Let’s continue our countdown of the 50 greatest moments in Royals history, honoring the franchise as its 50th season nears. You can find moments 50-41 here.
By the way, if you’re wondering, these were determined by a committee of…me. Well, I showed the list to my wife, The Amazing Michelle, but I picked the moments and the order. Just one man’s opinion…
40. July 9, 1971: Patek Hits For Cycle
One thing I still find amazing about the early Royals is how quickly they got talented players in the fold. The Royals’ first general manager, Cedric Tallis, was a master at picking out players who were languishing in other organizations but were capable of being good major leaguers, and then prying them away for spare parts. Freddie Patek might not quite fit that mold—he played 147 games for Pittsburgh in 1969, but when the Pirates lost confidence in him, the Royals were ready to snap him up. And in Patek’s first season in Kansas City, he became the first Royal to hit for the cycle. On July 9 of that season, the Royals were in Minnesota to face the Twins. Patek led off the game with a double and scored on a Paul Schaal single. Patek singled in the second and scored again, this time on an Amos Otis single. Then he tripled in the fourth inning, but was left stranded at third. Now he just needed a home run for the cycle. Despite Patek’s small stature, he did have a little bit of pop, but it was probably the unlikeliest part of the cycle for him to get—he hit six home runs in 1971, and that was his career high. Patek grounded into a forceout in the seventh, but he had a couple of things working in his favor: the Royals were on the road and so would bat in the ninth no matter what, and the Twins had managed to tie the score at 3-3, so extra innings could be possible. As it happened, Patek came to bat with one on and two outs in the ninth, with Twins starter Jim Perry still in the game and the score still tied. This time, Patek came through, launching one over the left-field fence to make Royals history and give his team a 5-3 lead. The Royals added one more run and took a 6-3 victory. Only three other players in Royals history have hit for the cycle: John Mayberry (1977), George Brett (1979, 1990), and Frank White (1979, 1982). As an aside, I am a little surprised that the recent outstanding Royals teams didn’t have anyone hit for the cycle. That and a no-hitter are about all they didn’t accomplish.
39. September 20, 2017: Moose Reaches 37
Speaking of things the most recent group of Royals did, this is (as you might expect) the most recent moment on the list. Last September, Mike Moustakas made one of the more embarrassing franchise records in all of baseball somewhat less embarrassing. In the Royals’ seventh season of existence, John Mayberry hit 34 home runs. Ten years later, Steve Balboni hit 36. Amazingly, that record lasted almost 32 years, through the Steroid Era, the gradual shrinking of ballparks, the juiced ball, and the launch angle revolution. Balboni’s mark was challenged several times, but Moustakas finally broke through. Almost exactly 32 years after Balboni tied Mayberry, Moustakas stepped to the plate in Toronto. Blue Jays pitcher Carlos Ramirez missed the strike zone twice, then threw a slider that stayed over the plate. Moose lined it over the right-field fence for number 37. He would add one more home run before the season was over. Nothing against Moustakas, but here’s hoping his record doesn’t last three decades.
38. August 25, 1999: Monty Joins 300 Club
Jeff Montgomery wasn’t really supposed to be a closer. When the Royals acquired him from Cincinnati in what seemed to be a minor trade, the feeling was that he would be a middle reliever. In fact, he began his first season in the organization in the minors, not reaching the majors until June. And he wasn’t the stereotypical hulking closer with a 98-mph fastball. But using a mixture of four pitches and his smarts, Monty just got hitters out. And eventually he took over the closer spot, outlasting incumbent Steve Farr and high-priced free agent Mark Davis. The saves piled up, including a league-leading 45 in 1993 (which also tied Dan Quisenberry’s franchise record at the time). And eventually Montgomery entered the 1999 season close to joining the 300-save club. At that time, only nine men had done so. The 1999 season was a struggle for Montgomery (a 6.84 ERA), but he got there. On August 25, 1999, the Royals entered the ninth with an 8-5 lead over Baltimore. But it wasn’t until there were two outs and a run in that Montgomery was summoned from the bullpen. He gave up a couple of ground-ball singles, bringing the fearsome Albert Belle to the plate. But Montgomery, as he had so many times before, got his man, this time on a grounder to shortstop. Save #300 was in the books. Montgomery retired after that 1999 season with a total of 304 saves, still good for 24th on the all-time list.
