The ten-year period from 1976-85 was a great one for the baseball fans in Kansas City. The Royals won the old AL West six times, the American League pennant twice and the World Series in 1985. The 1983 Kansas City Royals were the outlier in this otherwise outstanding era, finishing under .500 and unable to make a serious run at the division crown.
Kansas City’s offense fell hard. The Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett, posted his numbers—stat line of .385 on-base percentage/.563 slugging percentage, but missed time with injuries. The same was true with first baseman Willie Mays Aikens, who hit 23 home runs. The only player who had a strong season and was regularly in the lineup was veteran DH Hal McRae, whose stat line clocked in at .372/.462.
Otherwise, the lineup was marked with disappointments. Willie Wilson, the speedy centerfielder who won a batting title in 1982, saw his production fall off. Wilson still stole 59 bases, but he wasn’t on base enough for it to be impactful. Frank White and U.L. Washington had bad years at the middle infield spots. So did Pat Sheridan in the outfield.
The biggest falloff though was the effective end of the career of veteran centerfielder Amos Otis. A terrific all-around player who had been vital to this franchise’s best teams, Otis’ numbers drastically tailed off. He left KC after this season and only played one more year in the majors before hanging it up.
All told, the offense ranked 12th in a 14-team American League for runs scored. And the pitching wasn’t a whole lot better.
Larry Gura was the only starter to make at least thirty starts and the veteran lefty finished with an ERA of 4.90. Bud Black and Paul Splitorff were each respectable in a left-handed heavy rotation. But they only combined to make 51 starts and the back end of the rotation had absolutely no one who was consistent.
You simply couldn’t win with a rotation this ransacked with inconsistency. So Dan Quisenberry’s 45 saves and 1.94 ERA were terrific for him individually, but they weren’t going to impact a staff ERA on its way to ninth in the AL.
The season didn’t start badly. Kansas City won 9 of 15 against competitive teams from the AL East. They continued to play mostly outside their division through May and the second month of the season was a little shakier. On Memorial Day the Royals were playing .500 ball at 20-20.
In the alignment of the pre-1994 era, each league had just an East and West and only the first-place team went to the postseason. The good news for KC in 1983 was that no one else was really coming out strong. They were in second place as the calendar flipped to early summer and within 4 ½ games of a packed divisional race that had the A’s, Rangers, White Sox, Twins and Mariners all in striking distance.
Kansas City’s schedule shifted to playing these teams through June and early July and the results didn’t change much. By the All-Star break, the Royals were 37-36 and still within 4 ½ games. Although now they were in fourth place, with Texas, California and Chicago ahead of them.
A general ho-hum pattern of baseball was interrupted by some excitement in New York. On July 24, the Royals trailed the Yanks 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth. Brett came to the plate with a man aboard. He homered.
Billy Martin, in New York for one of his many managerial stints here, was sitting on a hole card. Martin had noticed that the pine tar on Brett’s bat went slightly past the legal limit. The Yankee manager chose now to point it out to the umpires. They ruled Brett out. The subsequent imagery of a furious and red-faced Brett storming out of the dugout and needing to be restrained remains a hilariously iconic image of the incident.
And the drama wasn’t done. The Royals filed a protest. American League president Lee MacPhail ruled that while Brett indeed violated the rules, the punishment did not fit the crime. He restored the home run and ordered the teams to complete play on Thursday, August 18, a mutual off-day. Kansas City ended up winning 5-4.
August 18 marked a key benchmark date in the pennant race for other reasons. What both divisions had in common was that one team was starting to pick up steam. The Orioles were humming in the East. And closer to home, the White Sox had a six-game lead over the Royals. The Royals would begin a stretch of games against both division leaders the very next night. Kansas City had to make a move now or this season would get away
The Royals went to Baltimore for a weekend series. They led 4-0 in the first game of a Friday doubleheader, but Quisenberry blew the lead and lost 5-4. In the nightcap, and again on Saturday afternoon, the offense mailed it in. Ten hits and two runs in both games combined led to two more losses. Finally, McRae gave the team a boost on Sunday with three hits, a home run and four RBI to lead an 8-3 win.
But the urgency of the coming home series with Chicago was heightened even further. And the bats retreated into silence again, wasting a good Monday outing from Splitorff in a 3-1 loss. White stepped up on Tuesday with two hits and 3 RBI to lead the way to a 10-2 win. But in the Wednesday night finale, Quisenberry came on in a 3-3 game and gave up the lead run.
By the time this stretch was over, Kansas City was under .500 and nine games back. They played both teams in two-game sets right after this and lost all four games. In a division where everyone except the White Sox was fading, KC still finished the season in second place. But the final record was 79-83 and they were twenty games behind the leader.
It was a rough season, but it was an aberration. The Royals started getting some new pieces and in 1984 they won the AL West again, setting the tone for the franchise’s ultimate triumph in 1985.