The Royals were just two years removed from the ultimate high—their 1985 World Series title that capped off a decade of consistent winning. But they couldn’t be blamed if it seemed like longer. 1986 had turned into a long nightmare. The team slipped under .500. Manager Dick Howser was diagnosed with a brain tumor and passed away. The 1987 Kansas City Royals were looking to pick up the pieces. To a certain extent, they did. But at the same time it was also apparent that this was a new era in KC baseball–and not a positive one.
Nothing underscored the time of change than third base no longer being occupied by the great George Brett. Now 34-years-old, the greatest player in the history of the franchise was being moved over to first base. It didn’t slow down Brett’s production. The future of Hall of Famer rolled up a stat line of .388 on-base percentage/.496 slugging percentage while learning a new position.
Kevin Seitzer was the young man given the task of stepping in at third and he proved to be more than ready. Seitzer’s 207 hits were the most in the American League and his final stat line was .399/.470.
Kansas City’s front office was busy in the offseason and made two big moves. The first one was a boon for the offense. A five-player deal with the Seattle Mariners was keyed by Danny Tartabull becoming a Royal. Tartabull hit 34 home runs, produced 101 RBIs and posted a .390/.541 stat line.
The problem offensively was a lack of depth. There were some notable individual performances to be sure. Veteran centerfielder Willie Wilson stole 59 bases, but his OBP was a meager .320. Steve Balboni popped 24 homers at DH, but only slugged .427. Frank White, another veteran of the glory years, saw his production sharply fall off at second base. And there was a rookie leftfielder you might have heard about—a guy named Bo Jackson. Bo knew power, and he slugged .455. But his OBP was that of a young hitter still learning, clocking in at .296.
All in all, the end result was the Royals scoring fewer runs than anyone else in the American League.
The good news was that Kansas City could pitch. Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Charlie Leibrandt and Danny Jackson all made at least 33 starts, with ERAs ranging from 3.36 to 4.02. Bud Black made 18 spot starts and posted an ERA of 3.60. It was a remarkable display of consistency from the Royal rotation. It was enough to cover for a weak bullpen,
We mentioned two big trades in the offseason. The second one dealt with the pitching. This deal, with the Mets, was another five-player swap. Unfortunately for KC, the highlight of this one was parting with starting pitcher David Cone. As good as Royal pitching was in 1987—the second-best staff ERA in the American League—it could have been even better.
Kansas City muddled through much of April, starting the season 9-10. But they picked up the pace and won 13 of 18, including a three-game sweep of the contending Milwaukee Brewers (an American League team prior to 1998). By Memorial Day, the Royals were sitting on a record of 24-16 and a 3 ½ game lead in the AL West.
The alignment of major league baseball from 1969 to 1993 had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team could make the postseason. So the Royals—along with another hopeful, the Minnesota Twins, who were 4 ½ back, were situated in the AL West. Other contenders included the division’s current members in the Mariners, California Angels and Oakland A’s. The White Sox and Rangers, non-contenders each, rounded out the division.
June was a tougher month for Kansas City. Milwaukee got some revenge when the Royals went north and lost three straight. A stretch of games against AL West teams began with KC holding on to a 1 ½ game lead.
This key schedule sequence started well, taking three of four in Seattle. But Kansas City went to Minnesota and was swept three straight. The Royals lost three of four at home to the Angels and two of three to the A’s. The offensive woes were on full display, with KC scoring just 26 runs in the ten games against Minnesota, California and Oakland.
The Royals were now facing a 3 ½ game deficit in the standings and needed to do something to stop the bleeding. They went to Anaheim for a four-game weekend set with the Angels.
It was the veterans who stepped up on Thursday night. Wilson had three hits and scored three runs at the top of the order. Frank White drove in three runs. Tartabull tacked on a home run and Gubicza went the distance for a 10-4 win.
Danny Jackson took the ball on Friday night and was brilliant. It was a vintage Royal game in 1987 in that there wasn’t much offense, but Tartabull’s three hits were enough for Jackson, who won 2-0. Saturday night was a very un-vintage Royals game in 1987. The bats unloaded. Wilson had a four-hit night. Brett, Tartabull, Balboni and catcher Jamie Quirk all went deep. The result was an 8-4 win.
Even though KC lost Sunday’s finale, they had stopped the slide and followed it up by winning series with Seattle and Minnesota. By the All-Star break, they had nudged to within two games of the front-running Twins and were tied for the second with the A’s.
But the latter part of July was an unmitigated disaster. Kansas City went 3-11. While there were some games against the then-first place New York Yankees, the slate also included bad teams from Baltimore and Cleveland. The Royals were now under .500. They stayed that way through August and Billy Gardner, who had taken over the manager’s reins after Howser fell ill, was fired. John Wathan, once a valuable backup catcher on this organization’s good teams of the recent past, got the manager’s gig.
And it wasn’t too late. The AL West was a weak division and the Royals were only 5 ½ games behind the Twins on Labor Day. The A’s were nestled in between, three games out. There was still the possibility of a pennant race. Kansas City came out of the holiday weekend by grabbing two wins over California and headed into Oakland for a four-game set they simply had to have.
It didn’t start well. Jackson was brilliant on Thursday night, but this team’s two weaknesses—the offense and the bullpen did them in. Jackson handed the pen a 2-1 lead in the eighth, but the game ended up a 3-2 loss.
Saberhagen took the ball on Friday night and tossed a shutout. Balboni homered and drove in three runs, and the result was an easy 9-0 win. Balboni rolled his hot hitting right into Saturday afternoon. He drove in three more runs. The Royals went 7-for-17 with runners in scoring position. It was a rare slugfest and Kansas City got a 10-7 win.
The Sunday finale was the chance to take the series. Gubicza started, and while he wasn’t dominant, he worked his way into the eighth inning. Balboni homered again. The bullpen inherited a 6-5 lead in the eighth and this time they made it stand up. Kansas City was back over .500 with a record of 72-71. They were tied with Oakland for second place and were within 4 ½ games off Minnesota.
There were three weeks to go and if you looked ahead to the final week and a half, there were going to be six games between the Royals and Twins. There was plenty of opportunity for Kansas City to re-establish themselves at the top of this division. But they never got to those head-to-head battles.
The Angels and A’s made a return trip to the Midwest. On their homefield, the Royals lost five of the seven games. They were back under .500 and into third place, six games out. There would be no final push.
Kansas City was able to go 9-3 over the final couple weeks. It was enough to boost the final record to 83-79 and nudge them past Oakland into second place. It was certainly better than the nightmarish 1986 season. But if anyone was looking for the Royals to be “back”, 1987 was a good sign that a new, less successful era, had begun.