The Royals’ 25 biggest curses
A quarter of a century ago, this was unthinkable. The Royals had just won the World Series, capping off a decade-long stretch in which the team dominated the American League West. It was a young team with a deep farm system, indicating that it might continue winning for years.
Today, though, Royals fans no longer greet the season with hopes of a successful year. Instead, we willingly make an emotional investment in a product that we know is defective. What we buy isn’t physically dangerous like lead-based toys or a Toyota, but the product crushes our souls. Year after year, our team loses — not spectacularly, but in a generic, nondescript fashion that transcends simple embarrassment.
Other fans claim to suffer. Cubs fans moan about their “curse,” but their team makes the playoffs before succumbing to the inevitable. During their own long championship drought, Red Sox fans documented their October frustrations with long, neurotic books and New Yorker articles. Hollywood celebrated the Cleveland Indians’ suffering.
It isn’t just that the Royals haven’t won a championship in the last 25 years. The team hasn’t even come close to appearing in the playoffs. People in Cleveland, Boston and Chicago haven’t set aside their home teams or let whole seasons go by without going to a game. Talk never turns to euthanizing the Indians, the Cubs or the Red Sox via “contraction.”
We suffer anonymously. Bill Murray doesn’t serenade Royals fans during a seventh-inning stretch. The closest we get is Garth Brooks, whose full-moon face appears on the K’s Jumbotron to politely lead the crowd in a “Friends in Low Places” sing-along, his song an unintentional anthem for our cellar-dwelling team.
So, as we suffer together with a humor as dark as the Royals’ prospects at the All-Star break, take note of these 25 worst moments in the 25 years since Kansas City won the World Series.
25. Felix Martinez
Most of baseball’s bench-clearing melees involve a lot of shouted threats but little actual violence. This wasn’t the case for shortstop Felix Martinez in 1998. That year, a couple of outbreaks presented rare opportunities for the .214 Martinez to actually hit something. He broke Otis Nixon’s jaw in one fight, with a kick to the face, and earned a lengthy suspension after sucker-punching the Angels’ Frank Bolick during a second brawl.
24. The Worst Promotion in Royals History
In 1998, baseball’s marketing geniuses seized upon an idea that was seemingly the product of a pothead’s musings after too many bong hits: Turn Ahead the Clock Day. In a nod to throwback events, most MLB teams played games ostensibly held in 2021. Robots delivered the first pitch and performed the PA duties. Playing Seattle, KC’s bullpen blew the game in the late innings, indicating that the future would be much like the present.
According to John Helyar’s book Lords of the Realm, the Royals could have acquired Kirk Gibson right after the 1985 World Series. When Gibson’s agent called the Royals, the team wasn’t interested. Why? Commissioner Peter Ueberroth urged every team to limit costs, particularly expenditures for the signing of long-term free-agent deals. When no team signed Gibson (among other players), an arbitrator ruled that baseball owners had acted in collusion to manipulate baseball’s labor market. From 1986 to 1990, Gibson led two teams to the postseason, won the MVP award, and hit one of history’s most memorable home runs.
22. Mark Quinn Lights Up the Night
During the 2001 season, Mark Quinn made 241 consecutive plate appearances in 60 games without drawing an unintentional walk. He finally managed to draw one on September 29 off Mark Buehrle, prompting an unusually derisive Kauffman Stadium crew to set off a fireworks display. Bonus: Quinn was sadly unselective about his off-season activities, missing the beginning of the 2002 season due to injuries sustained while kung-fu fighting his brother.
21. Bizarre Injuries
Quinn’s martial-arts smackdown isn’t the Royals’ goofiest mishap. Kevin Appier fell off a porch. Neal Musser broke a pinkie finger on a chair. John Bale hit a hotel door with his pitching hand. (The door scored a TKO, disabling Bale for a full season.) The most bizarre Royals injury? Runelvys Hernandez earned the only recorded disabled-list stint for “weight and stamina issues” — as polite a euphemism for overweight as a sports fan will hear. Having eaten his way out of the majors, he now pitches for the Samsung Lions in South Korea.
