Where the 1984 Pittsburgh Pirates were at in the historical arc of their franchise was a pertinent question coming into the season. They won the World Series as recently as 1979. Their only losing season since 1968 was in the strike-shortened year of 1981. They had been in first place as late as September in 1980, 1982 and 1983, even if they ultimately fell short.
On the other hand–those three most recent contenders all ended up in the low 80s for wins. Dave Parker left after 1983 via free agency. There were few pieces left from 1979. So where exactly was this team? The ‘84 Pirates decisively answered the question–and not in a way that anyone in the Steel City appreciated.
Pittsburgh struggled offensively all year. The biggest reason was down years from two good players at the corner infield spots. Jason Thompson had been a reliable power hitter with a good batting eye. The batting eye stayed good in 1984 and Thompson’s on-base percentage was .357. But his slugging percentage was a woeful .389. Even though he was only 29-years-old, his career decline had begun and he was out of baseball two years later.
Bill Madlock was at third base. A man who won four batting championships in his career struggled to an awful stat line of .297 OBP/.323 slugging. Even though Madlock was 33-years-old, it wasn’t the end for him. He had good seasons ahead of him. But they wouldn’t be in Pittsburgh and certainly did the Pirates no good in 1984.
It’s not that no one had good years with the bat. Second baseman Johnny Ray hit .312. Lee Lacy, the 36-year-old outfielder hit .321. Jim Morrison slugged .454. Tony Pena was at least a respectable bat behind the plate with a stat line of .333/.425. But without Thompson and Madlock’s production, the Pirates couldn’t score enough runs. And they finished 10th in a 12-team National League at doing so.
Another reason for the poor offense was the offseason trade of Mike Easler, a good lefthanded bat. But that at least brought back lefthanded starting pitcher John Tudor, and it signaled that the ‘84 Pirates would be built on their arms. Tudor made 32 starts and posted a solid 3.27 ERA. And he was just one of several success stories in the rotation.
Rick Rhoden finished with a 2.72 ERA in his 33 starts. Larry McWilliams went to the post 32 times and his ERA was 2.93. John Candelaria’s ERA was 2.72. Jose DeLeon, the talented second-year righthander had the “worst” ERA of the rotation and that was still a respectable 3.74.
Even more important, these five arms were healthy and combined for 153 starts. It eased the burden on a bullpen that was good in its own right. Kent Tekulve and Don Robinson shared closer duties in an era where a relief corps didn’t have to be nearly as deep as they do today.
Pittsburgh finished with the best staff ERA in the National League. If the adage that baseball is 90 percent pitching were true, they would have been home free. Unfortunately, the ‘84 Pirates proved that you do need to occasionally score some runs.
Seven losses in the first ten games dug a quick hole and by Memorial Day, the Pirates were 17-24. They were in last place in a six-team NL East that included the Phillies, Mets, Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals), Cubs and Cardinals. Pittsburgh was 7 ½ games off the pace in an era when only the first-place team could qualify for the postseason. They had to get their act in gear.
They didn’t. In early June, 14 games against NL East rivals produced a 3-11 record. The Pirates played well against the Cubs, winning four of seven against the eventual division champs. But they went to the West Coast and lost nine of eleven going into the All-Star break. They were 32-52, 16 ½ games out and the only NL East team that wasn’t at least hovering near .500.
Pittsburgh picked up the pace out of the break, playing those same West Coast teams (Dodgers, Padres, Giants) at home and going 10-4. But they couldn’t make a dent in the divisional margin. Any hope of a late summer surge was further put to rest with five losses in eight games with the Mets, the team that would finish second to Chicago.
The Pirates were back to twenty games under .500 by September 18, with a record of 65-85. They finished the season with a flourish that included sweeping the Cubs in Wrigley. The final record was a respectable 75-87.
But there was no doubt that this Pirate team was no longer a contender. For anyone who still harbored doubt, 1985 ended it when Pittsburgh lost 104 games and fired manager Chuck Tanner. An era of rebuilding had to begin.
