As the Kansas City Royals celebrate the franchise’s 50th year, the team is hoping to rekindle what made them successful early on. And that all started by trading an obscure pitcher named John Gelnar.
These days, Gelnar makes his home in the quiet town of Hobart, Oklahoma, where a few know his past as a big-league pitcher. But no one realizes the subtle impact Gelnar had on the future of the Royals in 1969, when they were a new American League expansion team.
Gelnar’s spring training with the Royals was brief, as he was traded to the other AL expansion team, the Seattle Pilots.
“Two or three weeks max?” Gelnar recalls. “Then I’m gone. I really didn’t get to know those people.”
In return, the Royals got Lou Piniella, who by then had reached a crossroads.
“I had played minor league ball for five or six seasons,” Piniella says during a phone interview from his home in Tampa, Florida. “It was time to either get it done or find a new profession, because I really wasn’t making any money.”
His acquisition laid the foundation for the best start of any MLB expansion franchise in history. He also won the 1969 AL Rookie of the Year award.
“It turned out to be a real, real good trade for me. It got me established in the big leagues and it got me on the way to a 17 or 18-year major league playing career,” Piniella says.
The Royals demonstrated that, through diligent homework, they could blend up-and-coming players with veterans acquired through trades.
It’s a blueprint they’re following in this year’s rebuilding process, an example being the offseason additions of two starters — outfielder Jon Jay and first baseman Lucas Duda. Jay, 33, played six years for the St. Louis Cardinals and was part of their 2011 World Series team. The 32-year old Duda is best known for his high throw to the plate in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, which allowed Eric Hosmer to score the tying run in the ninth before the Royals clinched the title in extra innings.
There’s one man who has seen it all — from the successful trades to the minor leaguers with worlds of potential who fall flat on their faces to the losing seasons with seemingly no hope — and that’s Royals play-by-play broadcaster Denny Matthews.
“Some guys get to the big leagues and some guys get better, better, better, better,” he says. “Some guys get to the big leagues and they’re not any better five years later and some guys to the big leagues who are decent players and they go backwards.
“You don’t know.”
There’s also a 50-year link in the front office. John Schuerholz was part of the leadership in the inaugural year, and later went to the Atlanta Braves. That’s where current general manager Dayton Moore and assistant J.J. Picollo learned the formula from Schuerholz.
Piccolo says they continue to believe in that method.
“Ideally, you’d like to see all the kids come out of your own system, and your 25-man roster is made up of only your players,” he says. “But realistically, that’s not the way it’ll work. I think it’s a combination of your scouting department, how your development system is working and also the acquisitions.”
Before finding success, that first Royals team had its shaky moments, just like the first month of this 50th season.
And much like the Royals shedding some key players from the 2015 team, Piniella was traded in 1973 to the New York Yankees.
“Truthfully, when I got traded to the Yankees, I was really disappointed,” Piniella says. “In fact, I cried because we liked Kansas City that much. But it turned out to be the best thing that happened to me.”
It was one of the worst trades in Royals history: Piniella played on two World Series championship teams with the Yankees and had a successful, 22-year managing career. He’s expected to be back in Kansas City next month when the Yankees come to town for a three-game series.
Meanwhile, Gelnar moved with the rest of the Seattle Pilots to to Milwaukee, becoming the Brewers. His last year in the big leagues was 1971. As for Piniella’s career, Gelnar says, “I think it’s kind of neat … He found himself.”
To Gelnar’s chagrin, the Royals found in Piniella a key part that steered them in the right direction. A reminder to this year’s team as they seek to avoid a repeat of a year ago when the Royals won only seven games in April.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.