20. Former Royal Caught With Pants Down
Jose Lind was a fine defensive player and good-natured in the strange, manic way that sportswriters prefer to call “colorful.” After his career, Lind was pulled over by the Florida Highway Patrol and found to be in possession of something he shouldn’t have — cocaine — while not possessing something he should have: pants. To the relief of oncoming traffic, the naked-from-the-waist-down Lind was excused from performing a roadside sobriety test. Lind is now said to be clean, sober and clothed.
19. Hal McRae’s Tirade
On April 26, 1993, Royals manager Hal McRae lost it. Facing routine questions concerning his strategic decisions during a game that ultimately was lost, McRae overreacted in a filmed clip that lives on in YouTube infamy. The tantrum is unintentionally funny (“Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”) and oddly dangerous (he injured a reporter with a thrown tape recorder). Whereas a violent outburst may lead to dismissal and probably litigation in nearly every other vocation, it worked for McRae. The Royals went on to an 82-64 season, making McRae the last Royals manager to leave town with a winning record.
18. Dayton Moore
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Taking over a team at its nadir, Royals general manager Dayton Moore promised drastic changes in 2006. The Royals haven’t improved, despite spending millions of dollars on expensive free agents, such as Jose Guillen. Valuing athletic skills over actual baseball ability, Moore traded three talented middle relievers to obtain the overrated Coco Crisp, Joey Gathright and Mike Jacobs. To replace the relievers, he spent millions more on unproductive free agents Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz.
17. Buddy Bell’s Lineup Card
Buddy Bell stoically performed a thankless task during his Royals career, managing a horrific team in a professional manner while facing health and family crises. On July 1, 2005, however, attention to detail was not his strong suit. Bell provided a lineup card that did not match the actual order in which the batters appeared in the game. The result: an automatic out that eliminated one of KC’s few hits that day. Bell described the error as “inexcusable and irresponsible.” In his defense, if you’d filled out the Royals lineup that year, you’d want to forget it as quickly as possible, too.
16. Stale T-shirts
It’s bad enough when the Royals give away replica jerseys celebrating players the team subsequently gives away. Worse is when KC fans wear replica uniforms of players you want to forget — say, Mike Redman, Emil Brown, Jeremy Affeldt or Mike MacDougal. Their fan jerseys serve as ghostly specters of forgotten ineptitude. Here’s a proposal: cleansing bonfires, in which the Royals invite fans to rid themselves of the memorabilia and its attendant memories of frustrating players. Fans could give testimonials: “Juan Gonzalez limped down the first-base line. He said he’d be back in a day. We never saw him again.”
15. Ed Hearn
Some might remember Ed Hearn as just “the other guy” in one of the worst trades in baseball history, when the Royals picked up Hearn in exchange for David Cone in 1987. Cone, of course, went on to become one of baseball’s best pitchers, whereas Hearn’s career ended after only 13 games as a Royal. After a post-retirement cancer diagnosis, he contemplated suicide — but he bounced back to become a successful motivational speaker and writer known for his charity work. Did Kansas City really “lose” in that trade? The Royals gave up a terrific pitcher, but Kansas City gained a terrific citizen and an inspirational story.
14. The Rookie of the Year Curse
KC had bad luck with its two post-1985 Rookie of the Year winners. Bob Hamelin, an overweight, bespectacled player suffering from back problems, won in 1994 but was sent to the minors the next season and retired three years later — in the dugout, during a game. Angel Berroa won in 2003; the Royals, as the team had done with Hamelin, demoted him to the minors the next season. Later, after returning to the majors, Berroa recorded the worst slugging and on-base percentages in the major leagues.
