As you are probably aware, 2018 marks the 50th season of Royals baseball. The team started the anniversary festivities with a fan vote on the top 50 players, with the results being revealed one per day leading up to Opening Day. So far I can’t quibble too much with the results. First I thought I might join in the fun by giving my top 50 players in team history, but then I decided to do something a little different: the top 50 moments in franchise history. My plan is to count them down with 10 per week. Let’s begin.
50. April 5, 2004: Starting The Season With a Bang
After the surprising 2003 season, Royals fans were ready for a repeat. Sure, the 2003 team had holes, but the front office had actually tried to improve the team in the offseason with some free agent signings. The Royals looked ready to contend, at least to a good portion of the fanbase. The whole magical 2003 story began with an Opening Day victory over the White Sox, and guess who was on the schedule for the 2004 opener? But for much of that afternoon, things looked grim for a packed house of 41,575 fans. Chicago scored four runs in the second inning and had a 7-2 lead by the time the Royals came to bat in the seventh. KC scored one run that inning, but the fun began in the ninth inning. Two walks and a Benito Santiago double made the score 7-4. With one out, utility infielder Mendy Lopez pinch-hit. Lopez walked to the plate with a career total of five home runs. But his sixth (and final) career dinger will be remembered by Royals fans for years. He belted a 3-1 pitch over the 410-foot sign in left-center field to tie the game. After Angel Berroa singled, a more likely hero emerged: Carlos Beltran, who blasted a no-doubter into the water spectacular in left field for a 9-7 victory. There’s nothing like an Opening Day walkoff win; it makes you feel like a magical year is ahead. Sadly, the 2004 Royals ended up being a 58-104 disaster, so this was pretty much the highlight of the season. But it was an amazing moment at the time.
49. April 8, 1969: In The Beginning
Unlike the 2004 Royals, there were no expectations for the 1969 Royals. Such is the life of an expansion team. After the A’s moved to Oakland following the 1967 season, Kansas Citians were just happy to have major league baseball back in town. The first game in franchise history became a celebration when the Royals battled back from a 3-1 deficit to get win. The opponent was a worthy adversary: the Minnesota Twins, who would win the AL West title and featured two Hall of Famers (Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew) and a potential third (Tony Oliva). Kansas City scored two runs in the sixth to tie the game, but neither team scored again until the 12th. Dave Wickersham was an unsung hero of the day, as he held the Twins scoreless for five innings before Moe Drabowsky pitched a perfect 12th inning. In the bottom half of the 12th, Joe Foy singled and took second on a passed ball. The Twins issued an intentional walk to Chuck Harrison, but a wild pitch to the next batter, Bob Oliver, led to a second intentional walk. That loaded the bases for pinch-hitter Joe Keough, who earned a spot in Royals history by rifling a walk-off single off the right-field fence. That’s a pretty good way to start off a team’s history.
48. April 2003: Miracles Upon Miracles
As previously mentioned, the 2003 season was a shock to just about everyone. The franchise had not enjoyed a winning season since 1994. The 2002 Royals became the first edition in franchise history to lose 100 games. Then that team’s best pitcher (Paul Byrd, winner of 17 games) left as a free agent. Then the second-best pitcher (Jeff Suppan) also left as a free agent. Not surprisingly, expectations were low, even though the offense looked pretty decent with Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Raul Ibanez, and Joe Randa in the lineup. The pitching staff was one giant question mark. In fact, it was such a question mark that the Opening Day starter, Runelvys Hernandez, was selected by manager Tony Pena via a coin flip over Jeremy Affeldt (to be fair, they both had pitched well in spring training. But still…). But Hernandez tossed six scoreless innings in that game as the Royals won 3-0. That was nice. They followed that up with two more wins over Chicago, then two over Cleveland. After their first game in Detroit was snowed out, the Royals won two there, then two more in Cleveland before dropping one. The 9-0 start is still the best in team history. Of course, they weren’t done there. After a win in Cleveland and losing two of three in Chicago, the Royals returned home to face Detroit on a beautiful Friday night. Just three weeks of good baseball had excited the KC faithful, and Kauffman Stadium was packed. All those fans were treated to the Royals clawing back from a 3-0 deficit, then blowing a chance to win in the 10th, and finally Ken Harvey leading off the 11th inning with a walk-off home run into the left-field seats. That put the Royals at 12-3 on the season; they would run that record to 16-3 before finally cooling off. That start and all the wins they piled up in April basically kept them in the race until mid-September, an oasis of pennant chase fever in a desert of ineptitude for Royals fans.
