Vahe Gregorian

One way or another, Royals’ fortunes altered after players-only meeting last year

“Obviously, it changed the attitude, and it really changed the way we went about things around here last year,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said of last season’s players-only meeting last year after the All-Star Break.
“Obviously, it changed the attitude, and it really changed the way we went about things around here last year,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said of last season’s players-only meeting last year after the All-Star Break. The Kansas City Star

In late May last season, when the Royals still looked rudderless, they became so adrift that even infinitely patient manager Ned Yost allowed frustration with his team to be seen publicly.

His hitters simply weren’t doing “what successful big-league hitters do,” he said amid a 21-5 skunking over three days by Houston. The team needed remedial work on fundamentals and faced a leadership void, too.

Tame as the words might seem, Yost’s tone betrayed otherwise, especially for someone consumed with protecting his players.

“There’s time where you’ve got to wake up,” Yost said, clapping his hands for effect even as he tried to suggest that was inevitable. “They’re going to get it. Sooner or later. ... You can’t say it one time. Sometimes you’ve got to say it 50 times.

“Sometimes you’ve got to say it 75 times. And then the next guy comes in and says it one time,” he added, snapping his fingers, “and it clicks.”

Kansas City Royals pitcher Kris Medlen returns to the lineup following his second Tommy John surgery. Video by John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star

The “next guy” technically was Dale Sveum, who a day later became the Royals’ sixth hitting coach in two years and had an apparent impact as the Royals won 15 of their next 18.

But by Monday night after the All-Star Game a year ago, the Royals seemed lost and listless as they dropped seven of eight to tumble to eight games out of first in Chicago.

All of which prompted “The Meeting,” which depending on your perspective either changed everything or was purely coincidental to what’s come in the year exactly since.

Through that Monday in 2014, the Royals were 48-50 and on trajectory to their 29th straight season without a playoff berth.

Since that day, including the 2014 postseason, the Royals were 107-62 entering their game against Pittsburgh on Monday at Kauffman Stadium.

To some, the players-only meeting led by Raul Ibanez surely prompted all this.

“Obviously, it changed the attitude, and it really changed the way we went about things around here last year,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Added center fielder Lorenzo Cain: “Something that we needed … It definitely helped us and turned things around.”

Trouble is, the narrative isn’t universally shared.

“There was a lot more made out of it than probably should have been,” said Yost, who greeted the question with a blank stare.

With a laugh, pitcher Jeremy Guthrie said, “For every story (in which) a meeting was the turning point, you could write five or six where a meeting just went by the wayside and happened and no one cared.”

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost talks about coming off the All-Star break, the return of pitcher Kris Medlen, and facing the Pittsburgh Pirates in a three-game series starting today. Video by John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star.

If the thoughts seem to contradict, though, maybe there’s a place on the Venn diagram where there’s room for both to intersect.

Because there’s no doubt that the words of Ibanez, who in the final season of an illustrious career had just signed with the Royals weeks before, resonated in a clubhouse in which there were no other players-only meetings in 2014.

Ibanez, then 42, carried the unique quality of charisma and credibility based on both individual achievements and postseason experiences.

It meant something to a still-fledgling team to hear him say this was the most talented group of players he’d ever been around, that other teams hated playing them and that they just had to focus on the little things.

It meant all the more, Hosmer recalled, because in a few weeks’ time of quietly making the rounds in the clubhouse he had become recognized as “100 percent real and special.”

It also had more clout because Ibanez had demonstrated restraint. He had resisted addressing the team “unless something was necessary,” Hosmer said.

When it clearly became so after a 3-1 loss to the White Sox, Ibanez and other veterans who spoke that day had an attentive audience.

To Hosmer, the words translated to finding ways to win that stressed their bullpen and defense.

“We really tried to create our own style and get leads early,” said Hosmer, noting an emphasis on manufacturing runs with bunts, for instance.

Next thing you know, the Royals won 24 of 30 to move into position for a wild-card berth that changed the fortunes of the franchise.

If the meeting wasn’t the impetus for all of that, well, it sure seemed to have something to do with the first link in the chain.

Somehow, someway, it sparked a moment, and with that came a movement.

There are hundreds of reasons, of course, why teams win and lose, and all sorts of pivot points that may or may not be defining.

But even those who might wonder just how much words might mean to professionals already consumed with their jobs know that ultimately succeeding is about state of mind.

The mental edge, Guthrie said, is the difference between guys who succeed and guys who don’t that may have more talent.

The same might be applied to group dynamics.

“The key was there was a team that was talented and had the ability to perform,” Guthrie said, “and maybe a small shift in confidence or focus allowed that to come to the forefront.”

Yost joked that he once heard such meetings are best called on days a No. 1 starter is pitching, but he grudgingly allowed as how a meeting can help put redirect focus “on the positive side of what we need to do more than the negative side of what’s happening.”

Still, he said, “It was just the time for us to take off. And we did.”

Right after the next guy came in and said it one time … and it clicked.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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