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October 5, 1998
Remembering the Royals' Relief GreatLast fall, word came that Doug Blosser, a well-regarded Royals farmhand and the brother of former major leaguer Greg Blosser, had been killed in a car accident in his native Florida. He was only 21, and inconsiderate though it was, my original reaction was to reflect on what he meant as a ballplayer by looking over his numbers: he had good power, excellent plate discipline, and a reasonable chance at a major league career. I couldn't reflect on what he meant as a person, because I didn't know him as a person; he was just a set of stat lines and press clippings, and I was forced to extrapolate from that what kind of future had been lost.
Some details emerged - he was driving with three friends from high school and drove off the road, and witnesses that drove by saw "beer cans all over" the crash site. It was the only slice - and certainly not a fair one - we learned of this life cut short. We also learned that Blosser had been a high school teammate of Doug Million, the Rockies' pitcher who had died on the mound of an asthma attack just two months before. And so it was possible to imagine the heartbreak of the same Tampa community losing two beloved sons, and the tragedy of the lesson ignored by Blosser until it was too late. But even so, it was not something that touched most of us personally. We could only shake our heads at the folly of youth, and move on.
It was only a few weeks later that we learned of another bombshell, not nearly as final but far dearer to us. Dan Quisenberry had brain cancer, and his prognosis was grave. How grave became clear after surgery, when it was revealed he had a Grade IV Astrocytoma - the worst kind, sometimes referred to as a Glioblastoma Multiforme, a term that sends shivers down the spine of physicians with the hopelessness of its diagnosis.
Immediately in Kansas City there came a groundswell of remembrance, appreciation, and even love for a man who embodied an era so many Royals fans cling to as their own Golden Age of Baseball. There have been many greater players in the team's history, but other than George Brett, none made a Royals fan prouder to say "he was one of us" than perhaps Quiz did. Part of his connection to the fans came from his role - he was a closer, the player who came in with expectations of a win each time out, and whose failures as an individual were always synonymous with a failure as a team. And most of all, he was a great closer - he led the AL in saves five times, and set the single-season record with 45 in 1983.
But he was something else - he was a closer almost without precedent. He didn't throw hard. He never threw hard; he wasn't just ignored by the scouts, because ignoring would imply they noticed him to begin with. He signed as a non-drafted free agent, and didn't reach the major leagues until he was 26. All he threw was that little sidearm sinker, just subtle enough that hitters thought it was hittable, but good enough to get groundball after groundball. He was more of a human-interest story than a pitcher when he first came up. What a story - here's a guy who pitched at LaVerne College - where the heck is LaVerne College? - was never drafted, and he made it to the majors for a cup of coffee! Where's my beat writer?
But it ended up not being just a cup of coffee. If he had started off scared, and tried to be too fine with hitters, get behind in the count and boom! - he would have been gone quickly. He wasn't. Quisenberry later said, "Some guys were always afraid of losing their fastball. I was never afraid - I didn't have a fastball to begin with." He knew his limitations - I think he cherished them - and he was never, ever afraid of failure. He never walked anyone - only 7 in 40 innings after getting called up in July. He got groundball after groundball - and on the Royals of the late 70's, a groundball was as good as a groundball out - so he got almost everybody out. He posted a 3.15 ERA that year, and Whitey Herzog - who would show baseball what a groundball staff and a great defense could do in the mid-80s with the Cardinals - gave him the closer job by year's end. It would be 1986 before he relinquished it, and 1988 before he would have an ERA as high as 3.15 again.
He didn't just close, not in the way that job description implies nowadays. He pitched in the 7th and 8th innings, racked up two- and three-inning saves, came in with the score tied or the Royals down a run, and completely changed the complexion of the ballgame, because by the time the 5th inning rolled around opposing teams would have a sense of urgency about scoring before the Quiz was brought in. Between 1982 and 1985 he averaged 134 innings per season - about twice what closers today are expected to throw. A workload that high was bound to catch up with him after a time, which it did in 1985. His sidearm motion was always a little easier for left-handed hitters to pick up on; from 1979 to 1984 they hit .276, compared to .226 for right-handers. In 1985 they hit .317 against him, and his inability to retire left-handers cost the Royals a pair of playoff games against Toronto. Dick Howser - whose story is now intertwined with Quisenberry's in the most unfortunate way - brilliantly came up with a right-left-right combination, starting right-handers Mark Gubicza and Bret Saberhagen in games 6 and 7, then switching to a left-hander in the middle innings to force the Bobby Cox's Blue Jays lefty platoon hitters (Al Oliver and Rance Mulliniks) out of the game, allowing Quisenberry to finish up against their helpless replacements. It was a move that brought a world title to a team as close to the precipice as Quisenberry himself was.
He began to fade the next year, but never really lost his effectiveness entirely. He gave up 92 hits and 27 walks in just 81 innings, losing his job as full-time closer - yet had a 2.78 ERA. He gave up 58 hits in 49 innings in 1987 - and had a 2.76 ERA. In 1988, batters were hitting .305 against him when he was released mid-season. He had a 3.60 ERA at the time.
He would sign on with the Cardinals, finding limited success there, and ended his career with a brief stint in San Francisco. But he always remained an adopted son of the Royals and their fans. He was more than a player; he was the wise guru on the top of the mountain who said things like "I have seen the future, and it looks a lot like the present - only longer." He was a man dear to the midwesterner's soul, because he succeeded while baring his weaknesses to the enemy. When he came in to pitch, everyone - the fans, his team, and above all the hitter - knew what was coming: he was going to throw a mediocre fastball that tailed away and down - always down - on right-handed hitters. He wasn't unhittable. In his own words, he was intimidating "only in chess." He was human - but somehow he used his humanity, his own vulnerability, to his advantage. Hitters never learned to lay off a pitch that slow, that predictable, that exposed - and they never failed to beat the ball into the ground to Frank White.