The 1984 New York Mets came into the season as the heir to hard times. The franchise had captivated baseball in 1969 with their miracle run to a World Series title. A subsequent 1973 run to the National League pennant was almost as shocking. But after winning seasons in 1975-76, the franchise had fallen and couldn’t get up.
From 1977-83, they failed to so much as many 70 games in a season. That included a four-year run with Joe Torre as the manager. It included a year-plus with George Bamberger, who had recently turned around the Milwaukee Brewers. And if you were looking for an out with the strike year of 1981? No such luck—pro-rated out, the ’81 season was going to be as bad as any other during the seven-year drought.
It was time for changes in Queens. The Mets had already brought in Keith Hernandez, an All-Star first baseman from St. Louis. They called up Darryl Strawberry and the talented rightfielder won Rookie of the Year in 1983. They had another group of rookies coming up for 1984. And in Davey Johnson, they found the right manager to put it all together.
Hernandez and Strawberry continued to be the best everyday players in 1984. Hernandez batted .311 with an on-base percentage that was a sparkling .409. Strawberry hit 26 home runs, stole 27 bases and drove in 97 runs.
Offensive support came from second baseman Wally Backman and third baseman Hubie Brooks, with on-base percentages that ranged from .340 to .360. Leftfielder George Foster was now 35-years-old and no longer what he’d been during his glory days in Cincinnati. But he still went deep 24 times and drove in 86 runs.
Mookie Wilson provided speed and defense in the outfield. Kelvin Chapman was a solid reserve infielder. Rafael Santana was starting to emerge at shortstop. None were outstanding, and the catching spot was a weak point, but it was enough for the Mets to finish in the middle of the 12-team National League in runs scored.
The pitching only ranked 8th in in the NL in ERA, but itwas the area where the excitement came from. Walt Terrell was a reliable arm coming into his prime and he finished with a 3.52 ERA in his 33 starts. A rookie named Ron Darling got started on a stellar career that would extend into the broadcast booth in his post-playing days. Darling also went to the post 33 times and his ERA was 3.81. Sid Fernandez, a 21-year-old lefty got 15 starts and posted a 3.50 ERA.
But the buzz in Shea Stadium came when 19-year-old Dwight Gooden took the mound. He won 17 games, finished with a 2.60 ERA, won Rookie of the Year and finished second in the Cy Young voting. A star was born.
The Mets played good baseball right out of the gate and started 15-8. They were in first place in the NL East in early May, before settling in at 22-19 by the Memorial Day holiday. New York was only 2 ½ games out.
The league alignment prior to 1984 was two divisions per league with the winners going directly to the League Championship Series. With no Central Division in existence, the Cubs were the team setting the early pace in the NL East. The Philadelphia Phillies had won this division in ’83 and were in second. The Mets were tied with the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) for third.
New York slumped out of the holiday weekend and was four back in early June. Then they won 13 of 17, a stretch that was capped with a series win over Philadelphia. The Mets nudged into first place again, leading by a half-game at the All-Star break. The Cubs were hot on their heels and the Phils were 3 ½ out. The Expos fell out of contention, a development that would bode well for the Mets by the coming offseason.
The late part of July was good for the folks in Queens. They went 11-3 out of the break, took a 3 ½ game lead on Chicago and were up five on Philadelphia. The Cubs were coming into Shea Stadium for a four-game set on the final weekend of the month.
Gooden took the ball on Friday night and allowed just four hits in eight innings. The 2-1 win pushed New York’s lead to 4 ½. All was right with the world.
Only it was all downhill from there. It started on Saturday afternoon. Relief pitcher Doug Sisk came for Darling in a 3-3 game in the eighth. Eight runs later, the Mets were on their way to an 11-4 loss. In the Sunday doubleheader, the bats went silent. They got just twelve hits over the twinbill and were a combined 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Losses of 3-0 and 5-1 narrowed the lead to a game and a half.
