Reflecting the Royals’ inimitable, exhilarating 2014 season, the Tiger Club of Kansas City greeted Royals general manager Dayton Moore with a standing ovation Tuesday at the Westport Flea Market.
The gesture was another of the countless expressions of gratitude to Moore — who nonetheless still finds himself gnawing on game seven of the World Series.
“It’s probably going to continue to haunt me,” Moore said.
“You would have to have been expecting a missed play,” Moore said afterward. “You can’t do that.”
Instead, it lingers in his craw because of the preciousness of the opportunity 29 years in the making for the Royals … with no real way to know when they’ll have the unique blend of terrific play, resolve and fortune to get back to that position.
But nearing the eve of pitchers and catchers reporting Thursday to spring training in Surprise, Ariz., Moore has embraced some consoling notions that he believes will be true of his team, too.
“Makes you hungrier,” he said.
Moreover, fleeting as these possibilities might be, Moore also believes the foundation has been poured for regular contention: a farm system bubbling with prospects a year or so away and, albeit minus starter James Shields, a young nucleus back that made last season so special.
“I feel like they’re all continuing to get better,” he said. “None of them has reached their ceiling.”
Maintaining the team’s strengths was Moore’s off-season mantra, which is why one of the most dominant bullpens in the history of the game returns intact — and likely bolstered by the return of Luke Hochevar, who missed all of 2014 because of an elbow injury.
A remarkable defense figures to be as good or better with Alex Rios in right field in place of the adventurous Nori Aoki, and speed on the basepaths again will be a pivotal asset.
There are plenty of variables, of course, including whether the bullpen can remotely match its epic numbers, whether the starting pitching can hold up as well as it did in 2014 and the Royals can generally be as healthy as they’ve been.
And considering the improvements all around them in the American League Central Division, it would be helpful, too, if the Royals could manage more than 95 home runs, the fewest in Major League Baseball last year.
But one thing Moore doesn’t believe is in flux is the sense of a culture transformed into one of positivity and belief, something that outsiders may or may not consider substantial but that he put such a premium on over the years you can see it in the moves big and small in his tenure.
His No. 1 job, he said, was creating an atmosphere of positivity to help manage the failure inherent in the game — not to mention that this franchise had been steeped in for so long before he arrived in 2006.
That’s why he kept reliever Joakim Soria when he was at his peak and the Royals were years from flourishing and Soria might have been fodder for useful trades.
It was more important then, Moore believed, to have among his young players a stellar role model of professionalism and conduct.
That’s why he traded for Shields, who brought an upbeat swagger … and why he hired optimistic Ned Yost as manager … and why he is so partial to exuberant Rusty Kuntz as the outfielders coach … and why the Royals signed fading but forever motivating Raul Ibañez last season.
All of that, he said, manifested itself in the unfathomable comeback in the AL Wild Card Game against Oakland that was the springboard to the brink of a World Series championship.
“We’ve understood from Day One,” he said, “that your leaders shape your culture.”
So much so that Moore doesn’t even point to last season as the most crucial shift in the direction of the franchise.
That turning point came in 2013, he believes, specifically in late May during a game at St. Louis that was bogged down by a four-hour rain-delay and ended at 3:14 a.m.
The Royals had lost 19 of their previous 23 games before George Brett took over as hitting coach that night, you might remember, and they’d arrived in St. Louis via bus at 4 a.m. the day before after their charter flight had been canceled because of mechanical problems.
To Moore, that was the day the Royals entered a “fearless stage” of scrapping and competing.
And he believes fear has struck out ever since.
“I just think you saw a lot of fight and resiliency to that group from that day forward,” said Moore, who noted that he’s not concerned about complacency now.
There have been dips since, of course, but the arc is there to back Moore’s point:
The Royals are 149-126 in regular-season games since and didn’t have another losing month in 2013, when they finished 86-76 for their best season in a generation.
That time frame was a particularly acute point to Moore, who believed the Royals had lost a generation of fans but at last had re-energized the base.
That’s why he said what he said after that season, about feeling like in a small way the Royals already had won the World Series.
He didn’t repeat that term on Tuesday, but he said, “To this day, that’s still the best feeling I’ve ever had professionally in this game.”
He later added, “They had bridged the gap, or whatever you want to call it. There was just an energy and excitement and connectivity between the Royals and the community … and a following and a belief we hadn’t had before.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, Moore still feels the sting of the Royals actually nearly winning the World Series.
But he also is conscious of what he called the “joy, unity and togetherness it brought so many people — and that’s what it’s all about for me.”