My reaction to the Royals’ trade for James Shields

I don’t write about baseball all that often anymore, because to do a good job of it day to day you have to immerse yourself in it more than I’m willing or able to do, but I enjoy baseball. And I’m a long-suffering Kansas City Royals fan. One of my earliest memories is going to a Royals game with my dad and cheering for George Brett. I had a framed–framed!–George Brett poster hanging in my bedroom for 25 years, and though that poster is exiled to the basement now, it’s still hanging on a wall.

I gave up on the Royals in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, then watched in disbelief as Dane Iorg delivered a clutch pinch-hit RBI single as part of an improbable comeback. I happened to be in Kansas City that weekend, and the city was positively electric the next day. I watched Bret Saberhagen toss an 11-0 masterpiece in Game 7. And then?

Well, Bo Jackson came and went. That was fun, but way too short. I watched George Brett win another batting title, get his 3,000th hit, retire in a Royals uniform, and go into the Hall of Fame. And I watched the Royals trade away a lot of talent and get little, if any, value in return.

Most Royals bloggers on the Internet today followed the same trajectory that I did, though some missed the 1970s. That explains some of the reaction to this trade. Read more

Bruce Sutter vs Lee Smith makes sense to me

ESPN’s David Schoenfield writes, regarding Hall of Fame votes, and Bruce Sutter vs Lee Smith specifically:

Why does [Bruce] Sutter start at 23.9 percent [of the vote] and later gain momentum and enshrinement after 13 years on the ballot, but Lee Smith start at 42.3 percent and after nine years remain at 45.3 percent?

It doesn’t make sense.

As someone who grew up in St. Louis watching both pitchers, it makes sense to me. Sutter and Smith look similar by some mathematical models, but the people who watched them remember them differently. And memory is everything when it comes to close-call Hall of Fame candidates.

Read more

The death of Lyman Bostock

In September 1978, the death of Lyman Bostock rattled the California Angels’ heated division title race with the Kansas City Royals. The Angels’ star outfielder was murdered in Gary, Indiana at the age of 27.

ESPN has a tribute.

He’s the best baseball player you’ve never heard of, and quite possibly also the greatest human being you never heard of.My favorite quote from the ESPN tribute comes near the end. “I am parked outside his building, waiting, thinking, if I am a righteous, hard-nosed journalist, or whether — as my wife insists — I have taken this Lyman Bostock thing too far.

Lyman Bostock has that effect on the handful of people who know about him, even from the grave. Perhaps especially from the grave.

My pastor talked a few Sundays ago about heroes, and how athletes are often described as heroes, but they’re really just celebrities doing their job. Curt Schilling’s efforts to pitch the Boston Red Sox to a World Series on a crudely stitched together tendon in 2006 is often described as heroic, but it’s nothing like the people who put their very lives on the line every day to save other people’s lives–sometimes while injured just as badly as Schilling was.

I might actually be able to argue successfully that Bostock was a hero. He was one of baseball’s first big money free agents, signing a $2.5 million deal with the California Angels in 1978. His job: Play Hall of Fame-caliber defense in right field and hit .300. But in his first month, he went all Andruw Jones on the Angels and hit only .147. While lots of players will happily collect big paychecks while hitting like pitchers, Bostock went to the owner and tried to return his paycheck. The owner refused, so he gave the money to charity instead. Thousands of charities wrote asking for the money, and he read every letter, trying to determine where the money would do the most good.

The year before, he made $20,000 and had been living in an apartment. So this really was his first really big paycheck.

Bostock wasn’t used to hitting like Tony Pena Jr. He was used to challenging the likes of George Brett and Rod Carew (now both Hall of Famers) for batting titles. He worked hard to pull his batting average back up to .300. On September 23, while playing the Chicago White Sox, he went 2 for 4 and raised his batting average to .296 but grounded into the final out of a 5-4 loss.

He never played another major league game.

That night, he visited his uncle, Tom Turner, and other relatives in nearby Gary, Indiana. While eating dinner, he asked about Joan Hawkins, a girl he used to read to as a child. They drove over for a brief visit. She and her sister Barbara asked if they could have a ride to a neighbor’s. Turner agreed, so they piled into the car.

Little did anyone know that Barbara’s estranged husband, Leonard Smith, was sitting outside Hawkins’ house in his car. And he had a gun. Smith saw Barbara get into the back seat of the car with Bostock, concluded the two were having an affair, and followed them.

At the corner of Fifth and Jackson, Smith pulled up next to Turner’s car. He rolled down the window, looked into the car, smirked, and fired a .410 bore shotgun blast into the back window. Bostock slumped over onto Barbara’s shoulder. It was 10:44 PM.

Bostock died a few hours later in the ICU at St. Mary’s Mercy hospital.

The police found Smith later that same day. Barbara recognized him when he fired the shot, and when police knocked on his door, he was even wearing the same clothes. They had their man, and everyone knew it.

No one contested he fired the shot that killed Lyman Bostock. But in June 1980, he was released from Logansport State Hospital after less than a year. He’s been a free man ever since.

Smith had a good lawyer who knew Indiana law at the time had a loophole so big he could fly a 747 through it. He argued that Smith was temporarily insane when he murdered Lyman Bostock. Then he turned around and won his client’s release by arguing that he was no longer insane.

The Bostock murder caused that law to change. But no law could bring back Lyman Bostock, the ballplayer with the bat of Rod Carew and the heart of Mother Theresa. And he did it against the odds. His father, a former Negro Leagues first baseman, walked out on his mother when he was two years old, and like a plotline from a Tyler Perry movie, never made any attempt to be in his son’s life until he made it big as a professional ballplayer.

