Don't Kill The Mellinger

Twitter Tuesday: Royals highs (and lows), Tyronn Lue saves the Cavs

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt
Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt AP

Mark Scanlon was watching live, like millions of us, when Cavaliers coach David Blatt nearly made himself into a generational punchline.

The Bulls had just tied a crucial playoff game with 8.4 seconds left, and Blatt had gone blank-brained and started calling a timeout that the Cavs did not have. If the referees saw it, he would’ve been assessed a technical, the Bulls given a free throw and the ball, the game, in all probability, blown.

Instead, Cavs assistant Tyronn Lue not only had the awareness that they were out of timeouts, but the chutzpah to grab Blatt and make him stop.

Scanlon, who coached Lue at Raytown High, let out a chuckle.

“That was great, just typical Tyronn,” Scanlon says. “He did what he had to do.”

Lue is the former Kansas City high school basketball phenom, Nebraska standout, 11-year NBA veteran (including a championship with the 2001 Lakers) and now the highest paid assistant in league history.

Lue is one of the league’s up-and-coming coaching stars, which is a strange thing to see for his old high school coach.

“Oh, never,” Scanlon says when asked if Lue ever talked about being a coach back then. “I’d do some X’s and O’s stuff, and he’d look at me, like, ‘I don’t need this, just give me the ball.’”

Scanlon, who keeps in regular contact with Lue, says his former player’s pull toward coaching has been slow but steady. He got more involved and interested in it as his career progressed, and has become close with Clippers coach Doc Rivers.

Lue will almost certainly be a head coach in the league soon, and when that happens, Scanlon says someone is hiring a guy with all of the necessary tools. Scanlon brings up the time during Lue’s freshman year at Nebraska, where most of the team was holding a walk-out, and Lue had the guts to go against it, defending his coach.

“He’s a natural born leader,” Scanlon says. “He’s got great people skills, the kind that guys like playing for. He’s unselfish, extremely loyal, and nobody outworks him.”

He certainly saved his boss the other day, and we have to assume he’d have also been smart enough to give the last shot in that game to LeBron. Blatt originally wanted LeBron inbounding the ball, which is amazingly dumb for a lot of reasons, but LeBron overruled the coach and hit the shot. Rough day at the office for Blatt.

This week’s reading recommendation is Sarah Lyall on an incredible 50-year-old photograph, and the eating recommendation is the burnt ends, potato salad and ribs at Slap’s. Seriously, it is delicious. I’ll need to go back to make sure, but it may debut No. 2 on my BBQ Power Rankings, which is virtually unheard of.

Anyway, as always, thanks for reading and thanks for the help. Let’s get to it:

I’m going to take this bait and give an answer, with the understanding that I reserve the right to say my account was hacked, especially if the Royals continue to play games after arriving at their hotel at 5:45 in the morning.

They are 20-12 at the moment, which is really a nice accomplishment considering they not only lost the game immediately after being 18-10^, but have lost five members of the opening day lineup, plus the All-Star closer, seventh inning guy, and two other starting pitchers to either injury, suspension, or the bereavement list. This does not include Alex Gordon, who is showing me and many others who thought his injured wrist would be a bigger problem to be fools.

^ New readers, just nod along.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this team, already, 32 games in, has had more problems with unavailable players than it did all of last year.

They’ve gotten through it, mostly, by hitting the snot out of the ball. The Royals are third in the American League in runs, first in hitting, second in on-base, and fourth in slugging.

I’m not expecting those rates to keep up, but I do think we’re finally at the year where the offense is making its leap. In large part, this is because Eric Hosmer is an emerging star, but also because Mike Moustakas is beating the shift and the lineup is deeper than even a year ago.

The starting pitching has been the problem, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but it’s striking how this team is so similar to last year (two new hitters; one new starting pitcher) and yet so different from last year (remember how much we all talked about the need to score just four runs?).

They’re in a very good place, for a lot of reasons, but largely because they’ve been slammed with a shipload of problems and so far gotten through it with first place even in what is — yes, it’s very, very early — so far the best division in the American League.

There were a lot of questions about how the Royals would follow up last year’s run to the World Series, and if you read between the lines with some of the things you hear, the Royals always believed it would be especially important to get off to a good start. If they were, say, 15-17 right now, they’d have some legitimate built-in excuses but they’d also have some legitimate doubt. The fact that they’re instead eight games over .500 and in first place has to be very reassuring.

Before the season, I thought the Royals would be good for 85 to 89 wins. Their positives so far have outweighed the negatives enough that I’d bump that up to the low 90s. You asked for a number, and they’ll have played 88 games at the All-Star break, so I’ll say 49-37.

But they do need the starting pitching to be better than this.

Let’s talk about that for a bit.

