Spring started for me around 10:30 on Monday morning, when I first saw Art Stewart on a golf cart wearing wraparound shades, a Royals jacket, and a smile.
Art turned 90 this month. He has stories about watching the 1945 World Series from the Wrigley Field bleachers, and about a scout stealing a rival scout’s wooden leg. I’ve seen Art with tears in his eyes after the Royals lost Game 7 in 2014, and with tears in his eyes after they won Game 5 the next year.
Last summer, I remember walking out of Kauffman Stadium with Art, him getting along with a cane made from a maple bat, talking about the tilt on the last prospect’s curveball and the rising fastball velocity on the next guy he was planning on seeing.
Art is baseball, personified — an incredible mixture of joy and grind, of wonder and diligence, of noticing details and appreciating laughter. You cannot have a conversation with Art and not walk away happier than when you started.
He is what baseball wants to be, and what baseball actually is on the good days. He’s what we should all strive to be a little more like — in love with our work, but in love with our spouses and friends just a little bit more.
This week’s eating recommendation is the shawarma platter at Aladdin Cafe, and because I spent last week on vacation without kids, the reading recommendation is two actual books: When Breath Becomes Air, one of the best books I’ve ever read, and Evicted, an incredible and devastating and moving piece of reporting and storytelling.
This may be presumptuous, but I assume this is a reference to the terrific Maria Torres and her indispensable work with Vahe on the story of the last year of Yordano Ventura’s life.
Before answering your question, though, please let me urge you to read the story, on the off chance that you haven’t already. The reporting and information is stunning. On the surface, it is about a promising and wildly talented Royals pitcher. But it’s about much more, too, because the struggles he faced are far more common in professional sports than is widely believed.
Money and expectations and talent outpace maturity and ability to handle such a grand life all the time. Most times, this is relatively harmless, and I think here of Billy Butler. He won batting titles in two of three minor league seasons, and hit .373 in the other.
The Royals were terrible, so he had to be called up, but Billy was at least five years more mature in the batters box than anywhere else in life, so he was sent back to the minors for a bit of a minor rehab. The rest of his time with the Royals was a constant push and pull, but his heart was pure, and the Royals were nurturing, so it worked out well enough for both sides.
But it doesn’t always happen like that, and Ventura’s last year is a sad and ultimately tragic story of the worst extreme.
So, your question. Not learning Spanish is among my greatest regrets. I took four or five years of it between high school and college, but it just never stuck. A few years out of college, I tried again with Rosetta Stone, but again, bupkis.
I understand a little — my wife and I were vacationing in Costa Rica last week, and my Spanish was somewhere between the English of our 10-month-old and almost 3-year-old — but not enough to avoid embarrassment if I tried an actual conversation.
The only answer to creating more bilingual journalists is a combination of incentives from employers and ambition from employees and prospective employees. Second languages seem to be more of a priority in schools now than when I was growing up, which is great.
There are few places in journalism, and none in American sports journalism, where speaking Spanish is more valuable than covering professional baseball. I don’t want to discount Maria’s many other skills, but her fluency has been invaluable to The Star over the last month.
Baseball has taken steps in recent years to bridge the language barrier, including a rule that in theory requires a professional translator in clubhouses. That’s good, but the much better path is for journalists to meet athletes and coaches where they are most comfortable.
I am part of the problem here, because I have not learned enough Spanish. But you bring up a terrific point. We are missing connections.
Through Friday, and I’m coming back in a few weeks between the Big 12 basketball tournament and the first round of the NCAAs. This is the busiest time of year. Please tell my wife and kids I love them.
I’m in the minority here, but I prefer spring training in Florida. The pro-Arizona argument is compelling — better weather, shorter drives, more convenience, the attractions of a major American city — but it lacks a certain charm of Florida.
The Grapefruit League feels more like old-school baseball. Dodgertown was great. The Orioles used to train in a delightfully charming dump of a complex, before moving into a nicer place in 2010 that at the time was still 20 years old.
Driving across Alligator Alley reminds me of Art Stewart’s story, when he ran out of gas, and based on nothing more than his connection to baseball, got his car going again when an old farmer siphoned gas from a tractor with his mouth and hose.
