Retro Corner: A Look Back at 1988

Spring training officially begins this weekend, but before pitchers and catchers report, RC's Max Rieper takes a look back at the Royals' 1988 season. The 1988 Royals boasted a solid pitching staff, but the club's offense simply couldn't keep up with Oakland's emerging "Bash Brothers."

1988 was a significant season for this author because it was the first season I really began following the Royals. The first game I attended was an April game against Baltimore, during the O's record-setting 21 game losing streak. The Royals looked as if they might be the ones to fall to Baltimore, but a ninth inning rally spared them that humiliation. I learned two things that day about baseball and the Royals. First, I learned what an intentional walk was when pinch hitter Thad Bosley was given a free pass. Second, I learned that Royals fans are very sarcastically critical of their team, but that criticism underlies a fervent passion for their hometown team. I still feel that is as true today as it was in 1988.

After winning the World Championship in 1985, the Royals preserved much of the nucleus that took them to the top. That nucleus had faltered with a losing season in 1986 and a very mediocre season in 1987. The dismantling of that nucleus would begin in 1988 with Royals fans saying goodbye to Steve Balboni, Lonnie Smith, Danny Jackson, Bud Black and Dan Quisenberry. Fresh young players like Danny Tartabull, Bo Jackson, and Kevin Seitzer began to emerge and gave promise to a new direction for the franchise.

1988 in a Box:

Record: 84-77 (3rd place, 19.5 GB)
Runs Scored: 704 (7th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 648 (3rd in AL)
Park Factor: Batting - 101/Pitching - 101 (over 100 favors batters)

General Manager: John Schuerholz
Manager: John Wathan

Attendance: 2,350,181 (5th in the AL) - 29,377 per game
Stadium: Royals Stadium

Longest Winning Streak: 7 (June 2 - June 8). The Royals got hot in June, ripping off a seven-game win streak early in the month. After an off day, they dropped a 1-0 game to the Angels on the 10th and then went on another six game winning streak. In all, the Royals won 13 out of 14, swept first place Oakland twice, and made up 8.5 games on the A's.
Longest Losing Streak: 6 (May 4 - 9; May 21 - 27; July 15 - 19)
How they started: George Bell hit three home runs against the Royals in an Opening Day loss. The Royals twice swept the Orioles but had a five game losing streak of their own in between the Baltimore wins.
How they ended: They were pretty much out of it by August, and the Royals evenly split their last eighteen games.
Best month: Despite their streaks in June, their best month was August. Kansas City finished 18-10 against some pretty mediocre to bad opponents.
Worst month: May. The Royals finished 11-17 and twice went on six-game losing streaks.
Best game: June 16 - Kansas City 9 Oakland 5. The best game was an ugly game that featured three Royals errors, but the Royals rapped out 17 hits with a big two run single in the eighth by Pat Tabler to win 9-5. The win pulled them within 4.5 games of the first place A's.
Worst game: May 27 - Texas 3 Kansas City 2. The loss dropped the Royals to six games under .500, their lowest point of the season. The Royals had previously dominated Rangers pitcher Jose Guzman, but could muster just seven hits against him as he finished a complete game.
Loved to face: Baltimore. The youthful O's really struggled in 1988, and the Royals completed a clean 12-0 sweep against them.
Hated to face: Milwaukee. The Royals dropped nine of 12 against the Brew Crew, including five of six at home.

Say Hello To: Kurt Stilwell, Floyd Bannister, Jeff Montgomery, Ted Power, Bill Buckner (signed in May), Pat Tabler (traded for in June), Rey Palacios (traded for in July)
Say Goodbye To: Danny Jackson, Lonnie Smith, Angel Salazar, Melido Perez, Greg Hibbard (minor leaguer), Bud Black (traded away in June), Gene Garber (released in July), Dan Quisenberry (released in July), Ted Power (traded away in July)

What Went Right: Like a lot of Royals teams, the 1988 version had excellent pitching and a sub par offense. The four man staff of Mark Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Leibrandt and Floyd Bannister finished 59-49 with a 3.44 ERA in 962.2 innings. Steve Farr emerged as a solid closer to replace the aging Dan Quisenberry, who was released in July. A young starting pitcher acquired in the winter from the Reds named Jeff Montgomery turned into a solid reliever. George Brett, Danny Tartabull and Bo Jackson gave the team three legitimate home run threats. The team could still run, finishing third in the league in steals with 137.

