Tuesday, July 14, 2009

2003 Revisited, Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Brian McGannon for the Royal Reflections podcast. Give it a listen if you haven’t had a chance. We had a great time discussing Royals’ baseball. I was especially impressed by McGannon’s recall of the 2003 season. That prompted a discussion afterward and what you are about to read is the result. We thought Royals’ fans could use a break by going back to a season not all that long ago in which following this team was fun to watch.

Over the next three days, I’ll be running a guest post from McGannon about the 2003 season. I hope you enjoy it. Check out McGannon’s new blog, Royals Kingdom, when you get a chance.

by Brian McGannon

Boy, I remember it like yesterday. It was magic. Sure the team only won 83 games, but it was the last time the Royals even had a shot at the playoffs. The K was electric every night. The offense scored runs at will and no one saw it coming . . .


The 2002 season ended on a sour note. A once proud franchise had limped into the new millennium and hadn't contended in the post-strike era. Gone were fan favorites like Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, and Paul Byrd. The one bright spot in 2002 was a nine game winning streak that happened in late June that put the team less than 10 games back of the division leader. The team then went 32-58 to finish the season and lost 100 games for the first time in Kansas City Royals history.

In the offseason, rumors started circulating around the town that young superstar Carlos Beltran would be traded, and morale for the upcoming season was slipping, but manager Tony Pena never let that happen. From the beginning of Spring Training, Pena instilled a belief in his players that the '03 squad was as good as anyone in baseball. Hope sprung eternal for the ballclub in Arizona, but back in KC, optimism was coming up short.

The Royals were picked to finish either 4th or last by many publications and were more than likely on the verge of another 100 loss season. No major moves had been made to bolster the pitching staff that allowed nearly 850 runs and Carlos Beltran remained unsigned to a long term contract. Mike Sweeney, two years removed from setting the club record in RBIs with 144, had started to break down late in the season with back problems and a broken wrist. Fan favorite and Royals’ Pitcher of the Year Paul Byrd was not re-signed and the Byrd’s Nest was empty after just one 17 win season in KC. Fans were calling for GM Allard Baird’s head.

But if one thing was for sure, Kauffman Stadium would be sold out on Opening Day.

Every Team is in First on Opening Day

The fifth largest crowd in Kauffman Stadium history was on hand to watch the Royals defeat the White Sox to open the Royals’ 34th season of baseball. The 40,302 fans got to see Runelvys Hernandez pitch a six inning masterpiece, striking out five and walking just one. Mike MacDougal recorded the save and the Royals were off and running.

The Royals lost just one of the next ten games and found themselves 4.5 games up in the AL Central on April 15 with a record of 11-1.

The Royals returned home for a five game home stand in late April to host the Tigers and Twins. The crowning moment of the 2003 season occurred during the Friday night match up against the Tigers.

The Tigers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the third inning when Bobby Higginson hit a homer to center off Darrel May. Craig Monroe added a run later scoring Gene Kingsale. Detroit added one more in the top of the fourth inning, but the Royals stormed back to tie the game with RBI singles in three seperate innings from Sweeney, Ken Harvey, and Raul Ibanez. The game remained tied through the ninth and went into extra innings. D.J. Carrasco came on in relief to pitch a scoreless eleventh inning. The Royals had the bottom of the order coming up, and a soon to be well-known Ken Harvey was scheduled to lead off the eleventh inning.

Ken Harvey was a little known product from the University of Nebraska. A fifth round pick in 1999, Harvey quickly ascended through the Royals’ farm system batting .350 at Single-A Wilmington and AA Wichita in 2001, and .277 in AAA Omaha in 2002. At the beginning of the 2003 season, the Royals decided to move RF Michael Tucker into the role of fourth outfielder and put former DH Raul Ibanez in right field. Ken Harvey was the most likely solution to fill in at the position, and was slotted into the DH or 1B position on most days.

Ken Harvey was relatively unproven at the big league level and after a rough year in AAA Omaha, many were questioning if he was the solution at DH. After falling behind 0-2, Harvey managed to fight off an 0-2 slider from Matt Anderson. The next pitch was low and inside, yet somehow Harvey managed to put a swing on it and crush the ball to left field. A sellout crowd of just under 39,000 rose to its feet and watched the ball land 20 rows up in the old general admission section. Ken rounded the bases, pumping his fists in jubilation as the capacity crowd went into a frenzy. The win catapulted the Royals to a 12-3 record, while sinking the Tigers even lower to 1-14. Tony Pena was at the center of the celebration wrapping his arms around Harvey. As the team left the field, Pena said possibly the two most famous words in this decade of Royals baseball: “We believe, man! We believe!”

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