Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Baseball, the Royals, and Me

It was the last inning of the championship game. The Yankees had a sizable lead, but were struggling to get the final out. Their hated rivals were trying to put together one last miracle rally. Anything to tie the game.

With runners at first and second, the lead was looking to be in doubt. There were two strikes on the hitter, though, and the Yankees had their best pitcher out there. The catcher called for a meeting on the mound.

"Splitter," said the young catcher, and just like that, he had returned to home plate.

After a deep breath, the pitch came in. A splitter it surely was, only the hitter wasn't biting. The catcher wasn't much concerned with that, though, because the runners were going on the pitch. Out of the crouch, he fired a strike to third base. The third baseman applied the tag and waited for the call.

"He's out!" The umpire cried. The runner was out by a mile.

The celebration was on. There were hugs and cheers everywhere. Overwhelmed by the turn of events, the catcher launched his mask into the air wildly, almost knocking out a teammate. It didn't matter. They had won. After a long, grueling season in the hot sun, the Yankees had proven they were the best in baseball. Nothing in the world had ever been this sweet. They were champions.

. . .

The Royals lost another game tonight. More importantly, the Royals lost another winnable game tonight. This one hurt more than usual, though.* Maybe it was the fact that they made another handful of mistakes along the way, mistakes I'd expect most decent high school teams to avoid. Maybe it was that they had very good chances in the eighth and ninth to at least tie the game, and anytime you come that close to winning and don't, it's hard not to be upset.

*It seems every other loss hurts more than usual. Or maybe this team has been losing long enough now to the point where every loss hurts more than the one before. Or, it's possible this team has been losing long enough now to the point where I've become completely delusional.

More likely, though, it's because, like in most close games in any sport, the good teams find a way to win, and well, you know the rest. The Royals, of course, found a way to lose tonight, as they usually do. They always seem to be just good enough to lose. It's the one thing they never fail to do.

It's more frustrating because after winning three of their last four, including two of three from the Cardinals over the weekend, the Royals had a real chance put a dent in the Twins' lead in the division in the next few days. And yes, they still have that opportunity, but we all know what's more likely to happen. Just as they string together a few victories, the Royals, as they are accustomed to doing, will fall into a tailspin long enough to negate any progress they've made over the last week or so. The cycle will continue, as it has - give or take - for the last two decades, until the end of the season. The Royals will never get closer than arms length to first place, and will finish somewhere near the bottom of the division.

It's killing me. That may sound silly. It is silly, because it's not really killing me. With every loss, though, a part of me, at least the side of me that loves baseball, is dying. I know I can take it for awhile. I've proven that over the last twenty years. I do not know how much more I can take, though.

I sense that most people, after reading that last sentence, will laugh and assume I'm being overdramatic. While it is likely that I'd still watch another twenty years of losing Royals baseball without blinking, the thought is sincere. Really, at what point do we, as fans, finally say enough is enough, and save ourselves the hurt? Does that point ever come? I guess I really don't know.

Anyway, for whatever reason, tonight's game stuck with me for awhile. It wasn't this game in particular, obviously, but more of a cumulative frustration. It inspired some deep thought. After I got over the natural 'what could we have done to win' thoughts, I started thinking about my relationship with the Royals. Obviously, my affiliation with the Royals makes sense because I was born and raised in Kansas City. I love Kansas City. I wondered, though, do I love the Royals?

I think I've come to realize that my true love is with baseball, not the Royals. This is not to say that I don't love the Royals. That possibility is there. But without the Royals, we still have baseball. Without baseball, there are no Kansas City Royals.

And with every mental mistake a player makes, blown lead, star player traded and so on, it becomes even harder and harder and harder to love this team. What is Yuniesky Betancourt thinking when he botches a suicide squeeze with the game on the line? What's going through Billy Butler's mind when he fails to cover a base on a blooper? What exactly does David Glass think about the seventh consecutive team he's allowed represent his organization that has absolutely no chance of winning?

