Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tuesday Tidbits: Royal Reflection

As a sports fan, there are two things that come to mind regarding loyalty to a team. One came from a Mexican line cook I used to manage, who said this: "You can change your religion, your sex, your wife, or your family, but you can never, ever, change your team." The other is a conversation that Old No. 7 and I had a couple of years ago. It had something to do with Bill Simmons and some other guy having a conversation regarding the legitimacy of geographic ties to one's sports teams. It's a fascinating concept, and if I had the wherewithall, I'd dig up something to support it, but I don't.

Mostly because it's All-Star Tuesday, and the Kansas City Royals have a guy that actually earned a spot on the roster in Zack Greinke. He's the first to do so since Jermaine Dye in 2000. Since then, it's been Mike Sweeney and Mark Redman, and whoever else was plugged in to give the boys in blue someone at the game, and everyone else something to whine about. Whatever. I like the system the way it is, but of course earning a spot is much, much cooler. Unless, that is, said earning is all for naught, all a wash of what might just be a really, really bad baseball team.

The wife and I were out to dinner last night with her folks celebrating her dad's birthday. I can't remember exactly how, but the notion of hustle in baseball and Pete Rose came up, and my father-in-law told me about a game he attended during the 1980 World Series. He was a few rows back, first base side, when a Royal popped up in foul territory. The Philadelphia catcher called the play and the ball hit the heel of his mitt, and popped out. Luckily for him and the team, Pete Rose was right there, just in case. And you know what? Pete Rose caught that ball and registered that out. Just like a good, sound baseball player would do on any play in any game, World Series or not.

Nineteen eighty was a pretty important year in my sports life. One of the most important to date. It was the first year I remember watching professional football, the first year I watched a Super Bowl, and the Kansas City Royals went to the World Series. I don't remember any of the American League Championship games of the late 70s where the Royals fell to the Yankees in three consecutive years, but I remember 1980. I didn't know that George Brett had come ridiculously close to hitting .400, and I didn't know that Willie Wilson won a gold glove and led the league in triples, runs scored, hits, singles, plate appearances, and nearly stolen bases. I didn't know that cocaine was showering portions of the Royals roster at the time, but I did know that George's brother Ken was on the roster. I did know that they had an alarmingly chubby first baseman, I did know that they had a shortstop that would frequently take the field with a toothpick in his mouth. I did know who Larry Gura was, and everything Dan Quisenberry fascinated the shorts off of me. I also knew what the World Series was.

I'd already been given my Amos Otis jersey tee, and headed into the post-season, my 1980 Western Division Champs shirt. I'd been to Royals Stadium with my dad, I'd heard the tales of woe regarding those series with New York. I grasped the concept of how big the series was. I wouldn't be able to cherish it, however, until five years later. Game six, Denkinger call and all, was electric. People drove around the city honking like mad for hours. For game seven, we'd acquired a St. Louis Cardinals 1985 World Series Champions baseball cap. There were seven of us in the room, and we agreed, before the first pitch, to stomp on that cap for every Royal run scored. Even stomp number 77 felt good.

In the grand scheme of things, 1980 was important because the Royals had gotten over the hump. They'd made the big stage. We were still a few years away from winning it, and now, 29 years later, I've been at the World Series Champion parade. I've experienced two Kansas Jayhawk basketball championships, and I've felt nearly every emotion in the book when it comes to Chiefs football. Nearly.

I also moved away from Kansas City for seven years, a (mostly) pre-Internet era where I followed my Chiefs and my Jayhawks as closely as one could from a distance, but after high school, baseball and I drifted far from one another. When I returned, I was happy to renew my relationship with the team as a fan. It didn't really occur to me immediately just how bad the Royals had been in my absence (1993-2000), but I quickly learned. And I quickly grew to hate these new (to me) owners of the franchise that were clearly to blame -- along with the league and its lack of salary cap -- for the team's woes. I quickly grew to hate Tony Muser, and, I quickly fell in love with Carlos Beltran. And 2003 made things great again. Tony Pena was in as manager, and the Royals looked like they could contend. They fizzled in August and September, but they finished above .500 for the first time in a decade. Nosotros Creemos (we believe) and Juntos Podemos (together we can) were the mottos of Pena's clubs.

Pena was quickly gone, and the return to losing came back fast. For what feels like an eternity, there was only one thing to cling to: Mike Sweeney. Why? Well, because he seemed like an awesome dude. From 1999-2005, Sweeney hit .300 or better five times. The two seasons he didn't (.293 in '03 and .287 in '04) were still respectable. And he was it. There was nothing else. Pitching was atrocious. A joke. An actual, legitimate league laughing stock. Everyone else, both at the plate and in the field, was, as the saying goes, a minor-league player. In hindsight, it makes sense that Sweeney was hurt as often as he was; it was symbolic of a franchise that was hurting.

