The One That Got Away


“John Schuerholz is the luckiest General Manager I know. Everywhere he goes, his teams always win.”

– George Brett

People often reminisce about “the one that got away”. For some, it’s a girl. For others, it’s a fish. In sports, it’s usually a homegrown player who developed into a star and left town seeking a big paycheck. For the Kansas City Royals though, the one that got away was not a player at all. It wasn’t even a trio of players named Dye, Damon, and Beltran. It was General Manager John Schuerholz.

Most people know Schuerholz as the man behind the unbelievable streak of 14 straight division championships won by the Atlanta Braves. As soon as Schuerholz arrived in Atlanta in 1991, they went from worst to first and occupied the NL East’s position in the Playoffs through 2005. Schuerholz stepped down as GM in 2008 and is now the President of the Braves.

When thinking of Schuerholz & his titles in Atlanta, it’s easy to forget that the man spent 22 years building a successful franchise in Kansas City.

I recently read his book “Built to Win” in order to learn more about how the last 21 years could have turned out differently.

John Schuerholz’s career with the Royals began just as the franchise was being birthed in 1968. He was working in Baltimore as an administrative assistant when the upstart Royals hired his boss, Lou Gorman. Schuerholz jumped at the opportunity to take a step up the ladder in a new city & his first tasks were preparing for the upcoming expansion draft. During his time in KC, he grew close with Herk Robinson and the two of them dreamed of their future together. They both dedicated themselves to the success of the Kansas City Royals.

In 1976, the Royals won the AL West. It was the fastest that an expansion team had ever done so at that point in history.

In 1981, Schuerholz was rewarded for all of his hard work in Kansas City by being given “the ultimate promotion” to General Manager.

You can think of Schuerholz the next time you hear music in between innings at the stadium. During his early years as GM, there was another famous gentleman who worked in the front office – Rush Limbaugh. Rush was the one who first approached Schuerholz about playing recorded music in the stadium during home games. It was a crazy idea at the time, but Schuerholz allowed him to try it and it went over really well. Personally, I prefer the organ…

Schuerholz’s legacy can be seen anytime you are at the K – he was the one who hired Buck O’Neil as a scout. O’Neil’s seat behind home plate is memorialized in red. John felt that O’Neil’s baseball IQ & willingness to mentor young players would be priceless. Naturally, everyone took to Buck & loved having him around. Schuerholz says, “Frank White & George Brett – who didn’t need that kind of help – spent as much time with Buck as anyone.”

In a way, Schuerholz’s impact can still be felt. One of his top assistants in Atlanta was Dayton Moore. He holds Moore in very high regard, and it is widely known that Schuerholz groomed Dayton Moore during his time in Atlanta. Moore can attribute a great amount of credit for his own success as a GM to John Schuerholz.

Schuerholz continued winning when he took over as GM in ’81 and finally put it all together in 1985 when he brought the franchise its first World Series Championship.

It wasn’t all confetti & champagne during his two decades in Kansas City, however. Schuerholz dealt with several mistakes and tragedies. He was the General Manager when Royals manager Dick Howser was diagnosed with Cancer. He had to address the team in the clubhouse (which he never did) to inform them of his illness and eventually of his death. It was in the wake of this that emotion & personal conflict led him to replace Howser with Billy Gardner. Schuerholz looks back upon this decision with great regret. The mistake wasn’t in keeping Howser around too long & giving him a chance to beat cancer while assistant coaches managed the team, the mistake was not properly finding the appropriate replacement.

Gardner was fired on August 28th of that same season after going 62-64. It’s a record that today’s Royals fan would be happy with, but it wasn’t up to snuff for the high standards that the team had back then. It was a tough situation all around, but John Wathan took over & the team finished above .500 & in 2nd place in the West.

Schuerholz also notes that the worst trade he ever made took place in Kansas City. It involves a young pitcher named David Cone – maybe you’ve heard of him. In 1987, Royals scouts identified Mets Catcher Ed Hearn as the ideal catcher to work with their pitching staff. Cone was just one of many young arms, so the team was willing to part with him. Schuerholz put together a 5 player deal and the trade was made. As soon as Hearn joined the team, he had shoulder surgery & wound up playing only 13 games for the Royals. Cone was a two-time All Star before he found his way back to Kansas City in 1993.

As a General Manager, you have to deal with players of all types. It’s one of the necessary evils/incredible joys of the position. In the book, Schuerholz names a couple of each. He specifically cites George Brett as the most enthusiastic player he ever knew. He talks of how special of a player Bo Jackson was. However, he also shares the great pain caused by the likes of Darrell Porter and Vida Blue because of their drug and alcohol problems. When those situations come up, a General Manager has to play public relations officer and guidance counselor. The Porter and Blue incidents cast a black cloud over a squeaky clean franchise and was difficult for Schuerholz.

