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Feels Like Winter

Well we had our first snow of any significance and while it was not a whole lot more than a dusting, it still provided the picture that I always find sad and always seems to remind me that while pitchers and catchers report in just a couple of months, that’s an awfully long couple of months. Maybe my mind just works in terms of baseball, but the first picture of a snowy baseball field signifies the beginning of winter for me. Very sad stuff here people. I guess, in a way, I’m sort of thankful that Greinke’s on the trading block because it provides us with almost daily Royals news even in these cold months. 63 more days before pitchers and catchers report, though, so stay strong!

In honor of it being so darn cold out, I thought I’d take a look back this morning at the coldest time in baseball that I can remember, the 1994-1995 strike. I think that, more than anything, the strike is what has caused the Royals troubles of the last 15 seasons. That’s not to say that there isn’t blame to pass around after the work stoppage, but I truly believe that without the strike, the great change in baseball’s economic structure would not have occurred as dramatically as it did, and the Royals could have remained competitive long enough to continue on the path of becoming a good team again and then who knows what would have happened?

Let’s go back before 1994 to 1986, the year after the Royals lone World Championship and last playoff appearance. The Royals in 1985 were not an outstanding team, but rather one with a good formula to get through the playoffs…and a little luck. The overriding thought in 1986 was that the Royals were not the favorite to repeat, and probably were not the favorite in their own division as the California Angels were a team who many believed to be quite good. They had finished second in the American League West to the Royals for the last two seasons and had won the division as recently as 1982. The Royals also had to deal with the diagnosis of a brain tumor for their manager, Dick Howser, and their season was pretty well in trouble.

The Royals rebounded and finished above .500 in each of the next three seasons, including a 92-70, second place finish in 1989. That led the organization to believe that they were primed for another run like the one from 1976-1985. With owner Ewing Kauffman sensing that he did not have too much time left, the Royals went on a free agent spending spree and signed the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, Mark Davis and Storm Davis to pair with an emerging lineup, strong rotation and shut down bullpen. The Royals were about to become the first team to have both reigning Cy Young Award winners on the same team as Bret Saberhagen had won his second award in 1989 as well. the rotation seemed well stocked with Tom Gordon, Kevin Appier and Mark Gubicza to add to Saberhagen and the non-Cy winnings Davis. The Royals were expected to be very good and to compete toe-to-toe with the A’s juggernaut.

I, of course, would love to tell you that was the start of something big, but Mark and Storm Davis both flamed out that year, Saberhagen spent a good part of the year on the disabled list and the lineup was pretty average in spite of George Brett’s fantastic season and Bo Jackson’s impressive power. The team finished with 75 wins that year, which would tie for the team’s highest win total in the last seven seasons. At the time, we were disappointed. 1990 was also the first year I really remember following Royals baseball as I was finally old enough to get into it. So yes, my favorite team has been pretty much consistently bad since as long as I can remember.

They did rebound in 1991 to post a winning record and things were looking up, but I’ll never forget 1992 when the Royals started the season 1-16. I remember Brian McRae just had a terrible season and during one game I was listening to on the radio fouled a ball off the plate that hit him in the face. I remember thinking that was probably for the best. They did regroup and finished a respectable 72-90 (well, respectable considering how they started the season). 1992 was Hal McRae’s first full season as manager and in spite of the rough go of things, it looked like he might be exactly what the organization and team needed moving forward.

1993 was a much better year in the standings, but the Royals were still consistently average throughout the entire season and finished at 84-78. Ewing Kauffman passed away that season, though, and the Royals had lost their light and leadership. You could make an argument that this coupled with the timing of the strike is really what set this franchise back so far. I still believe that as amazing an owner Kauffman was, the strike is the ultimate knife shoved in the organization’s heart. Anyway, that was the bad news of 1993, but the good news was on the field as young talent was arriving as well as a few veterans who were productive. Wally Joyner was a terrific defender and provided a very good bat at first base. Chico Lind and Greg Gagne weren’t great at the plate, but they were an outstanding double play combination and other young talent was beginning to encompass the lineup and rotation. The Royals had also brought David Cone home, signing him to a free agent deal to pair with Kevin Appier to form a strong 1-2 punch in the rotation.

1994 came and it looked like the Royals might have the talent to dethrone the White Sox. Through April, though, they were just 9-11. Through May, they were 25-24 and were treading water. After a loss to the Tigers on July 22, their record stood at 49-47 and they were in third place, 9.5 games back. They won the next day and the day after that and the day after that and totalled 14 consecutive victories. I remember SportsCenter devoted almost five full minutes to the winning streak. What I remember more than anything about that winning streak was the way Bob Hamelin was the key to everything. He hit .354/.475/.813 in those two plus weeks with six home runs and 13 runs batted in. After the streak came to a close, the Royals lost three in a row before alternating a win and a loss in their final two games before the strike hit and baseball went dark for eight months.

You all know how this story ends for the Royals. On August 10, they were just four games behind the division leading White Sox and appeared to be surging. After the strike hit, everyone knew the economics of baseball were changing drastically and the Royals were forced to trade their Cy Young winner, David Cone, which was the first of many financially driven deals the organization would be forced to make. You could make an easy argument that if they had just scouted talent and traded better they wouldn’t be in nearly as bad of a position, and you’d be right. I am in no way doubting that. The strike, though, is what led the Royals to have to make those trades in the first place. Can you imagine a world in which they hadn’t struck and, for fun, let’s say the Royals came back and won the division?

We’ll talk about that tomorrow and how it could have changed the course of the entire franchise.

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