That's why, when Allard Baird was fired and Dayton Moore was hired, I felt rejuvenated, like a return to some barely remembered form of glory had been instilled in Kansas City baseball. We're three years from that point now, and I'm not sure what to feel. I almost feel more lost than I did when my fandom clung to the likes of Mike Sweeney.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that I watch more Royals baseball than I ever have in my life. They've played 78 games to date and I've probably seen or listened to significant portions of 60 of them. When you do that, every error, every loss, and every reminder of what good baseball teams look like hurt even more. The other aspect to that is that we, as baseball fans, have the luxury of reading blogs like Joe Posnanski's and Rany Jazayerli's. I've mentioned/linked to their work with some consistency lately because they are, in my mind, experts. They're the kind of expert I admire and don't want to be at the same time, but they're incredibly important. I'm not interested in crunching numbers like VORP and BABIP, etc., but I'm glad that they do. It gives perspective.

As a bigger-than-casual, lesser-than-expert fan, I can figure out for myself that the Royals are two games worse this year than they were last year at the All-Star break. I can also figure out that they are still not in last place in the A.L. Central. Further, I can recognize that being 14 games under .500 and 11 and-a-half out of first is not the end of the world; there's still at least another quarter season until that moment arrives. Adding to that, I am capable of seeing the divisional picture that says that the Central is really not that good this year. Detroit is playing great baseball. That's it. I can also acknowledge that injuries to Coco Crisp, Mike Aviles, Joakim Soria, Alex Gordon, and John Buck are significant to this team, even if, in the big MLB picture, those players aren't the proverbial cream of the crop. For Moore's plan to slowly build the team to a winner, they are important. Finally, I am also aware that not hitting for scarcely any power whatsoever is probably not what the front office had in mind when they planned for 2009.

When news of the Yuniesky Betancourt deal hit the news waves, on Friday, however, the move was so completely slandered by anyone and everybody in baseball, that I became afraid for that rejuvenation I felt three years ago. And now, having had the time to read what both Posnanski (here and here) and Jazayerli (here) have written about the deal, I have been left naked in the cold storm, trying to understand what my relationship to this team is really about.

Last week, in this post, the main thing I felt was summed up in Jazayerli's line that said "The ultimate goal of this blog is for the Royals to win." It was a Eureka! moment, if you will. This morning, however, having read his take on the Betancourt trade, I am completely lost on what to make of things. I strongly encourage you to read the entire post if you haven't yet, but in case you're not interested, the nuts and bolts, to me, begin and end with his defintion of signature significance:

"(T)he notion that sometimes things can happen in a small sample size that are so extraordinary that you learn a lot about the quality of a player from that small sample. The example I use a lot is the pitcher with the 15-strikeout game; it’s just one game, and the pitcher might not even win the game, but the performance is so extraordinary that it’s almost impossible that a mediocre pitcher could duplicate it.

The Betancourt trade reaches the level of signature significance in my eyes, but in reverse. It’s just one trade, and if Cortes doesn’t pan out it’s possible that the only thing this trade will cost the Royals is some money and some opportunity. But this trade is so utterly indefensible, and the thought process that led to this trade is so utterly diseased, that I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this one trade is prima facie evidence that Dayton Moore can not be a successful GM."

There are about a dozen things from that post that I could discuss, like the immaculate speechlessness I felt for what felt like five years after the Neifi Perez for Jermaine Dye trade. That trade made me feel like Job from the bible, wherein years of servitude and dedication as a fan are tested and tortured for the sole purpose of seeing if your faith is strong. Luckily, that test was only 194 games long. What came next, however, was a test of faith that no biblical figure ever withstood: Angel Berroa. For 629 games, Berroa caused my entrails to rot, my teeth to grit, and my road rage to flourish. This, of course, is unfair, because in 2003 (158 games) he was the A.L. Rookie of the Year, but for what literally felt like 10 years, this guy would swing at pitches -- pitches that occasionally resembled intentional-walk-type pitches -- at-bat after at-bat after at-bat.

And finally, he was gone. Sure, he played 84 games for the Dodgers in 2008 and has logged 24 for the Yankees this year. I don't care one iota. I don't care if he wins 12 championships, nine gold gloves and goes directly to Cooperstown without passing Go. He is off my team, and I am happy. Sort of.

See, Jazayerli is saying that the Betancourt trade is eons worse than anything a human could utter with Perez and Berroa in the same sentence, the same prepositional phrase even. And that, is a pill so bitter, that I'd have trouble swallowing it if there was a million dollars attached to it. Honestly.

So, what then, do we make of this trade? Well, Aviles won't even be recovered in time for the start of 2010. His career as a Royal may be done. I hate Tony Pena, Jr.'s bat just like everyone else, but I don't hate Tony Pena, Jr. with the same venom I loathed Perez and wanted to actually murder front-office folk for keeping Berroa around as long as they did. And this Luis Hernandez kid? He was nothing shy of awful. As Posnanski points out, there is no one in the entire system capable of playing shortstop. Old No. 7 asked me last night about Mike Moustakas. I don't know what the plan with the dude is. Honest.