But that’s not the question you asked. The best ballpark in the Cactus League belongs to the Giants, because it’s in Scottsdale, which means you can have the most fun before and after the game. It’s also one of the oldest, so there’s some character.
The odds of the Royals being able to offer six years and $90 million are small, and the odds of Hosmer signing that rather than hitting free-agency are much smaller.
I appreciate that Scott Boras wants it known he and his client are open to signing an extension with the Royals. It’s a good PR move for Boras and especially Hosmer, whose quotes in Ken Rosenthal’s excellent piece could not have been better if Boras wrote a script for him to read.
But there are so many complications here, and not just Boras’ floating the idea of a 10-year contract.
Hosmer’s line about free-agency being a right is important, and it’s something that Boras talks about constantly, both in public and directly to his clients. Hosmer isn’t likely to give that up without something in return, and a six-year $90 million contract that breaks down to $15 million a year is unlikely to cut it. Even with a poor season, Hosmer could probably do better than that on an open market that will have several big-money clubs looking for first basemen.
There’s a subtle complication here too, though. As much as the Royals value Hosmer’s example, leadership, and presence in the community — and those things matter to this organization more than most — there will be a significant disagreement about the value of his most recent season.
In Rosenthal’s piece, Boras says, “I don’t know how many people have told me that if a guy hits 25 home runs in Kansas City, he’s going to hit 35 somewhere else,” which is a terrifically smart thing to say by the best agent in baseball.
It uses the best part of Hosmer’s 2016 season, and amplifies it with a hypothetical, leaving out many counterpoints, including that Hosmer tied for 10th among 18 qualified first basemen in homers, and that across baseball the home run is being devalued.
Plus, the Royals are likely to take the stance that Hosmer actually had a disappointing 2016 season. Twenty-five home runs are nice, to a point, but a .328 on-base and .433 slugging percentage are un-nice. His .761 OPS ranked 14th among 18 qualified first basemen last year.
Hosmer is a very good player, and perhaps more than any other, the face of the wave that pushed the Royals from a joke to a parade. His best moments came in the playoffs, starting with that triple in the Wild Card Game, all the way through that dash home in the 12th inning in Queens. He is a great athlete, especially for his position, a very good defensive player and the personality that every team wishes it had more of.
I don’t doubt that Hosmer likes the Royals, and Kansas City. I don’t doubt that the Royals would love to keep Hosmer. I just don’t see how the kind of contract he’s seeking, his willingness to give up free-agency, richer clubs needing first basemen, and David Glass’ payroll constraints can all co-exist with an extension to stay.
But, who the hell knows? I didn’t think Alex Gordon would stay, either.
Raul Mondesi has the highest ceiling, and is the fastest and best defender in the group, so he’ll be given every chance to win the job, but he also has options. He was overwhelmed at the plate in his 149 big-league plate appearances last season, so you figure he could use some confidence and progress in the minors.
Whit Merrifield is interesting, and he won a lot of fans with his fast start, but he also hit .250/.305/.332 over his last 54 games. He can be an effective utility man, and knows the position enough to warrant a long look, but he’s still more hope than proof.
Colon is out of options, and while he hasn’t developed into the Placido Polanco clone the Royals envisioned when they took him fourth overall in 2010, there is some internal optimism that he’s ready for everyday duty. He is in better physical shape, has the most big-league experience of the contenders, and the Royals have always liked his attitude and approach.
Jorge Soler, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are all capable of hitting 36 home runs, though it’s more likely that none reach 30 than it is that any of them hit 36 this season.
Soler is probably the best bet, because his home runs tend to be long enough for any stadium. But I’ve also heard more than one scout say they expect him to struggle in 2017, at least early, as he adjusts to a new league and perhaps tries to justify the trade with every swing.
Alcides Escobar has been a mostly ineffective big-league hitter, but his defense and steadiness make up for much of that, and what we’ve seen of Mondesi so far indicates he’s one of the few players who would represent an offensive downgrade from Escobar.
I also want to pump the brakes on Cuthbert a bit, particularly if we’re talking about him playing second base. I haven’t heard one baseball person say they believe he can play the position at a big-league level. The Royals still value defense, and Cuthbert was erratic at third, where he’s most comfortable.
