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The Royals: A history of (no) power

Apr 21, 2014, 12:46 PM EDT

stevebalboni

You probably know this, but the Kansas City Royals single season home run record is 36, and Steve Balboni set it almost 30 years ago. It’s always fun to list off the team-by-team home run single season home run leaders. Find your team!

Giants, 73 (Barry Bonds 2001)
Cardinals, 70 (Mark McGwire 1998)

Cubs, 66 (Sammy Sosa 1998)
Yankees, 61 (Roger Maris 1961)

Phillies, 58 (Ryan Howard 2006)
Athletics 58 (Jimmie Foxx 1932)
Tigers, 58 (Hank Greenberg 1938)
Diamondbacks, 57 (Luis Gonzalez 2001)
Rangers, 57 (Alex Rodriguez 2002)
Mariners, 56 (Ken Griffey 1998)
Blue Jays, 54 (Jose Bautista 2010)
Pirates, 54 (Ralph Kiner 1949)
Red Sox, 54 (David Ortiz 2006)
Orioles, 53 (Chris Davis 2013)
Indians, 52 (Jim Thome 2002)
Reds, 52 (George Foster 1977)
Braves, 51 (Andruw Jones 2005)
Brewers, 50 (Prince Fielder 2007)
Padres, 50 (Greg Vaughn 1998)

Dodgers, 49 (Shawn Green 2001)
Rockies, 49 (Larry Walker 1997, Todd Helton 2001)
Twins, 49 (Harmon Killebrew 1964, 1969)
White Sox, 49 (Albert Belle 1998)
Angels, 48 (Troy Glaus 2000)
Astros, 47 (Jeff Bagwell 2000)
Nationals/Les Expos, 46 (Alfonso Soriano 2006)
Rays, 46 (Carlos Pena 2007)
Marlins, 42 (Gary Sheffield 1996)
Mets, 41 (Carlos Beltran 2006, Todd Hundley 1996)

Royals, 36 (Steve Balboni, 1985)

OK before going any further let’s break all this up into a couple of fun categories. For instance, I found this breakdown pretty interesting.

Team’s season home run record holders:
In the Hall of Fame: 4
Out of the Hall of Fame: 26

Now, admittedly this is slanted because so many of the team home run records were set recently — more than two-thirds of them have been set in the last 20 years. So the Hall of Fame cases of most players have not even been heard yet. Ken Griffey will certainly be elected his first year on the ballot so that would make five of 30. Jeff Bagwell will go in sooner or later, I think Jim Thome will get elected at some point, maybe Barry Bonds will too. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz all have varying degrees of steroid stain which is why they are not coasting into the Hall even with traditional Hall of Fame numbers. It’s still unclear how we will look at steroids users in, say, 10 or 20 years.

Still, facts are facts and right now about one tenth of all the team home run leaders are in the Hall — just seems kind of odd.

Here’s another fun one, here are the years when the team home run records were set:

1932: 1
1938: 1
1949: 1
1961: 1
1964: 1
1977: 1
1985: 1
1996: 1
1998: 5
2000: 2
2001: 4
2002: 2
2005: 1
2006: 4
2007: 2
2010: 1
2013: 1

As you can see, only seven team home run records survive from pre-1996. Six of the seven are impressive home run seasons set by impressive players. Jimmie Foxx smashed 58 in 1932 and Hank Greenberg smashed 58 in 1938. Ralph Kiner’s 54 homer season from 1949 is still Pittsburgh’s record. Of course, Roger Maris’ 61 in 1961 remains the Yankees record. Harmon Killebrew twice hit 49 homers in the 1960s, when pitching reigned. And the Reds’ record is George Foster’s rather jolting 52-homer season of 1977 — it is the only 50-plus homer season in the 1970s or 1980s. You can see why those records have lasted.

