Royals

How to describe Johnny Cueto’s relationship with Kansas City? It’s complicated

Johnny Cueto, who will start Game 5 of the AL Division Series tonight against Houston, smiled during his press conference Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium.
Johnny Cueto, who will start Game 5 of the AL Division Series tonight against Houston, smiled during his press conference Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Josh Weinstock estimates that the video project took maybe two days to put together, a spur of the moment thing that happens when your childhood baseball team trades for an ace in the days before the trade deadline. It was something like an adrenalin shot, a labor of love that included some stock footage, an original song, and some general weirdness that probably only works on the internet.

But for Weinstock, a 30-year-old Kansas City native who works in marketing for a local non-profit, the impetus was simple:

“The Royals traded for Johnny Cueto,” he said.

So on a Sunday afternoon in July, just hours after the defining trade of the Royals’ season, Weinstock sat down at his computer and went to work. Using some Apple software, he crafted a Cueto-inspired beat and laid down a vocal track that featured mangled Spanglish. (“Johnny Beisbol, won’t you help us win the World Series?”) Next, he dropped in some footage he had purchased for an earlier project — there was a dancing man and a dog involved — and added a mug shot of Cueto set against a backdrop of Kansas City. In all, the video was 55 seconds long. And at this point, if you haven’t seen the result, you might just want to see it for yourself. (Better yet, just skip it.)

“The internet is a wild west of weirdness,” Weinstock said, laughing Tuesday during a telephone interview.

The next day, he posted it to YouTube, and much to his surprise, the weirdest baseball fan video you’ve ever seen was actually getting views. Kansas City was freaking amped about Johnny Cueto.

In most cases, the story probably would have faded out from there, a funny internet thing with little staying power. But then something else weird happened. After Cueto began his Royals tenure with a couple strong starts, he started pitching decidedly un-Cueto like. As the poor starts stacked up, and as Cueto yearned for an answer to his troubles, Weinstock kept his eye on the video, which kept racking up views and attracting comments. His YouTube video had become the worst and most fascinating thing on the internet: A comment battleground on the merits of the Cueto trade.

“He (stunk) for so long,” Weinstock said, “I thought I had maybe jinxed him.”

Nearly three months later, the “Johnny Cueto Song” video remains a strange symbol for a complicated relationship between a starting pitcher and a city. Consider the emotional swings: First there was elation, and then there was confusion. Next there was a tinge of anger, some pockets of boos, and now a general October acceptance:

On Wednesday evening, Cueto will start a decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series, facing the Astros with the season on the line. It was for this exact reason that the Royals’ front office sacrificed three left-handed pitching prospects in an all-in trade on July 26. And now that the moment is here, can any Royals fan feel that confident?

“It’s like: ‘Hey, you’ve been great for eight years of your career,’” said Craig Brown, a long-time fan who maintains a fan blog on the Royals. “Give us two good weeks and get us into the World Series.”

From the beginning, Kansas City’s relationship with Cueto has been a tenuous one. Royals fans needed Cueto for October. Cueto needed a strong finish to bolster his market in free agency this winter. The result has been an awkward dance — jubilant Gatorade baths turning to boos during a dismal stretch in late August and early September.

Brown has observed the psychology of the Royals’ fan for most of his adult life, and while nobody can speak for an entire fan base or city, the Cueto relationship has become an interesting dichotomy. Here was a rental player for one, an outsider with no expectation of being in Kansas City beyond 2015. And the stakes were real, the bar set high. Royals fans understand the economics of baseball better than most. In a market like Kansas City, the window for world championships can only be cracked for so long.

“Royals fan know this,” Brown said.

On Tuesday, Cueto conceded that his impending free agency has clouded his thoughts in recent weeks. Has it affected his pitching? It would be impossible to say, but Cueto did not dodge the question.

“He's not going to lie,” said Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Cueto. “At times it's been very difficult to take that out of his mind, but the fact of the matter is he's got to focus on pitching here and performing for this club and this organization.

“And thank God, the most important thing is that he he feels good; he's healthy, and that gives him an opportunity to have success.”

Moments later, Cueto reflected on his time in Kansas City. He offered praise to the staff. He called his teammates “brothers”. He praised the fans, even as his time here has been marked by periodical boos, including a wave of derision during the early innings of Game 2.

“The fans are awesome,” Grifol said, speaking for Cueto. “The louder they get, the more energized he gets.

“He needs the fans out there. He needs to hear them cheering. Overall he's had a great experience here.”

It is often said that Major League Baseball is a local sport, masquerading as a national one. In cities across American, fans flock to ballparks and local television rights fees can be measured in gold. According to many metrics, baseball has never been more popular, franchises have never been worth more money, fan interest has never been higher. But baseball fans can be a provincial lot, and perhaps this can explain Cueto’s time in Kansas City, too.

For the last five seasons, including this one, Cueto posted the following ERAs in Cincinnati: 2.31, 2.78, 2.82, 2.25 and 2.62. An amazing run of success by any league’s standards. But here in Kansas City, he is a pitcher who threw up a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts and allowed four runs in his first postseason game.

“Royals fans were told Johnny Cueto was an ace,” Brown says. “They haven’t seen that guy.”

On Wednesday night, Cueto will have another opportunity to step on the mound, and a city will watch. The moment could define Cueto’s time in Kansas City — for better or for worse — and for Weinstock, the author of the Cueto video, he’s hoping for the better. His video has drawn over 83,000 views now, the most he’s ever had. But in truth, he could do without the specter of being known as the guy in town who jinxed the Cueto trade.

“He seems to — the last couple of games — he seems to be getting better,” Weinstock said. “So I really hope it didn’t jinx him.”

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