What Went Wrong: Outside of the power of Brett, Tartabull and Jackson, the team hit just 46 home runs with only Kurt Stillwell reaching a double digit home run total. Willie Wilson was in the twilight of his career, yet the team continued to hit him leadoff despite his miserable .289 OBA, the lowest of his career. Frank White continued to decline offensively despite his terrific glove. The team never did find a suitable designated hitter and used 13 different hitters as DH.

Youngsters (25 or under)— 8 semi-regulars (youngest regular was 23-year old Kurt Stillwell)
Prime (26-29)—5 semi-regulars
Past-Prime (30-33)—10 semi-regulars
Old Timers (34+)— 5 (oldest player was 40-year old Gene Garber)
Rookies: Mike MacFarlane, Jeff Montgomery
Top Prospect — 20-year old pitcher Tom Gordon was skyrocketing through the system, going 7-5 with a 2.06 ERA and172 strikeouts in 118 innings in Appleton (A ball). He then posted a 0.38 ERA six undefeated starts in Memphis (AA), and won all three of his games at Omaha (AAA) with a 1.33 ERA. He finished the dizzying season with a cup of coffee in Kansas City, posting a 5.17 ERA in 15.2 innings.
1988 Draft: Bob Hamelin, Joel Johnston, Tim Spehr, Mike Magnante, Victor Cole, Kerwin Moore

Best OPS+: George Brett 149
Most Runs Created: George Brett 117 (5th in AL)
Highest Batting Average: George Brett .306
Lowest Batting Average: Frank White .235
Most Home Runs: Danny Tartabull, 26 (8th in the AL)
Most RBI: George Brett, 103 (6th in the AL)
Most Stolen Bases: Willie Wilson, 35 (5th in the AL)
Moneyball Award: George Brett, 82 walks (just 51 strikeouts)
Angel Berroa Award: Willie Wilson, 22 walks in 628 plate appearances
Best Position Player: George Brett
Worst Position Player: Frank White

Most Wins: Mark Gubicza, 20 (3rd in AL)
Most Losses: Bret Saberhagen, 16 (tied for 2nd in AL)
Most Saves: Steve Farr, 20
Best ERA: Mark Gubicza, 2.70 (4th in AL)
Worst ERA: Floyd Bannister, 4.23 (Ted Power had a 5.94 ERA in 80.1 IP)
Most Innings: Mark Gubicza 269.2
Best Pitcher: Mark Gubicza
Worst Pitcher: Ted Power

All-Stars: George Brett, Mark Gubicza, Kurt Stillwell
Team Payroll: $11,558,873 (13th out of 26 teams)
Highest Paid Player: George Brett, $2,305,000
Career Best Seasons: Kurt Stilwell, Mark Gubicza
Career Worst Seasons: Frank White, Willie Wilson, Jim Eisenreich, Bill Pecota, Ted Power, Dan Quisenberry

All in the Family: Many '88 Royals had family connections to Major League Baseball. Kurt Stilwell and Danny Tartabull were the sons of former Major Leaguers (Ron Stilwell and Jose Tartabull). George Brett's brother Ken was a former Major Leaguer. And although they didn't know it at the time, Floyd Bannister and manager John Wathan would have sons that would play for the Royals (Brian Bannister and Dusty Wathan).

Season Summary
Since winning the World Series in 1985, General Manager John Schuerholz had done a good job preserving the nucleus that had reached the pinnacle of success. The young rotation of Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Charlie Leibrandt, Danny Jackson and Bud Black had all remained in the rotation through 1987. However, in 1988, that rotation would finally be disbanded as Danny Jackson was dealt to the Reds for shortstop Kurt Stilwell, and Bud Black was dealt to the Indians that summer for first baseman Pat Tabler. Both were moved to fill needs offensively, but neither would bring in the impact bat the Royals would need to keep up with the slugging Oakland Athletics.

Despite trading two arms, the Royals still had a solid nucleus of pitching with Saberhagen, Gubicza and Leibrandt. It was an even year, meaning an "off year" for Saberhagen, but he still posted a very respectable 3.80 ERA, despite a losing record at 14-16. Leibrandt got off to an awful start, going 3-10 with a 4.05 ERA in the first three months, but finished strong, winning ten of his last twelve decisions with a 2.50 ERA in the last three months. But it was Gubie who was the Royals ace that year, winning 20 games for the only time in his career with a 2.70 ERA, and finishing third in Cy Young balloting.