New York followed that up by losing three straight to a mediocre St. Louis Cardinals team. The Mets were a half-game back of Chicago when they went to Wrigley Field for another four-game set, this one starting on August 6.
Gooden started Monday’s opener and there would be no reprise of his last start against the Cubbies. He was down 6-0 after four and the Mets lost 9-3. Tuesday was a doubleheader. Darling and Ed Lynch got the starts. Neither got out of the fifth inning. Losses of 8-6 and 8-4 pushed New York deeper into the hole.
The finale on Wednesday afternoon was going better. A two-out/two-run single by catcher Mike Fitzgerald gave the Mets a 5-3 lead going into the bottom of the seventh. Terrell and reliever Wes Gardner couldn’t hold on. Chicago scored four times, won 7-6 and New York was facing a 4 ½ game deficit.
The NL East race stayed mostly stable the balance of August and the Mets were five games out on Labor Day. They had a couple more head-to-head series with the Cubs ahead in September, so this was still very much a race.
But New York lacked consistency and in an ironic foreshadowing of 1985, the Cards were their nemesis. Twice, St. Louis swept two-games sets from the Mets. New York couldn’t get traction against lowly Pittsburgh. The split of the six games the Mets played with the Cubs wouldn’t have been sufficient in any case. Set against the backdrop of these missed opportunities against lesser teams, the NL East turned into a runaway.
New York was still able to finish with a nice 7-2 stretch and that got them to 90 wins. Whatever disappointment they felt had to be mitigated by just how far the franchise had come in a single year under Johnson.
They were also taking steps to get better. A late August trade had brought Ray Knight to play third. That gave the Mets the opportunity to move Hubie Brooks. They used Brooks as the lead piece in a four-player package that got Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter out of Montreal, who decided to start rebuilding.
New York was even better in 1985. But while the Cubs fell off, the Cardinals jumped up and St. Louis won a sizzling NL East race in ’85. The Mets kept coming. In 1986, they broke through and won it all. They contended to the final week in 1987. They won 100 games in 1988 and returned to the postseson.
While there was residual disappointment in this era for producing “only” one World Series title, the Mets were one of baseball’s flagship franchises in the latter part of the 1980s. With the Yankees down (at least by Yankee standards), the Mets owned the Big Apple. That era started in 1984.
There are times when a perceived mismatch leads to a magical upset or at least a riveting moment when a favorite has to turn back a determined challenger. The 1984 ALCS between the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals was not one of them. The Tigers came in a heavy favorite, and while the Royals were able to make a couple of the individual games very good, the outcome of the series was never in doubt.
1984 was the last year the LCS round was still a best-of-five affair. Homefield advantage was determined by a rotation system, so the series would open with two games in Kansas City on a Tuesday & Wednesday. After a day off for travel, the balance of the series would be played in Detroit. You can read more about the season-long paths each team took to its division title at the links below. This article will focus strictly on the games of the 1984 ALCS.
Each team had its ace ready, Detroit with Jack Morris and Kansas City sending Bud Black. The Tigers wasted little time getting after Black and sending a clear message about their status as the top-heavy favorite to win the World Series.
Lou Whitaker led off the ALCS with a single and Alan Trammell promptly tripled him home. A sac fly from Lance Parrish had Detroit up 2-0 before anyone was even settled in. Larry Herndon and Trammell each hit leadoff homers in the fourth and fifth inning to extend the lead to 4-zip. Another run came in the seventh when Whitaker took second on a misplayed liner to right and quickly scored on a base hit from Trammell.
Morris was rolling and the 5-0 lead was plenty, but the Tigers tacked on three more runs, including another leadoff homer, this one from Parrish. The Royals avoided a shutout with a run in the seventh but that was all they achieved. The final was 8-1.