And then there is … the Balboni record, which at this point has to be considered one of the eight wonders of the baseball world. Steve Balboni, you probably know, was a minor-league power legend in the Yankees organization; he hit 32 homers in 83 games for Class AAA Columbus in 1982 and 27 more in 84 games in 1983. The Yankees still did not take him seriously as a prospect. Nobody really did. He was big and slow, he struck out a bazillion times back when that was a deal-breaker for most general managers and he couldn’t really play a position. He looked to be in the line of such minor league royalty at Jack Baker and Joe Lis and Jim Fuller and Adrian Garrett and Bill McNulty and other legendary minor league sluggers who you probably have never heard of.

The Yankees traded him to the Royals for Duane Dewey and Mike Armstrong. Well, the Royals desperately needed power. They always have. The year the Royals got him, they gave him 500 or so plate appearances and Balboni did what Balboni does. He struck out 139 times, he hit .244, he played first base to a near draw and he mashed 28 home runs. The Royals were so excited about those home runs (Frank White was second on the team with 17) that in 1985, they gave Balboni more plate appearances. In return, he gave them more Balboni: A .243 batting average, a .307 on-base percentage, a league-leading 166 strikeouts, pretty ghastly defense at first base. But he mashed those 36 home runs, a team record. And the Royals won their only World Series.

Balboni’s record could have been broken a couple of times through the years, most prominently in 1995 by Gary Gaetti. If you don’t remember Gaetti playing with the Royals, you are not alone. Gaetti had a fine career in Minnesota, then they signed him to a big and rather disastrous big-money deal in California. I know, the Angels making a dubious big-money signing … I’m shocked too. The Angels paid more than $5 million to dump Gaetti in 1993. when he was hitting .180, and the Royals scooped him up, endured a couple of mediocre seasons and then watched him have one last glorious season when he hit 35 home runs in 1995 (just after the Royals moved in the fences … most on that in a minute). That season was shortened by the strike … if it had not, a 36-year-old Gary Gaetti would be the Royals home run record holder. I’m not sure that would be a lot better aesthetically.

How astonishing is it that the Royals home run record is 36? Well there are countless ways to look at it. Here’s one: The New York Yankees have had FORTY ONE players hit 37 or more home runs in a season. The Chicago Cubs have had 27. Jim Lemon, Tony Batista, Gus Zernial and Phil Nevin have all hit 37 homers in a season. Rafael Palmeiro did it TEN TIMES. David Kingman did it three.

So, I think it’s fair to say that the Kansas City Royals home run record is one of the more astonishing in sports. From 1998 to 2007 — the Selig Power Hour Decade — 157 players hit 37-plus home runs. More than 15 per season. Obviously no Royals player was even on that list. But even more remarkably, in that absurd stretch when baseballs were flying out like planes in Atlanta, the Royals had TWO PLAYERS who hit even THIRTY homers: Dean Palmer hit 34 in 1998 and Jermaine Dye hit 33 in 2000.

Yes, that’s right. The Royals have not had a 30-home run hitter since 2000.

You should know: The lack of power began as a point of pride or Kansas City Royals baseball. A little history: In 1969, the Royals entered as an expansion team, and at first they played in Municipal Stadium, a classic old neighborhood stadium where you parked your car at your own risk. The stadium itself was fairly nondescript; Municipal was not really a hitters or pitchers park. At different times, Kansas City Athletics crackpot owner Charlie Finley had tried to make it a home run park but he was never too successful. In the Royals first year first year, a veteran former catcher named Ed Kirkpatrick led the team with 14 home runs.

The next year, the Royals had their first legitimate power hitter — Bob Oliver — and he hit 27 home runs. That was the team record until 1975. Just as a side note, you probably know this, but Bob Oliver is the father of the longtime, longtime, longtime reliever Darren Oliver. I find this staggering because Darren Oliver pitched in the big leagues for roughly 439 years; I sort of expected his father to be Methuselah. *

*I should note — I am seven years older than Darren Oliver which means that, yes it’s just about time to send off for that AARP card and head to the 3 p.m. dinner buffet.

