Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Merrifield’s example, Chris Jones’ holdout & better insults for KC

Whit Merrifield signs new four-year contract with Royals

Kansas City Royals Whit Merrifield talked with the media on Monday January 28, 2019 after signing a new four-year contract with the Royals. The contract also has a fifth year club option in it.
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Kansas City Royals Whit Merrifield talked with the media on Monday January 28, 2019 after signing a new four-year contract with the Royals. The contract also has a fifth year club option in it.

Whit Merrifield is an All-Star now, a well-earned honor that puts a sort of blue checkmark on his status as a coach’s dream. And not just for the fundamentals and the work rate and the competitiveness. All those things are nice.

But at the moment, the only coaches who benefit from that stuff are Ned Yost and his assistants with the Royals.

The real juice here is in Merrifield as an example, because every kid is faced with challenges, and with moments of doubt, and eventually those things take a toll. We’re human, and when humans hear they’re not good enough often enough, well, we tend to believe it.

Merrifield went undrafted out of high school, then spent his first year or so in college being told to bunt. He switched positions, repeatedly, despite (or maybe because of) playing them well. He was drafted in the ninth round after his junior year, which is cool, but not exactly a fast track for the big leagues.

Ninety players were selected in the ninth rounds of the 2009, 2010, and 2011 drafts. Only four — Merrifield, Jacob deGrom, Travis Shaw and Chase Anderson — became regulars.

That’s less than 5 percent, but Merrifield’s path was even less likely. Without a so-called toolsy makeup or spectacular numbers he stalled in the minor leagues. He was nearly called up in 2014, but then left available in the Rule 5 draft, which is baseball’s version of a curb sale. Even then nobody wanted him.

Zero out of 30 organizations thought he was worth a big league roster spot. He considered quitting. Thought about getting a real job. He was 26 by then, old for a prospect, and, actually, if we’re being honest there really isn’t such a thing as a 26-year-old prospect.

By then, you’re holding on. You’re a grinder, in the nicest way, or a dreamer in the most condescending.

Merrifield was 28 by the time he played a full season, and, well, this is awkward but he ended up leading the league in steals. Did it again the next year, and led baseball in hits to boot. Then signed a contract worth at least $16.25 million in the offseason and is again hitting .300 and on pace for more than 20 home runs.

He is a homemade success story, a guy who had dozens of chances to be happy walking away but stayed focused. He is not the fastest or the strongest or the guy who can throw the hardest. But he can do everything better than almost anyone, and whether those skills came later or scouts simply missed it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Because he believed, and he kept on, when even many who loved him didn’t see the point.

Now he’s a gosh dang All-Star, and a millionaire many times over.

That’ll carry a speech or two for a high school or college coach.

This week’s eating recommendation is the B.L.A.T. at Bay Boy, and the reading recommendation is Tim Layden on The Pain of Being ‘SUPERKID.’

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

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We are now at 29.

Some context. More than one out of every three times the Royals play, they not only lose but blow a lead in the process. It’s the most in baseball (though the Orioles will have something to say about that) and more than they had the entire season in 2015.

I’m about to say something weird:

The blown lead number is a place for optimism, if you want it. Hear me out.

A merely bad bullpen — instead of an atrocious one — may have blown nine fewer leads. That number is not pulled from the air. The Mariners and Rangers are tied for 11th-most in the American League with 20 blown leads. That’s really bad.

Nine fewer blown leads and the Royals would be 38-46.

That’s still not a good team, but it’s a team on pace for 89 losses instead of 106.

And 89 losses would be a 15-game improvement on last year, and more of the focus would be on the positives rather than ample negatives.

Now, good bullpens are more difficult to put together than in the past. More teams with more money are putting more emphasis on relievers, which in turn means bad bullpens are more exposed than ever.

So this isn’t as simple as playing make-believe and imagining this same group with a better bullpen. Building that better bullpen is no sure thing.

But in the process of putting a team together — particularly the way the Royals are approaching it, with middle of the field players first and starting pitchers second — it’s the last piece.

Bullpens have a way of materializing as a young core matures. We’ve seen pitchers struggle in the rotation and flourish in relief, and we know that good relief pitchers are much more willing to sign with teams they believe can win.

I will continue to say it’s more unlikely than likely that this rebuild won’t take, but if you’re interested enough to give it a chance this context is worth keeping in mind.