Detroit went to 18-game winner Dan Petry in Game 2. Kansas City had a 20-year-old kid who had both started and relieved throughout 1984 and pitched pretty well. His name was Bret Saberhagen. The Tigers wasted no time jumping on the kid. After a one-out error, Detroit pounced with back-to-back doubles from Kirk Gibson and Parrish. The Royals again faced a 2-0 deficit before coming to bat.
Gibson padded the lead with a one-out solo blast in the third. It looked like the rout was on. But Saberhagen settled in and Detroit stopped scoring. Meanwhile, the K.C. offense started grinding its way back.
Pat Sheridan worked a one-out walk in the fourth and took third on a base hit by George Brett. A productive ground ball from Jorge Orta put the Royals on the board. In the seventh, Steven Balboni singled with one out. A forceout replaced him on the basepaths with Frank White and Dane Iorg’s pinch-hit single cut the lead to 3-2.
Detroit closer Willie Hernandez would won both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1984, and he came on in the eighth inning. Kansas City, fighting for its life, found a way to tie the game. Lynn Jones singled to start the frame. Hal McRae, a veteran of K.C.’s four ALCS battles from 1976-80 had lost his power by this stage of his career, but he still came through here with a game-tying double. Kansas City had gotten to Hernandez and still had their own great closer, Dan Quisenberry in the pen.
Tiger manager Sparky Anderson cut his losses on Hernandez and went to Aurelio Rodriguez. The move came through, as Rodriguez tossed two shutout innings, matching zeroes with Quisenberry as the game went to the 11th.
Parrish led off the Detroit half of the eleventh with a single. A sac bunt by Darrell Evans was booted by catcher Don Slaught and now there were runners on first and second. Ruppert Jones bunted both over and John Grubb came up with the biggest hit of this ALCS, a two-run double off Quisenberry. Kansas City rallied in the bottom of the inning, putting two on with two outs. Jones came to the plate and lifted a long fly ball to right. But there was no walkoff magic…just a flyout to Gibson. Rodriguez finished the job in the 5-3 win.
Detroit took the field on Friday night knowing they had three cracks at home to clinch their first pennant since 1968. Milt Wilcox got the ball for the Tigers and pitched the game of his life.
Wilcox threw a three-hitter, with no Royal batter ever making it to second base. And it turns out he needed to be just that great, because K.C. lefty Charlie Liebrandt was almost as good.
Detroit mounted a soft rally on the second. An infield hit by Barbaro Garbey started it. After a forceout, an Evans single put runners on the corners and Marty Castillo’s productive groundball out brought in the run. The Tigers threatened again the next inning, with Gibson on third and one out. But Leibrandt struck out Parrish and was able to escape.
The rest of the game was the two pitchers putting on a show. The 1-0 lead held and Hernandez came on for the ninth. When he got Darryl Motley to pop up to third, the city of Detroit could celebrate. Gibson was named ALCS MVP, going 5-for-12 with a home run and two RBI.
As series MVP honors go, those numbers are pedestrian. But no pitcher had to go more than twice, no reliever dominated and Trammell was the only other everyday player to have an impact going 4-for-11. Trammell was the difference in Game 1, but Gibson was in the much more competitive Game 2 that all but clinched the series.
Detroit was able to keep right on celebrating through the World Series, as they rolled through the San Diego Padres in five games to win what is still their most recent title (though the franchise won AL flags in 2006 and 2012).
The 1984 Kansas City Royals weren’t one of the stronger teams in the franchise’s halcyon days from 1976-85. The season looked lost several times and the final record was a mediocre 84-78. But in a year where the AL West was weak, the Royals put together a September surge that won them a division title.
It was a division title that was, at least by the standards of Royals baseball at this time, a long time coming. After winning the AL West four times from 1976-80 and winning the pennant in 1980, the Royals had seen the A’s, Angels and White Sox all take turns winning the division. Some offseason changes were made.