He had some nice moments at the plate last season, but finished at .274/.318/.409, for an adjusted OPS of 7 percent lower than the league average. He’s just 24 years old, with promising poise, and likely has a bright future. But rearranging the lineup, and becoming worse defensively based on a few nice moments and hope is what the Royals used to do.
He’s out of options, and talented, which means he’s likely to make the big-league team. But rather than force him into a position where he’s not going to be good, and not going to be comfortable, they can likely find some swings for him as a sort of floating 10th hitter.
He can back up Moustakas at third, and Hosmer at first. Against left-handed pitching, he could be the primary DH, if Jorge Soler is in right field.
But he’s simply not the best option at any single position, so particularly if you’re trying to win, square-pegging him into the lineup everyday doesn’t make sense to me.
The answer to your question is 10-6 with Alex Smith, but the answer to the more relevant question — what should the Chiefs do at quarterback? — is this:
Draft whoever the scouting department believes is the best fit, let him “compete” with Smith this summer, but plan on making another postseason with Smith as the starter, giving the draft pick an entire year to learn in one of the league’s best quarterback environments, and presenting the possibility of going with the young guy and saving a ton of cap space in 2018.
These things are hard to quantify, but it generally feels like I’m higher on Smith than most Chiefs fans. He has real skills, and brings value that is often overlooked, particularly if you only watch the games live, and I apologize for how obnoxious that is to say.
But he is not nearly as good as Andy Reid and John Dorsey present him to be, and the fact that the Chiefs went 12-4, winning perhaps the NFL’s toughest division, with a quarterback who threw 15 touchdowns with eight interceptions should make everyone invested in the team want to see what could happen with more upside at the sport’s most important position.
I will keep saying this because it’s absolutely true: there is very little downside to the Chiefs investing a high pick in a quarterback, in part because they are uncommonly positioned to do so without ruining their draft, or walking away from the guy who’s helped them to three postseasons in four years.
Sports talk is too often presented in absolutist terms, with every team or athlete being the best or the worst, and here is one of many examples of why those who do so trade reason and credibility for attention:
The Chiefs don’t have to drop Smith in order to invest in the next guy. In fact, their smartest path forward is to keep Smith and invest in the next guy.
It doesn’t mean Smith stinks. Doesn’t mean the draft pick will turn out. Just means the Chiefs would be making the best decisions about their future.
I have no idea how to answer the first part of your question, and I’m skeptical of anyone who tries, but it is striking that K-State has lost six of its last eight and remains No. 28 on KenPom.
To me, the story about K-State simply has not changed. I’ve always looked at this as a team that would be a No. 9 seed or so, lose on the first weekend, and announce an extension for Bruce Weber that will infuriate a significant and loud group of fans.
The worst part of this K-State team is that the talk from the program all of last year was about the close losses, how a young team just needed time to turn those around, and now a more experienced team has lost four times by three points or less or in overtime.
Those can all be explained away in a vacuum, particularly the game in Lubbock, where the officials no-called a slap to Barry Brown’s face on a layup attempt and gave Weber a bizarre technical foul, but even in that game the Wildcats had a four-point point lead with 1:30 left. That should be enough, no matter the circumstances.
The best part of this K-State team is real progress offensively, a genuinely strong cohesion, a puncher’s chance at the Sweet 16 — wins over West Virginia at home, at Baylor, and at Oklahoma State, among others — and should be an NCAA Tournament team again next year.
Of course, I wonder if that makes K-State fans happy.
My answer is over, but this is trickier than it seems.
The Royals went higher than this number last season, and, basically, everything went wrong for them. They should get more production from first base, third base, left field, center field and right field. The rotation should be better. The defense won’t be as good, and neither will the bullpen, but I have a hard time believing it’s more likely that this team will be below .500 than at or above it.
That all seems fairly straight forward, but I say this is trickier than it seems, because if the Royals are out of contention in July, they could trade the best players and be horrendous over those two months, in which case they’ll need binoculars to see 80 wins.
But, come on. That’s a very low number for a group that’s averaged 88 wins and hasn’t gone below 80 1/2 since 2012.
Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are the other contenders. Both were better pro prospects at KU than Jackson, but Wiggins lacked the consistent effort, and Embiid lacked the consistent impact.
Jackson is a better college basketball player than either. He has the gifts of a possible future NBA All-Star, but the drive of a guy who’ll give a Senior Day speech and then go into coaching.
He impacts the game in so many ways, playing as many as four positions, rebounding, passing, creating his own shot and shots for others. His on-the-ball defense is inconsistent, his free-throw shooting is horrendous for a player of his talent, and his three-point shooting is improving but still behind.
But one of the impressive things to me about his game is that there was very little learning curve. He belonged from the very beginning, and didn’t take long to figure out where he could help, and where he could help others. Some of the credit for that goes to his teammates, too.
But most of it goes to Jackson.
This is a damn tough team. Frank Mason is the one who makes that go, but they have a team full of, as Bill Self would affectionately say, tough guys.
There are parts of a few things we can attach explanations to. Bill Self is a future Hall of Fame coach, in the midst of one of his best coaching jobs, showing how far he’s come as an in-game coach. What he did to Scott Drew in the last few minutes in Waco was incredible.
Also, for all the talk about these guys wearing down, the opposite actually seems to be happening toward the end of games. Mason is in freakishly good shape. I don’t know how often you see Jackson, or Graham, or Svi Mykhailiuk tired. Landen Lucas gets winded, is smart enough to save a burst for the end of close games. They are comfortable in uncomfortable situations, to use an old sports saying, and at least some of that is stamina. Fatigue makes cowards of us all, to use another old cliche.
I happen to believe this team is crafted in other specific ways that show up in late close games. Mason is the best player on the floor in any game he plays, an advantage that’s only amplified as a point guard. Jackson has an interesting case for first- or second-team All-America, and is the second-best player on the floor in most any game he plays. That’s a heck of a good place to start, even before you consider the shooting of Mykhailiuk, the guts of Graham, the rebounding and presence of Lucas.
The question, of course, becomes whether this is sustainable. For a team so heavy on guards, and offensively skilled, they are a bizarrely terrible free-throw shooting team — 312th in the country. More than a drip of foul trouble, or even worse an injury, could derail everything.
No team can expect to win a championship routinely coming back from 12 down with 2:30 left, but no team can expect to win a championship without coming from behind at least once or twice.
So this isn’t a habit you want to get into, but it’s a nice tool to have.
How much time you got?
A power five program with representative facilities and a strong in-state recruiting base cannot be this bad without many different things and people working together — a conspiracy and snowball of bad decisions, failed coaches and bad luck.
There are a few programs that will always have an easier time getting to and sustaining success because of history and overwhelming fan support. But for everyone else, they have to hit on coaching hires, and two misses in a row compound the problem.
Missouri, essentially, has not hit on a coaching hire since Norm Stewart retired.
Quin Snyder* had a few nice moments, and his time ended in disaster. Mike Anderson is the most successful Mizzou coach of the 21st century, and he is remembered mostly for interviewing for every dang job that came open. Frank Haith was carried to 30 wins by a talented and angrily motivated group of friends, and then showed that it was all built on quicksand. Kim Anderson has already lost 63 games — that’s more than twice Haith’s total in three full seasons, more than Anderson’s total in five seasons, and the same as Snyder’s last five seasons.
* Quin autocorrects to “Quit” in this word program I’m using.
I know this is an oversimplification. Even the best coaches need support, and Mizzou can be a difficult place to get things going. But particularly with more SEC money, and a somewhat steady flow of in-state talent, there is no excuse for Mizzou to be this bad.
These types of jobs are never easy, but the formula back is usually fairly simple. Restore relationships in the state, sell yourself to fans and donors, and above all else, make Mizzou a place where good high school basketball players want to be.
The only way to do that begins by hiring the best leader. Mizzou has missed on that, repeatedly.
This might be cheating, because it’s something like 20 hours long, but all of Ken Burns’ “Baseball” is brilliant. I don’t know of another documentary as ambitious, and comprehensive, so incredibly well told, informative, and entertaining.