In 1973, the Royals moved into brand new and revolutionary Royals Stadium — and unlike Municipal this was a ballpark with its own bold and brash personality. Royals Stadium was kind of spacey, kind of high-tech, it had fountains in the outfield and far-off fences and springy artificial turf that would make baseballs bounce like super balls and conducted heat so that on summer days the turf felt roughly like the surface of the sun. These quirks actually helped shape those terrific Royals in the early years. They built fast teams that ran the bases aggressively and chased down EVERYTHING in the outfield. They were contenders on that turf for the next dozen years.*

*One of the great ironies of Royals baseball is that all these years of turf their groundskeeper was the legendary George Toma, who has prepared every Super Bowl field and is known as the King of Grass. George worked that turf but, sheesh, it’s a bit like having Picasso as your house painter.

Home runs were not part of the winning formula at Royals Stadium. The Royals DID have one a true power hitter, my friend John Mayberry, who mashed 34 home runs in 1975. In another ballpark, Mayberry almost certainly would have hit 40-plus … of the 34 he hit, 23 were on the road. Two years later, after he recovered from an injury, he hit 23 homers, 17 on the road. People just didn’t hit home runs in Kansas City.

It didn’t matter though, not for the Royals. Everyone else could try for home runs. The Royals had their own style. They played fast, played loose, they stole bases, they hit doubles and triples, they slapped bouncers over the infielders hit and sent grounders that skidded and luged between defenders all the way to the wall. They drove power teams like the Red Sox and Orioles nuts. From 1976 to 1985, the Royals won the American League West seven times (counting the strike season), won two pennants, won a World Series. They never finished Top 5 in the American League in home runs and were usually not even in the Top 10.

Royals from 1976-1985:

1976: 65 homers (11th)
1977: 146 homers (6th)
1978: 98 homers (11th)
1979: 116 homers (11th)
1980: 115 homers (9th)
1981: 61 homers (10th)
1982: 132 homers (10th)
1983: 109 homers (12th)
1984: 117 homers (12th)
1985: 154 homers (8th)

The Royals led the league in triples six times during that stretch, and more than once led the league in doubles, stolen bases, hits and batting average. That Royals fit the stadium where they played, and they won, and it was beautiful. Pitching. Defense. Speed. Who the heck needed power? Kansas City grew used to a style of play.

In 1986, though, things took a bad turn for the Royals on many different fronts. Great teams get old, and even smart baseball people almost never see it coming. It happened to the Royals in 1986. Hal McRae turned 40. George Brett and Frank White entered the decline phase of their careers which was pretty easily predicted, but Willie Wilson and Lonnie Smith, who were younger, entered their decline phase too.

To give you an idea of the freefall: The Royals stole 185 bases in 1980 when they went to the World Series. In 1986, they stole 97 bases and finished 10 games below .500. Stolen bases were not the reason they won or lost, but that drop does give a hint about a vibrant team becoming stale. The Royals could not play Royals baseball anymore. So, they started to focus on power. And they were lousy at it. In late 1986, they traded for Danny Tartabull who is actually the only Kansas City Royals player to hit 30-plus homers more than once (!). They also drafted Bo Jackson, who is his own story.

But Royals Stadium was still a canyon, and the Royals never finished better than 10th in home runs in the league from 1986 to 1994. So the power thing wasn’t working either.

Then, middle of the 1990s, the Royals had a bright idea. I kid, of course. The Royals did not have bright ideas in the 1990s. They did not have an owner, they did not have a direction, they just had a few well-intentioned people with Charlie Brown clouds over their heads and a knack for doing things that SOUNDED reasonably logical in the moment but were, in fact, New Coke level fiascos. In 1995, the Royals made the decision to replace the turf with grass. OK. Sounds reasonable. The park would look prettier. They also decided to move in the fences about 10 feet and lower them from 12 feet to 9 feet. OK. Sounds reasonable. The Royals could hit a few more home runs.

The grass decision did make the ballpark much prettier though it made the place much more conventional; and the Royals would find they did not have a prayer in a conventional war.

