Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard the same question from more than a few Kansas City folks: “So, be honest, are you bitter that Sam Mellinger and Vahe Gregorian get to write about this amazing Royals team when you had to cover all those losing teams?”
The short answer is: No, of course not. Sam and Vahe are great friends and fantastic columnists. I couldn’t be happier for them.
The longer answer is: Yes. Are you kidding? Of course, I’m bitter. Where were they when the Royals had Jerry Spradlin closing out games? Where were they when Tony Pena jumped into the shower with his clothes on, when Herk Robinson brought a professional softball pitcher to camp, when Juan Gonzalez’s day-to-day injury lasted five months? Where were they when the Royals went on a 19-game losing streak and The Kansas City Star decided that a certain sports columnist should travel the country to chronicle every one of those losses?
The thing that struck me about those terrible Royals teams the 15 years or so that I was a columnist at The Star was that they were made up of good baseball people who were trying their best. That was not something many fans wanted to hear; it seems obvious that all that losing simply had to be the result of stupidity or a lack of effort.
But I don’t think so, certainly not a lack of effort. Those good baseball people — Tony Muser, Allard Baird, Muzzy Jackson, Buddy Bell, on and on — worked absurdly hard.
The superb players — Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, Joe Randa, Jermaine Dye, Zack Greinke, Joakim Soria, on and on — played extremely hard.
It just didn’t work. Mistakes? Sure. Blunders? Yes. Bad luck? Of course. Gambles backfired. Seemingly sure things backfired. Prospects did not develop. Older players did not age well. Good players left for greener pastures.
You ever see the movie “This is Spinal Tap”? There’s the beleaguered promotions guy for Polymer Records, Artie Fufkin, who sets up an autograph session for the band and no one shows up.
“I’ve got no timing, I’ve got no timing, I’ve got no timing,” Fufkin repeats madly, and that was the Royals story too. They had no timing.
Then this Royals team came along. Sam and Vahe (grrr) have written wonderfully about what makes this team special, and there just isn’t much to add to their thoughts. Lorenzo Cain is an outfield virtuoso. I remember when Alex Gordon was hitting .180 as a hyped rookie and there was a real question about where his career would lead; he’s now the very heart of this team. And that three-man reliever party — a trio I’ve begun to call the law firm of Herrera, Davis and Holland — is simply the most dominant closing machine in the history of baseball.
One of sports’ grand clichés is “Stay within yourself.” This Royals team does that about as well as any team I can remember. Their style — defense, speed, bullpen — demands near-perfect execution or it will produce a lot of close losses and a few unhappy blowouts.
The Royals in the last two months of the season were near-perfect.
The Royals in the postseason have been even better than near-perfect.
If you are a bit older, you might remember that every year around spring training, I would write a “Why the Royals are going to win” column. The column was an interesting challenge because (counter to some of the angry response I would get) I was not unaware that the Royals probably were not going to win.
At the same time, I wasn’t writing those columns as a joke. The point, I guess, was that the Royals could win — if this good thing happened and that good thing happened and the other good thing happened. The Royals lost 100 games four out of five years in my Star columnist days. But in that one odd year, 2003, they were in first place for most of the season. Baseball, I like to think, is about hope.
The greatest thing about this Royals team, I believe, is that it has unshackled a quarter century of collected Kansas City hope. There’s one game I remember clearly, a Saturday night game 15 years ago, where the Royals trailed Cleveland by seven runs. That team, like so many others, was dreadful. But the fans decided that night that they simply would not give in. I remember one fan started whirling his arm, and then other fans followed, and then there was feet stomping and loud whistling and screaming. The Royals slowly, absurdly, impossibly came back and won. After the game, a giddy Johnny Damon said, “We can go to the World Series in two years.”
Sure, it took a little longer than that. But it happened. Everyone talks about the atmosphere around town and the craziness at The K — I cannot wait to get to Kansas City and see it live. I’ve imagined it many times.
Joe Posnanski was a sports columnist at The Star from 1996 to 2010. He is now a national columnist for NBC Sports, which just launched a new long-form website at NBCSportsworld.com. He will be in Kansas City for games one and two.