Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Tyreek Hill, lots of soccer, Royals trades and Chiefs grades

The drama of waiting to hear Tyreek Hill’s suspension will be over soon. A matter of days. Could be this week, according to a source, but more likely next week.

The Chiefs star seems to have arrived at the doorstep of NFL judgment in as positive a position as he could have hoped for, save for the significant setback of the release of the “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch” audio.

The team stuck with him, no charges ever came from the Johnson County DA’s child abuse investigation, an eight-hour meeting with the league is thought to have gone well for Hill’s side, and the general feeling within the Chiefs’ power structure has shifted from thinking he’d have to be released soon after the KCTV audio to now believing a suspension will be short — or perhaps even nonexistent.

All of this comes with a caution, of course. This story has gone in so many directions, with strategic leaks and so much else kept quiet that predicting an ending before something as unpredictable as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s definition of justice is a fool’s errand.

“The only thing I know for sure,” a league source said a month or so ago, “is that nobody will know how this ends until it ends.”

There will be enough to sift through when Goodell makes his decision, but in the meantime, no matter the outcome, it’s worth noting that the Chiefs have handled an impossible situation well.

After reacting almost immediately when the Kareem Hunt tape dropped on a Friday before a game, the team has used perhaps its only advantage here — time — effectively. They gave Hill what amounted to a team suspension, but did not make a decision on his roster spot because there was no point they had to make that decision.

Without the deadline of a game or even training camp, the Chiefs waited. The non-suspension suspension came for offseason practices, and nobody can ever know for sure whether the Chiefs would’ve drafted Mecole Hardman in a different reality, but the point is they waited.

Andy Reid stepped in it when he began the Frank Clark news conference by falsely stating the investigation was re-opened. That was an unforced error sparked by a confluence of confusion and bad timing, but ultimately it caused no harm.

The cynical view here is that the Chiefs released Kareem Hunt not because he kicked a woman, but because he lied to them about it, and that they might have released Hill after the audio release if not for the timing, the fear of him playing against them in the playoffs someday, and his enormous talent.

Elements of that exist.

But they’ve also been deliberate, and by everything I can tell wanting to know the truth while preparing to support Hill and help him no matter which way the investigation went.

We’ll likely never know that for sure, because it looks as though the Chiefs and Hill will avoid their worst-case scenario here. But either way, the team appears to have passed a difficult test that no team can really prepare for.

This week’s eating recommendation is the grilled chicken at Poi-O and the reading recommendation is Adam Chandler on What McDonald’s Does Right.

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

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Well, I’m not sure that’s a comparison worth making, actually.

FCKC was so poorly run that calling it “poorly run” is an undeserved compliment. The ownership, generally, operated in a way that alternated between disinterested and interested in the wrong things.

Look around the NWSL and you’ll see lots of poorly run clubs, so this doesn’t make the group that ran FCKC unique or even all that notable.

So, perhaps I’m looking at this through KC-colored glasses* but I see FCKC’s failure as more institutional than fairly blamed on Kansas City.

* Those glasses are humid, insecure, and smell of smoked meat.

Now, the most logical counter to this is that Sporting Kansas City could have been more supportive of FCKC and if we’re comparing that franchise’s failure with the big turnout at Power & Light then this is the most significant difference.

Sporting promoted and supported those watch parties in a way that other MLS clubs did not, and in a way that Sporting itself did not for FCKC.

So I don’t think the answer is simple. It’s not, “we care more about women’s soccer now,” or, “well we just like a big party.” The answer is more nuanced than that.

We’ll see how much has changed for women’s soccer in general, because the NWSL starts soon and here is a poignant Budweiser ad about that:

It’s an interesting situation, because one of the reasons USA has been so good in women’s soccer over the years is that women’s sports have been treated and supported better here than many other countries. That’s starting to change, because big European clubs like Man City and Arsenal are devoting more resources to women’s teams.

The best American players will always have spots there, but if you take a 30,000 foot view you see the gap between the USWNT and other countries is already closing.

It stands to reason that as clubs in other countries put a larger priority on the women’s game that gap will continue to shrink, then disappear, then start to go the other direction.

We can respond to that by demanding MLS clubs like Sporting do more to support women’s teams, and they could, but we’re also talking about businesses. MLS clubs like Sporting face a much different financial outlook and long-term security than established clubs in Europe.

This is a really complicated, multilayered issue, is what I’m saying. The curve of mainstream interest in women’s sports is clearly going up, but not dramatically.

