C ∙ 1985—86
The Royals knew they had a promising batch of young starting pitchers heading into the 1985 season, and they wanted to find a veteran catcher to guide them. Luckily for them, Jim Sundberg had exercised a contractual option to demand a trade out of Milwaukee after ’84, and a five-player, four-team deal was struck that sent Sundberg to KC (with the Royals giving up Don Slaught and Frank Wills). Sundberg proved to be the perfect complement to the Royals’ stellar rotation, and he provided some unforgettable moments of his own in the ’85 postseason.
At the time of the trade, Sundberg said, “After watching (Royals pitchers) last summer, I was real impressed with the strength of their arms. Milwaukee first saw them in April. Even at that point, I thought they’d really be something. So I’m excited about working with them. The key thing they have is velocity and movement. And for young guys, they seem to know what’s going on.”[i] It is tough to parse how much credit a catcher deserves when it comes to pitching success, but Sundberg certainly deserves some of it as part of ‘85’s run-prevention unit, the best the Royals have ever had. His defensive numbers that can be tracked are not eye-popping for ’85 (especially his sub-par caught stealing rate of 29%) but clearly the pitchers felt comfortable throwing to the six-time gold glover. He was not acquired for his bat, but he was respectable enough at the plate in ’85.
But it was in the ’85 playoffs that Sundberg really made his mark on team history. He was behind the plate for every pitch in all 14 games. In the ALCS, he homered in game three as part of a comeback victory. Then he was the hero of game seven after driving in the first run of the game and later delivering the knockout punch with a bases-loaded triple off the top of the wall in Toronto.
In the World Series, he shined with his none-too fast baserunning. After doubling in game five, he scrambled for home on a Buddy Biancalana single and made a fantastic head-first slide, safe by the narrowest margin. It was the go-ahead run and the Royals held the lead the rest of the way. In the next game, he scored the walk-off winning run from second on a Dane Iorg single on what looked like a replay of his game five slide. It was the most dramatic play in Royals history. “I’ve been watching baserunners use headfirst slides to beat my throws for years,” Sundberg said. “So I figured, why not me? I’ve got one more slide left.”[ii] Manager Dick Howser, who could have reasonably pinch-run for Sundberg, said, “Sundberg only has average speed but he’s a good baserunner. He knows how to score on a base hit; he gets a good jump.”[iii] Sundberg spent 1986 as the team’s number one catcher again. His overall hitting dropped off in spite of belting a career high 12 homers. And while he still had some of the defensive magic left, the 35 year-old was slowing down. “I don’t throw as hard as I used to,” he said. “I used to be in a category of my own. As time goes on, you lose a little bit.”[iv] After that season, the Royals were no longer sold on Sundberg as a number one backstop, and they thought they had his replacement heading into ’87 after getting Ed Hearn from the Mets in the infamous David Cone trade. Sundberg was soon on his way out of KC in a trade with the Cubs (for Dave Gumpert and Thad Bosley). Sundberg was shocked but understanding: “I think I was brought here to teach the young pitchers…They know what to do now. They don’t need me. But I can’t be angry. This team gave me a world championship that I never got with anyone else.”[v]
[i] Fish, Mike. “Kansas City Finally Got Its Man.” The Sporting News (February 4, 1985): p. 35.
[ii] Attner, Paul. “The Champs.” The Sporting News (November 4, 1985): p. 2.
[iii] Nightengale, Dave. “Full Moon, Controversy, Tied Series.” The Sporting News (November 4, 1985): p. 18.
[iv] Uncredited. “Royals.” The Sporting News (May 26, 1986): p. 17.
[v] Nightengale, Bob. “K.C. Lost Confidence In Sundberg.” The Sporting News (April 13, 1987): p. 20.