KC Royals: Club’s managing tree has many branches

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Three former KC Royals went on to manage the team. They succeeded each other.

Of the 19 men who’ve managed the KC Royals, three played for the club–catchers John Wathan and Bob Boone, and designated hitter (and occasional outfielder) Hal McRae. Beginning in mid-1987, they were the only full-time Kansas City managers for 10 years.

John Wathan‘s transition from field to dugout was predictable. Even-keeled, businesslike and a student of the game, Wathan was a smart and respected player throughout his 10 years with the Royals (he never played for anyone else). It’s said that their unique perspective of the game and on-field responsibilities give catchers a leg up as managers, and Wathan was an intelligent catcher who called good games and kept his pitchers happy.

Although he took a turn in the outfield now and then and played first base late in his career, Wathan set the modern-era record for stolen bases in a season by a catcher when he swiped 36 in 1982. He hit .305 in 1980 and .262 for his career.

Wathan immediately joined Dick Howser‘s KC coaching staff after retiring as a player following the Royals’ 1985 World Series victory, then coached for Mike Ferraro when he took over as interim manager when Howser’s battle with brain cancer forced him off the field in 1986. Billy Gardner became manager for the ’87 season and kept Wathan, and it was Wathan who succeeded Gardner when the club fired him during that season.

“Duke” took over a 62-64, fourth place club; the Royals went 21-15 the rest of the way to finish second in the AL West.

The KC Royals finished third (84-77) in Wathan’s first full season as skipper, then went 92-70 in 1989 but finished second in the West, seven games behind Oakland. They dropped to sixth (75-86) in the then-seven team West in ’90.

Wathan’s tenure with the Royals ended May 22, 1991 when, with the Royals mired in last place at 15-22, the club fired him, replacing him for a game with Bob Schaefer until they brought Hal McRae back to manage.

Wathan later held several baseball jobs, including with the Royals, and managed the Angels part of a season while Buck Rodgers recuperated from a vehicle crash. Wathan’s sons Dusty and Derek played pro ball; Dusty had a brief stint with the Royals and is now the Phillies’ third-base coach.

Hal McRae came to the KC Royals as an outfielder in 1973, the club’s prime target in a trade that sent Roger Nelson and Richie Scheinblum to Cincinnati. McRae split time between right field and the newly-created designated hitter position that season, then became KC’s go-to DH for the remainder of his 19-year career. Known for his tenacious, aggressive play–especially on the basepaths–McRae finished with over 100 steals, over 1,000 RBIs and a .290 average.

McRae retired during the 1987 season and was serving as hitting coach when the club decided to fire manager Billy Gardner. General manager John Schuerholz offered the job to McRae for the rest of the campaign, but apparently offered no guarantee for 1988 or beyond. McRae turned the job down, suggesting he didn’t know if he was ready to commit to the demands of the position. Schuerholz hired McRae’s fellow coach and former teammate John Wathan instead.

With the KC Royals floundering in last place after a 15-22 start in 1991, new general manager Herk Robinson fired Wathan and pursued McRae; this time, McRae was ready to manage and took the job. Bob Schaefer managed the club for a game while it awaited McRae, then Montreal’s hitting coach, to arrive; the Royals gave Schaefer a win and stood 16-22 when McRae took over. Although KC lost its first game under McRae, the club improved and finished 66-58 for him and 82-80 for the campaign.

The Royals started horribly the next season, losing 15 of their first 17 games, and never recovered; they finished tied with the Angels for next-to-last in the West with a 72-90 record. A third place, 84-78 1993 followed, but was marred by an ugly post-game incident in late April when McRae, angered by a reporter’s question, lashed out and swept his desktop of its contents. One object hit a beat writer and bloodied his face.

McRae survived the incident and had the Royals in third place, just four games out of first, when the players went on strike the next season. Although the strike wiped out the rest of the campaign, the business of the game continued and the club curiously fired McRae in September.

Related Story. 1995, the last shortened season. light

A highlight of McRae’s Kansas City tenure was managing his son Brian, who played with the Royals every season his father managed. McRae’s clubs never reached the playoffs and he finished 286-277. He then managed Tampa Bay for a season-and-a-half with a 113-196 record.

The Royals replaced McRae with the last of its former players to manage the club.

Like John Wathan before him, Bob Boone sharpened his baseball mind as an excellent catcher. In 19 years in the majors–the final two with the KC Royals–he was an All-Star four times and won seven Gold Gloves. He hit .274 for KC in 1989, then retired during the ’90 season after breaking a finger.

Boone’s first managerial job came quickly–he was hired a few months after retiring, but never skippered a game for his employer. The job came from an Orlando group bidding for an expansion team and was conditioned upon a successful bid; the major leagues picked Miami and Colorado instead.

His next offer came from his old friends in Kansas City and he agreed to replace Hal McRae as manager for the 1995 season, becoming the third straight–and last–former Royal to manage the club full time. Unfortunately, Boone was less successful than his predecessors Wathan and McRae: the Royals were 70-74 in the strike-shortened 1995 season, finished last at 75-86 in ’96, and were in fourth place (36-46) when the Royals fired him in July 1997.

Boone then managed the Reds to a 190-238 record in two seasons and part of a third; combined with his 181-206 KC record, he finished his managerial career 371-444.

Boone’s father, Ray, and two sons, Bret and Aaron, all played in the majors. Aaron currently manages the Yankees.