The mid-1970s through the mid-1980s were a great time to be a baseball fan in Kansas City. The Royals were a perennial contender. They won division titles in 1976, 1977 and 1978. They ran second in 1979 and won the American League pennant in 1980. Even though 1981 saw them slip, the strange dynamics of that strike season still got them in the playoffs. The 1982 Kansas City Royals mostly fit the mold—they were a good team and they contended to the final weekend, although this edition came up just short.
An offense that ranked fourth in the American League in runs scored was the engine behind the success. Hal McRae, the veteran DH, hit 27 homers, drove in 133 runs and finished fourth in the AL MVP voting. Willie Wilson, the speedy centerfielder, stole 37 bags and won the batting title with a .332 average.
Frank White slugged .469 by using the alleys of Royals Stadium, to the tune of 45 doubles. The great George Brett was at third base, with an on-base percentage of .378 and a slugging percentage of .505. And on this fast team, even the catcher could run—John Wathan stole 36 bases.
It was pitching that caused the ’82 Royals to come up a bit short. Kansas City sought to address this area in the offseason when they traded four players to San Francisco in exchange for veteran lefty Vida Blue. The deal worked out—Blue won 13 games with a 3.78 ERA and none of the players dealt made a major impact. But Blue was the best they had and those numbers for an ace weren’t going to cut it.
Larry Gura won 18 games, but his ERA was a touch over 4. The same went for 10-game winner Paul Splitorff. Dennis Leonard was only able to make 21 starts and he ended with a 5.10 ERA. Gura, Splitorff and Leonard had all been instrumental on this franchise’s best teams. Now they were sliding to mediocrity and no one else was stepping up.
Dan Quisenberry continued to be a reliable closer, one of the game’s best and the submarine-style pitcher saved 35 games and logged 136 innings. Mike Armstrong also put on a lot of mileage for a reliever, with 112 innings with a 3.12 ERA. Veterans Don Hood and Bill Castro were respectable. But the bullpen shortcomings couldn’t cover for the rotation and the KC staff ERA ranked 10th in the American League.
The first couple months of the season were up and down. The Royals swept the Milwaukee Brewers, the eventual American League pennant winner (the Brewers were in the AL prior to 1998) and scored 29 runs in the three games. Kansas City was also swept by a subpar Toronto Blue Jays team, scoring five runs in three games. These two contrasts captured the spring pretty well. Kansas City was 24-21 on Memorial Day. They were 5 ½ games out of first place.
The pre-1994 alignment of divisions was that both leagues had just an East and West and only the first-place team went to the playoffs. Kansas City was in the AL West. The California Angels were out in first place and the Chicago White Sox were in second. KC pulled in third as we headed into early summer.
A three-game series at home with the White Sox offered a chance to get some momentum. The Royals took advantage. They won the opener 11-4 behind three hits apiece from Wilson and Wathan in the top two spots of the batting order. Kansas City won the second game 4-3 behind a nice outing from Blue and three shutout innings from Quisenberry to close it.
In a wild finale, they led 5-4 in the ninth before Quisenberry gave up the tying run, and then the lead run in the 10th. Down to their last out in the bottom of the tenth, first baseman Willie Mays Aikens worked a walk and then scored on a triple from White. Kansas City broke the 6-6 tie in the 11th on consecutive singles from Wathan, Brett and veteran centerfielder Amos Otis. The sweep was complete and it kickstarted an eight-game winning streak in June.
But the ups and downs continued. Kansas City went west and lost three of four to the Angels. In early July they bounced back by sweeping California when the Halos made the return trip, behind brilliant starts from Blue, Gura and Bud Black. Kansas City took the lead in the AL West by as many as three games. But then they slid again and lost three straight to Milwaukee to go into the All-Star break.
We had a jam-packed race in the AL West. The Angels, Royals and White Sox were all tied in the loss column. The surprising Seattle Mariners were only four games back.
Kansas City often heated up in the late summer during this era of success and 1982 was no different. They went 12-4 during a stretch of games that started in late July. A schedule that was jam-packed in August saw the Royals play 32 games and win 21.
Within that stretch KC went 6-1 against Chicago, pushing the White Sox into third and 5 ½ games out on Labor Day. Seattle faded. The Royals led the Angels by two games as we headed into the stretch.
The first two weeks of September were so-so and California pulled even. The penultimate week of the season opened with the Royals in Anaheim for a three-game set.
Gura got the ball for Monday’s opener and he pitched well. But the bats went silent, going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and KC lost 3-2. The offense continued to stay quiet on Tuesday and even though Leonard was terrific, the game was still tied 1-1 in the ninth. Quisenberry came on and gave up the winning run. The trend finally broke on Wednesday’s finale and the KC bats put up five runs. But Blue was chased in the second inning and they still lost 8-5.
The devastating sweep left Kansas City 3 ½ games back with a week to play. They nudged the lead down to 2 ½ by the time the lowly Oakland A’s came to town for a four-game set to end the regular season.
There was no margin for error. Aikens homered twice on Thursday, drove in seven runs and led the way to an 11-4 win. With the Angels idle, the Royals were within two games.
More offensive fireworks came on Friday night. McRae homered and drove in five runs. Aikens homered again. KC won 12-7, but California held serve. Still two games out and only two games to play.
In an early Saturday afternoon start, the Royals were down 4-3 in the eighth. Then Aikens singled. White dropped a bunt and reached on an error. Another bunt moved the runners to second and third. A Wathan single tied the game, a sac fly brought in the lead run and Kansas City won 5-4. They had hope when the Angels took the field out west later that afternoon. But by nightfall, California had clinched.
It was a good season by any reasonable measure—the 90-72 record was fourth-best in the American League and would be a playoff season by the standards of today. But the Royals of this era were used to playing in October. And the shortcomings did indicate that changes needed to be made. Kansas City took a sharper step back in 1983 before turning back upward, with a division title again in 1984 and then finally winning the World Series in 1985.