Sam Mellinger

The Royals’ optimism at spring training finally has legitimacy

Kansas City Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain ran down the ball in the outfield during Friday’s spring training workout in Surprise, Ariz.
Kansas City Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain ran down the ball in the outfield during Friday’s spring training workout in Surprise, Ariz. The Kansas City Star

The first thing you notice is the gold. Every player in here, from Alex Gordon to Zane Evans, has his name written on a gold plate above his locker in the Royals’ spring training clubhouse.

Those name tags share space with a logo 29 years in the making: AL CHAMPIONS. Some team staffers have AL CHAMPS stitched on the back of their shoes.

The ring ceremony is tentatively scheduled for Opening Day, and that’ll be a heck of a thing. Here it’s worth noting that the rings are nice — classy — but they are not breathtaking. They are not huge, or gaudy, and that was done intentionally. Baseball code — sports code, really — demands that the Giants are the only team allowed to have huge or gaudy or breathtaking rings from the 2014 season.

The Royals, you see, came 90 feet and one cyborg pitcher named Madison Bumgarner away from huge and gaudy and breathtaking. Literally and figuratively.

“We fell just short,” pitcher Danny Duffy says. “We’re going to keep grinding. We do have confidence. I don’t think it’s false confidence. We like where we are. I’m ready to ride.”

Fourteen other teams in the Cactus League like where they are, of course. And 15 more in the Grapefruit League. Stories about optimistic teams this time of year are as rare as ballplayers talking about being in the best shape of their lives.

Over the years, more of those hopeful teams lost 95 games or more than lived their February optimism and the Royals have been one of those teams more often than most.

If the walls of this clubhouse could talk, they would tell stories of a manager flipping a coin to decide whether to start Runelvys Hernandez or Jeremy Affeldt on Opening Day, or Emil Brown comparing himself to Roberto Clemente, or of Mike Sweeney, the incorrigible optimist, smiling and telling everyone he sees it’s “just another day in paradise” even through 310 losses in a three-year span.

The point is, the history of this clubhouse is of men in these same uniforms sitting in front of these same lockers doing their best impersonation of what a good and confident team would look and sound like.

No more pretending.

There is no way to know for sure about any of this, at least not yet. The Royals are a flawed team. Gone with James Shields are 227 innings of 3.21 ERA and a steady model of professionalism and confidence. The bullpen was so good last year, but relief pitching is notoriously volatile. The offense should be better, but haven’t people been saying that for a few years now?

So, yeah. All of us on the outside are merely guessing, and all of them on the inside are merely believing. Nobody knows anything.

But it’s also true that no Royals team since 1986 has come into a season feeling as good about itself as this one, and no Royals team in perhaps just as long has had as many legitimate reasons for optimism.

My predecessor in this job, Joe Posnanski, used to write an annual column around this time of year about why the Royals would win the division. Those columns were mostly for fun, of course, because some years the reasons included Darrell May winning 20 games or Ambiorix Burgos saving 40 or Jay Bell playing hard.

This year, that column would be remarkably simple.

The Royals came within one game of winning the division last year, and like any team in any season, could come with at least a dozen or so they flopped on. Duffy, for instance, still thinks about the game at Yankee Stadium when he left with shoulder soreness after one pitch.

Wade Davis, amazingly, still thinks about a game in June where he gave up what turned out to be the game-winning run in the eighth against the Dodgers.

Alcides Escobar might think about a game in August, when he came up with the bases loaded and one out in the 10th but grounded out. The Indians won it in the 11th.

These are three examples out of many, and intentionally chosen not to highlight any failures but because these were three of the Royals’ most valuable players. The Royals almost certainly would not not have qualified for the playoffs with any of those three players, but yet there are little moments that can change the course of a long season.

Part of the wonder about this time of the baseball season is that it is perfectly reasonable to focus only on the good. Young players are primed for the best seasons of their careers, and older players have the form and mind-set to recapture past glory. A spring training without at least a little over-the-top optimism would be a boring and empty exercise.

The Royals have been here lots of seasons where any hope was over-the-top.

They’ve never been here as league champions, with gold nameplates above their lockers, such real success in their minds. Their optimism has never seemed so much like realism.

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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