July 21, 2006

A royal entrance
After a long, and often bitter, absence, Mark Gubicza is thrilled to be back in town and going into the Royals' Hall of Fame.

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star

They’re waiting for Mark Gubicza in the Dick Howser Suite at Kauffman Stadium. He’s running an hour late, which is no big deal, especially since his friends have been waiting on him for seven years.

Gubicza has been looking forward to this trip for months now. So he’s not going to hurry. When Jimmy Gobble threw the first pitch Thursday, Gubicza was taking a shower at his hotel on the Country Club Plaza. He put on a suit and rubbed gel in his hair, which -- sorry, ladies -- is no longer a flowing mane.

No, Gubicza is not going to hurry as he gets out of the yellow taxi outside the K. He’s soaking it all up, taking each step one at a time, looking at the massive Royals Hall of Fame posters outside the stadium.

"They’re going to give me one of these deals, huh?" Gubicza asks. "That’d be awesome."

Gubicza has been waiting, too. Five years. That’s how long he’s waited for the Royals to honor his 132 wins and 12 years of service with a spot in the Hall. He used to wear his 1985 World Series ring religiously, but now only on special occasions. He’ll be wearing it tonight because, well, this induction to the Hall is pretty special.

Gubicza wants to get his nerves out right now so that he can be himself for tonight. He walks in and starts doling out hugs and handshakes. He can’t believe how great the blue seats look -- the last time he was here, they were orange. Finally, he walks into the Howser Suite.

"Well it’s about time!" a woman yells, likely not realizing the truth in her words.

"Did you get bigger?" former Royals teammate Mike Boddicker jokes.

For Gubicza, this visit to Kansas City isn’t just about being celebrated. Sure, it’ll be nice to hear teammates remembering the years when he was the staff workhorse, the days before the injury.

But mostly, it’s about putting the past to bed. Just two years ago, still bitter about his trade from Kansas City and his continued exclusion from the Hall, Gubicza said on his radio show in Los Angeles that he hoped the Royals would lose 100 games. Then, he didn’t make it to the 20-year reunion for the ’85 team, which people assumed was him making a point. It wasn’t.

"It got kind of crazy," Gubicza says, "to the point where people thought I didn’t like my time in KC. That’s something I hope will get settled while I’m out here."

***

At spring training in 1984, Gubicza and Bret Saberhagen just wanted to make Class AAA. But the Royals had bigger plans. Gubicza, 21, and Saberhagen, 20, made the Royals’ opening-day roster.

Suddenly, they had gone from rooming together in Class AA Jacksonville to living in Kansas City, shacked up at George Brett’s house for their first few months.

"I can still remember going into his house and just being amazed that I’m actually here," Gubicza says. "He’d take us out to dinner, and if we even attempted to reach into our pockets, he’d make sure we didn’t."

Gubicza and Saberhagen were best friends, but they couldn’t have been more different. Saberhagen was a laid-back dude from California, Gubicza a wound-up East-Coast guy, born and raised in Philadelphia. Where Saberhagen would encourage the players behind him, Gubicza quickly became known for the scowling "death stare" he’d flash any time a ball got through the infield.

"He wasn’t a fun guy to play behind early on," says Frank White, laughing. "He expected perfection. He was a sinker-ball pitcher, and when he got a ground ball, he thought every ball should be caught."

The Royals fed off of Gubicza’s intensity. He won 24 games in his first two seasons and got the ball in game six of the 1985 ALCS in Toronto. He held off the Blue Jays 5-3 and sent the series to game seven. The Royals, of course, went on to win their first World Series, but Gubicza did not pitch in the Series because the Royals went to a four-man starting rotation. His contribution wasn’t forgotten, though.

"He brought a lot of life and energy to the team," says former Royals catcher and manager John Wathan. "We needed that at that time. We had some older guys."

Gubicza had always gotten flack in the clubhouse for being from Philadelphia, but he started to feel at home in Kansas City, living on the Plaza and driving his red Pontiac Trans-Am around town. Gubicza and Saberhagen were the town’s golden boys after ’85.

"We were hanging out with everybody," Gubicza says. "The fans took to us, and we took to them."

***

The Royals stopped winning pennants in the late ’80s, but that had nothing to do with Gubicza. He had come into his own, throwing with the same velocity but with more control.

Gubicza went 20-6 in 1988 and finished third in the Cy Young voting. He followed it in 1989 with a 15-11 mark, making his second straight All-Star team.

"He was definitely as dominant as any starting pitcher in the American League," says former teammate Jeff Montgomery, a fellow Royals Hall of Fame member. "And he wasn’t just a ‘five and fly’ guy. He was a nine-inning guy."

Yes, it was tough to get the ball out of Goobie’s right hand those two years. His 6-foot-5 frame and his extreme workout regimen had turned him into the staff workhorse. He threw eight complete games and averaged more than seven innings per start in ’88 and ’89. He lived for the big game, especially the Western Division matchups against the slugging Oakland A’s.

"We always liked to have him throwing in the 130-degree Sunday afternoon turf games," Saberhagen says. "He was the biggest and the strongest. He’d do 1,000 sit-ups a day."

At the 1989 All-Star Game, Gubicza talked with Nolan Ryan in the bullpen about how to train so that he could have a long career like Ryan. Two months later, in a September start, Gubicza tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. His big arm had finally given out, as many had predicted it would.

"It was probably wear and tear," Gubicza says. "Looking back, you wish you were a little smarter on the mound. Throwing 130-pitch games rather than being smarter and trying to get first-pitch outs and let your fielders make plays instead of you."

Gubicza knew right then he’d never be the same pitcher. He would work over the next six seasons to reinvent himself as a pitcher who could locate his fastball and use a change-up, but he was never as effective as before. He won only 46 games during 1990-96. Gubicza couldn’t determine whether fans were booing him or just saying "Goooooobie" as they always did.

In the middle of the 1996 season, the Royals traded Gubicza to Anaheim for Chili Davis. It didn’t make much sense. The Royals were trying to get younger, but they traded a career Royal for Davis, a designated hitter two years older than Gubicza?

Gubicza, who had two young children, wanted to finish his career in Kansas City. He thought he had three to four years left.

Despite his performance in ’96 -- he won just four games -- Gubicza was saluted with a going-away party thrown by local radio DJ Johnny Dare before he left for Anaheim. He’d return to Kansas City one time in the next decade.

***

But now Gubicza is back, and he hasn’t changed much. He’s still a seamhead, coaching high school baseball in LA. And he still has that clubhouse wit. Gubicza cracks a joke about how he would fit in much better on these Royals, with names like Grudzielanek and Mientkiewicz. "Maybe now they wouldn’t call me ‘Gooboza,’ " he says.

Gubicza has never lost his love for Kansas City or Kauffman Stadium. He just let his bitterness over the trade get the best of him. But now there’s a new owner, a new general manager, a mostly new staff. And now he can tell people who ask him that he’s in the Royals’ Hall.

White, now the Wichita Wranglers manager, hopes this weekend will mend things enough to where Gubicza can make his way back into the organization as a coach.

Gubicza isn’t thinking that far ahead, though. He’s only thinking about tonight, when he gets to walk on the field at the K again. He still thinks Kauffman is the most beautiful ballpark in the majors.

"I’m looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen in so long," Gubicza says. "I wouldn’t say that it’s closure. It’s more having the door back open."

 


J. Brady McCollough - jbrady@coveringsports.com (email) - 816-868-2621 (cell)