With the exception of Alex Gordon, the positives on this team are under long-term control and figure to be part of the future either in person or through a trade.

They still need a lot to go right. Mondesi, Dozier, and Keller need to be real. They can’t miss with many prospects, particularly the starting pitchers and Bobby Witt Jr. And they need to bring in much more talent and get it through relatively quickly.

All I’m saying right here is that it might not be as bad as it feels at the moment.

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I know you’re making a joke, and I respect it and will continue to join in grabbing such low hanging fruit.

But this is a thing, and it’s a thing I wrote about here. The level of hype and coverage on baseball prospects is such that we know people who make their livings in this world believe Witt Jr. is the highest-ceiling prospect the Royals have ever had.

That’s a great thing for fan interest, but at best a useless thing for Witt Jr. and here’s a way to think of it:

Whit Merrifield is the Royals’ best player, a deserved All-Star, and if Witt Jr. ends up with Merrifield’s career he will have failed in the eyes of most.

The path of a baseball prospect includes so many turns and an endless supply of challenges. The player Witt Jr. will be at his best is only vaguely related to the player he is now, same as the Alex Gordon who ended up helping win two pennants was only vaguely related to the one that received two standing ovations before his first big league plate appearance.

Sports hype is no longer a start-up industry. It’s been around a long time. But it is bigger than ever, and continues to play a real role in both how sports are sold to fans and how organizations handle top prospects.

The Royals have their most interesting test case in years with Witt Jr.

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God bless your son.

A few weeks ago, we took our kids to a Sunday game for their first tailgate. It was glorious. Nice day, good seats, kids were into it — we actually asked them in the *7th inning* if they wanted to do the outfield stuff — and perhaps my career dad highlight came in the fourth inning.

Scene: Kids have just finished their pizza and pretzel, I’m right where I need to be with my helmet nachos, and Jorge Soler comes to the plate.

Me: Pay attention here, this guy is a power hitter. That means he can hit long home runs.

Younger son: /busy trying to steal popcorn from the guy in front of us/

Older son: /nods confidently, eyes on the game/

Jorge Soler:

I AM NOW A GOD.

Our older son’s favorite player is now Jorge Soler, even though he can’t really pronounce it, and he’s constantly telling people about home runs.

You think I’m about to mention that lost sunball in Toronto the other day? Or the, um, limited range? Or that the Royals would be smart to trade him if they can get a decent return?

Heck no. Jorge Soler forever, at least for now.

My point here, obviously, is that whoever a kid thinks is the best player in the world IS THE BEST PLAYER IN THE WORLD.

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Low, and before we expand I’d kindly ask you to read the column on the situation if you haven’t already.

Chris Jones is effectively required to show up to training camp in early August and play a full season with the Chiefs.

Unless the two sides work for a compromise that at the moment does not seem likely, he will have his choice between taking a guarantee of slightly more than the (non-guaranteed) approximately $42 million he’d get over the next three years through the last year of his rookie contract and two franchise tags, or the Chiefs can give him (basically) the Frank Clark contract.

This isn’t answering your question, but I feel like I need to say it anyway: you will not find anyone who believes players should get their money more than I do. Football is a brutal game, and the earning windows are short. Get. Your. Money.

Also, the system is tilted way too far toward the owners. The timeline of football careers paired with the length and structure of rookie contracts with franchise tags after that mean that even the best players who aren’t quarterbacks (or to a lesser extent pass rushers) are hoping for unremarkable-NBA-starter money.

So I hope Jones gets every dollar he’s worth plus an extra hundred grand.

All that said, I just don’t know how the Chiefs are being unfair or unreasonable.

If he wants a guarantee of generational wealth right now, he can have it.

But if he wants the Frank Clark contract, he has to do what Clark did — play out his rookie deal with another baller season.

That’s how the system is set up. It’s set up unfairly, but it’s set up.

Now, the worst case scenario here for the Chiefs is that Jones doesn’t sign, then has a season as productive or more than 2018, which pushes his value higher than the team can manage.

But even at that point, the Chiefs have received another stellar season for relative peanuts and they can keep him for two more years at a total of $40 million OR trade him for a pick or two.

Again: that’s the worst case scenario, barring a compromise.

That’s not so bad.

