 19 triples, suffered an allergic reaction to a penicillin shot administered in his left buttock by Texas team physician B.J. Mycoskie. Yes, that's the same doctor who punctured Billy Martin's lung with a shot earlier this season. Mycoskie was not at fault, though, because Wilson told him he was not allergic to penicillin. "If a guy gets hurt when he's hit by a ball or breaking up a double play, you can accept it," said K.C. manager Dick Howser. "But this?"
Nonetheless, the Royals beat the White Sox 3-2 on Monday, Brett and Hal McRae hitting home runs. On Tuesday, Saberhagen defeated Chicago 3-2, with McRae hitting a two-run homer. Fielding was the difference the next night—normally clumsy outfielder Darryl Motley saved two runs with a diving catch in the top of the 10th, and then scored the winning run (6-5) in the bottom of the inning when White Sox left-fielder Luis Salazar misjudged Pat Sheridan's fly ball.
Seeking a replacement for Wilson, the Royals signed Omar (known to some as the Outmaker) Moreno, who had been released by the Yankees last month. On Thursday, in his first start as a Royal, Moreno hit an inside-the-park homer and added a triple, a single and a shoestring catch in a 4-1 victory over the Brewers.
On Friday night, it was like old times for the Royals. They moved into first place with a 4-3, 7-1 doubleheader sweep of the Brewers, and the pitcher getting the final out of the second game was none other than Dennis Leonard, their stopper from the glory days. Leonard pitched a strong inning in his first major league outing since tearing a patellar tendon on May 28, 1983.
On Saturday, Moreno had a three-run homer as Mark Gubicza beat the Brewers 7-4 for his second win of the week, and on Sunday the Royals won their third extra-inning game of the week, 13-11, on a towering two-run homer by Steve (Bonesy) Balboni.
The Royals had 13 homers during the week, four by first baseman Balboni, whose 31 homers were three shy of John Mayberry's club-record 34. In fact, K.C. needed only 16 to surpass its season record of 146. Brett had 24 homers to go with his .346 average and 93 RBIs, and McRae had six HRs and 39 RBIs since returning to full-time DH duty on July 21st.
But pitching is what has held the Royals together this season. Last week K.C. received two more saves and a win from the 32-year-old Quisenberry, whose 32 saves led the league. The Royals cherish their young arms as well: Starters Saberhagen, Gubicza (23 and 12-7) and Danny Jackson (23 and 12-9). Charlie Leibrandt, long in the tooth at 28, has a 14-7 record.
Of all the kid pitchers, Saberhagen has grown up the fastest. He's Dogfish because of his pitching resemblance to Jim (Catfish) Hunter, the A's and Yankee star of the 60s and 70s. Like Hunter, Saberhagen lacks an overpowering heater and a big hook. But Saberhagen moves his fastball in and out, up and down, and mixes in other pitches with equal precision. At 21, Hunter had a 2.81 ERA for Kansas City, then the A's; Saberhagen's ERA is 2.77. "He comes at you coolheaded, like Catfish," says Oakland pitching coach Wes Stock, a former Hunter mentor, "but he's got a better breaking ball."
Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Saberhagen is part Norwegian, part Danish and all confident. "He has amazing self-assurance," says his father, Bob. "When he was playing T-ball, he was the kid who had to cover the whole infield and half the outfield. When he was 10 or 11 and I was driving him somewhere, he would say, 'I'd like to try that.' So I let him drive. I caught a little heat for that."
As a 6'1", 150-pound basketball guard at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., Saberhagen caught a lot of heat from his coach for constantly trying to dunk. In his senior year he played on Cleveland's Los Angeles city-championship team with current DePaul star Kevin Holmes. Because of the basketball playoffs, Saberhagen got a late start in baseball and soon injured his arm. When his fastball dropped from 88 mph into the 70s, the Major League Scouting Bureau, fearing rotator-cuff trouble, wrote him off as a non-prospect. The Royals drafted him on the 19th round only because scout Guy Hansen, who had been watching Saberhagen since Little League, insisted he could play shortstop. Bret's trouble proved to be only tendinitis.
In 1983 he had a combined 16-7 record for Fort Myers and Jacksonville, and followed that with an 0.19 ERA in 49 innings at the Instructional League. In 1984 Saberhagen arrived at spring training as a non-roster player and made the team. Splitting his rookie season between the rotation and the bullpen, Saberhagen won 10 games, walked 36 batters in 157‚Öî innings and acted anything but amazed. Before stopping the then 9-0 Tigers 5-2 in his first big league start, he said, "I'll beat them. I'm pitching good and nobody told me they were unbeatable." He helped the Royals win the AL West by throwing 17 shutout innings against the Angels in September. "I know their hitters from growing up in California and seeing them on television," he said. Then he became the youngest starter in the history of the league championship series, throwing eight strong innings in a game the Tigers won in 11. "I'm surprised I'm among the league leaders," he says now, "but not that I'm a winner."
Off the field Saberhagen's meticulous Dr. Jekyll becomes a mischievous Mr. Hyde, as leftfielder Lonnie Smith occasionally discovers when he picks up a telephone receiver and gets an earful of shaving cream. "How would I describe Sabes?" says Quisenberry, remembering the time Saberhagen filled his mouth with 15 sticks of gum and half a pack of chewing tobacco and then slobbered the mixture all over his shirt. "Not Bob Hope. Not Eddie Murphy. Jerry Lewis."
But Saberhagen's behavior suits his teammates fine. "Sabes is free, he lets his spirits slide and he laughs a little," says Brett. "Too many young players get tight. Baseball isn't a door-die situation for Sabes, and that's the key to his success."
And, yes, a key to Kansas City's success.