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Leonard's legacy is source of pride in Kansas City

Dennis Leonard had been signing autographs for two solid hours at All-Star Fanfest when he suddenly looked up and surveyed the flurry of activity going on all around him.

For a man who spent his entire 12-year Major League career with the Royals and makes his home in Kansas City, it was a rewarding scene that brought a big smile to Leonard's face.

"It's great to have Major League Baseball's big stage here in Kansas City," Leonard said. "As a former Royal and a Kansas Citian, it's exciting. Hopefully, we're going to have a lot more excitement revolving around baseball and the Royals franchise in the months and years ahead."

Leonard knows better than most how a contending Major League ballclub can light up the Kansas City community. As a sturdy right-hander who became known for finishing what he had started, Leonard was an integral part of the rise of the Royals in the mid-to-late 1970s. He's the only three-time 20-game winner in club history and finished his career with a 144-106 record and a 3.70 ERA. Modern-day starters could only marvel at the Leonard statistics which show that he had 103 complete games in 302 starts.

A Leonard day was often a holiday for the Royals' bullpen.

"I prepared myself to go nine innings," Leonard said. "As a starting pitcher, that was my job description. That was my goal every time I pitched."

Leonard came to prominence in 1975 when he finished 15-7 and established himself as a mainstay in the rotation. He had a solid team behind him, and the Royals took off as a perennial postseason club beginning in 1976. That season they got over the hump in the American League West by fending off the Oakland A's.

"There wasn't any 'me' or 'I' with those Royals teams," Leonard said. "Everybody was in it together. Being in the right place at the right time is everybody's dream. For me, playing for the Royals at that time was it."

The Royals reached the playoffs three straight years against the Yankees from 1976 to 1978, only to be turned back. In 1977, when Kansas City won 102 games, Leonard had what was statistically his greatest season. He finished 20-12 with a 3.04 earned run average and completed 21 of his 37 starts. He finished fourth in the American League Cy Young Award balloting.

"Certainly, it was disappointing to lose to the Yankees three straight years in the playoffs," Leonard said. "But our franchise was among the best in baseball, and it sure was gratifying when he finally beat the Yankees in 1980 and got to our first World Series."

Leonard won a World Series game against the Phillies, but Philadelphia claimed the big prize. By the time the Royals got back to the World Series in 1985, Leonard's career had been derailed because of knee injuries.

"I was actually on the bench the first two home games against the Cardinals," Leonard recalled. "But rather than accompany the ballclub to St. Louis, I needed to go to Florida for a little more rehabilitation to get ready for the 1986 season. Our guys put it all together and I couldn't have been more proud of the way they battled back to become world champions."

After four operations and countless hours of rehab, Leonard enjoyed a day of extreme personal satisfaction early in the 1986 season. Left-hander Danny Jackson got hurt, and Leonard stepped in as the Saturday starter against Toronto in a nationally televised game. Leonard wound up throwing a three-hit shutout as the Royals prevailed 1-0.

"From a personal standpoint, that game stands out," Leonard said. "I knew what I had put into it after basically missing three years. I had to convince myself mentally that when I put weight on that left knee, it wasn't going to blow up."

Leonard retired after the '86 season and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1989. His legacy revolves around reliability and durability in an era when top-of-the-rotation starters took great pride in working deep into games regardless of pitch count.

"I could go nine innings with 125 or 130 pitches," Leonard said. "Nowadays, starting pitchers are rarely even given an opportunity to complete a game. They get to a certain pitch count in the sixth or seventh and that's it. It didn't work that way in my era.

"When the manager or pitching coach came out and asked how you felt, you just said 'I'm fine.' Pitch count was never part of the equation. I always felt it was my game to win or lose. That was always my mindset."

Kansas City Royals