To compensate for losing two rotation arms, the Royals picked up veteran lefty Floyd Bannister from the White Sox. Despite coming off a career year, Bannister was pretty below-average for the Royals, winning 12 games, but with an ERA of 4.33. Ted Power filled in as a fifth starter when needed, tossing two complete game shutouts, but ultimately was too inconsistent and was dealt to Detroit. Rookie Luis Aquino filled in as a fifth starter late in the year and pitched well.

The bullpen was in a period of transition with veterans Gene Garber and Dan Quisenberry slowly getting squeezed out in favor of younger arms like Jeff Montgomery, Jerry Don Gleaton and Israel Sanchez. Both Quiz and Garber would eventually be let go that summer. Steve Farr was an invaluable jack-of-all trades filling every role the Royals asked of him. He was a long reliever, setup man, closer, and even tossed six shutout innings in a crucial start against Oakland. Overall, the Royals finished with an ERA of 3.65, third in the league.

Again, the offense proved to be the weakness of the ballclub. 32-year old centerfielder Willie Wilson posted an awful .289 OBA as the leadoff hitter much of the year, dragging down the entire lineup. 37-year old second baseman Frank White began to show his age, hitting just .235. The club could never find a designated hitter that could produce consistently. Jim Eisenreich and Steve Balboni were supposed to platoon, but when neither hit, the team went with a hodgepodge of hitters that included George Brett, Thad Bosley and backup catcher Scott Madison. The team got so desperate, they picked up veteran hitter Bill Buckner as a free agent after he was released by the Angels. When he proved not to be the answer, they acquired Pat Tabler from the Indians, who hit .309 for the Royals, but with little to no power.

Despite those offensive black holes, the club finished in the middle of the pack in runs scored. Bo Jackson emerged as a legitimate power threat with 25 home runs, despite 146 strikeouts. Danny Tartabull continued to evolve into one of the league's most feared hitters with 26 home runs, and his second consecutive 100 RBI season. George Brett continued to play like a team captain, hitting .306 with 24 home runs and 103 RBI and just 51 strikeouts. Kevin Seitzer was an on-base machine, hitting .304 with 72 walks and an outstanding OBA of .388. Even newly acquired Kurt Stillwell had a solid year, resulting in an All-Star selection, although it would be the best season of his brief career.

Winter Moves
The 1987 Royals finished dead last in the league in runs scored, so it was pretty easy to determine what the team needed to address in the off-season. By not tendering a contract, the club decided to say "bye-bye" to Steve Balboni, who slugged 24 home runs in 1987, but had hit just .207. To fill the designated hitter slot the Royals turned to Twins slugger Don Baylor. Baylor was in the twilight of his career, but had come off a terrific World Series performance for the champion Twins. To lure Baylor, the Royals not only offered him the DH role, but also offered a front-office job once his playing days were gone. However Baylor still wanted to be in the every-day lineup, while the Royals wanted him to split time with Jim Eisenreich. Baylor ultimately ended up signing with the rival Oakland Athletics.

The Royals had not had a solid shortstop since U.L. Washington stopped hitting in 1983. In the winter of 1987, the Royals finally broke up the rotation that had won them a championship in 1985 by dealing left-hander Danny Jackson and light hitting shortstop Angel Salazar to the Cincinnati Reds for young shortstop Kurt Stilwell and reliever Ted Power. The teams had discussed Mark Gubicza as the linchpin of the deal, but the Royals balked, and the teams settled on Jackson. Both Jackson and Gubicza would win at least 20 games in 1988.

Stillwell was a promising young infielder for the Reds, but he was asked to both replace the legendary Dave Concepcion and battle another promising shortstop, Barry Larkin, at the same time. The Reds decided to go with Larkin so the Royals were able to acquire Stilwell very early in the winter.

Having dealt Jackson, the Royals looked to hang on to free agent Charlie Leibrandt, coming off a 16-win campaign in 1987. To hedge their bets should Leibrandt leave, the Royals picked up veteran left-hander Floyd Bannister from the Chicago White Sox for a quartet of minor league pitchers that would include future big leaguers Melido Perez and Greg Hibbard. The 33-year old Bannister was coming off a 16-win season, a career high. The team was ultimately able to re-sign Leibrandt to a two-year, $2.5 million deal, very similar to the two-year, $2.35 million deal they signed with arbitration-eligible Bret Saberhagen.

