keyboard_arrow_uptop


Last 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.

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe