(Editors Note: I originally wrote this piece back in 2006 for PWInsiderXTRA.com as they were looking for sports articles to post on their site. I happened to stumble onto this while cleaning out my old drafts and thought I would toss it on my blog. Enjoy and just know my thoughts on this really haven’t changed much in 9 years.)
If you have been a fan of the Kansas City Royals for as long as I have been(or even longer), you are well aware that the teams they trotted out in the late 70’s and early 80’s were overloaded with talent. Sure, everyone knows about George Brett and Frank White. Most will have heard about Willie Wilson or Dan Quisenberry. Real diehards will mention Amos Otis and Dennis Leonard as key players to Kansas City’s success. But a key cog in the Royals machine for most of those years(and a man who has always been taken for granted) was Hal McRae. In fact, it might be safe to say McRae and his hitting was almost as vital as Brett’s for a lot of those Royals teams.
McRae’s professional career began in 1965, as he was drafted in the 6th round of the amateur draft by the Cincinnati Reds, the 117th overall pick. It’s hard to believe, but at one point Hal was a speedster, a center fielder that could cover a lot of ground. Before the 1969 season though, McRae suffered a multiple leg fracture in the Winter League and he went from being a player who could fly to just being of average speed. As much as the injury hurt his speed, what really hurt Hal in Cincinnati was the pool of talent the Reds were accumulating, a team that would soon be referred to as “The Big Red Machine”. The Reds at that point had an outfield of Cesar Geronimo(who would end up in Royal blue in 1981), Bobby Tolan and some guy named Pete Rose. With George Foster also in the picture, the Reds found McRae expendable and dealt him to Kansas City after the 1972 season. McRae didn’t instantly show Cincy that they had made a mistake, as he would struggle in his first season with the Royals, hitting .234 in 106 games.
It’s safe to say though that the 1974 season was Hal’s coming out party. McRae would play in 148 of the Royals games, hitting .310 with an .850 OPS and a 3.9 WAR. McRae fit perfectly in the Royals lineup, a contact hitter who didn’t hit for a lot of power but got on base and drove in runs. Kauffman Stadium(at the time known as Royals Stadium) has always been known as a good park for gap hitters, and back in the 70’s it was even better with the artificial turf. McRae would also spend a lot of his playing time at DH, a fairly new position that was somewhat looked down upon. McRae would embrace the role and some would say became a pioneer for the position.
1976 would be a banner year for Hal, as he continued his hot hitting. In fact, McRae was leading the league in hitting going into the final game of the season, with teammate George Brett and Minnesota Twin Rod Carew right behind him. Brett would go 2 for 4 and clinch the batting title by a margin of less than .001. McRae was not happy though, as he felt the Twins had conspired to help George win the title. Twins left fielder Steve Brye would misplay a fly ball in the 9th inning that helped Brett win, a move that McRae felt was racially motivated. McRae was so incensed that as he headed back to the dugout after getting out in his final at bat, he would turn toward the Twins dugout and flip the bird toward Twins manager Gene Mauch. A scuffle would ensue, and McRae would let his feelings be known after the game:
“Things have been like this a long time. They’re changing gradually. They shouldn’t be this way, but I can accept it.” […] “I know what happened. It’s been too good a season for me to say too much, but I know they let that ball fall on purpose.”
McRae was never one to be shy or not let his feelings known, and this would be one of those moments. Overall, McRae had a great season in 1976, as he would get picked for his second straight All-Star team and ended up fourth in the MVP voting. 1976 was also the first year that DH was his primary position. Things were definitely looking up for McRae.
The rest of the 70’s McRae put up solid numbers, even if they weren’t quite at the peak of his 1976 season. McRae would lead the league in doubles in 1977 and continued to be a solid run producer for the Royals. Hal would also be known for being an aggressive base runner. So aggressive in fact that the rule that states a runner must slide into second base to break up a double play is known as the “Hal McRae Rule”. McRae was known to cross body block infielders while sliding into second, which many players had learned to avoid.
Injuries had started taking their toll on Hal starting in the late 70’s and continuing into the early 80’s. After appearing in only 101 games in 1979, McRae came back in 1980 and was a vital part of the Royals team that would make their first World Series appearance. He would lose close to 40 games to injuries that year, but still put up solid numbers that many had started expecting from him. After having a rough ALCS that year, Hal would have a very good World Series, hitting at a .375 clip, with 9 hits and an OPS of .923. It wouldn’t be enough as the Royals would fall to the Phillies in six games.
