Blair Kerkhoff: Royals hope to learn lessons from post-1985 years

After beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1985 World Series, the Royals slipped to a 76-86 record in 1985.
After beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1985 World Series, the Royals slipped to a 76-86 record in 1985. Kansas City Star file photo

The post-1985 Royals era is a topic of curiosity among the current brass. General manager Dayton Moore wanted to know what the organization was thinking soon after winning the World Series. What was the clubhouse culture?

“And what was the psychology of those teams?” Moore said. “We’ve done some analysis.”

It’s an intel-gathering process for the purpose of trying to prevent history from repeating itself and keeping the good times rolling for the foreseeable future.

A quick review: The 1985 Royals reached the pinnacle, capturing the franchise’s first World Series title 10 years after its first postseason appearance. It was the organization’s seventh playoff season in a decade.

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At that moment, the Royals were considered a model franchise, a jewel of baseball’s expansion class. They had never finished in last place. The team was a piece or two away from being baseball’s best in some of that decade-long run before finally hitting the jackpot in 1985.

But after that? Postseasons dry as desert air.

Years became decades. When the Royals finally returned to the playoffs in 2014, they had ended the longest stretch of years without a postseason appearance by a North American major-league franchise.

The Royals performed with a fury over the next two years, compiling a 22-9 playoff record, two World Series appearances and an unforgettable championship run.

But in 2016, when the Royals never really slumped or surged and finished 81-81 ... well, the results rang familiar to 1986, at least on paper.

Thus, the interest in the past.

Are there parallels, points of comparison that the current club would find useful?

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The most obvious correlation is the brimming confidence of the 1986 and 2016 teams entering those seasons. They said all the right things about not being satisfied with one title. Their heads seemed to be in the right place.

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Last year’s Royals believed they had all the pieces to repeat as champions and make it three straight American League crowns. The only significant position changes from the previous season were in right field — Paulo Orlando for Alex Rios — and at second base, where several guys filled in for the fading Omar Infante. The pitching roster was tweaked but wasn’t seen as a drop-off.

The same could be said for 1986, with only a couple of position and pitching switches. But those Royals finished 76-86, and the club was stunned. Returning to the postseason was simply a matter of time, the thinking went, and it would certainly be sooner rather than later.

Nobody envisioned the end of the run.

“Why do you think it’s going to stop abruptly?” said Royals icon George Brett. “You’ve been there seven out of 10 years, why would it stop? Little did we know it was going to stop. We kind of just took it for granted we were going to be in the playoffs and we’d be World Series contenders.”

Productive years remained for cornerstone players like Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson, but pitching appeared to be the Royals’ strongest commodity.

In 1985, Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagan was 21, Mark Gubicza 22, Danny Jackson 23. And the rotation’s elder statesmen — Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black — were just 28.

“We really thought we were going to keep it going,” said Black, now manager of the Colorado Rockies. “We all stayed healthy. We should have kept it going.”

Instead, history took a different turn for those Royals, who lost their grip on first place and eventually wandered into baseball’s abyss. That’s what this group is determined to avoid.

Royals legend George Brett observes and comments on this year's team 

In memory, the Royals’ dry years tend to run together. No playoffs, so it must have all been the same.

But that’s not true. For 10 years after the World Series, the Royals remained mostly competitive. From 1986 to 1995, the Royals went 782-771. There were six seasons with a final record over .500 and three years in which the Royals finished second in the division.

The franchise had its best four-year stretch at the gate from 1986-89, drawing at least 2.3 million fans each year.

The fourth- and eighth-best teams in terms of winning percentage in club history occurred in the decade after 1985, but the Royals got unlucky both times.

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In 1989, the Royals were poised for big things. The team had trouble scoring runs over the previous few seasons, including the championship year. But Bo Jackson had his best season with 32 home runs, and the pitching remained strong as Saberhagen won his second Cy Young and young reliever Jeff Montgomery was coming into his own.

“They had made changes after 1985, 1986, and it all came together in 1989,” said Rob Neyer, an author known for his statistical analysis. “In fact, the 1989 Royals were almost certainly better than the 1985 Royals.”

But the Royals happened to exist in the same division that season as the Oakland A’s. The Royals finished 92-70, seven games behind the A’s. In baseball’s two-division alignment, with no wild-card teams, there was no postseason for the Royals.

In 1994 — the first year of three divisions — the Royals stood 64-51 and were less than a week removed from a 14-game winning streak when a strike ended the season.

History suggests the unraveling of the Royals had already started, beginning with a culture shift that changed the clubhouse.

Coming off the 1989 success, owner Ewing Kauffman decided to break club tradition of crafting a team based on development and trades and went on a free-agent shopping spree, signing pitchers Storm Davis and Mark Davis. In 1990, the Royals owned baseball’s highest payroll, around $24 million.

More free agents would soon sign as Kauffman became determined to return a championship to Kansas City. And a once tight clubhouse started to feel alien.

“That kind of changed the culture of the organization,” Brett said. “We were always home-grown or acquired through trades. All the sudden, you sign big free agents to help us get over the bush. I remember there was some animosity among the players that had been there for a long time.”

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Kauffman’s death in 1993 was the organization’s pivot point. Control of the club was given to the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to assure the team would remain in Kansas City. But without an owner, the Royals operated on a shoestring budget, including payroll. Current owner David Glass didn’t take over until 2000, and yet the worst seasons — four 100-loss seasons in five years — awaited.

Moore arrived in 2006, in the last of the 100-loss seasons, having spent more than a decade with the Atlanta Braves working under John Schuerholz, the architect of the 1985 Royals roster and general manager of a Braves team that won 14 straight division titles.

Brett, the Royals’ vice president for baseball operations, has been in the game long enough to know how quickly fortunes can turn. He lived it as player and experienced it in the front office.

Even after the 2013 Royals turned their first winning record since 1994, the postseason success of the 2014 team — all the way to the Game 7 of the World Series — took Brett by surprise.

“Nobody expected anything in 2014,” Brett said. “They won the Wild Card, swept everybody (Angels and Orioles), and got to a Game 7. And then they go out (in 2015) and win the World Series.

“You look back at ’14 and ’15, what major injuries did we have? We didn’t have any. And we had a lot of guys have really good years. Then, last year, we had guys have really bad years and we had injuries, and when that happens to a year you’re not going to win.”

The 1986 Royals also went through difficult times. Dick Howser managed for the final time in the All-Star Game. He attempted a comeback the next season in spring training but died of a brain tumor in June.

Unique to these current Royals is the specter of losing star players to free agency. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar become free agents after this season. It is difficult to imagine the Royals bringing all of them back.

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But the Royals maintain that moves like signing pitchers Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel, along with catcher Salvador Perez and outfielder Alex Gordon, to long-term deals provides a foundation for the future.

And the Royals won’t lose all their impending free agents, will they?

But there’s something else. Brett sees a familiar determination with this team.

“These guys know they can win,” Brett said. “They’ve done it before.”

And Moore believes the pieces are in place for another run. Not just the personnel, but faith and trust in the progress.

“I believe greatly in our culture,” Moore said. “We have a lot of continuity. I believe in our fan base, which is very supportive. I believe our revenues will remain strong. I think there is always going to be a strong opportunity to keep our team very competitive.”

And perhaps go where the Royals couldn’t in the years after their last World Series title.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff