Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: respecting Esky, enigmatic Big 12, improving the Royals and Chiefs

One of the best and most important Royals in franchise history is now officially an ex-Royal, and even if these words probably should’ve been written earlier let’s do this now:

Alcides Escobar earned respect, to be remembered fondly and forever here, and an eventual spot in the Royals Hall of Fame.

Escobar is the Royals front office’s priorities come to life. It took the sides a while to find each other. Dayton Moore was hired in the summer of 2006 and he talked immediately of needing more athleticism and speed. He wanted to build the best defense in baseball, particularly at the so-called premium positions — catcher, centerfield, and shortstop.

First came Tony Pena Jr., the quick-twitch son of the former All-Star catcher and Royals manager. Pena played a dazzling shortstop, too. His predecessors set a low bar, but immediately, Pena made plays no Royals shortstop had sniffed in years. He was also overmatched by big league pitchers, so the experiment was short lived.

Next came Mike Aviles, the non-prospect. Aviles was drafted in the dark years, in the seventh round in 2003 mostly because he was a college senior without leverage. Once it became apparent that Pena would never hit, Aviles took the shortstop job by default — and was fantastic. He hit .325/.354/.480 and was the Royals player of the year in 2008. The next year he suffered an arm injury, and the Royals never really saw him as a shortstop, so in came the next candidate.

Yuniesky Betancourt had a complicated relationship with the Royals. They liked him enough as a younger player that they talked to the Mariners about a trade involving Billy Butler, but by 2009 he was diminished enough that they got him for one minor leaguer who never got past A-ball and another who pitched a total of 14 big league games. Betancourt had some pop* but also the defensive range of a phone booth.

* His 16 homers tied for the team lead in 2010, which is probably as bad as it sounds.

That was three primary shortstops in four full seasons of Moore’s leadership and no progress.

Then Zack Greinke demanded a trade.

Many words have been written about that trade, including the ironic good fortune of both a Cy Young winner wanting out and the first deal the team wanted falling through. From the Royals’ side, the trade will always be remembered first for bringing Lorenzo Cain and that’s how it should be — Cain was the best centerfielder in the American League for a time and the best player on the best Royals team of all-time.

But the trade also fixed Moore’s shortstop problem. He was, immediately, among the best defensive shortstops the Royals ever had. He had good range and better hands and one of the best arms at the position. His concentration had a tendency to wobble, but the Royals came to see he was always locked in to the biggest moments.

More than all of that, he played with an ease and passion and persistence that came to define much of what the Royals built themselves to be. Moore always said he wanted players who carried “a boyish innocence,” and who loved playing, and few embodied that profile better than Escobar.

He had the game’s longest consecutive games played streak for a while, and the Royals came to believe he had a unique body and mind — both were better with more use.

Escobar was so much of the Royals at their best — athletic, a great defender, consumed with playing baseball, unapologetically tough, and resilient. As they built themselves up from the bottom, Escobar’s omnipresence in the lineup became shorthand — “Esky might have to fail some now because we need him to succeed later,” manager Ned Yost would say.

Escobar made the All-Star team and won the Gold Glove in 2015, and in the postseason his aggressiveness with the first pitch as leadoff hitter became something of a clubhouse weather vane — if Esky swung, the Royals believed they’d win.

Eventually the joke got out, and became a sort of lovable quirk, but in Game 3 of the 2015 World Series, Noah Syndergaard fulfilled a meat-headed promise by throwing his first pitch toward Escobar’s neck.

It was bush league and childish, even if the immediate reaction from much of the national media was to reflexively praise Syndergaard’s “toughness.” The real toughness was with Escobar, who dodged the fastball, shook the dirt from his uniform and kept playing.

He hit .311 in 147 postseason plate appearances, including .478 in winning the 2015 ALCS MVP. His inside-the-park home run leading off game one of the World Series that year — first pitch, obviously — is an iconic moment in franchise history.

In a twisted way, Escobar became a polarizing figure. As his games played streak grew, and his offensive numbers sunk, his presence in the lineup became seen by some as an obstacle for success.

