“What might have been?” Four sadder words were never uttered by a sports fan, and we all know a story for which those words fit.
Look no further than Bo Jackson, his career in both football and baseball cut short by a horrific hip injury. Or Gale Sayers, the most electrifying runner in football before knee injuries in back-to-back seasons stole his ability at just 26 years of age.
The most graceful, powerful, gifted of athletes are not immune to injury, and few things are more tragic than when an immense talent is neutralized by such an injury.
Baseball, like all sports, has countless numbers of such stories. Well documented in recent years is the plight of Mark Prior, one of the most coveted of pitching prospects in history. Prior was Stephen Strasburg before the media hype. He signed an enormous rookie contract, dominated every level of his rise to the major leagues and was set for stardom at age 22 when injuries began plaguing him. Now 30, he hasn’t pitched in a major league game since the age of 25.
Strasburg is now in the same boat as Prior, battling to return from Tommy John surgery at just 22.
The Royals regrettably have their own “what might have been” story. A name burned not only into the minds of older Royals fans but one forever etched in the team’s Hall of Fame, Steve Busby fell victim to arm injuries when he was poised to become the Royals’ first great pitcher.
The Royals drafted Busby out of USC in 1971, where he’d attended originally because of a dream of playing football. Injuries had already plagued Busby. A high school knee injury proved a red flag to the San Francisco Giants, who drafted him in 1967. They reduced their contractual offer to Busby, prompting him to elect to go to college. The injury also nixed his plans to play football.
When Busby arrived in Kansas City in 1972, the ace of the staff was Dick Drago, who’d been the mainstay of the Royals’ staff since the team’s inception in 1969. Drago had accumulated a record of 49-56 over the team’s first four seasons. Paul Splittorff was establishing his role in the rotation, having gone 20-22 over his first couple of campaigns. Busby joined the team in September and notched a 3-1 record, including a complete game victory in his debut. In five starts he posted a 1.58 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 40 innings.
The team was on the verge of contention, and Busby fit right in with the other two young starters. In 1973, the team shot to 88-74 and Busby, at just 23, recorded a 16-15 mark and a 4.23 ERA. Busby’s WAR was 2.9 that season, and he probably wouldn’t have garnered much attention, were it not for a start against the Detroit Tigers on April 27. Busby became one of the youngest players to throw a no-hitter. Busby walked 6, struck out 4 and bested Jim Perry for just the fifth win of his young career.
In 1974, with a year under his belt and a fastball/slider combination clicking, Busby became the Royals’ biggest star. He was named an All-Star and led the team with a 22-14 record. His WAR of 6.1 was by far the team’s highest. But it was on June 19 in Milwaukee that Busby made history by throwing his second no-hitter, allowing just one walk in a 2-0 win over Clyde Wright and the Brewers.
Only 27 pitchers have thrown two no-hitters to this day, and at the time only 22 had thrown two. That day, Busby became the first pitcher to throw no-hitters in each of his first two full seasons.
One red flag during the 1974 season was that Busby threw 20 complete games and 292 innings. While not abnormally high totals for that time, Busby tended to throw a lot of pitches in his outings.
1975 was another All-Star season for Busby. The team rebounded to 91-71 and Busby went 18-12 with a 3.08 ERA, and his WAR was again 6.1, far exceeding anyone else on the pitching staff. He pitched 260 innings and 18 more complete games that season.
Winning 90 games and their first division championship, 1976 was a glorious season for the Royals. But it proved disastrous for Busby. He said he first noticed a lack of strength in his shoulder during the 1975 season, and it grew progressively worse. After just 13 starts in 1976, Busby was diagnosed with a “rotator cuff tear.”
At the time, surgery for such an injury was unheard of. Legendary doctor Frank Jobe advised that Busby attempt to “throw through it” because surgery was a last option. But finally, Busby had no choice but to go under the knife – the first “rotator cuff surgery” – and he was forced to watch as the Royals reached the playoffs for the first time.
By that time, the team had several established stars, led by George Brett and Hal McRae who battled down the stretch for the batting title. Splittorff, Dennis Leonard, Doug Bird and Al Fitzmorris took up the slack in the rotation that season.
The team went on to win 102 games in 1977, with additions of pitchers Jim Colburn, Larry Gura and others. Busby meanwhile rehabbed and threw a three-inning trial in Daytona that season.
In spite of their success, the Royals did not give up on Busby. He attempted to return to the team’s rotation in 1978, making five starts. He also pitched in 14 minor league contests en route to recovery.
1979 looked promising for Busby. He pitched in 22 games, 12 as a starter, and went 6-6 with a 3.63 ERA.
But the shoulder just wasn’t what it used to be, and in the Royals’ World Series run of 1980 Busby could only manage a 1-3 record in 11 games. He pitched well in eight starts in Omaha that season, but sadly the Royals finally gave him his release on August 29, just before the playoffs. He was just short of his 31st birthday.
Busby did attempt one last comeback, signing a contract with St. Louis in January of 1981. But he never pitched in another game. Busby has since worked in broadcasting and worked in baseball instruction. He was enshrined in the inaugural class of the Royals Hall of Fame in the 1986.
Busby dispels the legend that he often threw as many as 200 pitches in a start – he guessed the most pitches he ever threw in a start was about 130, although he did pitch a 12 inning game in 1975. Busby also says that, contrary to legend, he is not the first player to be put on a “pitch count” when he attempted a comeback. He says that was common for players who were recovering from injury.
Busby admits that if he had come along after medical advancements had been made on rotator cuff injuries, he would have stood a much greater chance of returning from the injury. He says that had doctors known then what they know today, he wouldn’t have let the condition go undiagnosed for nearly as long, that he wouldn’t have done such great injury to the shoulder by trying to press through it, and his recovery would have been aided by improved rehabilitation techniques.
While the Royals rose to their greatest heights following Busby’s best seasons, he was the team’s first pitching star. Throwing no-hitters and going to All-Star games before the age of 26, the sky seemed to be the limit for him. Had he stayed healthy, Splittorff, Leonard and others might have looked to him as their ace.
By age 25, Busby had a record of 59-42. Busby’s 6.1 WAR total, which he posted in both 1974 and 1975, has only been bested 9 times in KC history, three times by Bret Saberhagen and by Kevin Appier, and once by Charlie Leibrandt, Mark Gubicza, David Cone, and Zack Greinke.
Had Busby been able to pitch on the great Royals teams of 1976 to 1985, who knows what kind of numbers he could have posted?
But like Prior, Mark Fidrych, Kerry Wood and others, injuries robbed him of his effectiveness at an all-too-early age. Every team has its “what could have been” story, and sadly, Busby is the Royals’.