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You’re probably as sick of me saying this as I am of saying it but here goes:

Nobody can tell you how to be a fan.

That’s as true with this as it’s ever been with anything, and I assume it will be violated with this as much as it’s ever been with anything.

Tyreek Hill will not be charged with a crime ... but the child was removed from the home.

Tyreek Hill is an amazing football player ... but the DA believes a crime was committed against the child and has intimated a lack of cooperation from the parents didn’t help.

Tyreek Hill may have even been set up, with overwhelming evidence to prove his innocence ... but he still threatened and insulted the woman he previously pleaded guilty to choking.

Two things I’ve been saying: no plot twist will surprise me, and we don’t know what really happened. Probably won’t, either, whenever the NFL makes the decision and even if the DA says anything more (which he probably won’t).

So, you asked how fans should react and I would tell you there is no should. React however feels right.

If you ask how fans will react, I would tell you it will likely be mixed. Some will stay silent, or feel awkward. Some will boo, particularly on the road. And many will cheer, loudly, especially if he grabs 4th down against the Ravens in the fourth quarter.

I’m not sure any of it would be wrong, but I’m sure we’ll talk more about it as time goes on.

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This isn’t a unique thought but the NBA has some stuff figured out. There cannot be a league that squeezes more interest out of every minute of game action watched.

Like, I rarely watch the NBA. Might have games on in the background at Christmas. Might catch a half hour or so if it’s my wife’s night putting the kids down, and two good teams are playing, and it’s not halftime, and there’s not a Royals game, and I don’t have work to catch up on, and I don’t have a story or book I’m trying to read, and I’m not cleaning the kitchen, and a few other disclaimers here that aren’t coming to mind right now.

I watch the playoffs when I can, but I’m not scheduling time out of my day for it.

But I have opinions on the Nets!

I have thoughts on Kawhi’s free agency!

I will pretend to know most of the players the Lakers sent to New Orleans so I can judge the Anthony Davis trade!

The NBA ecosystem is weird to me. More than the other major sports, it seems, the players and media work together in the production and presentation of drama. Again, this is just my perception but there appears to be an understanding that the drama is good for everyone.

It creates attention, interest, ratings, and at some point money.

The NBA is uniquely positioned for drama because of the outsized power and value of stars. One player can swing an NBA team in a way that’s just not possible in other sports. They’ve been marketed and sold to the public accordingly, often since they were teenagers.

Young athletes in other sports — I’m thinking particularly of college football players and soccer phenoms — build followings but it’s just different in basketball. The followings are bigger, and the power and effect of those stars are bigger.

All of these things put the NBA in a strong position to deal with the changing ways people consume sports and entertainment. But it’s also a bit dangerous. If folks are hooked on the drama, there’s an internal pressure to continually raise the stakes. If fans are into stars, what happens when those stars fall off and retire?

The thing that lasts is the game. The NBA has a great game, with the best athletes in the world and strategy that’s often overlooked. I do wonder if they’ll want to push that more as we go forward, perhaps leaving short-term interest and money on the table in the name of stabilizing themselves long-term.

But, I don’t know. Just spitballing here.

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The same way the NBA is riding a sort of technological and logistical wave, MLB is running against a cultural wind.

NBA teams have essentially all become national. Other than the Yankees and Cubs, baseball teams have essentially all become local.

That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but there is no denying that it is a thing.

You’re asking how they might try to grow, and I have some ideas, but they’re just ideas. They are flawed, some might be too difficult, and some might actually be impossible or unrealistic.

But:

1. Continue to search for ways for measurements and analytics to bring people in, rather than keep people out. MLB has done a good job with Statcast, which is moving away from wOBA+ and toward numbers about how fast someone runs or how hard they hit a ball.

But that process needs a lot of polish and some better packaging for people to more fully understand what they’re seeing and why it’s remarkable.

2. Pedal to the metal on grassroots efforts to sell the game to kids. The Royals are actually a good example of this with their work building the Urban Youth Academy. But that stuff should be happening everywhere, in bigger numbers.

One thing the NFL does really well is community outreach. Most of it is packaged and professionally presented, but still. It’s hard to put a price on a kid meeting an athlete he or she cheers for. It’s easier to do in football, with just one game a week, but baseball needs its players to be ambassadors.

Those efforts could be amplified with structural support like discounted tickets for kids or major discounts for families. Earlier start times on games could be good, too.

