The first caller to KMBZ'S Sports Line show in Kansas City last Thursday still wanted to talk about Opening Day, which had been three days earlier. "The Royals have a good team," said the caller, "but they need better management of the pitching staff."
"Are you talking about John Wathan's decision not to bring in Mark Davis to pitch to Sam Horn before Horn homered off Steve Fair?" asked the host, John Doolittle.
"Yes," the man said.
Welcome to the 1990 baseball season.
April 22, 1990
The next caller criticized the first for questioning K.C. manager Wathan's decision not to bring in Davis, the Royals' new ace reliever. Caller No. 3 backed No. 2, and so did the fourth caller. The fifth call was from a woman. "I think the people of Kansas City should support the Royals, win or lose," she said.
Welcome to Kansas City.
"That's the nature of the fans here," says Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza. "I was expected to have a big year in '87, but I lost 18 games. People came up to me and said, 'I know you'll be great next year.' "
In an era when other small-market owners bemoan their plight and often pinch pennies, Kansas City's front office does not run its team as if it's based in baseball's smallest town. But it is. The metropolitan market has 1.4 million people, which makes it smaller than the borough of the Bronx. According to owner Ewing Kauffman, the Royals' local radio-TV revenues will be $4.2 million this year, pocket change compared with the estimated $40 million from cable alone that will be raked in by the New York Yankees. But the Royals have the highest payroll in baseball—just over $24 million for 1990—after Kauffman's spending binge this winter, when he signed free-agent pitchers Mark Davis, Storm Davis and Richard Dotson to lucrative contracts and kept Gubicza out of the free-agent market with another rich deal.
"There's a history of excellence here," says general manager John Schuerholz, "and Mr. Kauffman wants it continued."
Wathan adds, "Ever since I came here as a player in 1976 the expectations have always been high because the Royals have been contenders. We simply have more expectations this season."
Kansas City is a unique franchise. For starters, it has never finished last. From their beginning, in 1969, the Royals have been the mode of how an expansion team should be run. (Consider that of the eight expansion clubs since 1962, only the New York Mets and the Royals have won a World Series, and the only other teams that have won a pennant are the Milwaukee Brewers and the San Diego Padres.) In the last 15 years, Kansas City has finished first six times (the most of any club) and second six times. In the last 11 full seasons, it has averaged more than 2.2 million customers. This year the Royals had a team-record season ticket sale of 15,900.
"Back when free agency began, the Royals were so good that if they'd been able to get one top free-agent pitcher, they'd have won two or three world championships," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog, who managed K.C. from 1975 to '79. "But we couldn't compete with the Steinbrenners." Until this winter, the only free agent the Royals had signed was Jerry Terrell, a utility infielder who got $75,000 in '78.
"We were being used by free agents as leverage to jack up the prices until the big-market teams forked over what they were looking for," says Wathan. "Mr. Kauffman got disgusted."
"Times have changed," says Gubicza. "The money is so great today, players weigh a lot more factors than the highest bid." Gubizca, one of baseball's best pitchers (he has averaged 255 innings pitched and 16 wins the last three seasons), could have, at age 27, entered the free-agent market last fall and commanded a five-year deal at more than $15 million. Instead he signed with the Royals for three years and $7.4 million. "I'm happy here," he says. "Money can't buy me love."
When Mark Davis took his Cy Young Award into the market, he and his agents Randy and Alan Hendricks sat down and drew up a list of priorities. "The first thing was a place for my family," Davis says. "The schools here are among the best in the country, and you can get a fabulous house for less than in most areas. Then I listed the winning tradition; the Royals are always in it. The ballpark? Great for pitchers. Clean. The facility? It looks as if it were opened yesterday. It reminds me of Disneyland—if someone drops a piece of paper, someone else picks it up. The clubhouse is impeccable. Travel? Don't think players today don't think about this a lot, and being right in the middle of the country means no flight is longer than three hours: no 4 a.m. arrivals as on the coasts, and more time at home. They always fly charter. I also listed atmosphere. Every priority had the Royals up at the top of my list. It was worth a shorter contract and less money."
Davis could have gotten five years and $18 million from the Yankees or the Detroit Tigers. He took $13 million and four years from Kansas City.
K.C. has other things going for it. "Stability is the operative word for this organization," says Schuerholz, naming one of those advantages. Schuerholz came to the Royals from the Orioles as an administrative assistant right after Kansas City received its franchise in 1968. Club president Joe Burke arrived in '73. Vice-president Herk Robinson has been there from the beginning. Public relations director Dean Vogelaar signed on in '73, and finance director Dale Rohr in '74. Second baseman Frank White came up in June '73. George Brett arrived two months later. No two current major leaguers have played longer together.
Dick Balderson, who signed with Kansas City in 1968, pitched in the organization for eight years and then worked his way up to scouting director, did leave in '85 to take the general manager's job in Seattle. Says Balderson, who is now the scouting director for the Cubs: "It all comes back to ownership. Ewing Kauffman created the stability."
