And now, a few words about the first-place Kansas City Royals

I don’t think I’ve been able to write those words since 2003, so I’d better use them when I can.

This team has been making me eat my words almost non-stop since 1986. Aside from briefly recapturing the magic in the summer of ’03, the only highlights I can think of revolve around the twilight of George Brett’s career. Kids born the year Brett retired are eligible to get their learner’s permits this year.No, I don’t expect the Royals to win it all this year. But this year is encouraging on a lot of levels.

One, they’re stealing bases successfully. They’ve run into a lot of outs in recent years, and the way you win when you don’t have a lineup full of big boppers like New York or Detroit is to run a lot, whether it’s taking the extra base on hits, or outright stealing the base. And when you draw a lot of throws, you encourage errors. Today’s game was an example: They stole five bases off weak-armed Jorge Posada, all but forcing the Yankees to replace him with Jose Molina. Molina takes the running game away, but can the Yankees afford to go without Posada’s bat? The Yankees didn’t have to worry about that last year.

Two, the pitching is holding up. Last year, pitching was the Royals’ bright spot. The bullpen was lights-out and Gil Meche and Brian Bannister emerged as quality starting pitchers. Bullpen standouts Zack Greinke and David Riske are gone (Greinke to the rotation; Riske to the Brewers), but so far the bullpen has been spectacular, and the starting pitching excellent. Perhaps even more importantly, the pitching’s good enough that they don’t have to rush their young arms and they can let them develop as needed. The Royals have a history of destroying young pitchers, and maybe that can change starting this year.

Three, every game has been close. The Royals of Buddy Bell and Tony Pena and Tony Loser, er, Muser didn’t win close games, and they didn’t have a lot of close games either. They’re hanging in there every game, holding tight leads, battling back at times, and generally playing sound baseball. At times in recent years I haven’t been able to watch, because it didn’t look like the teams had any heart. This year I haven’t been able to watch any games yet, but they make me want to.

Four, this team’s best is yet to come. Nobody knows yet exactly what kind of player Mark Teahen will be, but he has the potential to be anything from a leadoff hitter to a Ryne Sandberg to a George Brett. The Royals would prefer one of the latter two because they need some power, but even if he turns into a leadoff hitter, that’s OK. Alex Gordon is an exciting young player who can play spectacular third base defense, steal bases, and hit 420-foot home runs. He’s going to be the best all-around player the Royals have developed since Carlos Beltran. Billy Butler doesn’t know what to do with a glove in his hand and he runs like a catcher, but he can hit for average and power. The Royals really need a couple more bats to be competitive, but they have some in the minors (Mike Moustakas is going to be the best of them). The Royals haven’t had a trio like these three since Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney. This trio is younger, will have better bats in front and behind them, and most importantly, now the Royals are in position to be able to afford to keep them.

Five, new manager Trey Hillman doesn’t look like a moron. He says the right things. So far his team is doing all of the things he stresses except take a lot of walks (and it’s still early). I tried to be optimistic about Buddy Bell because a team of nine players like Buddy Bell was stands to be a good team, and much better than a team of nine Tony Penas, while either of those is far better than a team of nine Tony Musers–I think a team of nine of me beats nine Tony Musers. But none of these managers had any clue about tactics. I don’t think the Royals have had a good tactical manager since Dick Howser, and he died in 1986. But so far, Hillman seems to have good tactics.

Six, so far the Royals have a winning record against teams everyone expected to be better than them. Minnesota is still a good young team with a lot of talent, Detroit was expected to run away with the division, and the Yankees are the Yankees–their four regular infielders make more than the Royals’ entire payroll.

I’m happy. I’ll be happier if this group gels like the Royals of the late ’70s did. In reality, 1985 was just the swan song of those great ’70s teams that never quite went all the way, and they’ve never had a core like that since. Injuries kept Bo Jackson and Danny Tartabull and Kevin Seitzer from reaching their potential, and the Royals couldn’t afford to keep Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Mike Sweeney together. Imagine if they could have.

But it looks like it’s possible that David DeJesus, Mark Teahen, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and later Mike Moustakas will let us forget about all that. And that will be fun to watch develop.

So I’m willing to be patient. And I’ll enjoy the winning while it lasts.

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