Well, first, I think it’s a stretch that Medlen will join the rotation — especially a stretch that they would plug him in when he’s ready for the big leagues. Maybe you can get a spot start from him, or maybe by August or September he’s ready for some starts, but the likelier scenario is Medlen joins the bullpen.

On the freakout scale, I’m behind what I sense is the consensus of Royals fans, and I’m not at all sure who’s right. Four of the Royals’ five regular starters have ERAs above 5.00. The one exception, Edinson Volquez, was terrible in his last outing because of a gruesome blister that should be healed by his next start. Duffy has had two atrocious starts in a row. Chris Young has been terrific, but comes with durability and has thrown just 423 innings the last seven seasons.

The Royals are absolutely going to give this more time before making a trade. They have Young. They have Joe Blanton. They have Aaron Brooks. All of these options have flaws, but this is more depth than most teams. I don’t want to get into talking about Brandon Finnegan starting big league games.

I would be very hesitant to deal the kind of package it would take for a two-month starting pitcher like Cueto, but it’s possible the Royals will feel particular motivation to get something done. Either way, this is not a decision that will be made for another two months, at least.

I do believe there’s something to this. It’s weird, because Ventura was so good with his emotions last year. The whole world saw that part, when he was put in a bad situation in the Wild Card game, gave up a big home run, and then had a very good postseason. His best start was game six of the World Series, when he threw seven shutout innings against the Giants with a tribute written on his hat to his friend and Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras, who died the day before in a car accident.

It’s just strange that a guy like that is now struggling with his emotions. I don’t know if he’s putting too much pressure on himself after signing the contract, or starting on opening day, or following up the World Series run. I suppose any of those explanations could have merit.

But he and the Royals need to find that balance. He’s so talented, and he’s done it before.

Ned Yost actually said this was how he would find rest for Perez. He said this in the offseason, early on, in an acknowledgment that his catcher wore down while catching more games (regular and postseason) than anyone in baseball history.

Then, I think in January, Yost took it back.

Perez has started all but two of the Royals’ games, and played in all but one.

I haven’t heard anyone say this, but the biggest problem with giving Butera (or whoever is the Royals’ backup catcher in two or three weeks) to a starting pitcher is that starting pitcher isn’t throwing to Perez. If you’re a starting pitcher, with wins and money on the line, you probably want to be given the best opportunity possible.

The solution is for Perez to rest on day games after night games, like normal catchers, or otherwise find a way to get one game — not just day — off every week or two.

This is my only major complaint about Yost, even as it’s a problem that’s easy to empathize with.

Well, it is a long season, and I’m guessing the game last night has calmed you down a bit — but I do believe the games against Detroit mean more.

There is a theory — Lee has written this — that says the games you really need to win are the ones against the bad teams, not the good, but with these Royals I see it very differently.

It’s obviously true that teams can get into the playoffs without beating the best teams — the Royals lost all but six of 19 to the Tigers last year; the Giants were below .500 against playoff teams — but there became something mental about this for the Royals. You could hear that when you talked to them about the Tigers, and about what they would face this year.

Part of how the Royals motivated themselves after the pennant last year was pointing out that they weren’t the best team in the American League — they didn’t even win the division. By extension, that makes the games against the Tigers a little more important than the others.

Think about it like this: if the Royals were 2-5 against the Tigers right now, what would everyone be talking about?

Also, no. Ginger Radler is terrible. But I dismiss the entire beer/juice genre as a fraud, same as sour beers.

My favorite beer lately has been the Lil’ Helper from Mother’s.

This really is the kind of play you’d see in junior college ball, or MAYBE from some flashy rookie, who would be described by the broadcasters as a guy with more talent than experience.

Omar Infante did this in his 1,370th big league game, played in his 14th big league season:

It was a split-second decision that he had to make, and of course it’s much easier to play the game from your couch than second base, a one-run game against the division rivals, and you feel like you need to make a play to help your team.

But here’s something: the Royals won that game. Won it despite two errors, and scoring just two runs. Did it despite a wicked conspiracy of weather and circumstance. Did it despite the Tigers getting two on with no outs in the ninth against Jason Frasor, which turned into bases loaded and two outs. Did by scoring a run in the 10th without getting a hit. Did it while giving up four base runners but no runs in the 10th.

Did it, in other words, with a magic trick that this franchise was absolutely incapable of pulling off a few short years ago.

They got rocked last night. The starting pitching in general, and Danny Duffy in particular, are concerns. But especially as long as the hitters are going, this team has a lot going for it.

An intrepid local columnist would be digging into this, instead of continuing to point out the thousand ways the Royals are making things difficult for themselves with one of the sport’s worst TV contracts, because, after all, that TV contract only makes people sick in figurative terms.

If I had a billion dollars and could buy the Royals, I would leave everything in baseball operations the same^, but would make at least two changes to in-stadium game presentation:

1. I would alter the way the gorgeous video board is constructed to turn it into two horizontal screens instead of one giant vertical screen, to show more replays and provide more content to the fans.

