George Brett is talking about the Royals, and this is always emotional for him. He has said many times that everything he has in life he owes to the Royals, and even if the Royals owe him at least that much back, there is a bond here that will follow Brett to his grave. That’s why his voice is rising.
The conversation is about Royals fans. Specifically, the large number of Royals fans who still — even after 135 games of proof that their team is finally worthy of a real pennant race — carry at least a little bit of reluctance about whether to fully invest their baseball hearts. Brett is listening, and it feels like he’s trying to understand.
Royals fans can’t act like they’ve been here before — first place with what is actually a good team on Aug. 31 — because they haven’t. They are used to disappointment. They are used to putting their hopes into another group wearing that cursive Royals across the chest and ultimately being let down. This is the pattern. This is how it goes.
It’s suggested to Brett that if you’re bitten by a dog, you’ll be skittish the next time you see that dog.
This is where Brett speaks up.
“But if you see another dog, a different dog, are you afraid of that one?” he says. “That’s what I’m saying. This is a different team. If Jay Bell’s playing shortstop and Jeff King’s playing first and Chico Lind is at second, if that’s our team, I can understand being afraid.
“But this group is different. This group is really talented. I’m telling you, these guys are more talented than we were in 1985.”
“I mean that,” Brett says. “Let’s go around, position by position.”
There is really nobody in the Royals’ clubhouse with a good feel for this, of course. Raul Ibañez is the oldest player here, but even he was just a 13-year-old boy in Florida when the Royals won the World Series. James Shields has become something like the voice of the clubhouse, and he was 3 years old in 1985.
It was way past his bedtime when Denny Matthews screamed “NO outs to go!”
Billy Butler might be our best shot. He’s been with the Royals for eight years. Along with Alex Gordon, he has the most time in this clubhouse and around Kansas City. He wasn’t even born in 1985, but he at least knows guys like Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson. He’s heard the stories.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all with George saying that,” Butler says. “George has confidence in what we’re doing. George is invested in what we’re doing. He has a relationship with everyone in here. When he says it, he believes it.”
Just on the surface, there are some similarities. The pitching staffs. The emphasis on defense. The inconsistent offense. Neither team was all that great at the All-Star break, and both picked it up in August.
Maybe it sounds strange to compare a team that fired its hitting coach to the world champs, and in some ways it is. But like White says about the new Royals, don’t look at what’s happened in the past. Look at what’s happening now.
The Royals have a playoff-worthy rotation. There is no Jon Lester or Felix Hernandez here, but Shields is a legitimate top-shelf pitcher who would be a respected game-one starter in the playoffs. Nobody in baseball can match the Royals’ playoff bullpen, which would potentially shorten the game to five or even four innings with — working back to front — Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Yordano Ventura and Jason Frasor.
And the offense, at least statistically, isn’t as bad as it seems at times. The Royals have scored 4.10 runs per game through Friday, just a tick below the league average and ahead of fellow contenders like the Yankees and Mariners. Since the All-Star break, it’s even better — 4.18, sixth in the American League in runs scored per game.
To White’s point, and focusing on what’s happening now, try blacking out the jerseys and caps and looking at the players wearing the laundry. Forget about the ghosts of Ken Harvey and Chris George. These Royals have two-time All-Stars in left field, at catcher and at closer. Former All-Stars at first base and in the rotation. One of the better defensive shortstops in baseball. A steady veteran second baseman (even if the Royals will regret that contract in a few years). The best defensive outfield, by far, in baseball.
What’s not to like here? You know, besides the 28 years of failure that this particular group had mostly nothing to do with?
The more you’re able to separate this group from its predecessors, to compare these guys on their own merits and against the teams they’re competing with, the more you see this as not just a team that should get into the playoffs but one that would be a mother of an out once it gets there.
There are no teams without flaws, and plenty that would trade their flaws for the Royals’ flaws. Even a certain world championship team had flaws.
“It’s hard to talk about the ’85 team,” Butler says. “It’s hard. You have to be careful. I don’t have any experience knowing it. Hopefully you’re comparing apples to apples. Obviously time will tell.”
Brett’s not the only one who has said that 1985 wasn’t the best Royals team he played on, but it was the closest, and that’s another place where these teams are similar.
The current Royals team includes some genuinely tight friendships, the kinds that are rarer than you might expect.
Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer. Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis. Sal Perez, in particular, crosses over the language barrier that defines relationships on many teams. But even if you just look at the players on each club, like Brett wants to do, it’s closer than you might think.
