Forgotten Contender: The 1989 Kansas City Royals
After winning the World Series in 1985 and capping off a decade of dominance in the old AL West, the Royals slipped over the next three years. They suffered through a losing season in 1986 and were barely over .500 in 1987 and 1988, although what was then the weakness of the division kept them in contention in ’87. John Wathan, a catcher on the championship team, came in to manage the team. The 1989 Kansas City Royals made a jump forward with a strong season, even if the rising strength of the AL West now kept them out of the playoffs.
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It was pitching that drove the ’89 Royals and particular the work of staff ace Bret Saberhagen. With a dazzling year of 23 wins, 262 innings pitched and a 2.16 ERA, Saberhagen was a landslide winner of his second Cy Young Award in five years. Mark Gubicza was a horse as the #2 starter, working over 250 innings himself, winning 15 games and posting a 3.04 ERA.
The rotation lacked depth, with Charlie Leibrandt the only other starter who consistently went to mound and he ended up with an ERA on the wrong side of 5. Wathan made up for it with use of a versatile staff that had two arms who contributed in both the bullpen and in the rotation.
Tom Gordon had a long major league career. In 1989 he was a green 21-year-old. Making 16 starts and 33 relief appearances, Gordon won 17 games and finished with a 3.64 ERA. Luis Aquino also started 16 games, relieved 18 more times and his ERA was 3.50.
The closer’s role was shared by Steve Farr and Jeff Montgomery. Each saved 18 games, although with a 1.37 ERA, Montgomery was significantly better than Farr, who clocked in at 4.12.
In any case, the supporting cast was good enough to allow Saberhagen and Gubicza to carry the Kansas City staff to the third-best ERA in the American League.
An aging everyday lineup was where the real problems lie. George Brett, the Hall of Fame third baseman and greatest player in the history of the franchise, was now 36-years-old. He was moved to first base and while he could still hit and get on base, with a .362 on-base percentage, he wasn’t the dominant force of just a few years earlier.
Frank White, another mainstay of the glory years, was still playing second base at age 38 and his production plummeted. The Royals had 41-year-old Bob Boone behind the plate. And while Boone’s .351 OBP was commendable given his age and his position, he also lacked power. Willie Wilson in centerfield, another key part of the franchise’s best teams, was now 33-years-old and did not produce in 1989.
The Kansas City offense wasn’t hopeless. Kevin Seitzer, their young third baseman, batted .281 and drew 102 walks, elevating his OBP to .387. Danny Tartabull, a nice young rigthfielder had a stat line of .369 on-base percentage/.440 slugging percentage. Jim Eisenreich had a line of .341/.448.
But the man whom the Royal offense revolved around was their third-year leftfielder. A man who was already a legend at the time and has become an even bigger one in his post-playing days. Bo Jackson.
Jackson is most renowned for his football skills, winning a Heisman Trophy at Auburn, going on to a good career with the Los Angeles Raiders in the NFL and being absolutely unstoppable in Tecmo Bowl, the late 1980s version of Madden for football fans. But Bo’s biggest renown came from being a two-sport athlete and he was terrific for Kansas City in 1989.
Bo hit 32 home runs, stole 26 bases and drove in 105 runs. He didn’t get on base consistently, with an OBP of only .310. But there were other players who could do that. What this KC team needed was some muscle and Bo, with his .495 slugging percentage, provided that. It wasn’t enough to make the Royal offense good—there were too many holes, too little depth and too many one-dimensional hitters—but it got them to 11th in a 14-team American League for runs scored.
Prior to 1994, major league baseball’s alignment split each league into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place teams made the playoffs, going directly to the League Championship Series. In general, the arrangement had served the Royals well in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, as they won AL West titles with records that were often good for third or worse in the AL East. But everything runs in cycles and now it was the West that was rising.
Oakland was the most feared team in baseball, with the Bash Brothers of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. They had won over a 100 games and the American League pennant in 1988 before suffering a shocking World Series loss. The A’s were hungry to get back. The Angels and Rangers were no slouch.
That meant Kansas City had little room for error and that taking advantage of an early schedule that was exclusively the AL East into early May was imperative. The Royals did just that, going 20-12 against the opposite division. Then they took three of four from Texas and won a series in Minnesota.