I do know this: You could not possibly continue for the rest of 2009 without decent shortstop. Frankly, I'm with Jazayerli when he says to let Willie Bloomquist play the rest of the year at short. There's no mistaking that he's, to this point, the 2009 MVP of the club. Play him at short, keep DeJesus/Maier/Guillen as your outfield crew -- unless you put Teahen back in right when Gordon comes back, which you don't because Guillen can't play left -- and chalk 2009 up as another season spent while trying to develop the farm system. You don't want to ruin young talent by forcing them up sooner than they are ready, which was, in my opinion, one of the many flaws of the Baird system.

Ultimately, I take what Jazayerli says pretty seriously. Am I ready to say that this trade means that Moore won't cut it as a General Manager? No. I'm not. Not yet. I am, however, extremely worried that Moore continues to do something that the Kansas City Chiefs regime under Carl Peterson did for two decades, and that's moves of the the good-ol'-boy variety. By that, I mean, you do business (and often times most of it) with dudes you know for dudes you know, or in some form similar to that. I don't know who Moore knows in Seattle, but he's now gotten Gil Meche, Jose Guillen, Willie Bloomquist, and Yuniesky Betancourt from that team. He's also paid them -- the players -- a lot of money. His dealings with Atlanta are similar, and you could argue that the deal for Jacobs with Florida falls in the same category because they're National League and right up the street.

So at this point, my faith is being tested again. The faith that Moore is doing something beyond the line of sight, something in the farm system to make this team better in a few years. The critics, the writers that I respect, don't see it. I'm hoping that they're wrong, because I'd just swapped my losers-for-life wardrobe for something new, fresh, and flashy, something with The New K embroidered all over it. Suddenly, I'm afraid that the whole lot has mothballs.


old no. 7 said...

I've followed the Royals more closely this year than I ever had in the past. That's partly due to my affiliation with this blog, partly due to having Greinke on my fantasy team, and partly due to reading Posnanski, Jazayerli and Neyer every day.

I have no other ties to the team or to Kansas City outside of that. I have no sense of the history or tradition of the franchise. And I don't feel any emotional up or down when the Royals win or lose.

I say this only as an impartial observer--Dayton Moore doesn't have the slightest idea what he's doing.

I've delved pretty deep into the world of statistical analysis in the last couple years. I have a pretty good grasp of most of the simpler metrics used to measure ballplayers and teams, and I can at least understand what stats like VORP and Ultimate Zone Rating are quantifying. People that don't understand these stats hate them, and they say that baseball should be judged by the eyes, by old-time fans and by old-time scouts.

Well, I watch baseball with my eyes and I appreciate it with my eyes, but beneath the surface of the game are numbers and statistics. Watch a good team--the Red Sox, for instance--and watch what their organization's emphasis on statistics does for the quality of their play. The Red Sox have gone after on-base percentage for years and it shows up in their games. They grind and grind and lengthen at-bats. They wear out starters and they wear out bullpens. On nights when they don't get any power from their lineup, they still put themselves in a position to win because they create value out of every inning and every at-bat. They don't win because they're rich (although being rich certainly helps), they win because they've bought into a philosophy, assembled a team around that philosophy, and they play by those principles every night.

Dayton Moore claimed that he wanted the same philosophy on the Royals, and yet he has repeatedly gone out and acquired players like Ryan Freel and Yuniesky Betancourt, players whose skills and demeanor are the antithesis of that philsophy. He's a complete hack. What's worse, he's done this in an era when teams in markets similar to Kansas City have done fine--the A's, the Twins, the Marlins, hell even the Colorado Rockies--who are run by people who make Dayton Moore look like Stephen Hawking--have found ways to win with lower payrolls. Every club has access to money now, and you can either use that money to build a competitive team or to make sloppy, ass-backward, wasteful moves (as Moore has done).

It seems like the Royals have a nice park, fans who care, a decent core of pitching and a manager that might have a clue--I do like Hillman and think he could pan out. The offense is atrocious, and it's inexcusable to have no help on the horizon. Please stop, Royals fans, including Mike Aviles in the same breath as Gordon, Butler, Teahen or the Hawaiian 1B prospect. He's a lousy player and his season last year was a mirage. The fact that Moore went after Betancourt should tell you that even thickheaded Dayton realizes that there's no chance Aviles will replicate his 2008 numbers in the future.

Best of luck.

bankmeister said...

Very good points. For clarification, I didn't mean to imply that I didn't understand the stats; I do. I'm just glad they're not my job to compile. Also, the money comment was a feeling I had in previous years. I understand, mostly thanks to you, that small-market teams have the means to be competitive. Finally, I include Aviles' name only for the purpose of the injury list.

Again, excellent analysis.

bankmeister said...

/needs more spaces flanking em dashes