Remembering the career of John Wathan

First, I have a confession to make. During his playing days, I was not a fan of John Wathan. I viewed him as an excellent utility player, not as an integral, everyday piece of a pennant-winning team. Guess what? I was wrong.

Wathan had the unfortunate timing of replacing two Kansas City legends: John Mayberry, one of the best players of his era and a very popular fan favorite, and Darrell Porter, another wildly popular and productive player. Mayberry was the first Royal to drive in 100 runs, led the league in walks twice and in OBP once, and slugged 143 home runs in his six years with the Royals. He picked up MVP votes in four seasons, finishing as high as second in 1975. All Porter did was slash .271/.375/.435 with 61 home runs and 301 RBI in just four seasons as Kansas City’s catcher. Those were big shoes to fill.

Wathan spent his entire ten-year playing career in Kansas City. He couldn’t match Mayberry’s power (few could), only connecting on 21 long balls in his entire career. Mayberry, on the other hand, hit more than 20 home runs in eight of his eleven full seasons in the majors. Heck, he hit 20 just in July and August of 1975. You can understand why Royals fans were slow to embrace Wathan when Whitey Herzog called on him to replace Mayberry in 1978.

Wathan actually replaced Big John in the fifth inning of Game Four of the 1977 Championship Series. Every Royal fan should know this story by now. Mayberry, evidently celebrating the Royals Game Three victory, which gave them a two-games-to-one lead, was late to the ballpark for Game Four, which rightly infuriated Herzog. After going 0-for-2 and committing a couple of costly errors, Herzog yanked Mayberry for Wathan. The Royals lost that series and watched from home as the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. That was the World Series that launched Reggie Jackson as “Mr. October”. Fate is a funny thing. What if John Mayberry had gone home after Game Three and showed up for Game Four without a hangover? Would those 102-win Royals have defeated the Yankees and the Dodgers? If they do, doesn’t Reggie Jackson’s career story look very different? How about the career story of John Wathan? Maybe Mayberry stays in Kansas City a few more seasons and Wathan continues to play super sub? We’ll never know.

Wathan was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on October 4, 1949, the Year of the Ox in the Chinese Zodiac. People born under that sign are persistent, simple, honest, and straightforward. Does that sound like Wathan?

His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother moved him to San Diego. Wathan became a high school, then college star in Southern California. He attended the University of San Diego, where he became an All-American for the Toreros. His career batting average of .347 still ranks third all-time and his 67 steals is still fourth all-time on the USD career list. He was inducted into the USD Athletic Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1994.

The Royals took him with the 4th overall pick in the January phase of the 1971 amateur draft. Wathan possessed surprising speed and had the athletic versatility to play a number of positions. The Royals started him out at Class A Waterloo, where he hit .279 in 43 games. This earned him a promotion to High A San Jose where he hit .261 in 64 games. Wathan just kept hitting – a combined .285 between San Jose, AA Jacksonville, and AAA Omaha in 1972. In 1975, he hit .303 in Omaha and looked poised to make the jump to Kansas City.

The call finally came in 1976, during the Royals’ first Western Division championship season. Wathan made his debut on May 26 against the Texas Rangers. He entered the game in the eighth inning as a pinch-runner for Tony Solaita and later scored on a single by George Brett. He got his first official at-bat an inning later and grounded into a 5-2-3 double play.

Brett and Wathan, who came up in the minors together, often roomed during spring training. Brett, in fact, used to occasionally babysit the Wathan kids during his younger, single days. I took this picture of Wathan in July of 1977. The Royals used to let fans onto the field before a game to take pictures of the players. The events were called something like “Kodak Sunday at the Park” and this one was overrun by thousands of fans, most of who congregated around George Brett. It was mid-July in Kansas City and about 1,000 degrees on the field. The opponent for the day, the Yankees, were comfortably resting in their air-conditioned locker room, while the Royals spent about an hour under the broiling sun. I believe it was Wathan who told us that on hot days like this, he often put aluminum foil between his socks and shoes to try to keep the heat off of his feet. He might have been pulling our leg. He also could have been telling the truth. You never know with a ballplayer. No matter, the Royals won that day, 8-4. Darrell Porter hit a home run, as did Reggie Jackson.