Does the thought in those men's minds have anything to do with their love for baseball? How about their respect for the sport? I seriously doubt it.

See, I played this sport once, too. I was the catcher on that Yankees team that won the championship. The hated rivals were the Vipers. It was South Suburban little league baseball in south Kansas City. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

Some of my best memories were created on those Clark Ketterman ball fields. I discovered baseball there, and it's no wonder why I'll never forget the times I had. It was my first true love. I will always love this game.

It's no mystery why my mind drifted to our championship game victory while I reflected on the Royals tonight. It's possible it would take some similar soul searching - I mean truly searching for the reasons why - in order to revive this organization.

I hope it happens sooner rather than later. My love for the Royals may be running out. My love for baseball, on the other hand, will never fade.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Royals, Twins Walk Separate Paths

As a longtime Kansas City baseball fan, I can safely say I've seen just about anything and everything you could ever dream of seeing happen on a baseball diamond.

That is except, of course, winning baseball.

In this stupor that is the last two decades of losing baseball the Royals have subjected us to, as fans, we've kind of lost touch on what's really going on. That, and we're not really sure why we're still watching.*

*Every time I DVR a Royals game, two thoughts come to mind:
  1. I hope we win tonight.
  2. We're not going to win tonight.
Still, this team has become something like a phenomenon. Coming into every season, we seem to already know the Royals have no chance to compete for a pennant. Prospects and free agents always find a way to flop. Managers come and go, few of them with answers.

And the losses pile on - it's like this team has been losing forever - without any explanation.

It's time we explored one possible explanation: The walks.

I think it's only fair that we use the Minnesota Twins as a comparison. The Twins have been winning for a full decade now, and their rise from almost being contracted to model small-market franchise is something the Royals would love to replicate.

Also, it's important to note why the Twins are a relevant comparison. It's been said there is no other one thing that has more emphasis put on it in Minnesota than the importance of their pitchers throwing strikes. From day one in development all the way to the major league level, it's something their coaches preach. Walks are like sin in the organization, and their pitchers either catch on or hit the road.

So let's start with 2010. As you might expect, as of Tuesday, the Twins are first in the majors having only given up 146 bases on balls. What's more telling is the second place team has walked 31 more hitters. The Royals, of course, are in the bottom third of the league at 23rd, with 256 BBs. That's a mere 110 more, or 1.5 more per game, than Minnesota.*

*While looking at that stat I noticed the Royals and Twins have virtually the same innings pitched and batting avg. against this season, yet KC has given up a whopping 77 more earned runs so far. Ouch.

Since 2001, when the Twins began their dominance of the A.L. Central, the team has never finished worst than fourth in least walks allowed. In that same time frame, the Royals' average ranking is 20th, and they never finished higher than ninth.

What's most staggering is since 2003, the Twins have been best in the league in walks allowed three times, and either finished first or second every season in that time period.

Now, none of all this matters unless it equates to victories, and it surely does. From '01 on, the Twins have had only one losing season, and have won the division five times. And that includes some absolute dominance of our boys in blue that most of us would like to forget.

On the other hand, our walk-happy Royals club has had one winning season and four-100 loss seasons in the last decade to show for their ignorance to this obvious deficiency. It's embarrasing.

We know this isn't the only reason the Royals have been losing. It's certainly not the only reason the Twins are winning. They have a couple of young hitters named Mauer and Morneau that have played a pretty big role in the team's recent success.

Still, it's one thing the Royals have been bad at for awhile now. It's something they'll have to drastically improve upon as they try to progress and eventually become a winning team. And certainly it's something we can all think about come October, when the Twins are still playing baseball and the Royals are not.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Royals' Pick Shows Us How Bad (Or Good) It Could Be

There are two very contrasting conclusions one could draw from the Royals' first-round selection Monday in the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

The first is the negative, and it was (naturally) my original feeling in the moments following the organization's decision to make Cal State Fullerton shortstop Christian Colon the fourth overall selection in the draft.

