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A look back at young Royals talent of the 1980s

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Denver Post Archives
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Why’s he calling me Meat?

I wanted to wish everyone in the Royals Review community a Happy Thanksgiving. If you’re like me, you think about baseball while watching football and those tiresome, ever-present Chucky commercials. By now, we get the idea. Chucky is back. No need to remind us every five minutes.

One of the anticipated events of each spring for baseball fans is the arrival of a new year’s crop of rookies. Prior to the advent of free agency, the only new blood for a team would be from the occasional trade and the arrival of new rookies. Baseball history is littered with rookies who came in and set the world on fire. Some of the rookies who arrived and played like veterans include Ted Williams in 1939, Dick Allen in 1964, Fred Lynn in 1975, Dwight Gooden in 1984, Albert Pujols in 2001 and Mike Trout in 2012.

There’s always something fascinating about watching a rookie step in and tear up the league. The Royals have had their share of intriguing rookies over the years. As a franchise, they’ve rarely produced an MVP (George Brett in 1980) but have had their share of Cy Young winners (Bret Saberhagen twice, David Cone and Zack Greinke) and they’ve done okay in the Rookie of the Year department with Lou Piniella, Bob Hamelin, Carlos Beltran and Angel Berroa. I’m going to spend the next few weeks breaking down some rookies and intriguing first- and second-year players beginning in 1980.

Rance Mulliniks

Mulliniks wasn’t a rookie when he came to the Royals, having already played 150 games over parts of three seasons for the Angels. The Royals picked him up, along with Willie Mays Aikens, in a December 1979 trade with California in exchange for Al Cowens and Todd Cruz. Mulliniks never got much of a chance in KC, only appearing in 60 games over parts of two seasons. He hit a pedestrian .245 in 108 plate appearances before the Royals shipped him to Toronto for pitcher Phil Huffman. Huffman never appeared in a game for the Royals, spending all of 1982 in Jacksonville and Omaha before being released in April of 1983. Mulliniks however, found a home in Toronto and carved out a productive 11-year career with the Jays. He hit .300 or better in three seasons and ended up with 17 career WAR, most of it accumulated with the Jays.

Onix Concepcion

Concepcion was signed by the Royals in March of 1976 as an 18-year-old free agent. He made his rookie debut in 1980 during his age-22 season. He was never a big hitter and at 5’6 and 160 pounds, he had limited power. By 1982 he was getting about half of the games at shortstop. He had his best year in 1984 when he hit .282 in 311 plate appearances. He played a career-high 131 games for the World Champions in 1985. His claim to fame came in the bottom of the ninth of Game Six of the World Series, when he pinch ran for Steve Balboni. He scored the tying run on Dane Iorg’s game-winning single. It was his last appearance for the Royals. He spent all of 1986 in Omaha before the Royals released him in October of 1986. He signed with the Pirates and finally made it back to the bigs in 1987 for one game. He got one at-bat in the first game of the 1987 season, hitting a ninth inning single off the Mets Jesse Orosco. He was promptly lifted for a pinch hitter. The Pirates released him in June and his career was over.

Ken Phelps

Phelps, nicknamed Digger (older fans will get it, younger fans can look it up) was drafted and signed by the Royals after the 1976 draft. Phelps had been drafted three other times, 1972 by the Braves, 1974 by the Yankees (in the first round no less) and in the 1974 secondary by the Phillies (also in the first round) but didn’t sign. The Royals took him in the 15th round and convinced him to sign. Phelps was a player that the Royals let go too early. He was ahead of his time as a three-outcome player.

He appeared in only 24 games for the Royals in the 1980 and 1981 season before being shipped off to Montreal for pitcher Grant Jackson. I never understood this trade. Jackson was a terrific situational lefty in his day but was 39 when the Royals got him. He appeared in just 20 games before the team released him. Phelps only appeared in ten games for the Expos before they sold him to his hometown Seattle Mariners. He played in Seattle for six seasons and was a solid power/walk guy for four years between 1984 and 1988. His 1987 season was his best as he slashed .259/.410/.548 with 27 home runs. He drew 80 walks and struck out 75 times. His power production (he hit his first 100 home runs in just 1,322 at bats – the second-fastest clip in major league history) caught the eye of George Steinbrenner, who sent a AAA outfielder named Jay Buhner to Seattle for Phelps. Buhner of course became something of a Mariner legend, while Phelps found himself trapped behind Don Mattingly and Jack Clark in New York. The trade later became comedy foil on Seinfeld.