The Royals might have been better with a little less Escobar. In 2016 and 2017 no regular big leaguer was less productive. If he was a symbol of the Royals’ rise, he also became a symptom of the magic going away.

But there was a point to it all. Remember back at the beginning, when Moore talked about innocence and guys who wanted to play? By 2016 and 2017 they had Adalberto Mondesi mostly ready for the big leagues, but had become frustrated with what they saw as a tendency to ask out of the lineup. Mondesi would not play with minor injuries.

Escobar, then, became the example for Mondesi to strive toward. Even on his way out, Escobar was helping the Royals’ future, and even after he’d been usurped as the shortstop he made himself a utility player — he played third base, centerfield, and second base.

In Royals history, Escobar makes the top 10 lists in games, hits, doubles, triples, and stolen bases. He is an irreplaceable part of the franchise’s history now, and of its greatest moments. He fixed a problem that front offices hadn’t solved for years and helped push them toward the top of baseball.

Escobar signed with the Orioles. It’s a minor league deal with an invitation to big league spring training. He is 32 years old now, and will never again be the player he was. It will be a while before the Royals are the team he helped them become, too.

This week’s eating recommendation is the cluck yeah sandwich at Mother Clucker and the reading recommendation is, of course, The Year of Bo.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook and as always, thanks for the help and thanks for reading.

The streak is historic, and if you’re not impressed by it, you are either blinded by a distaste for the program or the kind of killjoy who sits at the beach and complains that the waves are too loud.

No program in the history of college basketball has done what Kansas is doing. There are nits to pick. The Jayhawks have underachieved in the NCAA Tournament, and in college basketball, the regular season is often dismissed and the postseason worshipped. So this doesn’t make the last 14 years the best stretch of any program in history, or even modern history, but at this point we’re so far into the weeds we’ve lost sight of the point.

In a sport defined by constant turnover and wild year-to-year swings, Kansas has won at least a share of the championship in what’s usually been the best or second-best league in the country by analytics since before current college freshmen could read.

Now. Let’s keep it real here.

If Kansas loses a preseason first-team all-conference player to a season-ending injury, another starter for six-games-and-counting to injury, and a third would-be starter to an NCAA suspension, while also having its top recruit underperform and a senior starter leave the team ... if ALL of that happens, and the rest of the league is STILL unable to knock the Jayhawks from power for even one season then it is an enormous collective failure that the nine other coaches must wear and accept.

I know I’ve said this before but I’ll keep saying it as long as people try to make the absurd point that winning a major college basketball league 14 years in a row is unimpressive:

Kansas would not have won league titles 14 years in a row in the ACC. North Carolina, Duke, and Kentucky would not have won league titles 14 years in a row in the Big 12.

These are facts.

Now, all of THAT said, let’s look at the remaining schedules.

K-State remains on top of the league, 10-3, and Dean Wade returning from that foot injury last night is significant. The Cats finish with Oklahoma State at home, at Kansas, Baylor at home, at TCU, and Oklahoma at home. That is probably 3-2, but they could probably win outright with 4-1.

Texas Tech and Kansas are next at 9-4. Tech has Kansas at home, Oklahoma State at home, at TCU, Texas at home, and at Iowa State. They have a chance to run the table, but there’s probably a loss in there, maybe two.

Kansas has Tech on the road, K-State at home, at Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma, and Baylor at home. That’s 4-1 with a chance of 3-2.

Iowa State is 8-4, with games left against Baylor at home, at TCU, Oklahoma at home, at Texas, West Virginia at home, and Tech at home. They could be favored in each of those games, but the most likely outcome is two losses.

It’s a jumbled mess, then, and the outlook changes everyday. But if you look at the schedules, you see some of why I wrote that it’s silly to dismiss K-State. The Wildcats will probably lose at Kansas, but if they win the others — and they’ll be favored in each — it’s going to be hard to catch them.

K-State, the Big 12’s best hope.

Any answer to this question is speculation based upon speculation, but as long as we all know the ground rules here goes:

Less likely, with an important point.

