I remember the important parts of that night with remarkable clarity. It was cold, being December, and I was in that “close to winter break, but not quite there” part of the school year.
I had left the TV on in my bedroom in the basement before I’d went upstairs to the kitchen to fuss around and avoid bedtime. Walking back down the stairs, I heard the newscaster’s voice: “The Royals have traded pitcher Bret Saberhagen and infielder Bill Pecota to the Mets for Gregg Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds and Keith Miller.”
My little 11-year-old heart sank.
“Why would they do that?” I thought.
Looking back, most of the time when you think of Royals trades, you remember Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran. But before those big three, sandwiched between two awful David Cone trades, the Royals traded their best pitcher in a generation, Bret Saberhagen.
Saberhagen hadn’t performed up to his normal Cy Young expectations in 1990, but still had a strong season (especially by today’s standards) despite an arm injury that knocked him out for two months. He made two starts in September and finished the year with a 3.27 ERA in 20 starts. It looked bad compared to his remarkable 1989 campaign when he won the Cy Young Award for the second time (at the tender age of 25), but it was still good. So with that as the backdrop, he was on the mend and on the rebound going into 1991.
He went 13-8 with a 3.07 ERA and threw a no-hitter against the White Sox in August (the last such feat by a Royal).
Then in December he was traded to the Mets for three guys I’d only known by their baseball cards.
It was devastating and sudden. Behind George Brett, Saberhagen was my next favorite Royal. The first fitted Royals cap I ever got was purchased at a sporting goods store in the summer of 1991 while my mom recovered from brain surgery to remove a cyst. It had an embroidered signature of Bret Saberhagen on the front and a nameplate with “SABERHAGEN 18” on the back. Months later, Sabes wasn’t even on the team anymore.
The trade came after a couple of rough seasons (before it got really bad) for the Royals. In 1990, they were picked by many to get past Oakland and into the playoffs, especially after signing 1989 National League Cy Young Award winner Mark Davis but finished sixth in the AL West. Then in 1991, they finished sixth again (at 82-80, mind you). With George Brett about to enter what many thought might be his last season and with Tom Gordon, Mark Gubicza and a young Kevin Appier still in the mix, General Manager Herk Robinson felt the Royals needed a change. While Danny Tartabull was on the way out as a free agent, the Royals signed Wally Joyner, then traded Saberhagen with the intent of starting Jefferies at third, Kevin McReynolds in right field and Keith Miller in left field. The Royals, for their efforts, finished 72-90.
McReynolds was a former MVP candidate in the 1980s and from 1986 to 1988 carried a .284/.337/.498/.836 line with 86 homers and 290 RBI. By 1991, age and attrition had started to take their toll and he finished that season with just 16 homers. As a Royal in 1992 and 1993 he hit a total of 24 homers and drove in just 91. He was traded in January 1994 for Vince Coleman. Keith Miller never did anything as a Royal, being saddled by injuries almost the whole time, though he was a 2.4 WAR player in 1992, his only year with extensive time with Kansas City.
The key to the deal, though, was then 24-year-old Gregg Jefferies. The third baseman was a former first round pick by the Mets in 1985 and had a career batting average of .331 in the minors. Also, he had good speed, gap power and a little bit of pop and was hyped as the next big thing in 1989 through the end of 1990. The Royals got one season out of him where he hit .285/.329/.404/.733 with ten homers. They promptly traded him to the Cardinals for Felix Jose, who you’ll remember did even less and left baseball in 1995, returning in 2000 as a Yankee. Jefferies, it should be noted, hit .344/.408/.485/.893 in his first year with the Cardinals, hit 16 homers, stole 46 bases, was named to the All-Star team and finished 11th in MVP voting.
Saberhagen, however, never really regained his form and fought with arm troubles the rest of his career, making various stops along the way in Boston and Colorado. He still pitched well enough to stick on a roster here and there, but his Cy Young days were over.
Looking back, I have to wonder what it’s like to be a young Royals fan right now. I know some precocious ten year old kids, but I’m not sure they’re going to understand the ideas of service time and trade value and rebuilding plans. I doubt they know who most of the Royals prospects are (yet). All they know is that Zack is gone, David DeJesus is gone, and all that’s left are these guys who are likely to whiff and stumble and fall all over themselves in 2011 on their way to 100 losses.
Ideally, by 2012 and 2013, they’ve started to learn Mike Moustakas‘s name or mimic the pitching motion of Danny Duffy. They might open a pack of baseball cards to see if they’re lucky enough to pull out the new Mike Montgomery or the Wil Myers rookie insert.
Ideally, they won’t have to slog through the years of bad baseball I have since that night in December when the news on TV disappointed me.