In the days leading up to the first-round Monday, there was much speculation the Royals were already working out a deal to make University of Miami catcher Yasmani Grandal their selection. The only question was whether the temptation to take Chris Sale, a hard throwing left-handed pitcher from Florida Gulf Coast, would ultimately prove too great to pass on.

Then, of course, the news came. The Royals had selected Colon. Reports surfaced that the organization steered away from Grandal only after - you guessed it - negotiations on his potential signing bonus broke down.

My immediate thought there was obvious: It's impossible to believe this team has improved since the Herk Robinson and Allard Baird days if they're still drafting players based on signability. If the Royals believe Grandal will become a more productive big leaguer than Colon, and still selected Colon because of money issues, then, folks, we're dealing with the same set of issues that initially plagued the franchise in the mid-90s after founder Ewing Kauffman passed away.

It's also interesting, and hopefully just a coincidence, that Colon happens to play a position of need for the big league club. The Royals are starving for a major-league ready shortstop in their system, and they project Colon to be at that status quickly.

The problem there is that it's usually a mistake to draft for need. The consensus is, in almost any sport, it's a better strategy to draft the best overall players instead of reaching for a quick solution to fill holes on the roster. If a team tends to generally select the best overall players, by the time those players are ready to compete at a high level, trades and injuries help smooth things out and balance the roster.

Obviously it's easier said than done, but you get the idea. Drafting for need usually leads to having less overall talent on your roster in the future.

It's also very odd that GM Dayton Moore has completely flip-flopped on his initial draft strategy when he took over the Royals. He made it clear the emphasis would be on drafting high school players who are bigger projects but have much higher potential. He followed through on that in 2007 and 2008, making Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, both power-hitting high school hitters at the time of their selections, the Royals' first-round picks in each of those drafts, respectively.

Then, last year, the philosophy seemed to change a bit, when the team chose Mizzou pitcher Aaron Crow with their first-round selection. Monday, of course, they chose Colon, making it two consecutive years their first pick was a college player.

What's more telling is that as of Tuesday evening, 24 of the Royals' 29 picks so far in this year's draft were college players.

The intention is clear. Moore's goal in this year's draft is to compliment the impressive wave of talent in the minor-league system, headed by Moustakas and Hosmer, in hopes that a mostly home-grown roster is on the field and winning games by 2013 or 2014.

I can't say it's healthy for Moore to be putting all his eggs in this talent-wave's basket, so to speak. He has preached that the goal is to have wave after wave of talent, each ready to replace the existing one in each level of the organization. He says it's the only proven way for a professional baseball team to compete and win for an extended period of time in a small market.

You have to wonder if Moore is sacrificing the team's long-term future to save his job in the very-near future.

Yet, still, it could work, and this is the positive conclusion one must ultimately form from the Royals' draft selection Monday. This team is slowly forming what might be one of the most impressive minor-league systems in all of baseball. With the drafting of Colon - and the team says they wanted Colon all along - there will potentially be one less glaring hole on a team three years down the line that should be winning.

The sudden emphasis on drafting college talent also shows how close the organization believes they are to winning. It is, finally, no longer a five-year (endless) plan of drafting and developing and eventually failing. The Royals want players who are close to being major-league ready because better days are coming, and they're closer than ever.

Both arguments certainly hold water. It's definitely easier to focus on the negative, given the painful mistakes the Royals' organization has made over the years. Of course, on the contrary, it didn't hurt that just a couple hours after the team drafted Colon, I flipped on the television just in time to see him go three for four with two doubles in support of a victory for his Titans in the College World Series.

If there ever comes a time Colon finds himself in a more impactful game with his new team, we'll know it was a good pick.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Perfect Call

In the aftermath of the biggest blown call by an umpire in Major League Baseball in over two decades, I can't help but wonder if Jim Joyce did Armando Galarraga and the rest of baseball a huge favor last night.

