This article was written by Max Rieper
The life of a ballplayer is a life on the road. Half of your season is spent traveling around the league, and even your “home” can be temporary, uprooted by a trade at any moment. Some players are lucky enough to stay in one place for more than a season or two, and it is the rare player who stays in one place long enough to set down roots and become part of his adopted community. It took several seasons shuttling around the league for Joe Randa to find his home, but he eventually found it in Kansas City.
Randa was a sure-handed third baseman who consistently hit for average and had solid gap power. He had a good reputation in clutch situations and was cited as a clubhouse leader who had a positive attitude. He was known for always smiling on the field, even as he stood at the plate, causing Pittsburgh broadcaster Bob Walk to give him the nickname “The Joker.”1
Joseph Gregory Randa was born on December 18, 1969, in Milwaukee and grew up 30 minutes west of there in the city of Wales, Wisconsin. His parents divorced when he was 4 years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother, Donna Lexa, who was an art therapist committed to working with people with disabilities.2 Randa grew up playing lots of sports, excelling at tennis and baseball.3 He attended Kettle Moraine High School, leading the baseball team to a state title his senior season.4 Randa attended a workout with his hometown Brewers, but turned down an offer of $1,200 to sign with them.5
Randa worked out at an indoor baseball facility owned by former Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Mike Hegan. There he befriended Hegan’s son, who persuaded Randa to travel down to Florida with him to work out for schools there.6 In Florida, he was recruited to Broward County Community College by a coach named Allard Baird, who would one day be general manager of the Kansas City Royals.7 Baird immediately left for another school, so Randa transferred to Indian Rivers Community College, where he was drafted by the California Angels in the 30th round.
He turned down the Angels, instead opting to move on to the University of Tennessee, where he hit .342 with 10 home runs his junior season. Leading up to the June 1991 amateur draft, the Red Sox and Brewers expressed interest in Randa.8 In the 11th round, Randa’s hometown Brewers took USC third baseman Jeff Cirillo. Two picks later, the Royals selected Randa.
Randa got his professional career off to a hot start, hitting .338 with 11 home runs in 72 games for the Eugene Emeralds, earning Northwest League MVP honors. He would not hit for that kind of power again in the minors, but he consistently hit for a high average. He hit .301 the next season back in his native Wisconsin for the Appleton Foxes in the Midwest League before being promoted in midseason to the High-A Florida League. By 1993, in just his second full season in the minors, he was in Double A playing for the Memphis Chicks. He hit .295 for the Chicks and met his wife, Bethany, that year.9
Randa was on the cusp of the big leagues by 1994, playing for the top Royals affiliate in Omaha. His numbers slumped that season and with the players strike that summer, he did not get a September call-up. But when play resumed the next spring, the Royals found themselves in austerity mode. Owner Muriel Kauffman had died, leaving the team in the hands of a board of directors tasked with making the team financially attractive for a sale. This meant an emphasis on young, homegrown players like Randa, who was one of seven rookies to make the Opening Day roster that year.10
However manager Bob Boone still found a preference for playing veteran third baseman Gary Gaetti, who was rejuvenating his career with a big power season. Randa spent his time riding the pine, and actually made his major-league debut at second base, a position he had never played before. When regular second baseman Jose Lind unexpectedly left the team in June, it seemed an opportunity opened up for Randa. But the Royals went with two journeymen with more experience at the position in Keith Lockhart and Edgar Cáceres. With his batting average well under .200 through July, Randa was demoted to Omaha, not to return until rosters expanded in September.