Wathan got his first start three games later in Anaheim, catching for Steve Busby, and collected his first major league hit, a third inning single off Sid Monge. Wathan excelled in his super-utility role, at times playing catcher, first base, left and right field, and DH. He hit .328 in 55 games in 1977 and .320 in 67 games in 1978. During the off-season, Wathan and his wife Nancy would return to Cedar Rapids and live in his father’s house, while the elder Wathan wintered in Florida. Wathan would often referee high school basketball games to stay in shape.

The bottom fell out of Wathan’s world in 1979, when on June 10, his mother was brutally murdered by his mentally disturbed stepbrother. The killing shocked the Royals and the nation. Wathan soldiered on, but the tragedy understandably affected his play. He hit only .206 in 90 games. His teammates and the organization rallied behind him, and he responded by having the best season of his career in 1980, when he appeared in 126 games and slashed .305/.377/.406 while playing four different positions. Wathan even picked up an MVP vote in 1980.

When Darrell Porter left as a free agent after the 1980 season, Wathan moved primarily behind the plate. He caught 73 games in 1981 and was behind the dish for 120 games in 1982. It was during that 1982 season that Wathan set the still-standing major league record for steals by a catcher when he swiped 36 bases. The old record had been 30, held by Ray Shalk since 1916. Wathan swiped the record-breaking base during a series in Texas. The Rangers, trying to be good hosts, figured Wathan would swipe second base, so they stuck down an old bag that could be easily pulled out and given to Wathan to commemorate the feat. Wathan, in a near comedic twist, stole third instead. The game was halted, then delayed, while the grounds crew feverishly dug out the new base. Wathan almost certainly would have stolen many more bases that season, but on July 5th, he took a foul tip off his ankle, breaking a bone. The unfortunate injury caused him to miss five weeks of action. Despite that, he still finished fifth in the league in steals. Looking back over his month-by-month steal totals, I think he could have easily stolen 50 bases if not for the injury.

Father time finally started to catch up to Wathan in 1984, as the 34-year old’s batting average dropped to .181. He came back for one more season and rebounded a bit, hitting .234 over 60 games as the Royals won their first World Series, earning Wathan a well-deserved ring.

After he retired, the Royals immediately hired Wathan as an assistant coach and in 1987 named him manager of the AAA Omaha Royals. When the Royals fired Billy Gardner on August 28th, Wathan, at the age of 37, was named manager of the big-league club. He managed the Royals for three full seasons (1988-90) and parts of two others (1987, 1991) before being dismissed. His career record with the Royals was 287-270 and his career-winning percentage of .515 is still the fourth best in club history behind Whitey Herzog, Jim Frey and Dick Howser. Over the next twenty years, he worked for the California Angels and Boston Red Sox organizations before retiring to the Kansas City area. From 1996 to 1997, Wathan worked with Denny Matthews and Frank White on the Royals Radio Network. He still remains active in various capacities for the Royals.

Wathan, affectionately known as “The Duke” for his spot-on impersonations of John Wayne. The baseball Duke and the movie Duke both share the same initials. They were both born in Iowa and moved to California at a young age. The universe sometimes makes sense.

The three Wathan children have all carved out careers in baseball. Son Dusty played 14 seasons in the minor leagues and even got into three games for the Royals in 2002. He collected three hits in five at-bats during late September action. I could never understand why the Royals never gave him another chance. It wasn’t like those teams were overflowing with talent. The 2002 Royals went 62-100 in case you’re wondering. Dusty has been a coach with the Philadelphia Phillies since 2017. Son Derek, a Rockhurst High grad, spent 11 seasons in the minors, including one at AAA Omaha in 2007. Daughter Dina is in her 18th year as Director of Alumni Relations for the Royals.