Lorenzo Cain is singing again. Sounds like old-school R&B, and normally that’s worth a few laughs, but at the moment too many of his friends are sitting around a card game angling for the next shoulder massage from Mike Jirschele.
This is one of Jirsch’s tricks. Get their attention with a smile and a rub, and then the Royals coach has a captive audience for some tips about their opponent that night.
Eventually, Jirsch walks away and the men at the table are left to entertain themselves. Eric Hosmer calls Jarrod Dyson a vampire for staying in his hotel room all day on a road trip, and maybe Brandon Finnegan laughed a little too hard because now Dyson is giving it to him about his eating habits.
“Nobody is safe,” Dyson says. “I don’t care who you are.”
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Once, in Minnesota, Kendrys Morales was thrown out at the plate. When he got back to the dugout, Alcides Escobar put a water cooler on his back, exaggerating the weight, saying: “Morales! Morales!”
It’s more than just jokes. By now, everyone knows about the Gatorade baths and the disco ball that turns the postgame clubhouse into a temporary nightclub after wins. Or that when someone hits a home run, he often needs to be prepared for a 12-step high-five with Salvador Perez.
Sometimes, if Perez is feeling frisky, he’ll carry the conquering player’s equipment in his own gear, an All-Star catcher turning into a volunteer bat boy. A few days ago, Mike Moustakas hit a home run and was rewarded with what looked like the world’s happiest scalp massage.
The Royals are the American League’s defending champions and current owners of the circuit’s best record, but they also are a bit like a fraternity that always throws the loudest parties no matter what the university administration says.
This is all by design, too, cultivated not just by big-league success after so many of these guys spent years on buses and in cheap hotel rooms together in the minor leagues, but by a strongly held belief from club executives that athletes who laugh together, win together.
In both sports and business, there is a popular idea that a group is made better or worse by how it generates or loses energy together. So-called “energy givers” are valued, and “energy suckers” are rooted out and discarded. Chiefs coach Andy Reid, among many others, refers to this regularly.
There is so much talk in sports about team chemistry, an impossibly vague term that often confuses cause and effect. Maybe there’s some of that here, too — there’d be a lot fewer high fives and funny jokes on a last-place team — but an organization-wide emphasis on how each player affects the next is as logical a reason as any for how this group has changed the history of a long-sorry franchise.
“You either give or you suck,” first-base coach Rusty Kuntz says. “There’s no in-between.”
There has never been, as far as I can tell, any tangible proof that team chemistry is a significant factor in teams winning or losing. At least, not a big enough factor to justify how often it is talked about.
Teams tend to win or lose based on how much talent their players have and how well they play, not on how much they enjoy each other’s company.
But these are human beings, and human beings have feelings. Ballplayers are like anyone else. When they’re around people they get along with, they’re happier. It’s simple.
But do happier ballplayers perform better? Or is it just that ballplayers are happier when they perform better?
In a sport where virtually everything is quantified, this is something like the last frontier of interpretation. The Baseball Analysts website once determined the standard deviation for team chemistry to be about one win per season.
That roughly jibes with an industry-wide view that can be seen in the Royals’ own history. They once gave José Guillen a $36 million contract because they were desperate for a proven hitter, and former manager Buddy Bell once told Runelvys Hernandez, “you’re not good enough to be this much of a (jerk).”
In terms of actual production, there is scant evidence that good feelings among teammates can be the primary difference between a playoff team and an also-ran. Even Ned Yost, the Royals’ manager who as much as anyone has cultivated a feel-good clubhouse, has said the far more important thing is talent.
But these Royals do present an interesting case study. You cannot make a credible case, for instance, that Wade Davis developed into one of the game’s most dominating relief pitchers here because of a friendship with Luke Hochever. Or that Cain is one of the game’s best outfielders because Dyson tells funny jokes.
The interesting part, though, comes in context. The core of this group is not just co-workers. They hang out together. Their wives are close. Hosmer, Dyson, Moustakas, Paulo Orlando, and Danny Duffy played together on a Class AA team that won the league championship. Duffy has been pitching to Perez since rookie ball back in 2007.
