Chemistry is an elusive commodity. There’s no way to measure it. It’s complicated to define, let alone cultivate.
And when it comes to sports, anyway, it doesn’t mean much in and of itself.
“You can go out on the street in The Plaza and find 25 guys who like each other and want to put their arms around each other and hug each other,” Royals manager Ned Yost playfully said Wednesday afternoon. “You’ve got to have talent, too.”
Just the same, Yost puts a premium on the concept, which he believes has been fundamental to the Royals’ resurgence this season.
Despite a wasteful 6-4 loss to Seattle on Wednesday, they remain five games above .500 as they scratch for a second winning season since 1994, and they hover five games out in the wild-card race (pending late Wednesday results) from their first playoff berth since 1985.
Chemistry “matters a lot here. For me it does. I think that what we’ve got going here in terms of chemistry is as good as I’ve ever seen it,” Yost said before the Royals rallied from four runs behind to tie only to fall on Kendrys Morales’ two-run homer. “It’s as good as it was in the heyday with Atlanta.”
Meaning from 1991 to 2002, when Yost had various roles with the Braves, who won the 2005 World Series and were generally dominant in that span.
So what does chemistry look like to Yost?
“These guys all have a heart to win,” he said. “They all show up every day willing to work to do whatever it takes to win. They’ve all got great energy once they come through the clubhouse door. Once the games start, they’re all rooting for each other.”
It makes for a palpable difference from the last few years, though there’s obviously a chicken-and-egg element to that:
Win and people are happy, right? And teams that don’t like each other can win, just like teams that do like each other sometimes don’t.
“The only way teams reach their true ceiling,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “is if they play for one another.”
The nucleus of this team, particularly the regular lineup and the bullpen, is energetic youngsters who’ve been playing together for a few years.
“We always had a blast, and we always rolled through people,” left-hander Danny Duffy said, referring to minor-league successes. “It was a lot of fun coming up.”
But it wasn’t so much fun here the last few years or most of the last 20, for that matter.
Something was missing, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
And by multiple accounts, they got an infusion of both in December when they acquired James Shields, who leads the American League in quality starts (23) and innings pitched (196) and, evidently, in clubhouse influence.
“He loves being in the clubhouse,” Moore said. “In my mind, he loves traveling. He loves being with his teammates. He loves the interaction with the fans and the umpires and the media.
“He embraces all aspects of the game. And when somebody does that, it just brings energy and that rubs off. It’s contagious.”
Shields wouldn’t have such impact if he hadn’t had credibility: He was voted onto the 2011 All-Star team and pitched in three postseasons, with Tampa Bay’s only win in the 2008 World Series.
So it mattered when he stood tall and radiated resilience during the Royals’ 4-19 skid in May that featured scant run support and could have derailed the season.
“No question,” Moore said. “He handled it like a pro, (talking about) what ‘I’ve got to do better.’ He did his best to take the pressure off the offense.”
Duffy said: “We’ve had a couple tough slides this year, and he was instrumental in making sure no one panicked and getting everything turned around.”
With deeds and words.
And by orchestrating a post-victory routine that entails a disco ball, strobe light, fog machine and customized neon sign commissioned by Shields, who imported the hijinks from Tampa Bay.
In comes the team, out go the lights, and the clapping and goofing goes on as a “king of the game” is named, given a T-shirt and the privileging of lighting the sign.
“It’s tremendous fun,” Yost said.
That’s part of what Duffy means when he says this is a “night and day” difference in clubhouse culture.
“It’s a blast,” he said. “Last year after a win, it would be a pat on the back or a fist (bump). This year, it’s a lot different because it means a lot more.”
If that celebration sounds a little over the top, it probably is.
Then again, who should be celebrating victories more than the Royals? And who’s to say the chemistry hasn’t been a crucial difference, even if you’ve got to have the talent, too?