37. September 11, 1990: White Picks Up 2,000th Hit
First impressions are hard to shake. When Frank White came to the majors, he was definitely a great-field, no-hit middle infield type. But as he played more, his bat came around. White would never be confused with Ryne Sandberg, but from 1978 on, he could be counted on for some useful contributions offensively, not just with his glove. Eventually he learned to hit for some power—most second basemen don’t set career highs for home runs at age 34 (at least not in the 1980s, they didn’t). Despite all that, White’s offensive ability often got overlooked. Which makes it nice that he was able to reach 2,000 hits before his career ended. White entered the 1990 season with 1,954 career hits, so the milestone seemed like a sure thing. But White suffered through a difficult season, with injuries, slumps, and the team’s desire to get a look at prospect Terry Shumpert, particularly as the season went south. So it took White until September, but he got there. On the 11th, just one week after his 40th birthday, White stepped to the plate in the fourth inning. The Kansas City native drove one off the center-field fence for a double, scoring two runs to pull the Royals within one, 5-4. The crowd of 18,493 gave the hometown player a nice standing ovation. It would be one of the last ones he got as a player, as the Royals declined to bring him back as a free agent after the season and his career ended. Only two men have accumulated 2,000 hits as a Royal: George Brett and Frank White.
36. July 11, 1989: Bo Knows All-Star Domination
I’ve written this before: I don’t think it’s happened since, but in 1989 the Royals employed the coolest baseball player on the planet. Bo Jackson was a household name, thanks to his success in baseball, football, and video games (as Tecmo Bowl debuted for Nintendo in February 1989, with Jackson as the most unstoppable player in the game). In his first couple of seasons with the Royals, you could see the talent was there but it was still raw. But in 1989, Bo started putting it all together. He got off to a great start that year, hitting eight home runs in April, ending the month with a .984 OPS. Although he didn’t hit as well in May, he picked back up in June. Not surprisingly with his stats and fame, the fans voted for him to start the All-Star Game. Manager Tony LaRussa decided to bat him leadoff. And he hit the second pitch he saw 448 feet, over the center-field fence. Later on, he would collect an RBI by beating out a fairly routine double play ball, then steal a base. He also added a single, and eventually picked up the All-Star Game MVP trophy for his efforts. Oh, and Nike picked this game to debut the “Bo Knows” commercial. Not bad for one night.
35. April 27, 1973: Busby No-Hits Detroit
Steve Busby was an intelligent, good-looking young man who was also an excellent all-around athlete. He had a bright future when the Royals drafted him in 1971, and he made his major-league debut at the end of the 1972 season. Like many young pitchers, he had a bit of wildness, but it was apparent that he was a future star. He earned an Opening Day start for the 1973 season; it was his sixth major league appearance. His first four starts of the season were not very good, especially the last one: he was pulled in the second inning after allowing five runs. Afterward, he reported some stiffness in his shoulder and skipped his next start. Manager Jack McKeon told him he would be sent to the minors if he didn’t start getting outs. Busby responded by getting 27 outs in his next start without allowing a hit. It was a cold night in Detroit, and Busby made history with the first no-hitter ever by a Royal. It was not the most artistic one—he walked six hitters and threw a wild pitch, but he made good pitches when he needed to. Most no-hitters have a great defensive play, and this one was no different. Busby would later say he was lucky in the ninth inning, when, with a man on first and no outs, Rich Reese hit a screaming line drive towards right field. But John Mayberry snagged it, then stepped on first for the double play. Busby got Bill Freehan to pop up, and when shortstop Freddie Patek caught it, Busby had his first no-hitter. Yes, his first—Busby would throw another one, this time against Milwaukee, on June 19, 1974. The Royals have had two other no-hitters in team history besides Busby’s: Jim Colborn threw the first no-hitter by a Royal at Royals Stadium on May 14, 1977, and Bret Saberhagen accomplished it on August 26, 1991.