I was in junior high or high school when it came out, and remember watching every episode when they aired. It’s how I came to learn about the Negro Leagues, and so much more about a sport I loved and thought I knew.
But there are so many others. “When We Were Kings,” “The Two Escobars,” “The U,” “Fab Five,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Murderball,” “Nine Innings From Ground Zero,” and so many more.
This is incredibly easy for me: the Big 12 Tournament.
It is, to me, the best weekend of the year in Kansas City. That’s particularly true when Iowa State and K-State are good, along with Kansas. The meeting of so many college basketball fans and proud alums with different interests but mostly friendly familiarity and common perspectives is the perfect combination of rivalry and fun.
Everyone’s rooting interests are, often literally, worn on their sleeves. K-State fans can make fun of KU’s losses in March, KU fans can make fun of Iowa State’s anger, Iowa State fans can make fun of Texas’ ineffective money, Texas can make fun of Bruce Weber’s excuses, and on and on it goes. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen these arguments end in beer being purchased for the other side.
The Royal is great, and in some ways purely Kansas City — a massive tailgate for what is essentially tailgating’s sake. The idea is that no man should just grill hot dogs and burgers when he can spend the better part of a weekend making a cheap pork butt taste like a delicacy.
But we are all free to cook like this whenever we want, and there are other barbecue contests around town. None on the scale of the Royal, of course, but some of the fun of that event is being sacrificed for continued growth and changing venues.
There is only one Big 12 Tournament, which brings the added bonus that even the losing teams usually aren’t heartbroken, because Selection Sunday is the day after the championship game, and the NCAAs start two days after that.
Oh mama, this is even easier than the last question:
I’ll go one step further: if you grew up in a town with Taco John’s, and still prefer Taco Bell, I am skeptical of your trustworthiness, taste, and ability to function as an adult. The one exception is if you were a pothead growing up.
Taco John’s is what Mexican fast food should be. Enough variety that you can gluttonize on nachos, burritos, tacos and more, but also enough self-awareness to do what it does best and not inspire SNL skits with ridiculous ideas like a taco shell made of fried chicken.
I respect Taco Bell’s hustle, but Taco John’s adherence to its strengths — six-pack-and-a-pound, potato oles, taco bravo, and all the crispy beef tacos — is both noble and an example of what we need more of in modern America. Taco John’s isn’t just delicious food that may or may not leave you feeling a little sick. It’s an ideal.
Also, when I was in high school, Taco John’s ran a coupon in the school paper — three tacos for 99 cents. There was no expiration date, and no limit. I made copies of that coupon, and used them well into my college years. The cashier always looked at me funny, sometimes chuckled, then shrugged his or her shoulders and gave me six tacos in exchange for $1.98 plus tax.
What a country.
I’ve been lucky in many ways. Among the good breaks relevant to your question: identifying exactly what I wanted to do with my life at a young age, very cheap in-state tuition that I and my family were able to pay without loans, and enough focus and work and lucky breaks for a career path that had me making real money relatively quickly.
So, I am fully aware that I am a fortunate exception to the implication of your question, but I’m going to make a few points here anyway.
First, we all wish we made more money. I’ve had many different salaries, and at every level, I’ve thought the people who made 10 or 20 percent more than me had it made. Eventually, you find out that this is just not true.
Also, just as important as what you make is what you spend, or what your responsibilities are. The salary for my first job was low enough that it fills me with a strange form of old-man pride, but the truth is I had enough. I had roommates, could finally fill my gas tank instead of stopping at $10, and could afford many burritos and Miller Lites with my friends.
Now, I make much more, but have to be much more careful about spending because we’ve chosen for my wife to stay home raising our kids. It’s a choice I’m grateful and fortunate to be able to make.
As I sit here and type it strikes me that I have not answered your question, other than, “Get lucky, and work hard enough to take advantage of lucky breaks that others may not have.”
You have to decide whether you believe this, and whether it’s realistic for your life and temperament and opportunities, but I believe it in my brain, heart and bones:
You should never choose a career or job you hate simply for money, in part because if you find something you love, you’ll be much happier in life, and might end up making more money than you expected anyway.
Like Art Stewart, actually. I’m telling you. We should all be like Art.