Kauffman is a native of Kansas City who built Marion Laboratories, a pharmaceutical manufacturing company he founded in 1950, into a diversified healthcare giant. In a merger with another pharmaceutical firm, in December '89, Kauffman received $675 million for 43% of his stock in Marion. He still has a large stake in the resulting company, Marion Merrell Dow. He is a local icon. His numerous civic good works include the founding of a nationally acclaimed drug abuse program called Project STAR (Students Taught Awareness and Resistance).
"I wasn't a baseball fan," says Kauffman, "but when Charlie Finley pulled the A's out after the '67 season, community leaders felt it was vital to the city to have a major league team. They convinced me of how much it meant to the community, that there really weren't many people in a city like Kansas City who could afford a team, and that I should do what I could." Seattle was awarded an American League expansion franchise that same year, when Montreal and San Diego also received National League franchises. In their third year, the Royals were above .500. In their eighth, they were in the playoffs. It took 10 years for the Pilots/Brewers and Padres, and 11 for the Expos to have so much as a winning season.
In running Marion, Kauffman says, he "rewarded ingenuity, industry and loyalty. I never had a union; the union organizers knew to just walk on past Marion. I always said that I never had an employee—only associates." With the Royals, Kauffman has never had a grievance filed against him by a player. He has had only one notable free-agent defection, Darrell Porter, who went across the state to St. Louis in 1981, when the Royals would not offer him more than a one-year contract.
Kauffman's no-renegotiation rule has been one of his few points of contention with his players. Last winter Brett got in a public row with the Royals when he complained about his lifetime contract, which now makes him only the fourth-highest-paid Royal, but was told there would be no discussion about sweetening the deal. "I could write a book about some of this," says Brett. "But I will wait."
Kauffman's first general manager was Cedric Tallis, who came from the Angels, for whom he had overseen the construction of Anaheim Stadium. Tallis did the same with Royals Stadium, which remains one of the game's finest facilities. Tallis brought in Lou Gorman from the Orioles as director of player development and, together with Schuerholz, they got the jump on other expansion teams in scouting and drafting; one of the first players they drafted, Paul Splittorff, became a 20-game winner. They also made a string of remarkable deals in the first four years, acquiring Amos Otis, Fred Patek, John Mayberry, Jerry May, Hal McRae, Lou Piniella and Cookie Rojas for virtually nothing. By 1973 the farm system was producing the likes of Brett, White and Steve Busby, a brilliant pitcher whose career was foreshortened by a rotator cuff injury.
Tallis eventually fell out of favor with Kauffman. "He just wasn't a great businessman, and we were losing money," says Kauffman, who brought Burke in from Texas in 1973, first as business manager, then as general manager and now as president. "Joe Burke kept us ahead of the game despite our market," Kauffman says. When the Andy Messersmith decision was handed down in January 1976, striking down baseball's reserve clause and establishing free agency, Burke was one of the quickest to adapt to the new realities in the marketplace. Indeed, his signing of Mayberry to a five-year, $1 million deal was the first big muitiyear contract of the post-Messersmith era. Within a year, Burke had tied up almost all his regulars with long-term contracts.
In 1983 the Royals faced their biggest crisis, a drug scandal that involved several players. "Mr. Kauffman told us not to cover it up," says Schuerholz. "He wanted us to be honest, help the law enforcement authorities and avoid all denials. I think his and the club's position in the community helped us through, but so did the fact that the community respected his honesty. It also helped that our farm system quickly repaired us and we won. The Kansas City Royals know full well that winning cures many ills."
The 1983 season was a dismal one all around, with the Royals finishing 20 games out of first. The next spring, Schuerholz and manager Dick Howser decided to go with a bunch of kid pitchers, Bret Saberhagen, Gubicza and Danny Jackson foremost among them. From July 17 until the end of the season, K.C. had the best record in baseball and made the playoffs. In '85 the Royals were world champs.
Kansas City was able to rebuild quickly at that time because its division was so weak. Now, it's a different story. Hence the cash outlay this winter. "We're in the Big Boys League now, and we have to play the Big Boys' games," says Kauffman. "We stand to lose at least three or four million dollars. But if we hadn't entered the free-agent market in a big way, the club might have finished fourth or fifth. Would we have kept the 2.2 million attendance? No. If we lose 500,000 at the gate, that's at least a $3 million loss. Either way, I lose money, but it's more fun to lose when you win."
Kauffman adds, "Truthfully, Kansas City can't afford a major league team. But it's important. It draws $160 million a year to the city. The hotels have 100 percent occupancy when the Royals are in town, 30 percent otherwise."
Kauffman, 73, says that he worries about what will happen to the Royals when he dies. He has no heirs interested in the club. When he became ill in the early 1980s, Kauffman struck a deal that gave Memphis real estate man Avron Fogelman a stake in the Royals and was to have made Fogelman sole owner in '91. But recently Fogelman ran into financial difficulty, and in January Kauffman reportedly gave him a $34 million loan with the stipulation that if the debt is not repaid with interest in five years, Fogelman's interest in the team reverts to Kauffman. No one expects Fogelman to remain in the picture. "There might be 10 people who'd buy the Kansas City Royals, but I don't know if any of them are stupid enough to lose this much money," says Kauffman.