2. I would fire Aramark, not just for the moldy bread and health code violations, but for defending themselves by saying “None of our Kansas City sports operations have ever been shut down by the Health Department.” Aim high, guys!

^ With one exception: Ned Yost would have to listen to one hour of Justin Bieber music every time he started Sal Perez ten games in a row.

The pro move is to fill the stadium with local eats. Give the Peanut a spot (they used to have one at Arrowhead), Harry’s, Garozzo’s, the Flea Market, whatever. Right field, out there by the music stage, should be like a barbecue plaza, with Joe’s, Gates’, Bryant’s, LC’s, whoever wants to be there.

I have very little business acumen, and I assume this would somehow cost my team some revenue. But it would be awesome, and I’d have a billion dollars, so I wouldn’t care.

The answer, of course, is yes.

Which is probably how it should be. The Royals have a lot to be proud of, and as much as Yost and some others with the organization say they don’t pay attention to what’s said about them, they do. It’s only human nature to be motivated by those things.

Are you sure that guy wasn’t an actual Royals player?

I don’t know where to go with this answer. My first inclination is that this guy deserves a solid but light tap about the head, because he or someone else presumably paid money for that ticket, so turn the stupid thing off. My second inclination is that answer makes me feel even older than I am, like I’m screaming at those kids to quit blasting that hippity-hop music and go read a book.

But, seriously. Turn the stupid thing off. Or take your gaming self out to the Little K, with your peers.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that without a coach, a team exactly like the Cavs would’ve run exactly the play they ran the other day for the game-winner.

I would describe myself as a huge basketball fan^, but more of a casual NBA fan, but it seems to me that NBA coaches have a very difficult job.

^ I know this makes me weird, but my favorite team, any sport, is USA Basketball.

In some ways, it’s almost like your existence is as an ever-present-but-often-unused support net. You’re there when the guys who matter decide to let you be there. You’re in charge, but only sort of, and only as far as the guys you’re in charge of allow you to be in charge. You need to be able to draw up plays that help, but your bigger job is probably to keep everyone together and believing that you’re worth following.

Also, and this should be No. 1 on the list of job requirements, your top priority — especially as a rookie coach — is that if LeBron plays on your team, you should give him the last shot.

If you don’t, you will be overruled, and subtly mocked in the postgame by your own players.

No. 2 on the priority list is to not call timeouts you don’t have, you big dummy.

This could probably be a column someday, but off the top of my head, the other two that come to mind are George Brett’s homer off Goose Gossage in the 1980 ALCS and Dane Iorg in game six of the 1985 World Series.

There’s a great argument to be made for any of these. Brett’s home run was a symbolic coup, an overturn of power for the Royals to finally beat the Yankees in the playoffs. Iorg’s hit turned a one-run deficit into a walk-off win in the World Series, setting up the game seven blowout and what is still the organization’s only world championship. Perez’s hit capped one of the wildest games in recent baseball history, and put the Royals into “the real” playoffs, sparking a run to the World Series.

I’m not sure how to separate these, honestly, and it’s made more difficult by the fact that I have no memory of 1980, only fleeting memories of 1985, and last October is still fresh in the mind.

I guess at the moment I would rank them Brett, Iorg, Perez, in that order. I’m swayed by the fact that it was Brett, and a home run into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium, off the Hall of Fame closer, and what that meant for the Royals to finally beat the Yankees. Iorg’s hit set up a world championship.

But, that’s a hell of a barstool debate.

Well, sure. Bill Simmons is, in many ways, the defining sports writer of the last 10 or 15 years. His influence is everywhere, conscious or not, everything from taking advantage of what writing for the internet offers to a rejection of the notion that sports writing should be removed from fandom. He helped start ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, which for the most part is brilliant. Grantland is very good, as well.

I don’t know the specifics of the divorce, but I don’t know that it ever had a chance to be a forever marriage, and I also don’t think that where someone does their work matters as much as it used to. Simmons will either join another major website or start his own, and his work will be very well read, even if he won’t have some of the advantages of ESPN’s resources and platforms. If he feels like ESPN’s business interests got in the way of his voice — and that’s just me speculating — then maybe a fresh start somewhere else will help him regain that.

For some, this has turned into a talking point about why ESPN lets Simmons go but will presumably keep Skip Bayless. If that’s what this is about, then that’s a bad look for ESPN, and a bad sign for the rest of us about what’s important. There are mindless, dishonest trolls at every level of media and in every market, but you’d like to think there is a bigger acknowledgement about what’s going on.

But either way, Simmons is far past the point where he’ll be fine wherever he goes. I have a feeling that in two or three or five years, we’ll see part of Simmons’ impact as the reinforcement that where someone does their work is not nearly as important as what the work is.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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