If you haven't already heard, Galarraga, pitching for the Detroit Tigers, had a perfect game going with two outs in the ninth inning when Cleveland Indians' shortstop Jason Donald hit a chopper to the right side. First baseman Miguel Cabrera moved to his right, fielded the ball, tossed it to first where Galarraga was covering for what should have been the 27th and final out of perfection.

Donald was out by almost a full step. Joyce, umpiring at first base, called him safe.

Cabrera put his hands on his head in disbelief. Tigers' manager Jim Leyland came out to argue the call. The Tigers' television announcers were so sure Donald was out, they didn't even bother to wait for Joyce's call before exclaiming, "He's out!"

Even Donald himself threw his hands on his head as if he couldn't believe it, either. It was almost as if he wanted to be out. He would later explain that he didn't know if he was out or not, but he was sure he would be called out given what was at stake.

And Galarraga? Well, he just smiled.

That's what got me. The guy was one out away from throwing a perfect game, loses it on a bad call, and all he does is smiles? I was thinking, as most of you probably were:

"If that were me, I would have gone ballistic. I mean, safe? Really? You just cost me a perfect game! Seriously?! I'm going George Brett pine-tar on this guy. You've got to be kidding!"

No, not Galarraga. He took a deep breath and retired the next hitter for a one-hit shutout. The damage had been done. After the game, Joyce apologized and admitted he was wrong.

"I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay," he said. "I just cost that kid a perfect game."

Joyce would later apologize directly to Galarraga. They hugged, with Joyce in tears.

Obviously the call and the game led to plenty of talk about expanding instant replay in baseball. Royals' catcher Jason Kendall said today that Joyce is the best umpire in baseball, and there's no room for replay, at least more replay, in the sport.

We live with bad calls and move on. It's baseball.

It also led to questions as to whether Commissioner Bud Selig would overturn the call so Galarraga could have his perfect game. Selig ruled against that idea today, and I think it was a good decision. Human error is a part of sports officiating, maybe moreso in baseball than any other sport. If we corrected every bad call in the previous 20 perfect games in MLB history, who knows if any or all of those would no longer be thought of as 'perfect'?

Most importantly, though, the call led to us finding something out about what it really means to be perfect. After the game, Galarraga talked about how sad it was for Joyce, that he really felt for him. You'd expect the feeling would be the other way around. Then today, Galarraga, smiles and all, presented the lineup card to a tearful Joyce, a job usually left for the manager or bench coach of the ball club.

Galarraga had been perfect, as a pitcher, for one night. Yet, he would not be remembered as perfect, at least baseball-wise. He did not let it phase him, though. He accepted it and moved on, as quick as that. There's something to be learned from his professional and forgiving attitude* immediately after the call all the way through today.

*NBA Finals participants, are you listening? One of the many reasons I think college basketball is much more entertaining than the pros is the way the pro players react when a foul is called. After every whistle, like clockwork, you have ten grown men whining and crying about an obvious foul call or travel or whatever. Give me a break, guys. This isn't street-ball. It's disgusting.

And in his response, Galarraga has made us not be able to forget him. Sure, we all would have remembered the call. But Galarraga has become more than his imperfect-perfect game. Joyce has played a role, too. Not every umpire would be willing to admit a mistake that large, and come back to the ballpark the next day ready to work.

It's really been something special. There have been two other perfect games in the last month. Had Joyce made the correct call at first last night, Armando Galarraga would have been a name remembered only for the next few days. Maybe even a month.

Now, though, this story has become so much more. It's bigger than baseball. We'll never forget Armando Galarraga, or the smile on his face after the call. We'll never forget Jim Joyce becoming so human after the worst call of his career.

It's funny, I'm not sure Galarraga knew the irony in his statement after the game to reporters, in which he summed up the call by Joyce.

"Nobody's perfect," he said.

In a weird way, it couldn't have been more perfect.