First, let’s talk about the less likely. Self is fiercely competitive, proud, and he tends to look at everything in the world in two ways: soft, or tough. He would have to know how probation and/or a postseason ban would taint how people look at his time at Kansas, and he would have to know that running out before the penalties would be seen as small and soft.

Now, the important point. I believe Self will leave Kansas for the NBA. I’ve always believed that, and continue to believe it, and will believe it even if major penalties come. So while a potential probation might give him a hesitation about leaving, and provide one more reason to stay it through, I’m not sure I believe it would convince him to give up an opportunity he’s long considered to coach at the highest level.

It’s like ... I love wings. I love the Peanut’s wings. If the roads outside are bad, it might give me some hesitation about hopping in the car for a plate, but if I’m craving wings I’m still going to want wings no matter the weather.

Man, this is a great question. Because if it’s a Final Four, it’s a no-brainer than you kill the streak. And if it’s even a second-round loss, it’s a no-brainer that you extend the streak.

Kansas basketball is past the point of bragging about Elite Eights, so what we’re really talking about here is the embarrassment of a first-round loss against the pride of extending the streak.

My sense, for whatever it’s worth, is that a significant portion of KU fans are actually tired of the streak. They know how the game is measured, and that three Final Fours and one national title is a little light for 14 consecutive championships in a major college basketball conference.

In that way, I think a lot of KU fans would wave goodbye to the streak, perhaps even believing that if any part of 14 straight has become a burden then perhaps this would free the program to more aggressively pursue Final Fours.

I happen to believe that is logical nonsense. KU has not played worse in the NCAA Tournament because of the regular season success. The two are unrelated. KU has tended to be tight at certain moments — Oregon and VCU in the Elite Eight are the two most obvious examples — but that’s not the burden of the streak.

That’s the pressure of the NCAA Tournament.

So my stance would be different. If I was a KU fan I wouldn’t care so much about the Elite Eight, and in fact, I would know that another loss in that round would only add to the poor history there. The first round loss would stink, particularly because it would be around your neck for fans of any other program, but the conference title streak is a historical achievement.

In a fairytale world in which a fan can choose, you don’t throw away a historical achievement for something that’s going to leave you feeling like you ate mud.

Put it this way: they have banners for conference championships at Allen Fieldhouse, and they have banners for Final Fours. Elite Eights are not mentioned.

Breeland Speaks is the obvious answer here, and so obvious that I’ll actually give another answer.

Speaks was always a better fit for the 4-3, and in fact some of the reaction of the Chiefs drafting him centered on him being an awkward fit for Bob Sutton’s 3-4. He’s simply too slow to be an edge rusher, so allowing him to move inside plays more to his strengths and raises the ceiling on his career with the Chiefs.

But, again, this is pretty obvious.

So let’s also talk about Anthony Hitchens. He came from a 4-3, and if you watch some of his games in Dallas you see an aggressive and instinctual player. He wasn’t a star there, but solid. Reliable. Dependable.

He came to Kansas City and often looked hesitant, unsure, and slow. There is a pattern of inside linebackers underperforming for Sutton, so you can either believe that Hitchens a) forgot how to play football, b) effectively called it quits after signing a big free agent contract, or c) struggled to understand what was expected of him while playing next to another inside linebacker and behind Chris Jones’ tendency to attack the quarterback while sacrificing the run game.

Hitchens’ reputation is as a bit of a football nerd, diligent with film and understanding schemes. He should have been better in 2018, and it’s a copout to blame his struggles — particularly with tackling — on Sutton.

But context matters, so if Hitchens is back in a system that better matches both his comfort and strengths, then we should see a significant improvement from him in 2019.

We spend way too much time, money, energy, and emotion on sports. WAY TOO MUCH. Sports don’t matter. If we took all the money spent around professional and effectively professional sports and instead spent it on college scholarships or better teacher pay or medical research or potholes in Kansas City do you realize how much better the world would be?

Like, objectively better?

At one point, when the Chiefs were still playing, I checked some secondary sites and the cheapest Super Bowl ticket I saw was $3,900. That was a single. Far from the field. In a city where everything — flights, hotels, cars, food, everything — was already more expensive.