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Well, of course it matters. But let’s keep this all in perspective.

Does Kansas City have a stronger soccer culture than Seattle? Atlanta? Los Angeles? Are there more soccer fans in Kansas City (metro population 2.1 million) than Miami (6.2 million)?

If it’s true that 10 American cities will host games, and that seven or eight* are locks then Kansas City is searching for two things.

* LA, New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Orlando or Miami, Baltimore or D.C., and Seattle?

First, Kansas City is searching for ways to differentiate itself from the others. When the grim reaper comes, what does Kansas City have to make sure it goes somewhere else? We’ll talk a lot more about this as time goes on, but that’s basically geography, Pinnacle, and an ability to throw a party.

Sometimes I wonder if we make too much out of the soccer culture here, at least in terms of how the World Cup committee will look at it. Do those people really care how many youth soccer fields there are, or that Sporting sold out 125 straight matches? Because are they really counting on people from Overland Park and Liberty to fill Arrowhead and make this thing profitable?

Seems more likely to me that the committee would care about how receptive and accessible Kansas City will be to thousands and thousands of visitors. That means hotel rooms (got that), a new airport (will have that), and, yes, public transportation (well, see, what had happened was...).

The second thing Kansas City is searching for is to cover its own weaknesses. Basically, the opposite of ways to differentiate. If this was college football, what are Denver and Cincinnati and Nashville and Boston doing to negatively recruit against us?

My guess is it’s mostly about public transportation, scale of downtown, and that assuming the existence of Pinnacle means we’ll get a base camp or two, the ability to include the maximum number of cities in the event.

Those problems will be tough to fix. Kansas City can (and, indeed, has) included plans for fixed and constant bus transportation. But that’s obviously not the same as rail, and from what I understand FIFA values existing public transportation.

And, besides, when it comes to soccer culture it’s not an amazing look that the Bayern-Milan match was moved to Children’s Mercy Park under the dubious cover of an Arrowhead renovation project.

So, I don’t know. I don’t think think anyone does. The committee won’t make a decision based on any one thing and their priority list would be hard to guess.

My point here is that landing games is a big lift for Kansas City, and a good turnout to watch the women’s World Cup final is a nice picture to share but shouldn’t be the lead of the presentation.

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I’m actually sorta planning a bigger look at this sometime, so I reserve the right to take back everything I’m about to say depending on the reporting. But my initial instinct is that MLS hasn’t done enough.

That’s in terms of USMNT performance and the popularity of the sport in general.

I say all of this as someone who respects and admires what Sporting has done since its rebranding, and as someone who took the family to Children’s Mercy Park last weekend and had a grand ol’ time.

Because to me, that should be the base expectation. MLS started at a fortunate time, with enough runway to find some traction and ride the wave of soccer’s popularity growth.

The league has done some of that, but isn’t as advanced or as effective as it could be in developing talent. TV ratings remain an abomination. There is too much potential here to still be so far behind Mexico’s Liga MX in domestic popularity, for instance.

I say all of this with humility, and without insult intended toward the people who’ve run and are running MLS. I don’t have a thesis about mistakes that have been made, or opportunities missed, but I do think it’s a problem with Man United and other big European clubs are setting up offices here and doing a better job recruiting American talent than the American league is doing.

One more time, I don’t mean this as a broad slam on the league. The talent has vastly improved, especially in recent years, to the point that I wonder how the 2013 MLS Cup champions would fare if dropped into 2019 by Doc Brown’s DeLorean.

But progress is different than sufficient progress. MLS officials will often talk about the league still being relatively young, and point out that the NBA still had its championship on tape delay long past its 25th birthday.

It’s a point worth considering, but the world is a far different place now. There’s more competition. Businesses succeed and fail with dizzying speed. I appreciate a long-term view as much as anyone, but it’s also OK to expect a more aggressive growth so far.

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This is a complicated issue. I certainly don’t know everything about it, but I know it’s more complicated than the headlines and sound bites.

It seems to me that much of women’s soccer is governed by rules and an ethos that had its place sometime in the 1970s. Some of the stuff about how little FIFA put into promoting and (thus) profiting from the women’s World Cup was truly astounding.

For an organization that is so shamelessly about money, this is a bizarre whiff. Maybe FIFA could be bribed into promoting the women’s game or something.

But U.S. Soccer should operate differently than FIFA. It should operate better than FIFA.