Phelps spent time with Oakland and Cleveland before the end of the road came in 1990. His final home run, however, was epic. On April 20, 1990, Phelps was called on to pinch hit against Brian Holman, and his former team, the Mariners. Holman, who came to Seattle along with Randy Johnson, was one out away from a perfect game. Phelps swatted a home run on the first pitch to spoil Holman’s gem.

Craig Chamberlain

Even though Chamberlain, a right-handed pitcher, made his debut in 1979, I’m including him in this group because his story is so unusual. Chamberlain was drafted in the first round of the 1978 June secondary phase out of the University of Arizona. The Royals had him start his career at AA Jacksonville and after just 22 games, promoted him to Kansas City. He made his debut on August 12, 1979, in a start against Detroit. Chamberlain won his first three starts, all complete games.

I was at the third start, a 4-2 Royal victory over Boston and Dennis Eckersley. I remember being disappointed that Carlton Fisk didn’t play. There was some serious talent on the field that day. George Brett was still in his prime, one year away from his magical peak. Willie Wilson, Hal McRae and Darrell Porter were stars. Eckersley, Jim Rice and Carl “bleeping” Yastrzemski were all on their way to the Hall of Fame. Dwight Evans should be in the Hall. Rick Burleson, Fred Lynn, Butch Hobson and Bob Watson were all terrific players. When you’re 18, you often don’t realize what you are seeing and that was the case that Sunday in Royals Stadium. I remember thinking on the drive home that the Royals might have a future ace on their hands.

Chamberlain appeared in ten games in 1979, all starts, and finished with a 4 and 4 record. Between Jacksonville and Kansas City, he threw almost 230 innings in his age 22 season. Back in those days, no one paid attention to how many innings a pitcher threw. Looking back, it’s a fair guess to say Chamberlain probably hit a stretch of dead arm. He started 1980 in Omaha, started 27 games, threw 170 innings with an ERA of 4.76. The Royals brought him back when the rosters expanded. He got into five games, threw nine innings and got roughed up a bit, to the tune of a 6.75 ERA. The Royals left him off their post-season roster and he never played in the majors again.

In March of 1982, Kansas City packaged him to San Francisco with Atlee Hammaker, Brad Wellman and Renie Martin in exchange for Vida Blue and Bob Tufts. Chamberlain spent two seasons in the Giants minor league system then was out of baseball from 1984 through 1986. He resurfaced in 1981 in the Orioles organization, before taking another sabbatical from 1989 to 1990. In 1991 he signed with Cleveland and spent 1991 in their system. He was out of baseball, again, from 1992 through 1994 before signing with Long Beach in the Western Independent League at the age of 38.

Mike Jones

Jones was a big lefty pitcher, 6’6 and 215 pounds, who the Royals drafted in the first round of the 1977 draft out of Southerland High in Pittsford, New York. He made his debut in the summer of 1980 as a 20-year-old, appearing in three late-season games. Jones appeared in 12 games during the 1981 season and looked like he was poised to become a mainstay in the Royals’ future rotation. He went 6 and 3 with a 3.21 ERA over 75 innings of work. On December 21st, 1982, Jones was involved in a single-car accident that left him with a serious neck injury. He missed all of the 1983 season recovering from the accident. Jones made it back to the Royals, appearing in 56 games during the 1984 and 1985 seasons, but was never able to recover the promise of that 1981 summer. He spent the next five seasons bouncing around AAA for Atlanta, Montreal, Cincinnati, and Baltimore before calling it a career after the 1990 season.

Of these five players, Jones was the miss that hurt the most. Innings-eating lefties are always in demand and the Royals thought Jones had the potential to be in the rotation for many years. Had Chamberlain panned out, the Royals would have had a solid rotation into the late 1980s. The Mulliniks and Phelps trades were classic Royal trades: giving up a player who had modest value for absolutely nothing. By my count, the Royals made five such trades in the 2022 season, which frustrate me to no end. Enjoy your turkey and football. Next week we’ll look at 1981 and 1982.

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