If ever there was a player who helped define a decade — and whose career was marked sharply by the boundaries of that decade — it was Kansas City Royals closer Dan Quisenberry.
Signed as an amateur free agent out of the University of La Verne in 1975, Quisenberry headed immediately to the bullpen for the Single-A Waterloo Royals … well, OK, he did make one start, a complete game, to boot!
But mostly, it was mop-up and bridge work for the righty submariner whose motion looked so funky … but intriguing.
Young Quisenberry did pick up four saves before moving up to the Double-A Jacksonville Suns, though, and his ERA was a stingy 2.42.
The next summer, as the big league Royals were marching toward their first AL West division title, Quisenberry again split the season between Single- and Double-A, racking up 11 saves and a nasty 1.00 ERA in 43 innings of work.
Of course, the Royals were in no hurry to insert a middling prospect with a slowish fastball into their already-successful mix, so Quiz got more seasoning down on the farm in 1977 … and 1978 … and 1979.
Now Quisenberry was moving up the minor league ranks, and all of his 26 appearances in 1979 came at Triple-A Omaha.
Well, his first 26 appearances, anyway — the Royals finally called him up to KC in July, and Quisenberry made his big league debut on the eighth of that month.
That day, he pitched 2-2/3 innings of scoreless ball to close out a 4-2 loss to the White Sox.
He was 26 years old.
In all, Quisenberry made 32 appearances down the stretch as the Royals missed the playoffs for the first time since 1975.
But, with only 40 innings pitched, Q maintained his rookie status heading into 1980.
And then, it was on.
Taking over closing duties for the departed Al Hrabosky, who signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent in November 1979, Quisenberry led the majors with 33 saves as Kansas City ran away with the West.
For a chaser, Quiz tossed 4-2/3 scoreless innings over two games as the Royals swept the New York Yankees in three.
Now, Quisenberry did his part (5.23 ERA in 10-1/3 innings) in KC’s six-game loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, but the die was cast …
For his efforts, Quisenberry won the Rolaids Fireman of the Year Award in the American League, based on a formula that granted three points for a save, two for a win, and docked a hurler two points for a loss.
Quisenberry’s 12-7 record (and his saves) gave him 45 points, well ahead of second-placer Goose Gossage (39).
It also put him way out in front of the National League’s co-leaders, Rollie Fingers and Tom Hume, at 34 points each.
The next year, Topps featured the three gents on their Leading Firemen card at #8 in the base set:
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Fitting that Quiz got top billing and a bigger picture, especially considering what unfolded over the next few seasons.
First, Fingers came over to the AL, with the Milwaukee Brewers, and took the Fireman award in 1981
He also took the Cy Young and MVP hardware.
But then, Quisenberry reclaimed the reliever crown in 1982, and he nabbed Rolaids honors for the next three years, too.
In the decades since, no one has ever matched Quiz’s streak of four such crowns in a row, and only Mariano Rivera can match his five total awards.
Even more striking, perhaps, Quisenberry jumped the single-season saves record all the way up to 45 — John Hiller of the Detroit Tigers had set the previous mark ten years earlier, in 1973.
The amazing run culminated with a World Series title for the Royals in 1985, the same year Quisenberry copped his last Rolaids award.
He held onto his closer role, mostly, in 1986 and 1987, though his saves totals plummeted as managers came and went in the wake of Dick Howser’s illness and death.
When the Royals released their legendary fireman in July 1988, it was a touch ironic that the St. Louis Cardinals came calling ten days later to swoop him up, considering the hard-fought seven-game battle the Cards and Royals waged in that 1985 Fall Classic.
In the shadow of the arch, Quisenberry struggled late in 1988 before shining in long relief in ‘89.
Nevertheless, St. Louis released him that fall, and, though he gave it one more shot, with the San Francisco Giants, in 1990, Quiz made just five appearances before tearing his rotator cuff and hanging up his spikes at age 37.
And thus concluded a glorious decade, a marriage of a man and an era that helped define each other — did Dan Quisenberry elevate the closer’s role, or did the changing game play to his strengths?
The answer doesn’t matter, really, because Quiz answered the bell and helped make the 1980s a fantastic baseball ride.
Those fun Royals teams of the 1980s peaked in 1985 with a World Series title. Check out Quisenberry’s All-Star card from that game, in living color, over on YouTube:
When Quisenberry recorded his 39th save of the season on September 13, 1983, he broke the ten-year old record of Detroit Tigers fireman John Hiller … on the way to demolishing the thing with 45 by season’s end.
That game against the Angels helped Quiz usher in a new era for closers, and it also left behind some tasty artifacts, like this one:
That’s a signed, game-used ball from the record breaker, from the collection of umpire Don Denkinger.
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