A trip to Detroit brought them back to earth with three straight losses and the Royals lost a return series against the Rangers. But the start was strong enough to have KC at 29-19 on Memorial Day. They were 3 ½ back of Oakland and in third place. The Angels (then called the “California” Angels) were in second place. Texas was 4 ½ off the pace. All four teams would have led the AL East.
Kansas City came out of the holiday weekend and lost series to the Twins and Mariners. The Royals were 4 ½ games back when California and Oakland paid a visit to the heartland in the first part of June.
A weekend series with the Angels got off to a rollicking start. Bo ripped a three-run jack in the first inning on Friday night and KC cruised 6-1. Saturday night’s game was tied 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth when Tartabull’s two-out home run delivered a 5-4 win. In the Sunday finale, the Royals trailed 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth. Boone belted a three-run blast and KC won 5-3.
Gubicza went to the mound on Monday night against Oakland and was brilliant, working ten innings and leaving with the scored tied 1-1. In the bottom of the 11th, shortstop Kurt Stillwell worked a leadoff walk, was bunted up and scored the game-winning run on a base hit by Eisenreich.
The Royals kept coming on Tuesday when Boone’s bases-clearing double keyed a four-run second inning and a 5-3 win. Even though Kansas City lost the finale, a tough 2-1 decision to Oakland ace Dave Stewart, the Royals had put their imprint on this race, nudged past the Angels into second place and were within 2 ½ games of the A’s.
Kansas City had a letdown and lost three of four to a Cleveland team that wasn’t very good. But they still reached the All-Star break at 49-37 and were 3 ½ games out. It was still better than anyone in the AL East. But it was only good for third place in the AL West. California had heated up and taken the division lead. Oakland was in second and Texas lurking in fourth, 5 ½ back.
The All-Star Game was in Anaheim and produced an electric moment. Bo had been voted a starter by the fans and was hitting leadoff. In the bottom of the first, he took a low pitch and golfed it to dead center for a home run. Bo was named the game’s MVP in a 5-3 American League win. Officially it was meaningless, but it was this franchise’s biggest national moment since the 1985 World Series.
Coming out of the break, the Royals teetered. They had an opportunity against another diet of AL East games, but only went 10-11. By early August, they were seven games back. But KC answered the bell against their divisional rivals, going 11-3 against teams from the AL West. That included taking three of four from the Angels. And it included winning two of three from the A’s, a series where Gubicza delivered a 3-1 win and Saberhagen tossed a complete-game four-hit shutout.
By Labor Day, Kansas City’s record was a healthy 80-56 and they were squarely in the race. Oakland had re-asserted themselves at the top of the division and led the Royals by 2 ½ games. The Angels were 4 ½ back. The Rangers had faded. The top three teams would have led the AL East.
A trip to Detroit was again deflating, with three straight losses. After Saberhagen lost Friday night’s opener, the other pitchers gave up 21 runs in the losses on Saturday and Sunday. KC slipped 4 ½ back of Oakland. California had also missed an opportunity and remained five back.
The A’s slumped the following week, while the Royals only won four of their seven games. Enough to chip the margin down to 2 ½ games, but the Angels were the bigger beneficiary, also moving to within 2 ½ of the lead. There were two weeks to go. And the final week was a road trip to California and Oakland. The promise of a thrilling finish was real.
But the Royals did not take care of business at home against mediocre teams from Chicago and Seattle. KC lost four of their seven games. By the time the final week started both they, and the Angels, were 5 ½ back. The AL West race was all but over. Oakland had it wrapped up by Wednesday.
The Royals still took three of four from the Angels to start the week and put their grip on second place. They won two more from the A’s. Kansas City’s final record clocked in at 92-70. The A’s went on to win the World Series and are remembered as one of the best champions of this era.
That record was…have you heard this before—good enough to win the AL East by three games. It was enough to be tied with NL West champion San Francisco and only a game back of NL East champ Chicago. Under the alignment that would debut in 1994 it was enough to comfortably win the AL Central.
But even though fate might have been cruel, the 1989 Kansas City Royals were still a very good baseball team. They had star talent. And only one time since—the championship season of 2015—has seen this franchise exceed the 92 wins they posted in ’89.