After failing to land Baylor, the Royals still needed to add a slugger. In January, the Royals found a ray of hope when White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk and six other players were awarded free agency after an arbitrator ruled against the owners in a collusion case dating back to 1985. Fisk was 39, but was coming off a 23 home run season, much more offense than the Royals got out of Jaime Quirk and Larry Owen from the catcher position in 1987. The Royals offered $800,000 to the catcher, a $100,000 raise of his 1987 salary. Fisk asked for $1.2 million. The Royals were not able to meet his salary demands, so "Pudge" returned to Chicago.

With neither Baylor nor Fisk in the mix, the Royals had to return to Steve Balboni, who had found few serious offers on the free agent market. Kansas City signed the slugger to a $100,000 incentive laden deal. Balboni would hit .143 in 21 games with the Royals before being released in May.

Bo Knows Bo
The biggest winter rumors involving the Royals revolved around the decision by left-fielder Bo Jackson to play football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Bo had won the 1986 Heisman Trophy as a junior at Auburn University. He had spurned the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had made him their first round pick, and chosen to play baseball for the Royals instead. 1987 was his first full season in the Major Leagues, and while there were many signs of potential, it was clear he was still a very raw player. Bo hit 22 home runs, but his batting average was just .235 with 158 strikeouts. In the spring of 1987, the Raiders took a gamble on Bo and grabbed him in the seventh round of the 1987 NFL draft. His announcement to play football drew the ire of Royals fans, who rained boos on Jackson late in the 1987 season. That fall, Bo ran for 554 yards in just seven games for the Raiders, the bitter rival of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bo's decision to play football caused the Royals to question whether they could risk demoting the slugger to the minor leagues for more seasoning. Said manager John Wathan, "He may decide to quit baseball, but we're going to do what's best for the ballclub. We're going to take the 24 guys we think will help most. We're going to keep an open mind until the last day or two in spring training." Bo made the decision easy by leading the team in spring training home runs and easily beating out competitor Gary Thurman for the left-fielder job.

Spring Training Headaches
The Royals found a new spring training home in 1988 in Haines City, renamed "Baseball City", after 19 years at Fort Myers. This was also the first spring training under manager John Wathan, who managed the last 36 games of the 1987 season after the firing of skipper Billy Gardner. Wathan had been a ten year Royals veteran and was part of the 1985 World Championship team, but had no Major League managerial experience.

Bo's "hobby" wasn't the only headache Wathan had to deal with in spring training. Right fielder Danny Tartabull was coming off an outstanding season where he had hit .309/.390/.541 with 34 home runs, the second most in franchise history. The 24-year old slugger was entering the prime of his career and wanted to be paid accordingly. Tartabull failed to show up the first week of workouts, demanding a raise from his $145,000 1987 salary to $425,000. They eventually settled on a $335,000 contract, still less than the salary of reserve outfielder Thad Bosley.

The Royals also had to deal with reliever Dan Quisenberry, who former manager Dick Howser had lost confidence in during the 1986 season, and who never had the confidence of Billy Gardner. Frustrated with the situation, Quisenberry had asked to be traded, but his lifetime contract paying him $1.5 million in 1988 made him difficult to move. He barely made the team in spring training, but was not assured of getting the ball in pressure situations.

Roster Shakeups
The Royals got off to a very mediocre start as they tried to find their identity. On May 20, they stood an even 20-20, but were already nine games back of the offensive powerhouse Oakland Athletics. They then dropped six games in a row, all at home, pushing them to 12 games back and just two and a half games away from the cellar. Said Royals manager John Wathan, "We're getting good solid pitching, but we just can't score runs…It's getting real frustrating."

To shake the team up, General Manager John Schuerholz released veteran first baseman Steve Balboni and reserve outfielder Thad Bosley at the end of May. Balboni was hitting just .143 in 21 games, while Bosley had hit just .190 in 15 games, mostly as a pinch hitter. The team picked up veteran hitter Bill Buckner who had been released by the Angels after hitting .209 in 19 games.

The team was still dealing with the frustrations of veteran reliever Dan Quisenberry, who was being used sparingly by manager John Wathan. By the end of May, Quisenberry was demanding the Royals trade him.

"Professionally, this is very embarrassing,…I don't feel like a part of the team anymore. I haven't felt that way for over a year," said Quisenberry.

Quisenberry's lifetime contract made it next to impossible for Schuerholz to trade his dissatisfied reliever, and the Quiz would have to waste away in the Royals bullpen for another month before the two sides parted ways.

