RHP ∙ 1969—72
Mike Hedlund was an original Royal, acquired during the 1968 expansion draft. He had made just nine brief relief appearances for Cleveland before impressing KC decision makers at 1969 spring training with a good fastball, command, and the ability to change speeds. That earned him a spot on the first Opening Day Royals roster. He wound up as a swing-man that year, making 16 starts and 18 relief appearances and doing an excellent job keeping the opposition off the board in both roles. The 22-year-old ended up throwing only 125 innings, so he and the club agreed he could benefit from some more work in the Venezuelan winter league. Hedlund dominated the league like no pitcher had before. He started the winter with 38 scoreless frames, and ended with a 0.75 ERA in 140 innings of work. He was expected to be an important part of the Royals staff for 1970.
Hedlund picked up valuable experience in Venezuela, but unfortunately he also picked up a nasty virus. The sickness knocked a ton of weight off of him. (He lost a little more weight after manager Charlie Metro required him to shorten his bright orange sideburns. “The ear is the cutting-off place,” Metro ordered.[i]) The effects of the illness lingered and lingered. Hedlund’s strength was sapped, and it showed with diminished zip on his pitches. “I didn’t have my fast ball because I was tired,” Hedlund admitted.” “I tried to be too fine…I got all psyched out.”[ii] After just 15 relief innings over the first month of the season, Hedlund was sent down to Omaha where he stayed for the remainder of the year trying to regain his form. He later called it “a wasted year.”[iii]
After some much needed off-season rest, Hedlund was back to full strength and full velocity for 1971 and slotted back into the big league rotation from the get-go. It was a splendid season for him and the Royals. Hedlund and Dick Drago formed an excellent one-two punch at the top of the rotation as the Royals recorded their first winning season. Hedlund was supremely reliable all year, leading the way to a 20-10 record in games he started. He did not do it with power, striking out just 76. He managed a complete game shutout of the Indians while striking out just one on April 24. He allowed the opposition to put the ball in play throughout his career, and seemed to have a knack to induce soft contact. He was also quick to credit his fielders: “We had a great infield with Freddie Patek and Cookie Rojas up the center…so if I could get it on the ground we had chances of getting the out or getting the double play.”[iv] It all worked beautifully in 1971.
Hedlund then worked an off-season job doing promotion and ticket sales for his hometown Texas Rangers. This led to natural speculation about the chance of him pitching for the Rangers someday, but Hedlund replied, “I’m real happy where I am. It’s a young club that is really getting everything together. I kind of pride myself on being with an expansion club that has come along like this one has and finished in second place. And I want to be there when the Royals win a pennant, because we will, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. There’s a great outlook in the organization.”[v]
Hedlund was correct that the young organization was on a relatively fast track, but unfortunately he and the team hit a stumbling block in 1972. He actually slightly improved both his strikeout and walk rates, but the batting average on balls in play bumped up closer to the norm, and the results were much less pretty. After the team dropped six of his first seven starts, he lost his regular turn in the rotation. He had to settle for just eight more spot starts and 13 relief appearances for the rest of the year. During the ’72-’73 off-season Hedlund was traded to his original team in Cleveland in exchange for utility man Kurt Bevacqua, and he never was able to break back into the big leagues.
[i] Sid Bordman, “Hedlund Looks Royal Minus Sideburns,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1970.
[ii] Bob Williams, “Hedlund Bounces Back After Bouts With Flu, Fatigue,” The Sporting News, August 8, 1970.
[iii] Joe McGuff, “Question-Mark K.C. Pitching Turns Into Exclamation Point,” The Sporting News, June 19, 1971.
[iv] MondayNightSports14, “Mike Hedlund – Former MLB Pitcher,” YouTube.com, August 8, 2013.
[v] Randy Galloway, “K.C. Hurler Makes Pitch For Rangers,” The Sporting News, January 8, 1972.