Amos Otis, the centerfielder who’d been such a big part of the late 1970s, was let go. Kansas City then made two good pickups in power-hitting first baseman Steve Balboni from the Yankees and relief pitcher Joe Beckwith from the Dodgers. K.C. only gave up minor leaguers that never panned out. Balboni hit 28 home runs and had a nice career run in Kansas City. Beckwith logged 100 innings out of the pen and posted a 3.40 ERA.
Other young players included catcher Don Slaught and shortstop Onix Concepion, though neither were very productive. Nor was rightfielder Pat Sheridan. Two veterans, designated hitter Hal McRae and second baseman Frank White were in decline, but managed to contribute something. White hit 17 home runs. McRae’s power was gone, but he finished with a .363 on-base percentage.
Darryl Motley hit 15 home runs from the left field spot, while centerfielder Willie Wilson batted over .300 and stole 47 bases. Ultimately though, the Royals offense ranked just 11th in the American League in runs scored because of relatively bad year from third baseman George Brett.
The word “relatively” has to be emphasized. Brett finished with an on-base percentage of .344 and a slugging percentage of .459, which is hardly an embarrassment. But after years of production at Hall of Fame levels, this was a dropoff and he also only played 104 games due to a series of nagging injuries.
Pitching was better than the hitting, although the Royals were still only in the middle of the league in ERA. Bud Black was the staff ace, winning 17 games with a 3.12 ERA. Black’s 35 starts made him the only pitcher to go to the post 30-plus times as manager Dick Howser kept finishing for a combination that would work.
Mark Gubicza was a young arm on the rise though he only finished 10-14, he posted a respectable 4.05 ERA in 29 starts. Larry Gura was a veteran on the decline and the 36-year-old lefty struggled to a 5.18 ERA. Charlie Leibrandt, a finesse lefty in the Gura mold, although younger, was able to win 11 games with a 3.63 ERA.
Two young arms with bright futures ahead of them also got their share of work. Danny Jackson made 11 starts with a 4.26 ERA. And the man who would be a World Series hero by 1985, 20-year-old Bret Saberhagen made 18 starts along with a lot of relief work. He finished 10-11 and the ERA was a solid 3.48.
The entire pitching staff ultimately pointed to submarine-style throwing closer Dan Quisenberry. One of the top relievers in baseball in the early 1980s, Quisenberry finished in the top three of the Cy Young voting four straight years, though he never won it. This year he saved 44 games—at a time when every closer in baseball didn’t routinely rack up huge save numbers. He finished second in the Cy Young race to another closer, Detroit’s Willie Hernandez. And with Hernandez winning the MVP, Quisenberry finished third in that race.
The Royals stumbled right away out of the gate, starting 5-15. They played nine games against the two best teams in the AL East, Detroit and Toronto and lost eight of them. Kansas City was able to stop the bleeding, but by Memorial Day the record was still just 18-24. The good news was that .500 was good enough to lead the AL West, so they were only three games back.
A 6-2 stretch against Minnesotaand Seattle had K.C. knocking on the door of the break-even mark, but they promptly lost nine of eleven to give the ground back and by June 20 they were in last place and 6 ½ games out. Once again, Howser steadied the ship and by the All-Star break the Royals had chipped back to a record of 39-43 and were within four games of first in a division where no one had any separation.
If anyone thought a rejuvenated K.C. team would come out of the All-Star break, their illusions were quickly shattered. The Royals went to Yankee Stadium for a five-game series and got swept, scoring just six runs in the process. Kansas City lost three of four to Cleveland the season hit its nadir with a record of 40-51 and an eight-game deficit in the AL West.
Oddly, it was games against the far superior AL East that turned the season around. The Royals went on a 9-3 run against the other division, including a four-game sweep of Toronto where they scored 28 runs. In early August, Kansas City went to Detroit, who was having one of the great seasons of the modern era. The Royals had another offensive explosion, scoring 27 runs in four games in a series sweep.