There is a genuine camaraderie here, in other words, one that existed long before the dogpile in Chicago or the bar tab at McFadden’s or game seven of the World Series.
And there are men — players, coaches, executives — who believe they could not have reached the champagne-popping parts without the brotherhood.
Because this has never been a linear progression. The Royals were so bad last May that they replaced their hitting coach (again), and bad enough a year ago that some fans (and media) wanted the team to give up and sell off pieces for the future.
The Royals had that team meeting, which may or may not have changed the tone of the clubhouse, but it only makes sense that the response was stronger because of all the history and general trust between them.
“We’re all so close,” Dyson says. “We joke around in here, but when it’s time, we all want to go out and fight for each other.”
Perhaps in response to a fragmented clubhouse when Guillen and Zack Greinke were around, club officials have prioritized the relationships between players and coaches. This is part of why Danny Valencia was traded last year. It is not lost on them that the A’s faded after trading Yoenis Cespedes last year.
The good vibes are not coincidence, in other words. Yost has a self-acknowledged reputation for being hard on his coaches, but he says that comes from high and unwavering expectations.
Yost’s biggest demand, particularly from coaches, is energy. Don’t be in this for the paycheck, or the pension. From the day he joined the Royals, Yost has been unfailingly positive, and he has wanted the same from his coaches. That doesn’t mean you can’t hold a player accountable. If anything, energy and positivity is sort of like capital that a coach can spend when it’s time to be hard on someone.
“It’s taken me however many years I’ve been managing to find this staff,” Yost says. “This staff is absolutely perfect. It’s everything I want in a staff, at every position. As long as I’m managing, I’m never going to get rid of another coach.”
The important thing is the players, of course, and in that way the Royals are well-positioned. Their best players — Perez, Escobar, Hosmer, Cain, Alex Gordon, on and on — are energy givers. Morales has a tendency to spread smiles. Dyson may be the clubhouse’s dominant personality, and his go-to move is laughter.
But nobody personifies this like Kuntz. He was one of the first coaches hired after Moore took over as general manager, and remembers two things being emphasized above all others — energy and commitment.
Toward those goals, Kuntz has come to be something like the big-league club’s drummer, helping keep everyone on beat. This past offseason, he wanted to become a minor-league instructor, or perhaps even retire, but Yost and Moore talked him into returning.
You never know when the next crisis will come. The Royals have had at least a share of first place every day of the season, so there have not been the fight-or-flight moments of last May or July. But they have had an abnormal run of injuries, the kind of thing that has deterred plenty of teams before.
Instead, the Royals have turned resiliency into their defining characteristic.
Maybe that would be the case even without the kind of friendships where Perez will ask Hosmer to walk over to video chat with his family, but the Royals are working on two years of evidence that it’s a lot easier.
The baseball season is an unrelenting grind. The Royals are in a stretch of 18 games in 17 days. The last two or three decades of franchise history is full of teams that checked out mentally this time of year, and the last two years are defined by men with a stubborn and consistent energy to grind through the unpredictable obstacles of the longest season in major American sports.
Much of that, certainly, is the obvious truism that it is more fun to win than to lose. But at least a little bit, too, is a mutually elevated energy level fueled by a genuine bond built through shared experiences and common ground — one best personified by the persistently upbeat Kuntz, but shared throughout the roster and coaching staff.
“People ask me, ‘You ever relax and enjoy the day?’” Kuntz says. “Yeah, when I conquer it. When I feel (bad), I think, ‘Hey, if this is the last day of your life today, what did you do with it?’ I don’t want to think, ‘Well, I didn’t do (anything).’ That keeps me going.
“When I sit home and turn the TV on, watch a ballgame or something, I want to have earned it. I want to think, ‘Yeah, I deserve this.’ I think that’s how our whole team is.”
There is no way to know for sure how much of the Royals’ journey from punch line to pennant winner comes from attitude. But, particularly this time of year, when so many past teams have fractured and floundered, you have to acknowledge that it can’t hurt.