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Having survived the nuking of The Day After, Kansas City now turns its attention to a real-life crisis: The Season After. The American League West champions 4½ times since 1976 (the Royals, remember, beat the A's in Part 2 of the strike-torn split season of 1981), the winners of 90 or more games in six of the last nine years, a World Series team in 1980, the club that George Brett's bat made a household name—Kansas City suffered an all-too-true catastrophe in 1983. Favored to win the West, the Royals slumped to a miserable 79-83 record and finished 20 full games behind the champion Chicago White Sox.
Except for the now infamous Pine-Tar Victory over the New York Yankees, nothing went right for the '83 Royals. Ace starter Dennis Leonard was 6-3 when he was lost for the season with a knee injury on May 28. Brett was hitting .369 and had 39 RBIs in 43 games when he broke a toe on June 7 and went on the disabled list for three weeks. With the team going nowhere in late summer, two one-time stars, pitcher Vida Blue and outfielder Amos Otis, 14 years a Royal, were dropped from the roster. The Royals dropped out of contention on Aug. 19 when peerless reliever Dan Quisenberry blew a ninth-inning lead against Baltimore and leftfielder Willie Wilson broke a knuckle.
Unfortunately for Kansas City, what happened to the Royals during the off-season made all that travail look trivial. Last August reports had surfaced that a federal drug probe had zeroed in on up to 10 Royals. In October four members of the '83 Royals—Blue, Wilson, first baseman Willie Aikens and outfielder Jerry Martin—pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cocaine charges and were later sentenced to 90-day terms in a federal penitentiary. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Wilson, Aikens and Martin for the entire 1984 season, but agreed to review those suspensions on May 15. The Royals have released Martin and traded Aikens to Toronto, but last Sunday they welcomed Wilson to their training camp at Fort Myers, Fla.; according to Kuhn's suspension terms, against which the Players Association has filed a grievance that will be heard on March 12, Wilson can practice and travel with the Royals but not appear in any games.
With his team in disarray—13 of 25 players on last year's opening-day roster are gone—general manager John Schuerholz pushed the rebuilding button. Manager Dick Howser talked of starting a whole new outfield of youngsters Butch Davis, Pat Sheridan and John Morris. And the word "trade" hung over the veterans. "I heard they were going to trade someone, and I wouldn't have minded being the one," said second baseman Frank White, the Royals' 1983 Player of the Year. "Why stick around if it would take two or three years to rebuild?" Pitcher Joe Beckwith was acquired from the Dodgers, and minor league slugging sensation Steve (Bye-Bye) Balboni was obtained from the Yankees to replace Aikens at first base.
Quisenberry, the self-appointed fool on the hill, tried to find some humor in the otherwise grim situation confronting the Royals. "I'm surprised we didn't make more trades with the Yankees," he said. "Half our players are already in stripes."
Wilson, who, of course, never wore prison stripes, was back in K.C.'s powder-blue-and-white stretch togs Sunday, and seemed none the worse for wear. "Prison was like a college dorm," said Wilson, who never attended college, earlier in the week. "We didn't have to wear uniforms, there was a cafeteria and store and we had $10 spending money a week. I had a janitorial job that took about two hours a day. After that I was free to watch TV, play pool or train. I ran six miles a day. The punishment was more mental than physical. I spent a lot of time thinking. First, I couldn't believe I was there when I was in for something that usually gets probation. Second, I'd never do it again. Third, I couldn't believe the commissioner had suspended me for a year."
Wilson blames his recent troubles on his inability to adjust to life as a public figure. He says he has always been exceptionally sensitive to slights and embarrassments, and during his eight-year career with the Royals he has had them in abundance. In 1980 he struck out a record 12 times in the World Series, and in 1982 he was criticized for winning the batting title by sitting on the bench the last day of the season.
"Everything I did was spotlighted," Wilson says. "No one remembered the regular season I'd had in 1980. And in 1982 they should have been writing that I gave Robin Yount a chance to win the batting title—not that I chickened out.
"I took cocaine after that '82 season, but I was involved only during the winter. Before I played baseball I never smoked or drank or took drugs. People think the game is glamorous, but I never wanted the attention—good or bad. I felt a lot of pressure trying to satisfy the club, the public, my parents. People wanted me to be a role model; even the judge said so when he sentenced me. I always felt your parents should be your role models.
"But I never blamed anyone else for what I did. The Royals have done a lot for me, and I don't want them to think about me now. I just want them to have a good season. I'll be staying by myself more when I return. I'm not going to yell or scream anymore, just do my job. I wish that's all there was to baseball."