I think about this stuff more now than ever before, because of our kids. Sammy is about to turn 5, which means he’s at the age where he’s starting to get it, starting to love being at games. We’ve taken him to watch the Royals, Sporting Kansas City, college games, and local high schools. He really started to get into the Chiefs last season. I want to take him to a Mavericks game soon.

But these things are expensive. He loves cars, so I looked the other day and just for the two of us tickets to a NASCAR race would be $150 or so.

I know this starts to sound like an old man talking about the price of a movie being a nickel, But it would be really cool if teams dropped the prices of tickets for kids. Or, even, gave any kid one free ticket with a paying adult.

We’ll take our kids to games. We’re fortunate to be able to do that. But we won’t be able to do it as much as I’d like

Now, I’ve said all this, but I also think the answer so far isn’t in response to the spirit of your question.

Because the reason sports cost so much is because sports are awesome. This is the open market at work, and if sports weren’t awesome, then game tickets would be the price of a matinee movie.

I don’t know of anything that more reliably and permanently creates memories quite like sports, and other than health there is nothing as valuable as memories.

So I can complain all I want about the price of a ticket, but the truth is I’m going to pay it, because it’s going to create a fun memory, and if I don’t then someone else will.

I’d never tell anyone how to spend their money, so it’s not my place to say we should all spend more or less. All I know is that other than personal relationships there is nothing in my life that’s given me more joy than sports, and if I’m honest, it’s often hard to know exactly what the difference is between those two.

And that’s what we’re paying for, right?

Well, Bryce Harper would be a good signing for anyone. He’s young, incredibly talented, and already has a history of production.

You can pick out some others, if money isn’t a consideration. Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Marwin Gonzalez.

I thought Moustakas would’ve helped, but the Royals are higher on Hunter Dozier than I am, and Moose would rather play for a contender.

I think what you’re saying is that the Royals could take advantage of the market by signing bargain free agents and shortening the rebuild. It’s true in theory, but there are a few problems.

First, free agency is an awful way to build a roster. It’s inefficient, even now, after teams have realized the inefficiency and cut back on spending and length of contracts.

Second, Harper and Keuchel and the best free agents are unlikely to sign with the Royals. Kansas City is not a destination market, and given the choice free agents would prefer to play for winners.

Third, the financial constraints of big league teams are often overstated but the Royals truly don’t have the juice for a $200 million contract. There is a logical argument to be made that David Glass could make it work because of franchise valuation and his own personal wealth and presumed profits, and I’m the first to say I’d rather the money go to the stars we watch than the owners we don’t, but I also think it’s silly to demand businesses operate at a financial loss.

Where else in life do we do that?

But the fourth reason is the most important, at least to me, and that’s that the Royals are not one or two signings away from a championship. The core of the next contender will be built around guys already in the system, so it makes sense to use the next year or three to see how and whether they develop.

Because I can believe Moose is a better option at third base than Dozier, but what if I’m wrong and Dozier develops? Then that’s $10 million (or whatever) you can’t spend on a first baseman, if Ryan O’Hearn isn’t the answer.

If I was in charge, I’d rather wait until I believed the team was closer, then spend more surgically on the talent I believed best suited my needs — even if it meant paying a premium.

Now, if your response is that David Glass isn’t likely to spend money “saved” now on talent later, I’d say you’re right, but that’s a whole different issue.

This is hard for me to answer, because I’m blinded by bias. The punishment is patently absurd, and should be greatly diminished, so it’s hard for me to see beyond that and analyze what might happen in the appeal.

Because Mizzou’s case seems overwhelming.

The school did not know about or encourage the tutor going rogue. The school found out essentially because the tutor wanted a financial debt waved. The school cooperated fully with the investigation.

The punishment for rules violations by a tutor include a bowl ban and recruiting restrictions, and it’s just hard to understand the logic there. What does one have to do with the other? And by the NCAA’s own findings, it is punishing a kids who had nothing to do with it and an institution that did not know and did nothing to encourage it.

The NCAA has a well-earned reputation for swinging wildly between toothless and overbearing, and from my view it looks like Mizzou’s greatest sin is rotten timing.

