The one young shortstop whose time was perceived to have come was Richard William Thon of the Houston Astros, “Dickie” from South Bend, Indiana. In spring training that year, The Sporting News surveyed the Astros on Thon. The shortstop’s teammates could have been expected to be supportive, but the ‘Stros were downright lavish: “When I see Dickie Thon, I see a future Hall of Famer.” – Astros GM Al Rosen. “I think Dickie has a good chance to become the MVP in our league.” – Craig Reynolds. “Dickie is the backbone of our team.” – Astros manager Bob Lillis. “I’m afraid to predict how great Dickie can become. I know I’d love to play second base for Houston the next 20 years and have Dickie by my side.” – Astros second baseman Bill Doran. “When I see Dickie play, my heart flutters in my chest like a caged bluebird trying to get free so it can sing paeans, soprano hosannas to the sparkling greatness that is the Thonster Monster.” – Phil Garner.
The Kansas City Royals forgot to take their calcium; the team had more breakdowns than Zelda Fitzgerald. George Brett’s knee blew out, forcing him to miss the first six weeks of the season. Frank White’s leg sent him to the DL in July. There was no regular shortstop because both Onix Concepcion and U.L. Washington were hurt (though not because Washington swallowed his toothpick), leaving the position in the hands of chronic non-hitter Buddy Biancalana. Third base rested in the hands of veteran understudy Greg Pryor. Propelled by a 4-for-37 May, Pryor posted a .301 OBP and .356 SLG, a far cry from what Brett would have provided. Then there was Willie Wilson’s drug-enforced vacation, which left the team with an ugly outfield of Darryl Motley, Pat Sheridan, and Butch Davis. Only Steve Balboni remained to carry the offense. Balboni, a 27-year-old rookie first baseman/four-time minor league home run champion, had been buried at Triple-A Columbus by the Yankees because (a) he wasn’t an expensive free agent (b) he struck out a lot, and (c) he had been lapped by a prospect named Don Mattingly. The Royals had liberated him from New York the previous December by dealing reliever Mike Armstrong and catcher Duane Dewey, one of the more perspicacious trades in team history.
What the Royals lacked in positional depth they made up for in young pitching. At season’s outset, Kansas City envisioned its top four starters as Paul Splittorff (37), Larry Gura (36), Dennis Leonard (33), and Bud Black (27, and excellent). The best plans of mice and men quickly ran into the Grim Reaper of Old Pitchers: Splittorff was battered in three starts and summarily retired; Leonard missed the entire season with a knee injury; Gura started well then declined precipitously over the balance of the season. After 10 starts, Gura sported a 3.59 ERA. He allowed 70 runs over his next 101 innings and was yanked from the rotation.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the Royals deployed their every pitching prospect, in the process creating the pitching staff that would get them to the World Series just a year later. The new rotation retained Black, who was pitching his way to a 257-inning/3.12 ERA season (league ERA, 4.00), and added Charlie Leibrandt (unestablished at 27 and freshly returned from a year’s exile at Omaha), Danny Jackson (22), Mark Gubicza (21), and Bret Saberhagen (20). Though not all of them were consistently successful that year, Kansas City had performed one of the greatest player-development feats of all time, introducing four of the best pitchers of the era simultaneously.
In part one of the current series remembering the 1984 season, You Could Look It Up revisited the champion Detroit Tigers–a phrase difficult to write with any comprehension giving the current decrepit state of the franchise–a team whose dominance came as the result of surrounding a strong core with a large cadre of role players. It’s a solution set that is largely impossible now, due to the prevalence of bullpens bulging with mediocre lefties. At various times in the 1984 season, Bobby Cox, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, platooned at catcher, third base, right field, and designated hitter. The Toronto bullpen was widely perceived to have been a disaster, yet Cox used 12 pitchers all year long. Truly, we live in a time like unto the dark ages, where the wisdom of the past has been lost and superstition thrives. With no further ado, let’s continue by dropping in on George Steinbrenner and pals during the summer of Wham.
After the introductory edition of this column appeared last week, I received a couple of messages from–if Star Trek fans are “Trekkies,” what are BP fans? Beepies? Beppies?–readers asking why we were bothering to take notice of the 20th anniversary of the 1984 baseball season, with a week-long series no less. Nothing special happened that year, they said. Actually, 1984 was a case study in baseball problem solving, as executives were faced with difficult decisions, like, “If my entire starting rotation retires at once, what do I do?” “How do you react to an aggressively restructuring team who happens to be leading you in a close pennant race?” “If one-10th of my 40-man roster is arrested for attempting to obtain illegal drugs, how many of them should I retain?” and many more. Call the year a Choose Your Own Adventure book for managers and GMs, not to mention little pubescent proto-sabermetricians and performance analysts nationwide.
This is the very first installment of You Could Look It Up. The title, with its
old-time, pulp feel, is meant to evoke a portal to anywhen in the history of baseball, to flannel times and polyester times, lilywhite Washington Senators uniforms, rainbow-striped Houston Astros uniforms, all coming together, a great overlap of Ruths and Ryans and A-Rods. You Could Look It Up is a gateway to varied, hectic, multihued yesterday, a vantage point from which we might discern truths that have been lost to common knowledge, human stories that still evoke laughter or tears, and unrestful ghosts in black and white photographs who still haunt our own forcibly uncomplicated, Manichean times.
Hey–don’t turn away just yet. We ain’t talking any of that mushy “Field of Dreams” poetastry. Ray Liotta’s right-hand-hitting, city-slick Joe Jackson is not to be found in these pages. But it’s here that on any given day you might find Shoeless Joe, hand extended for a dollar or a fly ball, as Leo Durocher steals grounders and his teammates’ watches, all the while trying to do his best imitation of Rabbit Maranville, whose beltline basket catch was necessary because the sheer whiskey content of his exhalations could divert the flight of the ball above chest level. There’s Joe McCarthy, a manager who never ripped a player in public…until the day he did; Casey Stengel, who always ripped his players in public and ripped them in private too, but was given to numerous, unpublicized sentimental gestures; and his protégé, Billy Martin, who said that a winning manager knew that some ballplayers were mules and some racehorses, and you could beat the mules all you wanted and they would never be racehorses–yet beat both the mules and the racehorses. All of these people have something to say to us, because of what they did, and, as importantly, who they were.