In the final days of January, as the offseason reign reached its last weeks, Royals general manager Dayton Moore summoned more than 150 staffers and employees to Kansas City for a week of organizational meetings.
The invite list was varied — from amateur scouts to coaches to analytical minds in the front office — and the mission was straightforward: For five days, the Royals’ baseball operations department would toast one World Series championship and chart the course for another, a week that was one part celebration, one part franchise reset.
The timing was not a coincidence. It had been nine years since the entire department had met in one place. In the winter of 2007 — Moore’s first full season on the job — the meetings had served as a jump-start, a chance to outline a long-term plan and set an identity for what the Kansas City Royals should be. Nine years later, Moore and his lieutenants repeated the steps, hitting the same beats over the course of five days.
Pitching is the currency of baseball. Up-the-middle defense is paramount at Kauffman Stadium. Base-running is an undervalued tool.
“Our plan from the beginning has gone unchanged,” said J.J. Picollo, assistant general manager for player personnel.
The plan, as it were, had laid the groundwork for the greatest two-year run in Royals history, a rebuilding tale that included two World Series appearances and the first World Series championship in three decades. And as Moore stood before his staff, the moment would serve as the first salvo against complacency, the first shot against the natural human emotion to let up.
Last fall, on a cool November night in New York, the Royals were crowned champions after a 7-2 victory in Game 5 of the World Series. Three months later, the message was delivered:
It was time to do it again.
“We don’t want to do this just one time,” Picollo said this week, remembering the meetings. “We want to continue to do it.”
Since the fall of 1980, 34 baseball teams have begun the spring with an opportunity to repeat as World Series champions. Just three — the 1993 Blue Jays and 1999 and 2000 Yankees — finished the job. Of the teams on the list, 20 of them didn’t make the playoffs, including the last three World Series champions. Only four other clubs made it back to the World Series. All four lost.
As the Royals arrived this week in Surprise, Ariz., beginning their title defense in earnest, they appeared unshaken by history, unburdened by the weight of expectations. They appeared ready to do it again.
On an early morning this week, outfielder Jarrod Dyson peeled off an outer layer and tossed a shirt toward his locker. It was Friday, three days before the Royals’ position players had to report to camp, but already the room was bustling with movement. A few lockers down, first basemen Eric Hosmer would prepare for another day of unofficial workouts. Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon were on site, too. The nucleus from a world champion was back under one roof.
“You don’t play the game to win one,” Dyson said, his voice echoing across the room. “(Michael) Jordan didn’t shut it down after winning one. Kobe didn’t shut it down after winning one. Why we gonna shut it down after winning one? We want to win as many possible.”
As Dyson spoke, he sneered at the idea of a complacent clubhouse. His teammates have followed suit.
A year ago, the Royals came to spring training after losing game Game 7 of the 2014 World Series to the San Francisco Giants. The loss served as kindle for redemption, and the fire burned all season. Armed with the game’s most dominant bullpen and an elite defense, the Royals sprinted to the American League Central title, survived a near-death experience against the Houston Astros in the Division Series, and claimed a second straight pennant against the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series. When backup catcher Drew Butera clutched the final strike of the World Series in New York, the redemption song was complete.
But something strange happened in the days and weeks after the World Series. For 12 months, left-hander Danny Duffy said, the Royals viewed the World Series as an antidote for the lingering heartache from a Game 7 defeat. But when they finally hoisted the trophy, it only made the pain of 2014 more intense.
“You almost felt worse,” Duffy said, “because we knew that we could have two right now, and we’d be in a whole different kind of boat. That doesn’t take anything away from 2015, obviously. We still won a world championship. But it would pretty cool to say we won two. We were 90 feet away.”
In the opening days of camp, Royals manager Ned Yost has echoed the sentiments. The Royals, he said, are not ready to stop their run. They have too much talent, too much focus, too much experience to let up now.
“We want to win another world championship,” Yost said. “We were 90 feet away from going for a three-peat this year. We’ve basically got the same crew.”
The projection and the predictions began filtering last month, a wave of numbers and formulas and complex algorithms. One said the Royals would win 79 games this season. The other — Baseball Prospectus’ respected PECOTA system — picked the defending champions to go just 76-86.
Inside the Royals clubhouse, some players laughed at the prognostications. Others shrugged them off. Moore appeared inclined to ignore the topic altogether
“You can’t consume yourself with what other people think, or what they predict,” Moore said. “Because it’s meaningless. It doesn’t tell the story. The script will be written. I don’t know how it’s going to be written. But it’ll be written, and it will be written based on how the players perform.”
One day later, on a warm Wednesday afternoon, Hosmer and Dyson grabbed gloves and sauntered out to the George Brett Field here in Surprise for their first unofficial workout of the spring. It was a light-hearted session. Dyson took ground balls. Hosmer wore a black T-shirt — a very not suitable-for-work shirt, inscribed with the following words: “Today is not a good day to be a (scaredy cat).”
The T-shirt was a leftover relic from the 2014 season, an idea from the mind of relief pitcher Scott Downs. The message, however crude, still resonates.
“That’s every day, man,” Dyson said. “That’s just every day, just how we approach everything. Just go out there and give it your all. Don’t back down from no challenge, no matter who we’re facing.”
Nearly four months after a World Series triumph, the end of the 2014 season still resonates, too. As does the ticking clock on the wall. A chunk of this Royals team is set to reach free agency after the 2017 season. Hosmer and Dyson are in that group. So are Moustakas and center fielder Lorenzo Cain. You never know, Dyson says, how many runs you have left.
“We don’t have to talk about it,” Dyson said. “Everybody basically knows about it. When you look up in here, you see guys performing and doing their job. You know they’re going to get paid. You know they’re raising the market up. And it’s kind of hard to afford guys when they’re like that.”
So here they are, the reigning champions back in Arizona for spring training, ready to defy a legion of doubters, ready to calm the concerns of complacency, poised to make another run at history.
“We know this group isn’t going to be together forever,” Dyson said. “So we’re tying to take advantage of it.”