To maintain attendance, the Royals depend on business from small towns in six states—Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Every winter, groups of two and three players hop into a van and travel from town to town. On a typical day in January, for instance, White and newly acquired designated hitter Gerald Perry took off with community relations director Phil Dixon at 7 a.m. on a two-day, multistop tour. They drove an hour to Cameron, Mo. (pop. 4,500). At 8:05, they met students at a special education school. "I'm here to thank you for all the support you've given us through the years," White told the children. "Our success is a measure of the people like you that are so good to us."
Next they went to a junior high school in Cameron. By 10:30, they had driven another 60 miles to Trenton, Mo. (pop. 5,700), where they went to an elementary school. White and Perry were interviewed at a 5,000-watt radio station and by a TV crew from St. Joseph, 70 miles away. Then came a civic luncheon at a small restaurant attached to a Crown gas station. By the end of the day, White and Perry had spoken and signed autographs at four schools, three banks, two radio stations, a luncheon and a dinner.
Unlike in some other expansion markets—Seattle, Toronto and Montreal, to name three—professional baseball has been a part of Kansas City's blood for more than 100 years. With the exception of 1968, the season between Finley's exodus and Kauffman's arrival, there has been a pro team there every year since 1884. That year the Altoona, Pa., franchise in the Union Association folded and moved to K.C., where the team became known as the Cowboys. Later, Kansas City was home to the Blues of the American Association and to the famous Monarchs of the Negro leagues. In 1955 the Philadelphia A's arrived, marking the major leagues' first shift west of St. Louis. Finley's high profile and gimmickry were a lot different from Kauffman's understated style. Charlie O brought elephants, mules and funny uniforms to town, and, oh, yes, he also brought a horrible team. During 13 years in K.C., Finley's A's never reached .500, had a .404 winning percentage and finished an average of 35 games out of first.
The current high expectations in Kansas City make reversals more noticeable than they would be elsewhere. In that season opener against the Orioles, Horn, released by the Red Sox last December and brought off the Rochester roster to Baltimore on April 4, hit a three-run homer off Saberhagen in the second inning. With two on and one out in the eighth and the Royals leading 6-3, Wathan let Farr pitch to Horn, leaving Mark Davis in the bullpen. Farr hung a slider, and Horn hit it out—another three-run blast. The Orioles won 7-6 in the 10th. "Duke [Wathan] had never had anything but a bullpen by committee, and he learned today what you're supposed to do with a $3 million closer," one player groused. Then he added, "One thing about Duke, he learns. He never forgets."
Against the Orioles in the second game of the season, Gubicza showed skeptics that his shoulder—which had troubled him at the end of last season and prevented him from throwing until the end of the lockout—was fit as he got to the sixth inning. Then three relievers set up things for Davis, and the Royals had a 2-1 win.
However, Danny Tartabull tore a muscle in his leg shagging a ball in batting practice before that game and will be lost for a month. Injuries and age are two serious questions the Royals must face from the outset. One third of the lineup-Brett, White and catcher Bob Boone—are 36, 39 and 42, respectively. Brett has been so snakebit by injuries that he has played 140 or more games only four times in the last 13 years. Tartabull and underappreciated shortstop Kurt Stillwell also have been injury plagued.
Last Friday night, the Blue Jays came to town. Pitchers Jimmy Key and Duane Ward held Kansas City's hitters in check while George Bell's RBI single and homer beat Storm Davis 3-1. In the season's first three games, Bo Jackson hit one ball out of the infield—a chopper up the middle that went over Key's head and under the gloves of shortstop Tony Fernandez and second baseman Manny Lee. Bo's speed turned the hit into a double.
Five days, three games, two losses. "This should be a far better club than the one that had the third-best record in baseball," said Saberhagen after Game 3, referring to Kansas City's 1989 record. "I can't wait until we're playing every day, which is when our pitching should tell."
The Royals are enthused about the acquisition of leadoff man Perry, who hit .300 and stole 29 bases for Atlanta in 1988 but was far below those numbers last year. "We need a leadoff hitter, and with Perry and Kevin Seitzer [.387 on-base percentage in '89], we are much improved in front of George, Bo and Tartabull," says Wathan.
But the American League West is the Arms Division, and Saturday afternoon Cy I (Saberhagen, the American League Cy Young Award in 1985 and '89) teamed up with Cy II (Mark Davis, National League winner last season) to beat the Jays 3-1 as Jackson had two doubles and Perry hit his first AL home run. "This is the way our bullpen should work," said Wathan. When Fernandez singled off Saberhagen with one out in the eighth, Jeff Montgomery—who had an astounding 1.37 ERA last year as a closer and had strikeouts in 32 consecutive appearances—retired Mookie Wilson and Kelly Gruber. That allowed Mark Davis to come on in the ninth for a 1-2-3 save.
Peace was restored to the prairies, and KMBZ might not get another critical caller until May. Welcome to Kansas City, Mark Davis.