1982 would see McRae stay healthy, which helped him have a season that would rival 1976. Hal would hit over .300, put up his highest OPS of his career(.910), hit the most home runs of his career(27) and lead the league in both doubles(46) and RBI’s(133). The Royals would not make the playoffs that year, but it wasn’t because of Hal. This would garner him with another All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger Award, and fourth place in the MVP voting.
1983 would see another solid season from McRae as he would play in all but 5 games for the Royals that year. Injuries would return though in 1984 and so would the regression expected at his age(he turned 39 in the middle of the ’84 season). Hal would appear in just a shade over 100 games in both 1984 and 1985 and his hitting took a hit as well. McRae would hit about .260 for both the ’85 season and the ALCS that year, and with no DH in the World Series that year, McRae would see only pinch hitting duty. The Royals would finally get their first(and only) World Series title that year and luckily he got to be a part of that. But it had become apparent that he was nearing the end of his career.
1986 would be McRae’s last full season in the big leagues, appearing in only 112 games and hitting a paltry .252. The man who had once been a major cog of the Kansas City Royals machine was nearing the end, and on July 17, 1987, he would play his final game in the majors. During his 19-year career, McRae put up some very strong numbers, numbers that even today he should be proud of. Hal would be a career .290 hitter, with over 1000 RBI’s and close to 500 doubles. He would rack up a career OPS+ of 123 and a career WAR of 27.9. Maybe his biggest accomplishment though was his embracing of being the DH and realizing that a career could be made just batting. As guys like Harold Baines and Edgar Martinez would do later on, McRae would not let injuries end his career and in fact helped him flourish. McRae helped make it easier for players to play the majority of their games at DH, as he showed that you could actually make a career out of it.
With his playing career over, Hal would return to Kansas City’s dugout in 1991, this time as the team’s manager. Much like his playing career, he was hard-nosed and expected the same from his players. McRae would actually turn into a good manager for the Royals and in 1994 had the team playing their best baseball since the late ’80’s. The Royals were making a run at the playoff spot that season before the strike hit and ruined the Royals hopes. When the strike went down on August 12th, the Royals were only four games out of the American League Central and half a game out of a Wildcard spot. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be and McRae would be fired before the 1995 season would get underway. But before this happened, there was one defining moment during Hal’s run as Royals manager. It might be one of the greatest post-game blowups of all time. Words cannot do this justice. Just watch:
Just epic. All these years later and people still flock to that meltdown. To clarify, McRae didn’t even think about pinch hitting Keith Miller for George Brett. Actually just typing that makes me agree with Hal. Who would pinch hit for #5, even late in his career? By the way, my favorite part of that is the twirly bird. Fantastic.
McRae would manage one more team before it was all said and done, managing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for a couple of seasons in the earlier 2000’s. McRae would also show up as the hitting coach over the years for the Reds, Phillies and Cardinals and was St. Louis’ hitting coach in 2006 when they would win the World Series, McRae’s second ring. As far as I know, McRae is out of baseball now, but I can’t help but feel like he could help a team. I hope when everyone thinks of those great Royals teams of the ’70’s and ’80’s, they remember that McRae was a big part of them and in fact they probably wouldn’t have gone as far without Hal. His tough as nails style rubbed off on his teammates and pushed them to be better. Between that and his being a pioneer for the Designated Hitter, McRae has more than enough to be proud of when looking back at his career.
Younger fans don’t remember, but when baseball went on strike back in 1994, the Kansas City Royals were making a run for the playoffs. The Royals were 64-51 when baseball shut down, 4 games out of first and closing on the division leading Chicago White Sox. The season had started slow for Kansas City, but Hal McRae’s squad was one of the hottest teams in baseball at the time and there was a good chance that team could have made it to the postseason. But instead, the strike happened, McRae was fired, and the Royals team that took the field in 1995 when baseball came back was not the same team. Since that year, the Royals have only one season of above .500 play. One winning season, that is it. ONE. Sure, the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992. Poor Pirates fans. I’m sure they understand us Royals fans. They understand our pain, the misery we’ve seen. Every year, we keep asking: is it OUR time. Wait, bad choice of words. Royals fans keep asking: is this the year we finally have a reason to cheer? Is this the year we don’t have to look for silver linings? Finally, in 2013, we might have. Yes, I am showing up late to the party. But after this past weekend, I might finally be a believer. This Royals team could possibly contend this year.
