This wasn’t a baseball game as much as it was a social experiment. On Monday afternoon, the Royals and Rays played what was technically a Major League Baseball game but in practice felt more like one of those high school showcases they play at Johnson County 3&2.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
They played Monday because of that snowstorm back in May, which was weird enough even before it meant that former Royals prospect Wil Myers would play in Kansas City. Makeup games during the week hardly ever draw decent crowds, and even though the Royals sold more than 20,000 tickets, fewer than 5,000 showed up. Completely understandable, too. Kids are back in school. The heat index reached 100 — probably felt like 1,000 in Kauffman Stadium’s seats.
You could’ve had entire sections of the stadium to yourself, especially in the upper deck and around the foul poles. You could’ve distinctly heard fans yell things like, “YOU DON’T WANT TO BE HERE!” and “SALVY I LOVE YOU!” You could’ve seen Billy Butler’s towering home run, Alex Gordon’s hustling triple, and Myers continue a rotten slump by going zero for four with two strikeouts.
Actually, you would’ve had to show up here to see any of that. Fox Sports Kansas City didn’t televise the game. MLB Network didn’t either.
So here’s the social experiment: if a major-league game happens and nobody’s around to see it, do the players care? Do they play like big-leaguers?
“It’s a game you could lose focus on,” Royals manager Ned Yost says.
Before what turned out to be an easy 11-1 win, Royals coach Eddie Rodriguez walked over to Rays manager Joe Maddon and told him to expect a spring training atmosphere. If ever there was a game for big-leaguers to skate through, it happened on Monday.
This Royals-coaster team is a difficult bunch to figure. You might already know that they are historically inconsistent — no team has had a stretch as good as 17-3 and as bad as 4-19 in the same season since 2005. More than half their season is made up of wild winning or losing streaks, an especially bizarre thing for a team built on pitching and defense.
But one thing you can say, generally, is that the effort has been there. The embodiment of what they strive to be is in Alex Gordon, their left fielder who says he doesn’t feel like he’s really played until his jersey is caked with dirt. The Royals are not perfect, of course, but out-of-town scouts and coaches keep saying they play with a constant energy.
They didn’t always say things like that, of course. Angel Berroa. Jose Guillen. Mark Quinn. Recent Royals history is dotted with players who drifted in and out, who let the grind of 162 games in 181 days — so many of them losses — get the better of them.
As Romeo Crennel might put it, human nature says to take the day off. The Rays sure looked like a team coasting through, and you can understand why. They played at home Sunday. They took a plane back to Tampa Bay after Monday’s game, because Tuesday starts a three-game series. Then a flight across the country to Oakland.
Monday would’ve been a welcomed rest, in other words, and you couldn’t help but wonder if they kept that attitude even after the game was rescheduled. The Rays have a two-game cushion in the wild-card race, while the Royals are still 6 1/2 out. So maybe this was just a case of two teams responding to incentives.
But even as the Royals made mistakes of their own — most notably, a miscommunication led to a popup dropping behind the pitchers mound in the second inning — there was no visible let-up here.
Three of the Royals’ first four batters reached base. They took control with a four-run third inning, blew it open with a five-run sixth, and kept Tampa out of it with focused pitching and attentive defense. Justin Maxwell caught the game’s last out, jumping against the fence.
Now, this all brings to mind the classic line from Bill Snyder, when told that his team played hard through a blowout loss: “They don’t let you quit.” Big-league pay is nice, and it doesn’t go up or down based on how many people are in the stands or whether the game is on TV or whether you would’ve used the offday to shoot 18.
When you’re in the majors, you’re supposed to play hard and you’re supposed to be benched if you don’t (unless you’re Robinson Cano and you’re so talented it doesn’t matter).
So this isn’t meant as praise as much as it is acknowledgment. The context was perfect for two major-league teams to drift through a scorching afternoon of work. The Rays did, and the Royals didn’t.
Again, big-league teams do not receive blue ribbons for effort.
But if they did, there are plenty of recent Royals teams who would’ve gone ribbon-less on Monday.