More, moving in of the fences turned out to be an unequivocal disaster. They apparently did not consider that moving in the fences would also make it easier for OTHER TEAMS to hit more home runs. In fact, as it turned out, moving in the fences would ONLY make it easier for other teams to hit more home runs.

Here’s a fun timeline: In 1993, the Royals allowed only 105 home runs — fewest in the American League.

In 1995, the Royals moved in the fences. They promptly allowed 37 more home runs than they had in 1993. Meanwhile they actually hit five fewer home runs than in 1993, this even with Gary Gaetti’s near record season. Turn back! Abandon ship!

No. Not the Royals. In 1996, they allowed 26 more home runs than they had in 1995.

In 1997: Ten more. In 1998: 10 more. In 1999: six more. You keeping track here? In 2000, the Royals had their season of magical curveball hanging They allowed 37 more home runs on top of all that for a grand total of 239 home runs. Only one team in baseball history, 1996 Detroit Tigers, has ever allowed more.

Meanwhile, their own home runs, as you already guessed, barely went up at all. The Royals tried to pick up home run hitters — they had Dean Palmer there for a year, Chili Davis was around, they brought in Jeff King for a while. And they had a long series of prospective power hitters work through their system — Mike Sweeney was, by far, the most successful of these though he never quite developed into even a 30-home run guy.

Others not as successful included:
– Craig Paquette (“Ball explodes off his bat!” manager Bob Boone gushed).
– Mark Quinn (who hit two home runs in his major league debut and then walked so rarely they once set off fireworks when he did get a free pass).
– Joe Vitiello (who once hit a 550-plus foot home run in spring training).
– Kit Pellow (who hit more than 300 career minor league homers and four in the big leagues).
– Bob Hamelin (the Hammer, who slugged .599 as a rookie and won the Rookie of the Year award then hit .235 and slugged .420 the rest of his career)
– Dee Brown (a former football player, who flashed great power in the minors but hit just 14 total in the big leagues)
– Many more!

After 2004, the Royals finally figured out that the short fence idea wasn’t working — hey, it only took about 10 years — and now Kauffman Stadium is back to having the biggest outfield and being perhaps the toughest home run park in the American League. And what chance do they have now of breaking Balboni’s record? The home run prospects kept on flaming out. Chris Lubanski was a 6-foot-3 outfielder who had unlimited power — our good pal, scout Art Stewart, told us we would “remember this day” when Lubanski signed and came up to take some batting practice — but he barely made it to Class AAA. The Royals drafted Brett Eibner — oh were they excited about getting Brett Eibner — a five-tool force from Arkansas. Power. Power. Power. He’s in minor league purgatory. It’s too early to make that same call about local hero Bubba Starling — one of the greatest Kansas City high school athletes ever — but at last check he was hitting about .150 in Class A ball so he’s looking pretty shaky.

Even the Royals’ relative success stories just have not become power hitters. Billy Butler was supposed to develop into a poor man’s Miguel Cabrera kind of slugger: He’s a good hitter. But he topped out at 29 home runs even that power seems gone now. Alex Gordon was supposed to develop into a slugger. Never happened.

Eric Hosmer, the Royals talked about him having light-tower power. Great phrase. He’s established himself as the everyday first baseman and he hit .300 last year. But seventeen games so far this year, he has as many home runs as I have. Third baseman Mike Moustakas hit something like 5,000 home runs his senior year of high school. He does lead the Royals in home runs this year. He has hit two.

The Royals have six home runs all year. At this point, they’re just hoping to break Balboni’s record as a team.

And you have to wonder: Why can’t the Royals catch a break on this home run thing? Other teams catch breaks. Why couldn’t the Royals have drafted Ryan Howard in the fifth round or selected Edwin Encarnacion off waivers or stuck with Jose Bautista (they are one of many teams to have Baustista) or lucked into a Chris Davis or Carlos Pena season? Why?

The answer, I guess, is that there is no answer. They are the Royals. The Balboni abides. In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay. But the Steve Balboni record of 36 home runs is here to stay.

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