“I think you would take me over Moose,” he begins, and, well, of course. “I think you would take Escobar over Buddy Biancalana and Onix Conception, right?”
Sure. Brett goes on.
He takes White over Infante. Perez over Jim Sundberg. Alex Gordon over Lonnie Smith. Willie Wilson over Cain or Dyson in center, but the combination of Cain and Aoki over Darryl Motley and Pat Sheridan in right. First base is close enough that Brett could make an argument either way, but he’ll take Steve Balboni and his franchise-record 36 home runs.
Depending on how you look at Butler’s season and the addition of Josh Willingham at DH, it’s either a push or relatively small advantage to the then-39-year-old Hal McRae from 1985.
Brett will take Bret Saberhagen over everyone the Royals have now, but after that it lines up pretty even. Jason Vargas is the present-day Charlie Leibrandt. Danny Duffy is the updated Danny Jackson. Jeremy Guthrie is Mark Gubicza, and Yordano Ventura is Buddy Black. After Saberhagen, Brett sees the rotations as a toss-up, maybe even a slight advantage to the current group. And he’d want this year’s bullpen, especially if he could find a spot for Dan Quisenberry somewhere.
“I don’t know, what do you think?” he says. “You get the guys together, the old-time scouts and the newer sabermetricians, I’m pretty sure they’d have a good debate over all of this.”
Maybe you agree with Brett. Maybe you think he’s wrong. Maybe you think there may be more positional advantages for the 2014 team, but the 1985 team’s star power with Brett, Wilson, White and Saberhagen is checkmate. However you see it, there isn’t a man alive with a more intimate knowledge of the 1985 team and this particular group of players.
If he thinks this group is more talented than the one he won a World Series with, isn’t that at least enough to completely buy in and see where the most interesting September of Royals baseball in a generation goes?
Maybe all of this sounds irrational. The Royals have established a track record of letting their fans down, at least when it comes to the standings. There are more Colt Griffins than Alex Gordons, more Angel Berroas than Sal Perezes. Heck, in the last 28 years, there have been more Halley’s Comets (one) than Royals champagne celebrations (zero).
But isn’t the entire state of being a fan at least a little irrational? To be so interested in adults playing kids games, to put your heart and belief and emotions into a system that by its very structure leaves far more disappointed than elated? Games are on TV for free if you have cable, and yet many of us spend hundreds and even thousands to watch in person where the food and drinks are expensive and the replays are worse.
What’s rational about that?
But what if this is what you’ve been waiting for? Years and years have gone by with Royals fans just asking for a contender, for one team built with good players who want to be in Kansas City, for one season where the games in September matter beyond three hours to unwind and think about ridiculous questions like whether Kyle Davies can be a good major-league starter.
This is that contender. This is that year. This is that team, whether you go by the eye test — “They’d be a (beast) of a matchup for us,” says a scout from another contender — or statistics (these Royals rank fifth in baseball in fWAR).
So much of our sports obsession requires a break in logical behavior. That’s part of the charm, really. But even sports irrationality should have its limits.
After all, if you’ve waited this long for a real contender, and you’re still hesitating into this September, well, that would be beyond irrational.
The 1985 Royals vs. 2014 Royals
How do the 1985 World Series champion Royals compare with this year’s team? (This season’s statistics are through Friday)
.245, 10 HRs, 35 RBIs
.264, 15 HRs, 58 RBIs
.243, 36 HRs, 88 RBIs
.267, 6 HRs, 46 RBIs
.249, 22 HRs, 69 RBIs
.255, 6 HRs, 59 RBIs
.204, 2 HRs, 20 RBIs
.279, 26 SBs, 44 RBIs
.335, 30 HRs, 112 RBIs
.207, 15 HRs, 49 RBIs
.257, 40 SBs, 41 RBIs
.279, 17 HRs, 61 RBIs
.278, 43 SBs, 43 RBIs
.299, 23 SBs, 41 RBIs
.222, 17 HRs, 49 RBIs
.263, 15 SBs, 32 RBIs
.259, 14 HRs, 70 RBIs
.277, 9 HRs, 57 RBIs
17-9, 2.69 ERA
12-7, 3.45 ERA
20-6, 2.87 ERA
10-10, 4.43 ERA
14-12, 3.42 ERA
10-7, 3.27 ERA
10-15, 4.33 ERA
10-9, 3.40 ERA
14-10, 4.06 ERA
8-11, 2.47 ERA
2.37 ERA, 37 saves
1.72 ERA, 40 saves