Royals Rise in June
After stumbling a bit in May, the Royals entered June with a record of 23-28, 13 games back of Oakland. After dropping a close 5-4 game to Cleveland to begin the month of June, they then shut out the Seattle Mariners 3-0 behind a complete game four-hit shutout by Ted Power. They would go on to sweep the four game series with the Mariners as the first place Athletics came to town. The A's featured a fearsome lineup that had scored the second most runs in baseball. Third baseman Carney Lansford was hitting .400, outfielder Jose Canseco led the league in homers with 14, and first baseman Mark McGwire was not far behind with 11 dingers.

To begin the series, the Royals threw out Steve Farr to make his first start of the year. Farr had pitched well in the pen with a 2.53 ERA, but had not started a game in three years. Undeterred, he tossed six shutout innings, with rookies Jeff Montgomery and Jerry Don Gleaton closing out a 2-0 victory.

Ted Power was the starter for game two. Power had really struggled early in the year in the pen, but since moving to the rotation had pitched adequately, including a complete game shutout in the last series against Seattle. Brett and Tartabull each homered in the first inning to set the tone. Power was able to continue his mastery against the Athletics with his second consecutive complete game shutout in a 6-0 Royals victory.

The Royals completed the sweep the next day with Bret Saberhagen besting Dave Stewart in a battle of the aces. Frank White had the game winning two run single in the 5-4 victory. It was also the first of 304 career saves for a rookie named Jeff Montgomery.

The Royals had completed a six game sweep of their homestand, but it would be a challenge to see if they could continue their winning ways on the West Coast. They would drop their first game in California 1-0, but would bounce back with a 7-0 victory helped by a two-hit complete game shutout by Mark Gubicza. The Royals would take three out of four from the Angels before heading to Oakland for a rematch with the Athletics.

Pitching again carried the Royals in the series opener as Bret Saberhagen tossed eight innings, allowing just one unearned run. But the Royals offense was unable to break a 1-1 tie for the first eight innings. In the eighth, a fielding miscue by veteran outfielder Dave Parker would allow Willie Wilson to score on a double by George Brett, handing the Royals a 2-1 victory.

Game two would feature the struggling Charlie Leibrandt, who had posted a disappointing 2-9 record on the year. He would rise to the occasion with a two hit complete game shutout in a 2-0 victory.

In the series finale, Mark Gubicza pitched well despite three errors, and Pat Tabler's bases loaded two run single in the eighth would give the Royals a 9-5 win and a three game sweep of the Athletics. Said utility infielder Brad Wellman, "It's been awesome the way we're going, unbelievable. It's a great feeling…I don't think they can believe that we've beat them six times. They're probably saying there's no way the Royals are that good."

During the hot streak, the Royals won 13 out of 14 games to pull to 36-29, and moved from 12.5 games back of Oakland to just 4.5 games back. They tossed five shutouts, and posted a microscopic ERA of 1.37. Unfortunately, they would never be that close to first place the rest of the year.

Goodbye Quiz
The Royals traded wins and losses for the next three weeks and hovered in third place behind Oakland and Minnesota. On June 17, Dan Quisenberry gave up five hits to the ten batters he faced, while Gene Garber gave up five hits to the nine batters he would face in a 9-7 loss to California. Two weeks later, the Royals finally granted the unconditional releases of the two veteran relievers. By doing so, the Royals were eating $2.35 million in salaries. Said a despondent Quisenberry, "There is some sadness…But it was obviously over here and I knew it. It's been tough since the middle of 1986." The move stunned Royals veterans. Second baseman Frank White summed up the disillusionment in the clubhouse:

"No one knows what's going on around here with all the people coming and going. There are more distractions than the Bo (Jackson) thing last year."

On July 15, the Red Sox swept the Royals in a doubleheader that sparked a six-game losing streak, dropping Kansas City under .500. They hovered around .500 until July 29 when they ripped off ten wins in 13 games. But the A's were still 13 games up on the Royals and running away with the Division Title. The Royals would finish the season trading wins and losses and end up with an 84-77 seasons, good for third in the AL West.

In 1985, the Royals had won with pitching, defense, and a lot of luck. By 1988, the luck had run out, and the formula of pitching and defense was beginning to show signs of age. The American League Champion Oakland Athletics were foreshadowing the future of American League baseball with a pair of young sluggers known as "The Bash Brothers." The Royals offense simply couldn't keep up.

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