On July 22, 1994, the Kansas City Royals were 49-47 and nine and a half games out of a first. What happened the 14 games was amazing.
Heading into his fourth full season as manager for the Kansas City Royals, Hal McRae was coming off an 84-78 season and a third-place finish in the American League West. It was also the first season without a player named George Brett on the roster since the 1972 season.
That was not the only big change as Major League Baseball split the American and National League into three divisions each and added a Wild Card playoff team to keep more teams and fans interested in the game later into the year. No longer would the Royals battle the Texas Rangers, Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners and California Angels in the standings. Old AL West rivals the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins were still there but new rivals would be formed with the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers (briefly).
Kansas City still had solid players even with Brett’s retirement, and they were even competing in the free-agent market. Signings of Wally Joyner, Greg Gagne, Gary Gaetti, Vince Coleman and David Cone (for his second tour of duty with the club) were some of the additions in recent years. Holdover talent consisted of Mike MacFarlane, Brian McRae, Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon and Jeff Montgomery.
Stealing the limelight for the season was a second-round draft pick in 1988, Bob Hamelin. You can call him The Hammer. He began to turn heads in 1993 at the AAA level where he blasted 29 home runs. A brief cup of coffee that year was decent for his first taste of big-league pitching. He caught fire in 1994 and hit 24 long balls, produced a .987 OPS and ran away with the AL Rookie of the Year honors, winning 25 of 28 first-place votes. Second place that year? Manny Ramirez.
The Kansas City Royals lost five of their first six games of the season but rallied back to hang around .500, usually one to three games above, for the bulk of the summer. The bottom hit during a stretch from July 19th to July 22nd in which KC would lose three in a row to teams who finish in last place in their divisions. On July 23rd, that all changed.
It started innocently enough. Hamelin and Felix Jose provided their 18th and 10th home runs, respectively, and Cone went a tidy 8 innings with 12 strikeouts to capture his 14th win. Montgomery closed things out with his 19th save. And then the wins kept coming.
During this stretch, the Royals went from nine and a half games out to just one. Twelve of the wins came at home as an initial eleven game homestand was extended by the Seattle Mariners having issues with their roof at the Kingdome forcing them to travel to play their games. Montgomery recorded saves in eight of the fourteen wins, Cone posted three victories. The Hammer hit six home runs during the streak, Vince Coleman reached 50 steals on the year.
Kansas City would go on to lose four of their last five before the season ended due to the strike. They sat four games out of first of the White Sox and three games back of the Indians for the Wild Card. I still present the case that Kansas City would have been a favorite to win the division. They had gone 7-2 and 4-1 against Chicago and Cleveland, respectively. Plus, Kansas City was gelling as a team and peaking at the right time.
The strike famously canceled the playoffs and the 1995 season did not get underway until the end of April. Things were never the same for the Kansas City Royals the next 20 years. Hamelin never came close to his 1994 stats and quit baseball during the middle of a minor league game.
While CEO of the Royals following Ewing Kauffman’s death in 1993, David Glass cut payroll from $41 to $19 million (Glass did not become the owner until buying the organization from the estate of Kauffman in 2000). Bob Boone would take over for McRae as skipper. The next winning season was not until 2003 and sustained winning took a vacation until 2013-2015.
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It was an eclectic mix of players who put together an amazing run and could go deep in the playoffs. What if the strike in 1994 did not happen? Just maybe there would be a third World Series banner flying at Kauffman today.