47. September 22, 2013: Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
So far this list has been about beginnings. This entry is more about an ending. In the last home game of the 2013 season, with the Royals clinging to faint wild-card hopes, they faced one of the teams they were battling for a playoff position—the Texas Rangers. James Shields kept the Rangers scoreless for eight innings, and Greg Holland blanked them in the ninth. But the Kansas City offense had done very little for nine innings. At last, in the 10th, they came to life. Eric Hosmer led off with a double. The Rangers turned to former Royal Joakim Soria, who issued an intentional walk to Billy Butler. An infield single by Salvador Perez, of all people, loaded the bases. But a foul popup and a force play at home meant the bases were still full with two outs. Up stepped Jason Maxwell. He worked a full count, then hammered a fastball off the Hall of Fame building for a 4-0 win. Simple enough, right? Except that this was also, in a way, the beginning of something. See, after an 8-20 May, the 2013 Royals went 16-11 in June, 15-10 in July, 16-15 in August, and 17-10 in September to climb back in the postseason hunt. For many Royals fans, this was their first taste of a truly good baseball team. All the good moments we enjoyed in 2014 and 2015 really began with this team, which posted the franchise’s first winning record since 2003 (in fact, this particular win clinched that winning mark). While they fell short of the postseason, they definitely got Kansas City back to being a baseball town.
46. August 1, 2016: Duffman Dominates
On an otherwise unremarkable Monday evening, the Royals began a four-game series in Tampa Bay. Neither team had a winning record. Danny Duffy took the mound for Kansas City, which stood at 49-55 and 12 games out of first place. Duffy was enjoying his finest season to date; he started the year in the bullpen but, as the rotation struggled early, he transitioned to a starting spot. Now fully stretched out, he was pitching well and picking up more strikeouts than he ever had. And on this night, he was dominant. Two strikeouts in the first. Three more in the second. Two in the third, then two more in the fourth as he worked around a walk (the Rays’ first runner of the game) and his own error on a bad pickoff throw. Two strikeouts in the fifth and one more in the sixth—12 and counting. At last, the Royals offense gave Duffy some support in the seventh, when Kendrys Morales bashed a solo home run. Duffy tacked on two more strikeouts in the bottom of the seventh. Oh, I forgot to mention, he hadn’t allowed a hit yet either. The Royals added two more runs in the eighth. While I’m sure Duffy appreciated the breathing room, perhaps the long inning disrupted his rhythm a bit. Desmond Jennings led off the eighth with a double for Tampa Bay’s first hit. But Duffy retired the next three hitters, the last two by strikeout for a total of 16. That set a franchise record for a game, breaking Zack Greinke’s mark of 15 from 2009. With no shot at a no-hitter and his pitch count at 110, Duffy’s night was done. Kelvin Herrera finished off the game with a perfect ninth inning to ensure Duffy got his well-deserved win. Duffy recorded 35 swinging strikes on the night, tying Clayton Kershaw for most in a game in the previous 15 years. Pretty good company, there.
45. September 6, 1985: Dennis Leonard’s Emotional Return
Dennis Leonard was a workhorse for the great Royals teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In today’s bullpen-dominated times, his numbers are eye-popping: he topped 290 innings in both 1977 and 1978. He tossed 21 complete games in 1977 and 20 more in 1978. Then 280 more innings in 1980. Basically, Leonard seemed indestructible. That all changed on May 28, 1983. Like he had so many times before, Leonard went into his windup, stepped forward and put his weight on his left leg before hurling the ball to the plate. But this time, his left knee gave out in extreme fashion. His patellar tendon, which connects the kneecap to the lower leg, had ruptured. He had surgery to repair it, which was bad enough. But three months later doctors discovered the repaired tendon was deteriorating. Leonard underwent another operation, this time receiving human tissue grafts. He began throwing off a mound in June 1984, but his knee developed an infection. That meant another surgery and another graft; doctors also had to restring the tendon through his kneecap. Another year of grueling rehab followed, with practically all of it done alone, without the support of teammates. But on September 6, 1985, all that pain and hard work paid off. Leonard entered the second game of a doubleheader against Milwaukee in relief. Compared to the previous 18 months, protecting a 7-1 lead in the ninth was a piece of cake. Leonard allowed a single but no runs, although his performance was beside the point. Oh, and when Leonard recorded the final out, the win moved the Royals into first place in the AL West with 29 games left in the season.
