As Royals general manager Dayton Moore kindly indulged a stream-of consciousness conversation the other day, the talk turned to relationships.
In particular, he spoke to a subtle but telling aspect of them that he has long since thought through and sought to live by. They are to be cultivated and nurtured and honored … and thus by definition not to be manipulated or exploited.
That striking distinction was in the context of contract negotiations in the free agency of outfielder Alex Gordon:
The notion of seeking some form of “hometown discount,” or otherwise playing on Gordon’s gratitude to the organization that raised him, had been taboo to Moore.
Never miss a local story.
In fact, he had been incredulous at the suggestion.
“We cannot take advantage of a relationship,” said Moore, standing by George Brett Field at the Royals’ spring training complex and, as always, offering a word or pat for about anyone in the organization who passed by as he spoke.
Then Moore paused and reflected for a moment, thinking not just about baseball but about why we are all here.
“The world tells us the biggest lie,” he said. “The world tells us that you have to look out for yourself: ‘You better take care of No. 1. You don’t take care of yourself, nobody else will. That’s the biggest lie.
“It’s about us, it’s about togetherness. It’s how we work as a team that defines our success. Can we sacrifice for the good of the group?”
That is a revealing glimpse of how Moore sincerely thinks.
And it’s compelling testimony to how in the near-decade since he took over he has transformed the Royals from a laughingstock to a civic treasure and model to be admired.
Moore not only was the architect of the turnaround but a personal archetype for the way it would be done: with trust that now permeates the organization and radiates from a team whose “keep the line moving” signature reflects an all-for-one mindset and belief in the next man up.
“You have to have as much trust in the guy in front of you and behind you as in yourself,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “Because in baseball you’re not going to get the job done every single time. As much as you want to, as much as you try to, it’s just unrealistic.”
That all trickles down from Moore.
You could see it in catcher Sal Perez, in the wake of an unprecedented contract restructuring on Tuesday, turning toward Moore to note the trust all in the clubhouse have for him. And then Perez gave $1 million of his new contract to one of Moore’s causes, the Urban Youth Academy.
You could feel it when Gordon called Moore his “good friend” after the Royals were able to reel him back in.
You could hear it when manager Ned Yost said Moore has an unerring instinct of just doing what’s right.
And you could know it from assistant general manager Rene Francisco, who has known Moore more than 20 years and calls him “the most honest person that I’ve known in baseball.”
“Everyone fights to do the best for him,” said Francisco, who worked with Moore in Atlanta. “Everyone … He’s the one who brings all of us together. He’s a great leader.”
That as much as the organization’s keen eye for young talent and Moore’s series of shrewd trades and free-agent signings explains why the Royals have made back-to-back World Series appearances and won the 2015 championship.
And it’s why they have a foundation that makes them appear able to contend for several years to come in one of baseball’s smallest markets, where an enraptured fan base and a team that plays with an appealing exuberance make for fine recruiting tools beyond what money can buy.
This, out of the chaos and rot that had set in when Moore took over 10 summers ago with an incalculable task before him as he left his assistant GM job with Atlanta.
“It doesn’t matter how much success you’ve had as an organization, who your mentors were and are: Until you get in that chair and you sit in that seat and start making those decisions, there’s no way to prepare for it,” Moore said. “It moves way too fast. The honeymoon, the glamour of the job, disappears really quick.
“And now you’re fighting for your professional credibility. Every single day, you’re fighting. But at the same time you know you have to build it from the ground up, and you have to be really committed, downright stubborn at times.
“And you have to have great support from ownership and people who are going to buy in.”
The buy-in was crucial but had to be earned.
And it was, first by holding himself accountable, as Moore put it, and then by hiring people who would be encouraged to speak up and be able to confront him “in the proper way” for the good of the organization.
“I want to be right,” Moore said, “but I don’t have to be right.”
That would be pivotal in how they evaluated prospects, a most crucial component for an organization that has to depend on homegrown development.
All of which helped make up what became known as “The Process,” which as it slowly bubbled beneath the surface became a point of ridicule before it ultimately became a point of acclaim.
Maybe it never was more mocked than after the 2013 season, when the Royals finished 86-76 for their second winning campaign since 1993 and Moore said, “In a small way, I feel like we won the World Series.”
The optimistic-but-awkward sentiment lingers in a different way now, of course.
But you can also understand it better today when you hear Moore’s perspective on actually winning the World Series.
Consumed as he’s been with the job, ferociously competitive as he might be, Moore said “whether we won or lost, I still would have been equally as proud.”
“I would rather have the joy of working with all of our players, Ned and the entire coaching staff and the Glass family and representing our fans — that’s the joy, to be able to do that well — than to win the World Series,” he said. “The journey has been what’s most rewarding … not winning the World Series.”
The words are reminiscent of those etched on a wall of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.: “Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.”
It’s all been in the striving and, as Moore put, honoring of the game.
There is so much beyond control in all this, after all, and the Royals are two unfathomable rallies (the 2014 AL Wild Card Game against Oakland and Game 4 of the AL Division Series last year against Houston) from being a different sort of story.
But they did, in fact, win those games, not to mention all the other comebacks they unleashed in the 2015 postseason.
And they could control the passion and camaraderie that became as much a part of who they are as the beautiful defense and phenomenal bullpen and timely hitting.
And it’s easy to see how that connects to the tone set by Moore.
“You can see how much it helps us a team when people actually believe in each other, believe in the process and go out there and do everything they can to help the team win and not worry about the numbers or your contract or this or that,” Moustakas said. “You know all that stuff will take care of itself. It’s a special feeling.”
It’s informative, too, that they did it with a group perhaps well-symbolized by Moustakas.
As any number of others might tell you through their growing pains, Moustakas knew the organization had his best interests in mind even when they sent him down to Class AAA Omaha in 2014.
That’s part of why Moustakas said “whatever you need, Skip,” to Yost when he moved him down from second in the order to sixth.
“It’s hard to get 25 guys on that page, because selfishness creeps in somewhere,” Yost said. “But for the last two years we’ve had a group of guys that’s been absolutely all-in.”
Moore will tell you that the culture had to grow from the ground up, albeit with instruction and careful vetting of those they bring in.
He’ll tell you that the support of the Glass family has been instrumental, though left unsaid is the story in itself of how he helped prompt that change.
But make no mistake: This is all in the image and vision of Moore, and all a reflection of the trust he inspires by being a man of integrity.
“It’s one player at a time, it’s one person at a time, it’s one relationship at a time,” he said. “It has to become personal.”