“I’ve tried to change my swing around to become a power hitter, and it’s just not my game,” he said. “I’m a line-drive, gap hitter, and I think my home runs are going to increase — but I’m not going to be a 25-30 homer guy.”11
Gaetti departed in 1996, but Randa’s offensive woes the previous season caused Boone to platoon him at third with the left-handed-hitting Keith Lockhart. A knee injury kept Randa out of action for three weeks in May, but he got hot over the summer, hitting .367 in June. He ended the year hitting .303 with 6 home runs and 13 steals in 110 games. The season was bittersweet, however, as Randa’s mother was killed in an automobile accident.12
The Royals had finished dead last in the American League in runs scored that year, and sought more offense. They found an opportunity to pick up two veteran hitters from the cost-cutting Pittsburgh Pirates, acquiring first baseman Jeff King and shortstop Jay Bell in exchange for four players — Randa and pitchers Jeff Granger, Jeff Martin, and Jeff Wallace.
Randa was going from one youth movement to another, with the Pirates saving $7 million on the deal. But at least he would get an opportunity to play every day in Pittsburgh. After a slow start, Randa heated up and got his average over .300 by June. He missed a month with a broken finger, but managed to end the 1997 season over .300 for the second year in a row with 7 home runs and 60 RBIs in 126 games as the Pirates flirted with postseason contention.
Pittsburgh’s top prospect was third baseman Aramis Ramirez, so the club felt it could risk leaving Randa unprotected for that winter’s expansion draft despite his solid season. The Cardinals called hoping they could work out a deal for Randa with first baseman John Mabry discussed as a potential return, but no trade was made.13 During the expansion draft, the Royals tried to get the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to select Randa to trade him back to Kansas City, but the teams couldn’t agree on a deal.14 Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay would later admit, “I didn’t feel like either Arizona or Tampa Bay was going to take him, to tell you the truth.”15 But he was wrong. Eventually, the Arizona Diamondbacks selected him with the 57th pick, immediately trading him with infielder Gabe Alvarez and pitcher Matt Drews to the Tigers for third baseman Travis Fryman.
Randa missed being with his teammates in Pittsburgh and expressed some disappointment when a rumored deal to send him back there for pitcher Esteban Loaiza didn’t come to fruition.16 He struggled with the bat much of the year, and lost his starting job in June to Alvarez. He finished the year hitting just .254 with 9 home runs, a sharp decline from his career numbers to that point. However, he had a 40-game errorless streak and credited Tigers coach Perry Hill with helping him dramatically improve his defense.17 “Offensively it wasn’t clicking for me, but defensively I was a stud,” he said.18
The Tigers signed free agent Dean Palmer to upgrade third base, making Randa expendable. He found himself on the move once again, acquired by the Mets in December. However it was a salary-dump deal, done so the Mets could rid themselves of pitcher Willie Blair. With veteran Robin Ventura at third, general manager Steve Phillips had no intention of keeping Randa.19 Less than a week later, they shipped him back to the Royals for minor-league outfielder Juan Lebron. Randa was back with his original franchise, playing near the house he had purchased back in 1996. That same week he and Bethany welcomed their first child into the world, son Jacob.20 Randa was thrilled to be back, telling reporters, “Ever since I’ve been traded, I’ve always followed the Royals. I’ve always had the Royal blue inside me that never really went away.”21
Randa got off to a slow start with the Royals in 1999, but he worked with Hall of Famer George Brett on his swing and caught fire that summer.22 In early June he tied a franchise record with hits in nine consecutive at-bats. He enjoyed the first five-hit game of his career that week, and a month later he achieved his second. Over the months of June and July, Randa hit .404/.441/.644 with 9 home runs in 51 games. He had a breakout season, hitting a career-high .314 with 16 home runs and 84 RBIs. His 197 hits were sixth most in the American League and the most by a Royals hitter in over a decade. Kansas City Star beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan named Randa the team’s most valuable player.23
Randa got off to a blazing start in 2000, as the Royals had a bevy of talented young hitters around him like Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Mike Sweeney. The team set a club record for runs scored, and Randa did his part with a career-high 106 RBIs. A second-half slump brought his average down to .304, but it was still his fourth season out of five with an average over .300.