44. July 24, 1983: The Pine Tar Game
The perfect combination of drama (a ninth-inning home run that reprised a great postseason moment) and slapstick comedy (the Royals attempting to smuggle the offending bat out of the stadium, the unforgettable footage of George Brett flailing his arms and screaming). It’s rare that a random baseball game in late July can inspire a pretty good book or be brought up on an annual basis. This is one of the most famous games in baseball history, not just Royals history. I’m not sure how “great” it is—the outcome was not really meaningful and no records were set, but all the stories around it are great. My personal favorite: the umpiring crew for the resumption of the suspended game, which was played out three weeks later, was different than the original umpiring crew. But they were prepared for Yankee manager Billy Martin’s shenanigans. When the Yankees appealed at each base, claiming Brett had missed them on his home run trot—and how would these umpires know, right?—the umps produced a notarized affidavit from the original umpires confirming Brett had touched all the bases.
43. September 26, 1973: Splitt Gets 20th Win
He wasn’t a member of the original 1969 Royals, but Paul Splittorff could certainly claim to be an original Royal since he was part of the team’s first draft class, being selected in 1968. The lanky lefty debuted in 1970 and established himself in the rotation in 1971. And in 1973, he became the first Royal to reach 20 wins. Not without some drama, though. Splitt had three different three-game win streaks through mid-June and had a 10-3 record on June 15. Then he won four starts in a row in July to reach 14-5 with two months to go. But a rough August left him at 15-9 on the season. And then he lost his first two starts in September. But he picked up wins in each of his last five starts to reach the magic number of 20 wins. The last one came in game #158, as Splittorff scattered seven hits and two walks over six innings against the Chicago White Sox. He left the game with a 4-2 lead after the sixth, and the Royals tacked on two more runs while Doug Bird pitched three scoreless innings in relief to get the milestone win. Only four other pitchers in Royals history have enjoyed a 20-win season: Steve Busby (1974), Mark Gubicza (1988), Dennis Leonard in (1977, 1978, and 1980) and Bret Saberhagen (1985 and 1989).
42. May 4, 1969: Oliver Gets Six Hits
Less than a month into their existence, the Royals had a player tie a major-league record. In the 24th game of the inaugural 1969 season, center fielder Bob Oliver collected six hits in a nine-inning game (the current MLB record holder is Rennie Stennett, with seven hits, but he didn’t do that until 1975). Oliver’s hit parade led the Royals to a 15-1 trouncing of the California Angels in Anaheim. Oliver singled in the second inning, doubled in the fourth, blasted a two-run home run in the fifth, and then collected two singles in the Royals’ six-run seventh inning. He topped off his day with a ninth-inning single. The last one was originally scored as a throwing error on third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, but the official scorer changed his mind as the ball was hit very hard down the third-base line. The barrage raised Oliver’s average from .220 to .304. Since Oliver’s feat, two other Royals have joined him in the six-hits-in-one-game club (which includes 114 different players in MLB history): Kevin Seitzer did it on August 2, 1987 and Joe Randa accomplished it on September 9, 2004.
41. September 7, 1971: AO On The Go
Amos Otis was a special talent; his blend of speed, power, patience, and defense made him a star, the best player the Royals had until George Brett came along. In his second season with the Royals, he led the AL in stolen bases, beating out teammate Freddie Patek by three, 52-49. Five of those steals came in one game, a late-season 4-3 victory over Milwaukee. Otis started early, with a single and steal of second in the first inning. In the fourth, he again singled and stole second, eventually scoring on a sacrifice fly to tie the game at 1-1. In the fifth, Otis decided to stick with the formula, with a two-out single and steal of second. This time, he came around to score on a two-run single that put the Royals in front 3-1. And in the seventh, with the score tied at 3-3, he started a two-out rally with a single. Otis stole second, catching a break as the throw beat him but he was able to kick the ball out of the shortstop’s glove. Otis then stole third base, scoring when catcher Darrell Porter’s throw sailed into left field. That run proved to be the game-winner. While Otis did not manage to set or tie a major-league record (the standard in the modern era is six steals in a game), he did set a franchise record that stands to this day. In fact, a five-steal game has happened only 26 times since 1900.