1985 Kansas City Royals: A Championship That Was A Long Time Coming

The 1985 Kansas City Royals were the consistent standard-bearer in the old American League West (in the two-division alignment used from 1969-93 that West was KC, Oakland, Texas, the California/Anaheim Angels, Seattle, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota). The Royals won the division five times in nine years, but only in 1980 were they able to reach the World Series.

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A loss to Philadelphia left them still searching for their first-ever championship. Kansas City won the West in 1984, but it was a weak division and they were quickly dismissed from the American League Championship Series by eventual Series winner Detroit.

The Royals were led by future Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett, arguably the best hitter in his generation, able to win batting titles and hit for power. Brett would win another batting championship in 1985, hitting .335. On the other side of the infield was Steve Balboni, a hulking first baseman whose 36 home runs led the league.

The everyday lineup was filled with steady veterans of previous division winners like second baseman Frank White, centerfielder Willie Wilson and designated hitter Hal McRae. But those vets mostly performed below career norms in 1985, and the result was the offense was just 13th in the American League in runs scored.

A pitching staff that was second-best in the AL in ERA was the key to success. At the top of the rotation was a 21-year old phenom named Bret Saberhagen who would win 20 games and bring home the Cy Young Award. Behind him was a solid, crafty lefthander in Charlie Leibrandt and Danny Jackson, a young lefty with a great slider. The bullpen was anchored by submarine-style closer Dan Quisenberry, and his league-leading 37 saves. Kansas City wasn’t dominant, but they were a complete team.

It took time for the ’85 Royals to find their rhythm. They had a pedestrian April, but were only two back of California after a month. The mediocrity in KC didn’t stop, and the team was still only 46-44 in July and 7 ½ games back of the Angels. The Royals finally started their pivot into pennant race mode on July 23.

They swept a six-game homestand against a contending New York Yankees team, and the Cleveland Indians. Kansas City took two of three from Detroit and cut the lead to two games by the time August began. The Royals held serve throughout the month, and then ripped off eight straight wins to open September by sweeping a homestand against the White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers.

Three of the wins came in walkoff fashion and Kansas City moved into first place by a game and a half when they went to California for a three-game series starting on September 9.

Saberhagen started the Monday night opener, but did not pitch well, dropping a 7-1 decision. Liebrandt as ready with the answer the next night, with a complete-game three-hit shutout. Lonnie Smith, acquired in early summer from the St. Louis Cardinals, and Frank White each homered in a 6-0 win.

In the finale, Jackson hooked up with Angel started Ron Romanick in a pitchers’ duel that was scoreless in the seventh. White drew a leadoff walk and promptly stole second. Balboni worked a walk and a groundball moved both runners up. Role players then came through, as Jamie Quirk singled and Jorge Orta doubled. The Angels got a run back in the seventh, but Quisenberry came in to close the 2-1 win and Kansas City was up by 2 ½ games.

Just when it seemed the Royals were ready to pull away with the AL West, the race took another turn. They lost 10 of the next, including being inexplicably swept at home by a bad Seattle Mariners team. The bats were quiet in a sweep at Minnesota. Kansas City was one game behind California when the final week began—and it would begin with a four-game showdown between the Royals and Angels in KC.

Saberhagen again started the opener, and again faced California veteran lefty John Candelaria, a key part of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates team that won the World Series. The game started inauspiciously for the home team, as successive singles went to waste when Brett flied out and McRae hit into a double play. California third baseman Doug DeCinces homered to lead off the second and gave California early momentum.

Brett answered in the fourth with a homer of his own and Saberhagen got settled in. Both teams missed chances, the Royals in the sixth when White was gunned at the plate and the Angels in the seventh when leadoff man Gary Pettis was caught stealing to end the inning.

Kansas City broke through in the seventh when veteran catcher Jim Sundberg, acquired at the start of the season from Milwaukee, hit a home run. Kansas City added an insurance run in the eighth, as Wilson tripled and scored on a sac fly from Brett. The AL West race was even with six days to go.

California sent their top starter, Mike Witt, to the mound on Tuesday night, although with an ERA on the high side of 3.80, he didn’t fit the prototype of “ace.” Second baseman Bobby Grich hit an early home run, and then in the fifth Brian Downing and Rod Carew delivered key hits in a three-run inning. Witt was solid throughout and the Angels won 4-2 to reclaim the division lead.

The pressure shifted back to Kansas City and future San Diego Padres manager Bud Black took the ball and delivered one of the biggest outings of his career. Black threw a three-hit shutout and a first-inning three-run blast from Brett enabled KC to coast to a 4-0 win.

Brett’s presence loomed over the series finale on Thursday, as he walked in the first and then Frank White hit a two-run homer. Brett homered himself in the fifth, while Jackson outdueled yet another future Angel Hall of Fame pitcher, Don Sutton. Kansas City won 4-1 and took a one-game lead into the season’s final weekend.

California lost on Friday night and when Kansas City won both Friday and Saturday the AL West race was over. The Royals were going back to the playoffs.

The 1985 ALCS was a matchup in contrasts. While the Royals were filled with veterans of October, their opponent was the Toronto Blue Jays, in the playoffs for the first time. This was also the first year the LCS round went to a best-of-seven format. It was just in time for Kansas City—they lost three of the first four, but with Brett performing heroically, they won three straight, the final two on the road and took the American League pennant.

All of Missouri was on fire for the 1985 World Series, as the St. Louis Cardinals won the National League flag. Once again, Kansas City made life hard on themselves, dropping three of the first four games. And once again, they fought back. They got some help from a now-infamous umpiring call at the end of Game 6, but they also took full advantage of the break and an ensuing Cardinal meltdown. Kansas City took the World Series in seven games.

No one was under any illusions about the future in Kansas City, as the champagne flowed. While there might have been hopes that perhaps this mini-dynasty could stretch out a little longer, the Royals were an older team and some retooling would definitely have to be ahead. But surely, no one thought that it would be nearly thirty years before postseason baseball—not just the World Series, but a single playoff game—would make it back to Kansas City. Not until 2014 did the Royals make it back to October and not until 2015 did they win it all.