34. August 17, 1980: Brett Reaches .400 Mark
It’s one of the most iconic photos in Royals history: George Brett, standing on second base with his arms raised, tipping his helmet to the home crowd. Why was that happening? Because in mid-August, Brett had raised his average above the magic .400 mark that no hitter had achieved for a full season since 1941. The chase was officially on, and Royals fans were roaring their approval. You might think Brett had been hitting well all season to have an average that high, but you would be wrong. He endured his usual slow start, and bottomed out on May 21 with an 0-6 game that left him hitting .247. Ten days later, his average was at .301. Ten days after that, he was at .337. In 18 games, Brett had hit .447. He got hurt in that June 10 game, missed a month, and came back just as hot. In the 21 games he played in July, he hit .494. Yes, for three weeks, he averaged one hit every two at-bats. He had hits in 20 of those 21 games. Now his average for the season was at .390. But he cooled off slightly as August began, meaning just one hit a game instead of two or three. He was hitting .391 as Toronto came to town for a three-game weekend series. One hit in game one dropped him to .389, but a three-hit game got him up to .394. And in the Sunday game of the series, he walked in the first inning, singled in the third and fifth, then doubled in the seventh to put the Royals in front and bring his average to .399. He would get one more at-bat, in the eighth with the bases loaded. He lined another double to left field, breaking the game open and raising his average to .401. This was also the 29th game of a 30-game hit streak. Brett would eventually get his average as high as .406 on August 30 before a late-season slump cost him his chance at .400.
33. September 23, 1977: AL West Champs Again
I guess putting this division title at the lowest spot of any on the list might remind you of “middle child syndrome” for the 1976-1978 group of titles. I struggled with where exactly to put it. Ultimately, I gave it this spot because the 1976 one, being the first one in franchise history, seems like a bigger deal. And the 1978 one meant a third straight title, which is a pretty big deal. But the 1977 AL West title shouldn’t be overlooked. The 1977 team won 102 games, best in franchise history and still the only edition to crack 100 wins. They went 58-23 over the second half of the season, including winning 24 of 25 in September to blow open the division race. For much of the summer, that race looked like a four-team dogfight between the Royals, Chicago, Minnesota, and Texas. The Royals, 7.5 games out at one point in May, didn’t take over first place for good until August 20. But as the wins piled up, a title became inevitable. The Royals made it official on September 23 in Anaheim. Knowing they just needed one win, the Royals scored seven runs in the first four innings, with Al Cowens driving in five runs and John Mayberry adding a two-run homer. Dennis Leonard pitched a complete game, striking out 13 Angels. One of those was Carlos May, who ended the game by looking at a called third strike. The Royals finished the season eight games ahead of Texas.
32. September 26, 1978: Threepeat
Three division titles in a row is a fine accomplishment. Of course, from the start of the four-division setup in 1969 through the end of that arrangement in 1993, 10 teams accomplished the feat. The playoffs from 1976-1978 were almost exactly the same matchups all three years; only the NL West champion changed. But as we’ve seen recently with the Royals, it’s hard to reach the playoffs, even an expanded version, year after year. So this was a big deal. Unlike 1976 and 1977, the Royals never opened up a large lead in the division. They took over first place for good on August 27, but it took a five-game winning streak in mid-September to give them a little breathing room over California. Finally, on September 26, the Royals clinched their third straight division title. Larry Gura pitched a complete game, allowing only a solo home run to Seattle’s Leon Roberts in the fourth and two harmless doubles. The Royals overcame that with three runs in the fifth (Amos Otis drove in two with a single) and one more in the sixth, courtesy of an Al Cowens double. Gura got a double play to end the seventh, then retired the side in order in the eighth and ninth to finish off the game and the division race. The Royals ended up five games ahead of California.
31. September 17, 1980: Back On The Throne
Just look at that clinching date. This was a season-long beatdown of the AL West. The Royals, after missing the playoffs in 1979, were on a mission in 1980. They took over first place for good on May 23, led by 8.5 games at the All-Star break, and were 20 games up at the end of August before a 12-19 finish cost them a 100-win season and reduced their final margin to 14 games over Oakland. Part of the Royals’ dominance was due to the A’s being the only other team in the division with a winning record, but it probably didn’t matter (the Royals actually did better against the AL East in 1980: 53-31 while going 44-34 against the West). The clincher came in the first game of a doubleheader as the Royals blanked California, 5-0, in front of a home crowd of 25,908. Dennis Leonard held the Angels to three hits and struck out nine as he pitched a complete game. Kansas City scored in the first on a Hal McRae sacrifice fly, then added two more in the second with Willie Wilson’s single driving in both runs. They added two more in the fifth, with Frank White and Clint Hurdle picking up RBI singles to put the game away. Leonard retired 16 straight before issuing a two-out walk in the ninth, then struck out Jason Thompson to end the game and move the Royals into the playoffs.