I don’t believe in literal equal pay, because I also believe in capitalism, which means I believe the talent should get a fair share of the revenue produced. In the case of American soccer, that might mean the women make more than the men. Not equal. More.

The tagline is often equal pay for equal play, but the play is not close to equal.

Nike recently said the USWNT home jersey is the top soccer jersey ever sold on the company’s website in one season, regardless of gender. Sponsorships make up about half of U.S. Soccer revenue, and those are sold as bundles which makes it hard to track which team is driving the interest.

But, according to the Washington Post, from fiscal 2016 to 2018 women’s games generated about $900,000 more than men’s games.

The calculations are complicated, though, with USWNT players and U.S. Soccer offering different sets of facts about how players are paid and any gender gaps that may exist.

From that same story in the Post, women’s games generated net revenue of $9 million in fiscal 2016 and 2017 compared to $3 million for the men.

But the women are paid a base salary while men are paid strictly in bonuses, so it’s not really apples and oranges. Besides, U.S. Soccer is just part of the meal here. FIFA sets prize money for World Cups, and the the women worked with a total pool of $30 million including $4 million for the winners while the men had a $400 million pool with $38 million for the winners.

All of which is a longer way of saying this is a complicated issue, and it’s only being clouded by politicians hijacking the issue.

The women are clearly much more successful, but as long as sponsorships are half of U.S. Soccer’s revenue and not divided by gender I’m not sure how we can know exactly what each side deserves.

And as long as men and women are paid in different ways (not amounts, but ways) I’m not sure how we could pay them equally even if that was the rule.

But, it does seem fairly clear that the women deserve more than they’re getting. Maybe we can start there and work through the details after that.

So, that’s my answer about equal pay but I want to add one random point about the USWNT that I haven’t seen made in a lot places and can’t find a smooth way to slide into a question here:

There’s a lot of understandable and justified pride of having strong female role models for little girls. And I’m here for it. Love it. Stuff like that can literally change the world.

I know we’re all a product of our own personal experiences, but I’m the father of two boys and watching the game with my wife and kids on Sunday drove home the point that it’s also a hell of a thing for little boys to be able to see strong women, too.

Little girls need examples of strength and success in women, but it’s also helpful for little boys to see it. As much as we talk about girls needing to grow up believing they can accomplish anything, we also need boys growing up knowing that women can do anything.

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Let me be clear that this is just me talking: I believe the Royals’ preference would be to trade Merrifield for a package of prospects that would better line up with the next wave of talent.

The disclaimers are significant: he’s their best player right now, and under the type of club control that does line up with the next wave of talent. Additionally, he is the current face of the franchise, especially when Sal Perez is injured, and the Royals put a premium on that type of value both in the clubhouse and community.

But he is also 30 years old, and if the Royals could (baseball jargon coming) multiply him with two or more big leaguers that’s a deal I believe they’d like to make.

Now, let me be clear that this is not just me talking: that kind of deal just doesn’t exist.

Trades are hard to pull off for lots of reasons, and even as Merrifield fits the profile of the modern big league star — athletic, diverse skills, positional versatility, hard worker, good example, etc. — his age and perhaps lack of prospect pedigree* and other factors mean no team has even approached the kind of package for the Royals would move him.

* I know, it’s a dumb thing, but I do think it matters.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I agree. Merrifield should be extremely useful as a trade chip. He is an established All-Star on a long-term team-friendly contract. His versatility means he can slide into virtually any contender’s lineup, replacing the weak link as long as it’s not shortstop or catcher. He’s the modern day Ben Zobrist.

I’m just telling you that, for whatever reason, that deal has yet to be presented.

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We got into this in Sunday’s column, and I hope you read it, but the Royals will and are particularly open to trading any pending free agent.

The most likely to be traded is probably Homer Bailey, just because he’s the right combination of cheap*, and position-of-need**, and performing well enough***.

* The Dodgers are paying him $22.45 million this year. The Royals have been criticized for giving Chris Owings $3 million.

** Everybody needs pitching.

*** League average holds value.

Jake Diekman and Billy Hamilton are the others who fit here, though they’d also listen on others: Jorge Soler (that deal would be more likely in the offseason), Danny Duffy (that decision would be complicated) and others.

Alex Gordon would make sense in a different world, but in this world he has 10-5 veto rights and has publicly expressed a desire to stay in Kansas City.

You are reading the Minutes which means you are smart and discerning which means you know the Royals aren’t getting anyone’s top prospect for anyone mentioned above.