Whether it’s by getting more kids to play on their own, or by getting them engaged in the big league games, every dollar spent trying to reach kids would figure to turn into many dollars when those kids become adults.

3. More aggressively sell the game, and by that I mean the sounds and smells and sights and everything else that still exists once you strip down the shine. Maybe a commercial showing big leaguers in various stages of game prep, juxtaposed with kids of various ages doing the same

Open with Aaron Judge getting out of his car and walking into the stadium, then flash to a 6-year-old getting out of his mom’s minivan. Justin Verlander shakes hands with security, then an 8-year-old walks into the dugout and high-fives a teammate. Ronald Acuna ties his cleats, then a 10-year-old puts on eye black. Christian Yelich walks onto the field, then a 12-year-old is taking grounders. Cody Bellinger starts with BP, then a 14-year-old is doing the same.

And so on.

The more connections the sport can make between the biggest stars and the kids playing on all-dirt infields across the country the better.

Baseball has allowed itself to be portrayed as slow and boring and out of touch. But it also has the power to sell itself as important and emotional and an indelible part of who we are.

I don’t know. I’m just throwing stuff out here, you guys.

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Well, first let me push back a bit. During football and into the NCAA Tournament I might write five or six times in a normal week — Minutes, a midweek column or two, a Sunday takeout, insta-reaction from the game, and a more thought-out game column. Plus a podcast or two and a video.

Right now, in early July when there’s not much going on, it’s different.

To which I say: good.

If we’re taking the 30,000 foot view and thinking in terms of the industry it has never been easier or more important to know how our stuff is being consumed. And in a world of more #content than ever it’s never been more critical to produce good stuff and cut out forgettable stuff.

It’s better to write just one thing in a week that kicks ass than four or five that are background music.

It’s the quality of the engagement, in other words, more than the quantity.

Fewer stories doesn’t mean mean less work by the journalist, and if done effectively can mean more satisfaction from readers.

Again, some of this is seasonal. I tend to take all of my vacation time in the summer, and factually there is just less reader interest this time of year.

But the best thing newspapers and smart websites have done over the last few years is focus more on producing good stuff, and less on producing lots of stuff.

I could write you four columns a day, but I’ll bet you’d be happier if I wrote four a week and was able to take the time to build trust with and have conversations with people from the Chiefs and Royals and Sporting and colleges that inform those columns and provide better perspective.

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Man, this is deep.

The thing with Kietzman was more complicated than I think a lot of people realize. It wasn’t just about one dumb and potentially dangerous thing he said about Andy Reid’s family, and it wasn’t even just about initially doubling down on that awful comment with arrogance and gusto.

It was about a pattern of behavior and shows that lacked connections with people, self-awareness, and often responsibility. It was about diminishing relationships with listeners and sponsors that happened long before last week.

To zero in on your question, maybe you’re asking whether Kietzman would still be on the air if the audio wasn’t “grabbable” and shareable so quickly.

I don’t know the answer to that, but I also know that podcasts have been widely available for some number of years. The ability to produce and share a paper trail — digital trail? — has existed.

To me, this was more about a pattern and reputation and that the specific comment in question was undeniably inappropriate and directed at a powerful, popular, and sympathetic figure. Kevin didn’t help himself with the “holy hat” defense, and initially blaming others for misunderstanding. The apology tour was also pretty bad.

But as much as we want simple explanations for things, it wasn’t just about the apology, or the defense, or just the comment.

There was a lot more going on.

I do want to reemphasize something, especially since I’ve publicly disagreed with and in a couple cases directly engaged with Kevin.

I am doing no celebrations here, and as time goes on it should be remembered what Kevin was at his best. He fundamentally changed sports talk radio in Kansas City and at his peak was 1-2 with Jason Whitlock on the local influencer power rankings.

That’s a good career, and one that’s left a legacy with a locally owned and community driven station at 810. That’s all important, too.

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If you are sensitive, please scroll down. If you are insecure about Kansas City, please skip to the next question. If hearing anything other than blind praise and hyperbolic compliments about Kansas City makes you angry, please move on.

If you are the type to find genuine joy and a self-esteem boost when, say, the New York Times discovers we have a streetcar, then maybe just close the tab and buy another KC Heart shirt.