I was not surprised to read about Schuerholz’s adulation for George Brett, but I was a bit surprised that Bo Jackson was mentioned as much as he was. He harkened all the way back to the story about how the Royals were able to sign Bo & take him away from pro football (for a bit). The scout who was assigned to Alabama when Bo was at Auburn was scouting him & got to know his mother, who was a maid at the Holiday Inn where he stayed. He also recalled a time when Buck O’Neil pulled him aside in the tunnel one day & said, “Hold it, boss. Stop. Listen.” It was the crack of the bat in Batting Practice – Bo Jackson. Schuerholz asked him how he knew it was Bo. “Boss, I’ve heard that sound three times in my life. Josh Gibson, Babe Ruth, and Bo Jackson.”

Schuerholz did not hold back any feelings about the topic of Moneyball in his book. Unless Brad Pitt was able to change his mind, he’s not a fan of the idea in any way. Chapter 2 of the book is entitled, “Gentlemen, Start Your Moneyball Arguments”. He opines on how he is not a fan of the theory or practice of compiling a roster based solely on statistics & he’s not afraid to share all of the reasons why. He comes off as offended when he talks about how he & the Braves were mentioned as employing some of those tactics.

“Moneyball made for a great read, even though I feel the basic premise is terribly flawed”. “It should be called ‘Lack of Moneyball’ or ‘Statsball’.”

Schuerholz takes a common-sense approach, and believes that it takes a combination of things – stats included – to put together a team that will win & win consistently. Terry Pendleton, Julio Franco are examples of guys who helped him win in Atlanta. They were past their prime & had been through down years when the Braves took chances on them. They both had outstanding years after that & contributed to division championships.

His distaste of the Moneyball theory goes all the way back to his first year as Royals General Manager. A scout was trying to sell him on a player & claimed that “stats don’t lie”. Schuerholz argues that they also don’t tell the whole story.

The story of how Schuerholz fell out of love with Kansas City is the one I was most curious to read about. Schuerholz had once said, “They’re gonna carry me out of here in a pine box. I love it here so much. That’s the only way I’m leaving KC.”

He describes the beginnings of the fallout coming as “a hybrid of happenstance & a change in the KC hierarchy”. In 1983, Ewing Kauffman was getting older and, in an effort to keep the team in Kansas City, brought in a co-owner – Avron Fogelman. Kauffman’s main man was Joe Burke (Team President & Schuerholz’s good friend). Avron meanwhile, tabbed Schuerholz as his guy. Fogelman had a different style & started making Schuerholz implement some of his policies (that Schuerholz didn’t really care for). There was still a lot of loyalty within the organization to Kauffman & Burke, so people started blaming Schuerholz for the changes that were going on.

This made Schuerholz really uncomfortable, and there was a lot of negativity swirling around. Years passed, and during this time, he served on a board of GMs with Atlanta’s President Stan Kasten (and George W. Bush). After the 1990 season, during a meeting in NY, they spent some time alone and Stan was picking John’s brain for potential GM candidates to replace Bobby Cox (who was moving back to the dugout). After talking & thinking, John surprised Stan and nominated himself as a candidate for the position.

It took a great deal of thought & comparison, and he was torn about whether or not to take the job. He made pros/cons lists, his family voted for him to take the job, but it came down to him making major decision. His trips to Atlanta to meet with the Braves were an enjoyable change from the toxic environment that was building in Kansas City. He could see potential in the Braves, but most people accused him of running off & joining the circus.

It came down to a meeting with Ewing Kauffman where Schuerholz told Mr. K about his intentions. Kauffman told him that he “had to go”, that “there was too much doubt in your heart to stick around”. The two shared a ton of emotion and both cried as they talked through the details of his departure.

I’m sure that at the time, the city did not know what it had lost. John’s long-time friend Herk Robinson took over as GM and what has happened since could never have been predicted.

All in all, Schuerholz spent 10 years as the GM of the Royals.
-Won 3 Division Titles
-Won 1 World Series
-Won the AL West twice, finished 2nd four times
-Over .500, 1st or 2nd in Division 6 of 10 years
-Cumulative Record of 804-755 (.515)
Since he left for Atlanta, the Royals have finished over .500 only 4 times, have won zero division titles, and finished in 2nd place only once (1995).

John Schuerholz has had himself quite a life in baseball. We were lucky to have him in Kansas City for as long as we did. Unfortunately, we seemed to have him while he learned how to be a great GM. The Braves got him when he was at his best. It’s interesting to think about what might have been if he had stayed in Kansas City. We are fortunate to have Dayton Moore now – a student of Schuerholz. So bright days are ahead with Moore at the helm, and the Royals have a rich history that Schuerholz had so much to do with. We will never be able to erase the black hole that was left with his departure.

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