Now, none of this answers your question. I am not hearing the appeal. You’re asking what I think will happen, not what I think should happen.

And I have no idea.

The appeals process is set up reasonably. The committee that hears the appeal is made up of people who work at schools and leagues, not NCAA staffers. This is not Roger Goodell setting himself up to hear the appeal of his own ruling.

So it would seem logical to me that a group of people uninvolved the investigation and uninvested in the NCAA’s wider PR game might see the punishment as overzealous and make a more reasonable ruling.

But I don’t want to spend too much time expecting reasonable rulings from the NCAA.

The terms of his settlement with the NFL have not yet been leaked so we can only guess the money and other parameters. His lawyer is saying Kaepernick wants to play, but at this point it’s hard to see it happening.

If the lawyer is being this outspoken, I’m probably wrong on this, but teams stayed away for two years and now all of a sudden they’re going to sign him?

Kaepernick is clearly better than some starteres and most backups, and in his last year his teammates voted him the winner of an award for inspiration and courage, so any talk of him being a divisive presence with his peers is nonsense. But it seems as if he’s dedicated his mind and life to a new cause now. Returning to football would give him a bigger platform, but also divided attention.

The NFL settling the suit is at the very least a tacit admission of guilt, so Kaepernick is operating from the higher ground here. He’s living the best ideals of his protest, giving generously to various charities among other community work.

It’s be a hell of a story if he played again, and you know I root for stories, but after two years it’s just hard for me to expect.

It’s a good question. Does the job make coaches crazy, or does crazy self-select for the job?

My sense is that both things are true, but first let’s watch what we’re talking about:

OK, now, if you are laid-back you will probably make a rotten coach, because part of coaching is making a big deal out of 24 things that don’t matter because the 25th thing might.

But I think what amplifies the problem is that coaching ruins perspective. Any job in sports can do that, actually. Professional athletes almost always believe they are more more important than they actually are and they probably have to — if they didn’t think every fraction was critical they would not have climbed to the top of their sport.

But coaching (especially at the major college level) probably does that more than most any other job in sports.

Your whole existence centers on one specific thing, a team that a significant number of people you are constantly in contact with care about more than they should, and you can forget that the vast majority of Americans in general and even sports fans in particular do not know your name.

You live every cough of the program. You scream because the ninth guy in your rotation hedged a ball screen when he wasn’t supposed to, you spend hours on film of an opponent you might not even play, and when there’s a break in the schedule you hop the first plane available to see a recruit you probably won’t sign.

This is a small example. When Josh Jackson was a freshman at Kansas, the coaches worked with him for hours — MANY HOURS — on his jump shot. It was funky, and not anything a shooing coach would’ve taught.

But they focused on one specific thing: when he caught the ball they wanted him to go straight up to the beginning of his motion, instead of bringing it back with a hitch. It’s a tiny, microscopic thing, and unless you were looking for it or are a coach yourself you probably would not have noticed it.

But between Jackson, Bill Self, and Kurtis Townsend, they must’ve spent more than 100 man hours trying to streamline one man’s jumper in one mostly undetectable way.

Did it make a difference? Well, hell yes it did. Jackson hit 49 percent of his three-pointers over the last 16 games after hitting just 26 percent over the first 19.

But did it really matter? For Kansas? They were the No. 1 ranked team in the country and lost in the Elite Eight at Sprint Center with Jackson playing 30 foul-plagued minutes and missing his only two three-point attempts.

The point here is that even when you get it right, and spend hours and hours on one specific thing that most people will never notice, and your work makes a significant difference, it still probably won’t make a difference in the wider view.

But if you don’t try, well, then you’re not even trying.

Coaching is wild that way.

This is a long way of saying that Chris Beard almost certainly knows that a walk-on dunking at the end of a blowout is enormously immaterial, and simply the reaction of some kids who put in the same endless hours as the starters without much payoff finally getting on the court and wanting to make a memory.

He knows this is not worth freaking out about, that even for those of us who understand the sportsmanship argument he still looked like a crazy person but you know what?

Beard isn’t coaching with any wider perspective. No coach does. He was coaching the moment, obsessed with consequences, and he didn’t need the headache of some kid who never plays now showing a perceived disrespect and lack of focus even at the end of a blowout.