So we’re not going to get into what the Royals will target for these trades, because the truth is they’ll target just about anything that can breathe.

Getting someone’s No. 17 prospect isn’t going to boost the Royals’ farm rankings, but someone’s No. 17 prospect is a hell of a lot more valuable to the Royals’ future than Homer Bailey.

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We’ve done this question before, a few times, but it still comes in a few times every week so I keep including it.

There are, at least, two completely legitimate reasons.

First, let’s not pretend they’re dragging their feet on this. We are halfway through the season. The Royals have 72 games left, which is more than three times the number of games Starling played last season even if you include a few weeks rehabbing in rookie ball.

A lot of you were acting like the Royals were slow on Chris Owings, but they released him before Memorial Day.

Giving him any time in the big leagues would be the biggest step in his career so far, and the Royals have every reason to be cautious with this.

The second reason is that Starling has been a virtual non-prospect for years. He played 11 games at Triple A Omaha last season, slashed .248/.303/.381 the year before, and .183/.235/.298 the year before that. He has zero productive seasons in eight years as a professional.

Now, he’s supposed to be playing centerfield everyday against the best pitching in the world after a good 72 games? Because he had 665 games before this that said he wasn’t ready.

The Royals have typically been deliberate in their handling of prospects. They’ll move guys through quickly at times, but want them to work through as much doubt and as many potential pitfalls as possible first.

Starling retains elite athleticism, but struggling this long in the minor leagues will leave some mental scar tissue. Doubts build, both in the player’s mind and those around him, over that much time.

I can’t criticize a club wanting to be totally sure here, and wanting the player to be as mentally prepared and confident as possible.

Because I do believe this: most of the same people wanting Starling up a month ago will be impatient and worse if he starts 2-for-17 or something.

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It’s a mostly brand new defense, but the offense is back almost entirely intact. So let’s do this, in order from easiest to rate to most difficult.

Offense: A+. If every player in the league became available in a draft, Patrick Mahomes would not only go No. 1 but the team with the No. 1 pick would field furious trade offers. The Chiefs not only have that player, but have him surrounded with incredible support in both coaching (Andy Reid is one of the great offensive minds of his generation) and talent (Tyreek Hill is the PERFECT fit for Mahomes’ talent).

Special teams: A-. They’re really good. Not perfect, but really good. Without going through 31 other teams there can’t be many with a better pairing of Dustin Colquitt and Harrison Butker. They’re generally in the top half or top third in coverage stats. Tyreek Hill is also a hell of a weapon for big punt return moments and the playoffs.

Coaching. B. Half the staff is an A, and half is unknown, so a B sounds fair here. We know what we’re getting with Andy Reid and his offensive assistants, so let’s not use any more words there. I believe that Steve Spagnuolo is a significant upgrade on Bob Sutton, both in terms of scheme and play calling but more importantly in terms of leadership.

We had more signs than we needed that the defense was a mess not just last year but the year before, and not just with players believing in the system but in the level of accountability provided by the coaches. If nothing else, that’s probably now been upgraded.

Defense. D+. This is last because it is, by far, the hardest to predict. The safeties have been massively upgraded, and that was the weakest position group on the team last year. By far. The corners weren’t awesome, but the more tape you watch the more you see spots where they were left unsupported by the safeties. Whether that was a failure in scheme, personnel, or decisions is really irrelevant now.

Any improvement you want to see from the cornerbacks depends on three factors: how much you blame the safeties, whether you believe Bashaud Breeland is an upgrade over Steven Nelson, and whether you think Charvarius Ward is real.

My opinion, whatever that’s worth, is that better safeties will make the corners look better, Nelson is better than Breeland but the Chiefs should get Breeland’s best this season, and that Ward is real but the inherent volatility in performance of young corners means nobody can be certain either way.

Any improvement from the middle linebackers will be more about scheme than personnel, and the Chiefs are building a nice rotation of young linemen and pass rushers up front.

Maybe D+ is harsh, but the last two years that group has been an F. The safeties will be better. But the rest needs to be proven.

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It’s generally more fan friendly now than a decade ago, but if you pick a hot day you’re going to bake.

If you want to go, my advice would be to pick the day based primarily on weather. If you’re an autograph person, your best bet is to be a kid and get on the hill as the players walk up after practice.