The next season was going to be Randa’s last season before free agency, but he signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract extension in spring training to keep him in Kansas City. He acknowledged that the deal was below market value, but he was willing to take less money to stay, saying, “I only picture myself wearing Royal blue. That weighed very heavily into my decision.”24
Randa battled back and hamstring injuries in 2001, and his offensive numbers sank to .253/.307/.386, the worst of his career. He bounced back in 2002 to hit .282 and reached the 80-RBI plateau for the fourth consecutive season. But the perpetually rebuilding Royals were becoming cost-conscious again, and began looking to move Randa and his multimillion-dollar salary. General manager Allard Baird had a potential deal to send him to the Cubs for two minor-league prospects, but Royals club President Dan Glass nixed the deal.25 Randa denied a report that he used his limited no-trade clause to veto a deal to the Mets.26 He grew discouraged at the lack of direction from the franchise, saying, “I’m not the type of person who likes to complain. … But sure, it’s frustrating. We’re in a division that we could be competitive in, but we’re really not sure where we’re going.”27
The Royals were thankful they never worked out a deal for Randa, as the team got off to an unexpectedly hot start in 2003, and found itself in first place through August. Randa would be a big part of the quick start, hitting .316 with five home runs in April. But he hit just .152 in May and missed three weeks in July with an oblique injury. Upon returning, Randa went on another tear, hitting .381 in August as the Royals clung onto first place for dear life. The red-hot Twins overtook the Royals and denied them their first postseason appearance since 1985. Randa finished his up-and-down season with a batting average of .291 with 16 home runs. He set a franchise fielding record, though, going 75 consecutive games without an error.
The taste of contention fueled the Royals to invest more in player payroll, signing free agents like Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago and re-signing pitcher Brian Anderson. The club also made sure to retain Randa, signing him to a one-year deal worth $3.25 million with a mutual option for 2005. Unfortunately for the Royals, those investments would not lead to more success on the field. With the team again in the cellar, they dealt superstar Carlos Beltran to the Astros in June in a three-way trade that netted them third-base prospect Mark Teahen from the Athletics. With a replacement in the wings, Randa’s days in Kansas City seemed numbered. A slump and a knee injury that cost him a month of action kept him from being traded that summer, but he knew the end was near. He returned to have a six-hit game in September, becoming just the third player in franchise history to achieve that feat. At the end of the season, the Royals let Randa walk.
The 35-year-old Randa signed a one-year, $2.15 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds to be their starting third baseman in 2005. He got off to quite a start, becoming the first player in their long history to hit a walk-off home run on Opening Day.28 But the Reds fell out of contention, and with young Edwin Encarnacion ready to come up, the Reds dealt Randa to the Padres for pitchers Travis Chick and Justin Germano in July. With the Padres, Randa got the only postseason action of his career. He hit .364 (4-for-11) as the Padres were swept in three games by the Cardinals in the National League Divisional Series.
Randa relished his postseason experience, but lamented that he was never able to have that success in Kansas City. “It would have been so much sweeter for me to have won with Mike Sweeney and all those guys in my hometown,” he said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was incredible to win. But I did think a lot about Kansas City.”29
As for why the Royals weren’t able to win more, Randa defended GM Baird and put the onus squarely on ownership, saying, “[T]here’s a lot of hidden agendas there,” and adding, “[H]opefully the Glass family … will try to sell the team and get somebody in there that cares and wants to win.”30 Randa later walked back those comments, but it was clear that years of losing and the lack of long-term commitment from the franchise had frustrated him.
Having reunited with a former team once before, Randa found it easy to return to another organization he had enjoyed, signing a one-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006. Again in rebuild mode, the Pirates looked to Randa to provide veteran leadership.31 A stress fracture in his foot cost him six weeks and limited Randa to just 89 games. He hit .267 and his four home runs were the lowest of his career since his first season.
After the season, Joe decided he had enough of the mental grind of the game. He retired after 12 seasons, 1,543 hits, and 123 home runs. At the time of his retirement, he was seventh in Royals history in hits with 1,084. Upon retirement, Randa returned to his home in Kansas City to spend more time with his wife, Bethany, and two sons, Jacob and Justin. He served as a special adviser to the Royals front office, working with young players like Mike Moustakas.32 He also started to work with Royals Charities and joined the board of directors of the Donna Lexa Art Centers, facilities dedicated to his mother that provide art classes to adults and teens with special needs.
