Hal McRae didn't initially jump up and down with glee when his role with the Kansas City Royals was transformed to a full-time designated hitter assignment. But once he accepted the job description and went to work on becoming the best DH he could be, the Royals had a key building block for their solid playoff foundation from 1976 through 1985.
The competent DH must learn to cope with long periods of idle time and then produce at the plate in key moments. McRae became one of the best of his era. He was named Designated Hitter of the Year three times by The Sporting News and The Associated Press and hit over .300 six times with Kansas City.
"When I was told I was going to be the DH, I hated it," McRae recalled recently while attending All-Star festivities in Kansas City. "You were considered a one-way player and baseball has always been a two-way sport. You were supposed to be good on offense and good on defense to be considered a good player."
McRae became such a golden asset on offense that nobody minded he wasn't involved defensively. He played 14 full seasons with the Royals and became a three-time All-Star. Inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1989, McRae can look back proudly on an era when he and George Brett were the leaders of a franchise that was built to play into October.
"Good organization, good management," McRae said. "We learned to work together and a winning attitude was developed in Kansas City."
McRae began his career in Cincinnati before the Royals traded for him in 1972. He now resides in Florida, but still has family ties to the Midwest with son Brian and his family living in the Kansas City area.
"What Kansas City means to me mostly is that it was a great place to live," McRae said. "I lived in Blue Springs, a small and very safe community. The kids went to the same schools, had the same friends and teachers. When I was on the road, I didn't have to worry. It just made me feel secure, knowing the kids would be OK."
Those kids grew up and McRae -- who earned a World Series ring in 1985 -- eventually had the opportunity to manage son Brian with the Royals.
Baseball is often romanticized as a father-son game, but managing a son in the glare of a Major League spotlight is a lot different than managing a son in Little League.
"It was the most difficult thing I had to do," McRae said. "I was trying to get established as a manager and he was trying to get established as a player. So, that's very tough and it wasn't any fun at the time. But looking back on it now, I'm glad I did it because it's something we can share and talk about for a long time."
McRae, who finished his 19-year career with a .290 batting average, 191 homers and 1,097 RBIs, is convinced that a full-time designated hitter will some day be inducted into The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. But McRae said he doesn't dispute the notion that a one-way player shouldn't make it to the Hall of Fame.
"Some DH is going to be great enough at what he does to become a Hall of Famer," McRae said. "But I don't disagree that a player who's a part-time player doesn't deserve the same honors as a two-way player."
Fred Patek, a teammate of McRae's in the 1970s, saw McRae blossom into one of the dominant designated hitters of his time and still marvels at how McRae handled the role both mentally and physically.
"That's a very tough job, but Hal accepted it and prepared himself for it," Patek said. "He learned everything he needed to do to become a top-notch DH and then maintain the consistency over a long stretch of years. The value he brought to our ballclub was tremendous. When you think of the great designated hitters over the years, Hal McRae was one of the best. He meant so much to the overall success of the Kansas City Royals."