We are talking about streaks and sports and fans and emotions, so let’s get to the point here. These Royals are establishing one heck of an argument as one of the streakiest teams in recent baseball history, which is a wicked combination with a tortured and smile-deprived fan base.
This is Billy Butler’s eighth year playing big-league baseball in Kansas City. He has a fairly good feel for the people here, and knows that a 10-game winning streak immediately followed by a four-game losing streak immediately followed by beating Zack Greinke and the Dodgers 5-3 on Monday has thrown a large segment of the fan base into knots. Which is why you need to hear what he’s saying.
“The (fans) that believe that because of a four-game losing streak we’re not the same team we were before, I don’t think they’re very rational,” he says. “I just don’t.”
We’ll come back to Butler and this idea of rationality in a bit.
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But first, some context.
It’s important to recognize that these Royals are, in fact, abnormally streaky. No team has won as many as 10 games in a row this year, and if it’s not true that they are the only team that could surge 6 1/2 games in the standings in less than two weeks and then give three back over a single weekend, well, it sure seems like the Royals have a monopoly on this kind of bipolar baseball.
Last year, the Royals had runs of (deep breath) 1-6, 4-19, 6-0, 5-1, 0-5, 9-0, 8-2, 0-7 and 8-2. That’s more than half the season, right there, in those surges of joy and pain.
So, for better and worse, this team has learned how to get through these times. They should be better at avoiding the bad times — especially with this pitching and defense — but they do have some experience.
The idea is to treat every day the same, whether you won on a walk-off grand slam or lost when Greg Holland gave up a homer to a nobody.
This is easier said than done, of course, but the unwritten rule is to have it forgotten by the time you get to the ballpark the next day. Different guys do this differently. Some will sit around the clubhouse after games, win or lose, and analyze everything that happened over a beer. When someone asks, so who we got tomorrow?, hopefully the attention has shifted.
Holland has to deal with this kind of thing more personally than others. That’s the life of a closer. He’s been bad three times this season out of 28 games, and the Royals lost those three games. Maybe because of his role, he’s one of the guys you hear mentioned as the one who handles the down times best (Alex Gordon also receives votes).
Like, the morning after he gave up the homer to Brad Miller and the Royals lost in front of that sellout crowd over the weekend, Holland woke up, showered, took his dog outside, had breakfast with his wife and was at the ballpark around 1. Holland saved the win against the Dodgers Monday and, the next morning, planned on waking up, showering, taking his dog outside, having breakfast with his wife and being at the ballpark around 1. Win or lose, Holland does Sudoku.
If there’s a difference, he tries to focus on what he did well when he gives up a lead and on what he didn’t do well when he protects a lead. Works for him. Some prefer staying positive no matter what, and others concentrate on the same thing win or lose.
This is the athlete way. Routines are safety blankets, and the power of the mind can help block the bad.
But the truth is, the Royals haven’t been all that great at avoiding the nasty valleys. You’ve heard them admit a thousand times that they’d have been in the playoffs last year if they handled May better and, fair or not, losing four in a row after winning 10 in a row brings up a lot of bad memories.
For the moment, the Royals can comfort themselves with some facts. In the last 10 seasons, 27 teams have won 10 or more games in a row with 10 or more games left. Those teams have been perfectly mediocre immediately following their streaks — 132-138 in their next 10 games. These were good teams, too. Fifteen won 90 or more games. Only two finished below .500.
And if nothing else, the Royals can find confidence here. Nobody stays hot forever, and it’s usually very good teams that win 10 in a row in the first place.
So they are perfectly within their rights and best self-interests to dismiss the wild swings of emotions they have to feel from fans.
But when they’re honest, most of them can understand exactly where the fans are coming from.
Before he ever made money in baseball, Billy Butler was a football fan. The team in Washington. Billy lived and died on every Sunday during the fall.
“We’d lose one game,” he says, “and I was, ‘Let’s get rid of the GM, let’s get rid of the head coach.’ One game.”
Being in the business of winning and losing games himself now, he looks at it differently. He still roots just as hard for his team, but, as he says, “I understand how they lose games now.” If he ever grows frustrated with the hot-and-cold reactions of fans, he can think back to his own days of irrationality.
Or he can look at it like Lorenzo Cain. He grew up a Cowboys fan, and laughs now at the memory of thinking every player on his favorite team who screwed up must just “suck.” He never thought of the work that goes behind it, and knows this is normal, because even his wife’s family used to think ballplayers showed up around an hour before first pitch just to dress and stretch.
Cain draws a line, though, at least in his mind. He says he never had the irrationality of some fans, and the line he uses makes an unintentional point.
“Trust me,” he says, “if I was going crazy on all the ups and downs I’d have given up on the Cowboys a long time ago.”
The line made me smile. I told Cain the same could be said about Royals. The ups and downs can push any fan to the edge, but if they couldn’t handle it they’d surely have given up on the Royals at some point in the last 20 years.
“That’s a good point,” he says, laughing.