So let’s start at why I didn’t think this team would be where they are this year. To be honest, I saw a team that looked a lot like the 2012 team, just with some new pitchers. Now, granted those pitchers didn’t seem all that horrible. I knew James Shields would hold his own, and I was happy with Jeremy Guthrie coming back. But I was unsure about Ervin Santana and I think we can all say there was skepticism with Wade Davis. But outside of that, it was the same cast of characters. The offense couldn’t score runs last year, and they brought back the exact same lineup. The bullpen was still good, but manager Ned Yost was coming back too. It just didn’t feel like anything had changed. Now, to be fair here, some hasn’t. Davis hasn’t shown that he can completely revert back to the rotation yet, and Yost is still, well, Yost. Frank Yost, that is. The lineup had trouble early on, but they seemed to have improved over the first couple weeks of the season. None of these factors though are why my mind has shifted since Opening Day.
No, the change is with the mentality. This team believes. They believe they can win. They believe that no matter the deficit, they can get back in the ball game. I know Shields has been a big part of this transformation, as he wanted to bring over the winning environment he was around in Tampa. The rumors of him being a big time leader seem to be true, as he has this young group of players believing they are Superman and no one has their Kryptonite. I mentioned the offense earlier and their struggles. They still aren’t kicking on all cylinders, but they’ve received something that winning teams have; clutch hitting. Get your hits when it counts, and it won’t matter where you rank in the league. Just ask the 2012 San Francisco Giants. The starters have stepped up too, making sure the team is always in the game. Can’t remember the last time a Royals team did that? Me either. All this team seemed to need was some big wins under their belt, and the newfound confidence would do the rest. But there is some credit I probably should hand out.
First, credit needs to go to Dayton Moore. I know, I rag on him quite a bit, and most of it is deserved. Seriously, he acquired Yuniesky Betancourt twice. You get flogged in other countries for worse crimes. But he knew his butt was on the line this offseason and went out and picked up pitching. Shields, Guthrie and Santana have been better than advertised and have helped change the atmosphere at the K. Santana more than anyone seemed a long shot. Here is a guy who was awful for the Angels last year, gave up the most long balls in the league, and had a 12 million dollar contract(albatross) around his neck, yet Moore was still willing to take a flyer on him. So far, it’s working. Moore also put trust in his offense, expecting the youngsters to step up and improve this year. Now, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer aren’t quite where we wish they would be, but you still see glimmer’s of hope. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are still the pillars of the offense, and Alcides Escobar has even turned into a really good offensive player. Lorenzo Cain is in the top ten in average, and Salvador Perez is starting to turn around his season. Hell, Jeff Francoeur is even contributing. Maybe his faith in these players was crazy, but it seems to be working. It could be better, but so far Moore’s gambles have paid off.
This is even more painful for me; a little bit of credit has to go out to Ned Yost. Now, you all know my dislike of Neddy. I still feel like he isn’t the guy for this job. But…so far, he has pushed a lot of the right buttons this season. He stuck with Greg Holland during a rough few outings. He also wasn’t afraid to pull him if the situation dictated it. He has juggled with the lineup a bit, but he has kept Gordon and Escobar at the top this entire time, and they are your two most consistent hitters. He has even done a good job with the bench, lately using George Kottaras in situations that help the team. You see, Kottaras is one of those guys who is really patient at the plate and doesn’t go up there hacking. The Royals lineup doesn’t have a lot of those guys, so late in a game, Kottaras is just as big a weapon as Jarrod Dyson. He has made a few guffaws(he still occasionally doesn’t know when to pull a starting pitcher, and still hasn’t realized to not put Luke Hochevar into a game when runners are on base) but for the most part he has let these guys go out there and do their thing. I still want him fired, but right now he seems to have learned how to properly manage.
So has my prediction of 78-80 wins changed? I won’t say changed as much as I can see them being above .500 now. I am still a realist, and I know there is still a lot of baseball yet to play this season. The Royals really haven’t had to face much adversity yet, so one does wonder how they will handle it. What I will say is this is a different team. This team has confidence, and just like how you need confidence when approaching a woman, you also need confidence if you are going to be a winning baseball team. This gang of Royals have that. For right now, things are good in Kansas City. But we are all aware that the wheels could come off the bus tomorrow. Santana could come back down to earth. The offense could start struggling again. Neddy could have flashbacks to his Milwaukee days. But for now, the Royals are winning…and winning feels good. Change is definitely a good thing.