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Keith Reaser has some potential, because the Alliance story is fun to talk about. Rashad Fenton will be there when we need to find a new face at cornerback, and Darwin Thompson has a good resume with strength and balance and the positional advantage of being a running back for Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.

Those names are where the sharp money is, anyway.

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I’m going to answer your question in three ways.

The first answer is Mike Vaccaro. We never actually worked together at The Star, but he was here when I was a student at KU. He was 10 times more generous with his time than I deserved, but through emails and conversations and what turned into a friendship he was the first person in the business who really made me feel like I could do this for a living. I won’t ever forget that, or be able to make it even with him.

He answered questions I’d been worried about for years, and others I didn’t even know I should be worried about. He talked to me about how to handle a locker room, or a ticked off coach, or a tight deadline, or any number of other things. And I know I picked the right person because every time I thank him, or ask how I can repay him, he tells me to merely do the same for someone else.

Vac could come to my house and kick my dog and I’d blame the dog, is what I’m saying.

The second answer is the literal answer, because like I said I never actually worked with Vac. But there’s not just one person, so I’ll tell you this: Jason Whitlock modeled thick skin, Joe Posnanski modeled relentless creativity, Wright Thompson modeled pushing every boundary, Bob Dutton modeled steady professionalism, Liz Merrill modeled turning around badass features quickly, Terez Paylor modeled hard work, Andy McCullough (ugh) modeled a new way of storytelling, Kent Babb (UGH) modeled bad braces and ambitious ideas, and Blair and Vahe model how to treat people.

If I can take 5 percent from each of them I’ll be better than I am.

But the other answer here is Mike Fannin. He’s not a writer, and you asked about writers, but after my mom nobody influenced my writing more. He was the sports editor when I was hired as a 22-year-old, and I just remember this constant feeling of wanting him to notice what I was doing and being desperate to hear feedback.

Most of it was negative, which is how it should’ve been, not just because I was 22 and mostly clueless but also because I don’t believe you get better by always hearing that you’re already good.

He’s still here, but as the editor and a vice president of the Star, so our conversations have changed. We’re in different places, and need to talk about different things. But I will forever be grateful for our paths crossing, and the advice that I still use.

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This is embarrassing, maybe on a few levels, but the last movie I went to without kids was Entourage.


We’re not casino people, and to me it would feel weird going to a Royals game without the kids, so here is a little twist:

We’d take the dog for a walk (this is one of my wife’s favorite things to do) and then eat a good meal out (this is one of my favorite things to do). The walk would be from like 5 to 6, then dinner would be at like 7:30, and we’d be back home by 9:30 for a nightcap and early sleep.

We probably go out to eat more than we should anyway, and there’s something irreplaceable about making dinner yourself, but nobody wants dishes on a kids-free night and you just said I get $100 to spend anyway so that’s what we’re doing.

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I do!

I’ve done two “as told to” books, and each had special meaning.

The Art of Scouting — 5 stars on Amazon! — was done with my friend Art Stewart, one of my favorite people in the world, and included gobs of great old baseball stories, which are some of my favorite things in the world.

Guardian of the Golden Gate — 4 1/2 stars on Amazon! — was done with Kevin Briggs, a highway patrolman who spent years protecting the Golden Gate Bridge, where more people take their own lives than anywhere else in America. The book explored suicide and mental illness, and the project came to me just as someone I love dearly was dealing with those issues.

I bring all this up not to plug the books — I won’t get a penny if you buy one — but to show that I won’t take on a load like that without feeling something personal beyond my name being on the cover.

I think I’m done doing “as told to” books, and I believe anyone who does a book on their own needs to feel at least two things in their soul: they can’t imagine not doing the book, and they are uniquely qualified to write it.

I’ve felt close a few times, but in the end it just hasn’t worked.

I’m still searching for the right topic, and the right time, and probably most importantly the right feeling.

The two things I’m most passionate about in this world are sports and raising kids. Maybe there’s a topic at the intersection there, or an opportunity that will present itself that I can’t stop thinking about.

Maybe it will be something else, or maybe it will never come. Who knows.

But I’m willing to wait, because I just can’t imagine spending the time and stress required for a book for anything I’m not obsessed with.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for what might be the best week I’ve ever had with my family: the kids rode a tractor, caught lightning bugs, went to two pool parties, rode their bikes in a neighborhood parade, ate fried chicken and the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever made, and did fireworks for the first time. My wife and I had a lot of time together, too, including a night when some of my best friends came over and we drank on my patio into the night. I want that week forever.

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