Joe Randa showed that if a player loves playing in Kansas City, he will find that love returned by the fans many times over.
“I love Kansas City. I love the Kansas City Royals,” he said. “I owe everything to this organization. They brought me back home. I told them I will give everything in my heart for this team, this city.”33
1 Dick Kaegel, “Joker’ Goes Wild at Plate,” Kansas City Star, September 20, 2000.
2 Dick Kaegel, “Small Town Life Suits Randa,” MLB.com, August 2, 2004. kansascity.royals.mlb.com/content/printer_friendly/kc/y2004/m08/d02/c817452.jsp.
4 Evan Frank, “Stu Pease, Who Guided the 1988 Kettle Moraine Baseball Team to a State Title, Dies at Age 77,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, July 21, 2017.
9 Kimberly Winter Stern, “The Good Life,” 435 Magazine, February 2010. 435mag.com/February-2010/The-Good-Life/.
10 Dick Kaegel, “Royals Rookies Learn Life Is Good at the Top/Big-League Ball Especially Sweet for Bunch and Nunnally, Two Who Moved Up from Class A,” Kansas City Star, May 2, 1995.
11 Dick Kaegel, “Third Base Is the Place for Randa/Royals Infielder May Be Platooned but Could Win Job,” Kansas City Star, March 12, 1996.
12 Chris Patterson, “Randa Putting On a Positive Spin,” Waukesha (Wisconsin) Freeman, June 19, 1996.
13 Rick Hummel, “Teams Will Wheel, Deal After Today’s Expansion Draft,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 18, 1997.
14 Dick Kaegel, “An Ozzie at Shortstop for the Royals? Or Joe Carter or Jeff Conine in Left Field?” Kansas City Star, November 20, 1997.
15 Ron Cook, “No Ordinary Joe — Royals’ Randa Still Popular with Former Pirates Teammates,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 4, 2000.
16 Ron Cook, “Randa Longs for Return to Third Base for Pirates,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 26, 1998.
17 Dave O’Brien, Clubhouse Conversation.
19 Mike Vaccaro, “Mets Send Blair Back to Tigers,” Newark Star-Ledger, December 5, 1998.
20 Dick Kaegel, “Randa Back in Comfort Zone,” Kansas City Star, March 4, 1999.
22 Rick Plumlee, “With a Little Help from Brett, Randa Is a Hit in Kansas City,” Wichita Eagle, July 24, 1999.
23 Jeffrey Flanagan, “Randa’s Big Year Makes Him Worthy of Royals MVP Award,” Kansas City Star, September 7, 1999.
24 Bob Dutton, “Randa Agrees to Contract Extension,” Kansas City Star, March 18, 2001.
25 Dick Kaegel, “Randa Trade Vetoed/Dan Glass Puts Halt to Deal with Cubs,” Kansas City Star, January 14, 2003.
26 Jeffrey Flanagan, “Randa Says He Didn’t Have to Veto Mets Deal,” Kansas City Star, January 24, 2003.
28 Paul Daugherty, “Randa ‘Rakes,’ Caps Wonderful Day in the Yard,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 5, 2005.
29 Joe Posnanski, “Randa’s Postseason Bittersweet,” Kansas City Star, October 6, 2005.
30 Mike Berardino, “Glass Family, Not GM Baird, Problem in Kansas City,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, August 21, 2005.
31 Jim Brockman, “Ex-Pirate Is Back, Expected to Lead Young Teammates,” Bradenton Herald, March 28, 2006.
32 Jeffrey Flanagan, “Randa Is Impressed with Moustakas,” Kansas City Star, July 27, 2008.
33 Joe Posnanski, “In His Heart, Randa Always Knew He Belonged with This Team,” Kansas City Star, August 8, 1999.