13. Jose Guillen
After years of penny-pinching by Wal-Mart executive David Glass, the Royals’ front office finally spent millions on an “impact bat.” The choice: Jose Guillen, who had played for eight teams in 10 years and was well-known for his clubhouse tantrums. Guillen arrived at camp overweight and facing a drug-related suspension. During the season, he publicly sparred with teammates, fans and his manager, all while proving disappointing at the plate and on the field. Guillen sat out his second season due to injury. Predictably, Guillen is hitting well in his final contract year, although he offers no rebate for the $24 million that the Royals paid him in his first two years.
12. Neifi Perez
It isn’t just that former Royals shortstop Neifi Perez was bad. Acquired in 2001 in a baffling trade that sent All-Star slugger Jermaine Dye packing, Perez spent the 2002 season racking up the second-worst season recorded by any player since 1956. He also took banned substances during his career, shocking fans who were unprepared to hear the phrases “Neifi Perez” and “performance enhancing” in the same sentence. Oh, and he lied about his age.
11. Together We Can
In 2003, the Royals printed T-shirts proclaiming “Together We Can,” the team motto coined by then-manager Tony Peña. In 2004, the Royals finished last. That year, Juan Gonzalez, signed to a guaranteed $4.5 million contract, suffered from a mysterious injury that was initially diagnosed as “day to day” and was later extended to “season to season.” Peña abruptly resigned in 2005, after being implicated in allegations of adultery in a neighbor’s divorce case.
10. John Schuerholz
In 1985, Royals GM John Schuerholz won a World Series ring. Then it all went wrong. In an effort to obtain one last championship for owner Ewing Kauffman, Schuerholz traded Danny Jackson, later the National League Cy Young winner, for average shortstop Kurt Stillwell. He traded David Cone in 1987, who went on to win eight postseason starts, for catcher Ed Hearn, who started eight games. Schuerholz signed free agents Storm Davis and Mark Davis, who both pitched disastrously here. Kauffman died in 1991, and Schuerholz, having failed to win another championship for him, moved to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves played in a World Series two years later.
9. Cheaters Never Prosper
During baseball’s Steroid Era, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa racked up gaudy home-run totals while Royals fans were left to wonder: Why can’t our guys use drugs? The problem: They did — they just weren’t talented. Federal agents raided the home of Jason Grimsley, a well-traveled Royals middle reliever, after a human-growth-hormone delivery. Neifi Perez failed three drug tests. Jose Guillen reportedly bought as much as $25,000 worth of HGH from 2002 to 2004, and the Royals — knowing the allegations — signed him anyway. Finally, failed Royals prospect Jeremy Giambi, brother of MVP Jason Giambi, admitted to anabolic steroid use. That’s right: The Royals finally had a player with a chemical edge, and he wasn’t even the best player using anabolic steroids in his own family.
8. Bret Saberhagen and Herk Robinson
In economics, “diminishing returns” is a concept that occurs when you add more but get back less. It’s a concept that longtime Royals fans recognize, thanks to former GM Herk Robinson’s trades. In 1991, Robinson traded Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen to the New York Mets for a package featuring Gregg Jefferies, seemingly a major prospect. Two years later, Herk traded a disappointing Jefferies for outfielder Felix Jose. After two underperforming seasons, Jose was released in 1995. Meanwhile, Saberhagen won 64 games and pitched for three playoff teams. Needless to say, Robinson never led the Royals to a playoff season.
7. The Big 36
On October 3, 1985, Steve Balboni clubbed his 36th home run, setting the Royals’ single-season home-run record. Since then, more than 300 players have hit more than 36 home runs in a season — none of them Royals. Six players hit 36 or more home runs in 1994, and baseball didn’t even play the season’s last two months due to a players’ strike. Since Balboni’s homer, both Cecil Fielder and his son, Prince Fielder, have hit 36 home runs in a season. Barry Bonds, the all-time leader in home runs, hit every one of his 762 homers after Balboni set his record.