The White Sox were the defending divisional champs, but were starting to fade as the stretch drive approached. The Royals facilitated that fade, winning four of six games against their rival. By the time Labor Day arrived, Kansas City had reached the .500 mark at 68-68. They were in second place, just a game back of Minnesota. The California Angels were only a game and a half out. These three teams would chase the watered-down AL West crown to the end.
K.C. would begin a run of head-to-head battles with a three-game homer series against Minnesota on Labor Day. It didn’t start well, when the Royals only mustered five hits in a 4-1 loss. But Gubicza and Leibrandt answered the bell with strong outings of eight-plus innings the next two games. Quisenberry closed out a pair of 4-1 wins for the Royals. When Kansas City followed that up with a weekend series sweep of Seattle, they were in first place.
The margin was still only a single game and K.C. now made the return trip to the Twin Cities the following week. Gubicza pitched the opener and only trailed 3-2 in the eighth inning before he finally cracked and Minnesota broke the game open. A similar pattern happened the next night. Leibrandt pitched well, trailed 1-0 in the seventh, but then came apart as the Twins took their revenge on the two pitchers who had beaten them in Kansas City.
In the series finale, Black did what an ace does—he pitched eight strong innings. The game was tied 2-2 in the ninth. Concepion and Wilson both singled, were bunted over and Jorge Orta picked up the winning run with a sac fly. Kansas City then traveled to Seattle for the weekend and won two of three. The week ended with the Royals and Twins tied for first and the Angels a half-game back. There were two weeks to go.
Now it was time to play California and Kansas City stayed out west for a four-game series. The offense unloaded in the first two games, with six home runs by six different players and the combined score was 20-1. That same offense went quiet in the next two games. They got eleven hits combined and lost a 4-3 game in extra innings and were shut out 2-zip in the series finale. The Royals returned home to take a weekend series from the A’s. K.C. entered the final week still tied with Minnesota, and California a game and a half back.
For the fourth straight week, the Royals opened with a series against a fellow contender. The only thing that could have made this stretch run schedule any better was if these games were on the weekend. A Monday doubleheader began a four-game set and Saberhagen was brilliant in the opener, tossing a three-hitter in a 4-0 win. The bats came through in the nightcap. Brett drove in three runs and Motley unleashed with a grand slam and six RBIs in a 12-4 win. The Twins beat the White Sox, but K.C. was at least starting to separate from California.
The Royals all but crushed the Angels chances on Tuesday in a great baseball game. Trailing 5-4 I the ninth, Wilson walked, stole second and scored the tying run on a base hit by Dane Iorg. Quisenberry came on in relief and tossed four innings of shutout ball as the game went to the 12th inning. Iorg, who in the 1985 World Series, would get a walkoff RBI to win a legendary Game 6, came through again. He doubled, and it set up an RBI single from Balboni.
Even though Kansas City lost the finale 2-0, getting only four hits and wasting a good effort from Black, Minnesota had lost the final two games to Chicago. The last weekend began with K.C. up by a game and a half.
The Royals were off on Thursday and watched Minnesota blow a 3-0 eighth-inning lead in Cleveland and the margin extended to two games. On Friday night, with Kansas City having a late start in Oakland, they watched the Twins cough another one up, this one in stunning fashion. After scoring ten runs in the first two innings, Minnesota let Cleveland chip all the way back and closer Ron Davis blew it for the second straight night. The Indians delivered a stunning 11-10 win.
Kansas City played Oakland knowing that a one-game playoff was the worst they could do and one more win would clinch. After an up-and-down season and dramatic September, the Royals took care of business right away. The veterans came through, as White had three hits, including a triple and home run. Brett also homered, while the young Concepion met the moment with a three-hit game. The 6-5 win clinched the division.
It was by no means the greatest of division titles, with five AL East teams having a better record and no one else in the AL West breaking .500. Kansas City was summarily dispatched from the ALCS by the Detroit Tigers. But it was still a fun stretch run, it added another piece to the legacy of this period in franchise history…and it set the stage for the greatest year of 1985 when the Royals finally won the World Series.