So, I get it. But I also think it’s nonsense, if that makes sense.

Dangit, let’s do both.

Two lists? Two lists! First, the salsas:

1. Margaritas. It’s worth noting here that my salsa taste changes fairly often, but I am currently in lust with the tall skinny jar.

2. Trader Joe’s double roasted. A long-time staple of the Mellinger house.

3. Socorro’s. I prefer the hot with cilantro, but won’t kick any of them out of my fridge.

4. Walmart pico. I am quite certain that’s not the name of it. But it’s the pico in the refrigerated section and it’s delicious.

5. Archer Farms restaurant style. Got a nice little salty kick to it.

OK, now the barbecue sauces.

1. Cowtown. This is basically what all sauces should be.

2. Joe’s original. It might actually be better, but it always comes with Joe’s food, so I’m assuming the taste is more about the meat.

3. Bryant’s sweet heat. Factually the best of the “flavored” bottles, and I will not argue this.

4. Night of the Living Dead. I like it hot!

5. Gates original. Always a good change-of-pace sauce.

The correct answer is probably Frank DeFord, the good version of Rick Reilly, Dan Jenkins, and Gary Smith. You play around with that a bit if you want. When he was still writing Michael Wilbon did it as well as anyone. Roger Angell. There are others.

If we’re talking more currently, Dan Wetzel is the best national sports columnist in America and I’m not sure it’s close unless you also consider Sally Jenkins a national sports columnist in which case there is no wrong answer. I believe Gregg Doyel is the best metro sports columnist going, that Zach Lowe covers basketball better than anyone else covers anything, that Adrian Wojnarowski has forever redefined what it means to be a news breaker, and that Seth Wickersham is better than anyone I know at getting stories that the subjects don’t want to be had.

That’s six, which is obviously more than Mount Rushmore’s four, but that’s a silly premise and you either agree with me on that or you’re wrong.

Also, really, there are so many others I’m in awe of. I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of my favorite things about sports writing is sports writers.

The slowest time, which is I think what you’re getting at, is the summer. From the end of the NFL Draft, say, to the second Chiefs preseason game it’s basically Royals and that’s it.

I love baseball, and especially love covering it, but it can be a little more challenging to fill in the rest.

Which is why the good lord created vacation.

If you do this weird job long enough, you start to feel the seasons mesh with your own life. Your body clock just sort of subtly lines up with it — lots of energy in the fall for football, a little break in February before college basketball goes bananas, the year’s busiest four weeks in March and then a more steady burn through the summer with baseball.

They all have specific advantages and challenges. I’m not going to call any of it “the hardest,” because let’s be honest, this is a pretty sweet gig. In the fall, the challenge is being surgical with what you write because there are so many options. When basketball starts to overlap, the challenge becomes making sure nothing falls through the cracks.

In March, to be honest, the challenge is just to get everything done while still seeing your family.

After that, the challenge is taking advantage of the time by finding some outside the box ideas.

We’re all different, and we all adapt, but I’ve really come to enjoy it all. Hopefully I’m always trying to be creative, no matter the time of year, but the rhythms of the job mean you can do it in different ways.

First, let me say the obvious here: even for us Winter Truthers, this winter has been less than ideal.

Like, we all love our kids, right? But sometimes they talk back. Well, it sure seems like this winter is talking back.

Ok. Now the answer. One of the responses to this tweet was Eric Hosmer — mostly cold with bursts of warmth. It’s a good line, but I think misses the point a little, at least from my perspective.

Because for me, this winter is how I imagine the Royals front office feels about Alex Gordon. They inherited him, so they can’t take full credit, but they did live with him more than long enough to grow a real attachment. They had great times together, too — the best of their lives.

The homer off Familia would be like Christmas in this analogy, and there have been some good times since but at this point they’re probably looking forward to the contract being over.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for my favorite person in the world, the woman who’s been my wife for exactly seven years. We’ve known each other so long that in the beginning neither of us could drive. She’s seen me at my worst and my best, and she loves me anyway. Thank god.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.