And in the process, he became the symbol of what made Royals fans so proud of their team for so long. Being a fan of the Royals has always meant accepting that your team will always have a lower payroll, a smaller fan base, and much, much less media exposure than teams on either coast. It became a perverse source of pleasure to hate the big cities, especially New York, which had dispossessed the old Kansas City A's of so much talent in the '50s and '60s. That was what made the Royals-Yankees playoff series from 1976 to 1978 so compelling - it wasn't just a clash of different teams, but different philosophies - even different ways of life. And when the Royals lost all three series, that too became part of being a Royals fan - that deep down, there was a sense of insecurity that maybe the Yankees were a better team, because maybe New York was the better city.
But Quisenberry came up in 1979, and the Royals faced the Yankees again in the ALCS in 1980, and this time they won. To this day, most Royals fans consider the biggest hit in team history to be - not Dane Iorg's bottom-of-the ninth single that turned defeat into victory in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series - but George Brett's massive homer off Goose Gossage in the 1980 playoffs. Never mind that the Royals were already up 2-0 in the best-of-five series, or that there were still over 2 innings left to play in that game. His home run represented an epiphany.
The Royals had removed that chip on their shoulder, and behind Quisenberry's amazing success, they were able to keep it off throughout the '80s. As great as the Royals teams of the late '70s were, their lack of a dominant closer always made them a fair target for the hated Yankees and other great teams of the AL East. There was always a fear that entrusting close leads to Steve Mingori or Mark Littell would hand kryptonite to the Yankees. In game 5 of the 1977 ALCS, the greatest Royals team ever held a two-run lead going into the 8th inning. Whitey Herzog turned to 5 different relievers - including Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura, who started games 3 and 4 - in a hopeless attempt to hold on in a 5-3 loss. Years later, Herzog would say, "If Quisenberry had come up with that sinker a few years before, we would have won a couple of championships." The '80s were a much less successful decade for the Royals - save their lone World Championship - but the Royals felt they no longer had to prove a point, because when the game got tight, they could turn to Quisenberry. And everyone - even the Yankees - conceded the point that Quisenberry was a great closer.
His decline as a player resonated with the Royals' own collapse after their World Championship, with Dick Howser's death due to brain cancer, and the sudden news of Quiz' own cancer brought back the memories of summers when the Royals brought pride to a whole region of the country. He had not disappeared after his retirement; he stayed in the Kansas City area, raised a family, became woven into the fabric of everyday life. He was always around to talk baseball, and baseball was simple to him. That was the most supreme irony: a man whose career was made in the most pressure-filled moments spoke about the game in a lyrical, syrupy way. He wrote poetry, lots of poetry, some of it on baseball, publishing a volume called "Down and In." It wasn't magnificent poetry - he was never in danger of winning a Pushcart prize - but can you imagine Rob Dibble putting pen to paper?
Even after he retired, he had an impact on Kansas City baseball. After a few years of flux in the Royals bullpen, the team came up with Jeff Montgomery, a man as undistinguished as Quisenberry had been - he had been acquired from the Reds for the forgettable Van Snider. Montgomery was as unconventional a closer as Quisenberry - he stands just 5'11", and has always relied on a four-pitch arsenal - his out pitch has for years been an outstanding change-up. And Montgomery has always been the same humble, personable guy as Quisenberry. But the Royals had learned to not confuse the closer's position with a frightening demeanor and unhittable stuff. Montgomery surpassed Quisenberry's team record for saves in 1996; perhaps no other team has had as stable a closer situation as the Royals have had the last twenty years.
As a player Quiz was taken for granted, in a way that no man with his innate abilities should have been taken for granted, and so it was true after his career was over. He was soft-spoken, modest, always available for an interview, but his very availability made it easy to forget about him for months, even years at a time. By the time he received the devastating news, he had become as unnoticed as he was when his career began. This was the shock of his cancer and impending death: unlike Blosser, whose death represented the loss of a future so promising, Quisenberry's death represented the final act of a life that was so fulfilling, so meaningful, that touched so many, that no one realized it could ever end. His was not a life ended before it blossomed; his was a life that was cut down while still in majestic, if overlooked, bloom.
His death was as deliberate as his life had been. The outpouring of emotion from former players was unequivocal. David Howard, who didn't make the major leagues until the year after Quisenberry retired, changed his uniform number to 29 to honor him, and poignantly said, "It sounds mean to say, but when something like this happens to such a good guy like Quiz, you wonder, 'Why doesn't it ever happen to someone you don't like?'" Quisenberry once again had the nation's ear at the press conference to announce the news, and he used the opportunity to speak with the same grace with which he had always conducted his life. He said "All my friends ask me, 'Do you ever say why me?' And I can't. I can't really ask that because why not me? I've had so much go so well. I wouldn't wish this on anybody. So why not me?" He was inducted into the Royals' Hall of Fame, an honor that was several years in coming, and at his induction used the opportunity to graciously thank everyone who had shared in his life. Frank White weeped openly on the field; many more weeped in the stands.
His death came quietly. The week before he checked into an area hospital; his family released a statement that he "was resting in God's peace." He checked out shortly after to spend his last days at home with his wife and two children. His final passing came Wednesday, after we had plenty of time to prepare, to accept, and to move forward. But it's hard to move forward when you want so badly to go back, to a time when the best closer in baseball was a soft-tossing, self-deprecating, mild-mannered gentleman who pitched for the scrappiest, pluckiest team you've ever had the pleasure of rooting for.
I miss him already.