The Royals are down but not out. No team with such talents as third baseman George Brett, second baseman Frank White, designated hitter Hal McRae and reliever Dan Quisenberry—not to mention centerfielder Willie Wilson—is totally bereft of hope. Wilson will be back from his drug suspension May 15, commissioner Bowie Kuhn willing—or even sooner if the arbitrator who was considering his grievance last week reinstates him.
But problems abound for a team that finished 20 games out of first in 1983. Kansas City pitchers trailed the league with 593 strikeouts last year, and U.L. Washington led all AL shortstops with 36 errors. Dennis Leonard, the ace starter of the glory years, is lost at least until the All-Star Game because of knee surgery last Sept. 29. Of necessity, manager Dick Howser is depending on young or untried players. Pitcher Joe Beckwith, late of Los Angeles, will start and provide middle relief; Howser notes Beckwith's previous season high of 150 innings pitched and hopes he won't wear out. Another tyro, former Yankee Steve (Bye-Bye) Balboni, replaces Willie Aikens at first. Young outfielders Butch Davis and Pat Sheridan and rookie middle reliever Mark Huismann must also deliver.
Ever the optimist, Howser says the Royals can contend if the rotation comes around. In the absence of Leonard, that means an optimum year from Larry Gura. For what it's worth, he had an excellent spring. However, Gura was effective last spring as well and started the season by winning his first four decisions. Afterward he was a symbol of the K.C. decline, finishing at 11-18 while the Royals slumped to an unaccustomed 79-83. Gura allowed 220 hits in 200 innings and had only 57 strikeouts. He also gave up 23 homers—the high strike killed him—and a league-leading 17 sacrifice flies.
"The thing about Larry is that he had no physical problems," says Howser. "He started experimenting with pitches and lost his concentration. All the things that can affect a young pitcher affected a veteran."
"The problem with pitching is that any little thing can throw you off," says the 36-year-old Gura. "I think I was overstriding. My location was bad, and I started trying things like knuckleballs." This winter Gura took an aerobics class. "We did 20 minutes of stretching, 20 minutes of running or kicking and 50 minutes of stationary bicycling and other types of body work," he says. "I reduced my body fat from 10.1' percent to 9.6 percent. There were times last year when my arm would drop in the seventh or eighth inning. I believe I've helped my endurance."
If he has, the Royals may have more staying power, too.