OK. Some of these I’ve used before. Others are new. They’re all much better insults than a reference to a 1930s movie.

  • The Chiefs’ last (and only) Super Bowl win is now older than many empty-nesters.
  • You can talk about landing an NHL or NBA team, and that’s fine, but reality is Kansas City probably already has more pro sports than it should.
  • We built a 2-mile streetcar track and act like we discovered plutonium.
  • The Chiefs have more historic playoff collapses than victories in the last 25 years.
  • Kansas City is a place that once employed the world’s most famous groundskeeper to watch over two stadiums with Astroturf.
  • Seriously, the guy vacuumed dirt around the base paths. Then he left and Arrowhead went to grass and before last season the Chiefs played a lot of games on spray painted dirt.
  • We whine over what people in normal cities think is light traffic.
  • Some people in this city actually believe the b.s. about the Sprint Center being better off without an anchor tenant.
  • It’s like, OK, we get it. You guys really like barbecue. So why can’t you make better brisket?

We still friends?

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Everything but the heat. There’s a sort of neighborhood parade down our street where a bunch of kids put flags on their bikes and ride down the hill to a barbecue. I mean, that’s pretty strong.

I’m simple with this stuff. I want cheeseburgers, chips, the smell of charcoal, ideally a pool, and our kids are getting to the point where we’re going to start setting off some fireworks.

I don’t even know what’s available with that now, by the way. When I was a kid it was black cats and smoke bombs and Roman candles and if you were feeling it maybe an M-80 or two. I vaguely remember a cardboard tank with a fuse that you could light and the thing would move like six inches and make a bunch of noise.

I haven’t set off a firework in years, and feel like anything is possible. Are they selling actual dynamite now? Or have PTA groups lobbied Big Fireworks down to noise limits on black cats and age ratings for everything above snakes?

Are snakes even a thing still?

I have a lot of questions, you guys.

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Sorry, my response will be a few moments. I need to do something first. Definitely not wipe a tear, or sit back and shake my head and compose myself. Definitely not any of that. Just, you know, some quick stuff.

OK.

That’s beautiful, man, and I hear you. Our kids are 5 and 3, so of course I can’t personally relate to what you’re going through. I can imagine, though. I can feel what I think would be my emotions during a time like that. I think, anyway.

I have become a bit of a zealot for perspective on parenting, on doing everything possible to remember every single day how precious each minute is with them. Because you never get those minutes back, ever, and it’s actually more than that — a minute invested now is not only good for the soul but (hopefully) makes the minutes in 10 and 20 years better.

Because there’s a foundation.

Again, I can’t know what you’re going through. But it does remind me of a story about my own dad.

I was, I’m guessing, 24 years old. An adult, technically, but in reality basically just a kid with a college degree and livable-ish salary. And I wrecked my car. Totaled it. Completely my fault, and thankfully nobody was hurt. Could’ve been much worse.

But, still. A bit traumatic. I couldn’t work for a few days, for starters, and was a little shaken by the whole thing. My dad took a day or two off work and basically dedicated the entire time to me. Bought me lunch, helped me research new cars, guided me on what the fair prices might be and so on.

I remember this moment vividly. We were in his car on the way to a dealership. We were on the part of Highway 69 that merges into 435 East and I just told him thank you. For everything. Not just those few days, but everything else in my life. I was fighting back good tears.

Now, my dad was in college when he lost his father. And I know that stuck him. He didn’t get the relationship with his dad that he should’ve. His dad didn’t know him as an adult.

So, after I was done thanking him, he said something like this:

“There were times I was your age and needed my dad, and couldn’t have him. This is my chance to do what he couldn’t. So you can thank me, and I appreciate that, but I want to thank you. Because being able to help you means a lot to me.”

You don’t often know immediately that you will remember a moment the rest of your life, but this was one. I learned a lot about kindness and perspective, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve also seen some lessons in parenting then.

My dad was happy to do something his dad couldn’t. That part is true. But he was also happy to do something he probably felt like he hadn’t in a while, which is sort of the emotion you’re expressing here.

Again, I can’t fully understand what that’s like. But I can imagine it, and can imagine it a little more every day.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for a night last weekend with some of my best friends. We don’t get together as often as we should, but I never laugh as easily and fully, even at the same dumb stories we’ve been telling since we were kids.

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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.
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