David Letterman once mockingly counted down the number of hits that career banjo hitter Buddy Biancalana needed in order to pass Pete Rose’s all-time hit record. But Biancalana had the last laugh, outplaying future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith for seven games during the 1985 World Series. Since then, the performance of Royals shortstops has ranged from mediocre to stat-busting awfulness. Jose Offerman, for example, couldn’t really field — a job requirement. David Howard, Angel Salazar, Tony Peña Jr. and Rey Sanchez couldn’t hit. Neifi Perez, Angel Berroa and Yuniesky Betancourt couldn’t, either. Jay Bell played well, took a good look around and fled for Arizona after one season. Worse, obtaining or retaining these awful shortstops cost us four future All-Stars (Jermaine Dye, Jeff Conine, Danny Jackson, Johnny Damon).
5. Sweeney Over Beltran
In the early 2000s, the Royals faced a decision: which of two players to sign to a lucrative long-term contract. The team chose God-fearing Wonder Bread slice Mike Sweeney over quiet Puerto Rican Carlos Beltran for, um … marketing reasons? The Royals traded Beltran, who later appeared in four All-Star games and two postseasons. In 2007, the Royals gave away a Mike Sweeney “Action Pose” bobblehead, one of the few times that Royals fans got to see Sweeney in action. There is no truth to the rumor that when you touch the Sweeney bobblehead, the doll strains its back and is rendered useless.
4. The Davis Brothers
Before 1990, the team rarely threw money at the free-agent market, relying instead on its minor-league system. That all changed that year, when the team signed Storm Davis and Mark Davis, a 19-game winner and the National League’s best pitcher, respectively. The Royals won only 75 games that season; Storm won only seven of those. Mark was worse. The Royals tried everything but an exorcist to revive Mark’s career: tinkering with his delivery, trying the longtime reliever as a starter, even hiring his pitching coach from San Diego. Nothing worked, and Mark picked up 37 fewer saves as a Royal than he had the season before we acquired him.
The stories sound apocryphal, like something from a Chuck Norris website, but they’re all true. From the warning track, Bo Jackson threw out the speedy Harold Reynolds at home. He hit tape-measure home runs, broke bats over his knee after strikeouts, and ran up outfield walls to make catches. His Royals career ended abruptly in 1990, after he suffered a career-threatening hip injury sustained while pursuing his “hobby” — playing football for the Oakland Raiders. The tragedy: For much of his baseball career, he was more media attraction than ballplayer, but by the time his Royals career ended, he had learned his trade and become a productive hitter.
2. The Draft
The root cause of the Royals’ failure is the amateur draft. From 1992 to 2001, the Royals selected the following players in the first round of the draft: Jim Pittsley, Jeff Granger, Matt Smith, Juan LeBron, Dee Brown, Dan Reichert, Jeff Austin, Kyle Snyder, Colt Griffin and Mike Stodolka. Combined, they acquired 36 wins and 190 hits in the major leagues.
1. Ewing’s Heirs
Without philanthropist Ewing Kauffman, the Royals wouldn’t have existed or succeeded. KC is still looking for a suitable replacement. After Kauffman’s death, the Royals were a charity case. More precisely, the IRS approved a complicated estate plan allowing for a charitable trust to run the team. The endless search for a permanent owner included George Brett (who didn’t have enough money), Lamar Hunt (who wasn’t that interested), Miles Prentice (rejected by baseball’s owners, who are like the characters of Mean Girls, only male and elderly) and “rum heir” Facundo Bacardi. Former Wal-Mart CEO David Glass ultimately bought the team. His ownership has been awesome, other than his habit of shelling out for expensive underachievers while failing to pony up for investments that might have paid off, and letting son Dan Glass meddle in personnel decisions.
On September 6, 2008, the Royals gave away bobbleheads with the likeness of Tony Peña Jr., then the worst hitter in the American League. Oddly, the bobblehead featured Peña fielding a baseball, not stranding two runners by missing a pitch way out of the strike zone.
These hideous Royals uniforms, worn during Turn Ahead the Clock Day in Seattle, appeared to have been inspired by the uniforms featured in the dystopian 1970s James Caan movie Rollerball, with royal blue inexplicably changed to yellow. At left, Jeff King models “the uniform of the future,” along with a porn mustache circa 1975.