I was three years old when Bostock died. If I ever saw him play, I don’t remember it. I first read about him in 1984, in a book titled The Image of their Greatness. I still have the book and I never forgot its brief, haunting paragraph on Bostock, who even then was less well known than Ken Landreaux, the reserve outfielder who took his spot in the lineup the day Bostock died.

Lyman Bostock, 27 years of age, fleet hard-hitting Angels outfielder, was accidentally shot and killed on September 23, 1978. Bostock hit .323 in 1976 and .336 in 1977. One of the highest-paid players in baseball, he started slowly in 1978 and offered to return his April salary because he felt he didn’t deserve it. When the Angels declined his offer, he proved it was no empty gesture by donating the money to charity. The good, it has often been said, die young.

Had it not been for that day, Bostock probably still would have been playing baseball in 1984. Former teammate and Hall of Famer Rod Carew says Bostock was his equal with the bat. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver said Bostock would win 5-6 batting titles before his career ended. It’s easy to imagine Bostock playing well into the 1990s, probably spending most of those years with his adopted hometown Angels, and being inducted into the Hall of Fame sometime around 2005 or 2006.

In some ways, Bostock reminds me of Bo Jackson: enough potential to be a Hall of Famer, but his career cut tragically short long before he could pile up the credentials to warrant induction into Cooperstown.

The difference is that senseless murder trumps a hip injury every day of the week.

I wish someone would make a movie about Lyman Bostock. I’d really like to take my son to see it. Of course I’d be delighted if my son can someday hit a baseball like Lyman Bostock, but more than that, I want him to be the kind of person he was.

There are precious few professional athletes I can say that about.

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.

My baseball heroes

Joe Posnanski just did an entry on his childhood baseball idols, and lots of people chimed in about their unlikely heroes. So I got to thinking about mine. When it comes to likely heroes, of course George Brett and Ryne Sandberg were on my list, but that makes me no different from about 10 million other people. Bo Jackson is more of an underdog because his career was so short, but he’s a pretty obvious choice too. There’s an old joke in Kansas City that nobody can name a current Royals player except for George Brett. I mean Bo Jackson. I mean Bret Saberhagen.

If you followed the Royals through the 1990s, it’s funny. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people who come across this page will have to take my word for it.

Anyway, here’s my list.3. Calvin Schiraldi.

I have no connection to Boston except for a little bit of personal baggage that isn’t Boston’s fault, but in October 1986 I was a Red Sox fan. Why? They were playing the New York Mets in the World Series, and if the Mets were playing the Cuban Nationals, I’d probably root for the Cubans. The only time I root for the Mets is when they play the Yankees.

In 1986, Boston’s closer was a young fireballer named Calvin Schiraldi. Schiraldi pitched well early in the series, but not so well later on. In the fateful Game 6, an exhausted Schiraldi was the pitcher who gave up a single to Ray Knight, setting up the infamous Mookie Wilson ground ball between Bill Buckner’s legs that forced Game 7 and cost Boston the World Series. Schiraldi didn’t throw that pitch; he watched helplessly from the dugout while Bob Stanley tried to pitch out of the jam.

I still remember the images of Schiraldi sitting in the dugout afterward, his face buried in a towel.

Schiraldi took the ball again in Game 7 and took the loss in that game too.

For me, Schiraldi came to symbolize the guy who takes the ball when his team needs him, whether he has his best stuff or not, and no matter how tired he is.

I had the chance to meet him a couple of years later, but I had no idea what to say to him. I wish we’d talked baseball a little, but I don’t know what I would say if I had the opportunity again tomorrow either.

2. Ron Hassey.

I think I told this story before. Ron Hassey was a left-handed hitting catcher who worked well with pitchers and had some pop in his bat. In 1984, the Indians packaged Hassey up along with relief pitcher George Frazier and starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe for outfielders Mel Hall and Joe Carter. Yes, Joe Carter as in the hero of the 1993 World Series.

Rick and I are related, but it’s not like he looks me up when he’s in St. Louis or anything. I’ve met him twice. Once the day after his 200th major-league win, and once at his grandmother’s funeral. (His grandmother was my great aunt.) But I digress.

The Cubs didn’t really know what to do with Ron Hassey. Jody Davis was the Cubs’ catcher, and he made the All-Star team every year as Gary Carter’s backup and he was a fan favorite. One night that summer, Hassey got a rare start at first base, which wasn’t his usual position. I don’t exactly remember how it happened, but Hassey hurt himself on a play at first base. It was either his leg or his knee. Writhing in pain, he hit the ground, but he had the ball. He had the presence of mind to literally roll over to first base and tag the bag to get the out.

I’m not sure that the team doctor approved, but I always thought that was the way baseball was supposed to be played. Play hurt and play hard.

So, for all those times I played softball trying to disguise a sore hamstring so the opposing team wouldn’t get the wrong idea… I guess you could day I got the idea from Ron Hassey.

At the end of the year, the Cubs packaged him up in a deal with the Yankees for a couple of forgotten names, Brian Dayett and Ray Fontenot. Trades involving Hassey then became something of an annual offseason tradition for the Yankees for a few years, kind of like firing Billy Martin. Eventually the Oakland Athletics got their hands on him, and he became Dennis Eckersley’s personal catcher.

1. Lyman Bostock.

There’s a lot I can say about Lyman Bostock, but I’ll start with this: Lyman Bostock is the greatest baseball player of all time that you’ve never heard of. He only played two complete seasons, but he was a contender for the batting title both years. He was kind of like Tony Gwynn, only with better speed and range.

But his final season is the reason he’s on my list. He signed with a new team and stunk up the place his first month, so he went to the owner and tried to return his salary. He refused, so Bostock announced he’d give the money to charity instead. He received thousands of requests, and personally went through all of them to see who really needed the money the most.

These days, when a free agent signs a fat contract and promptly tanks, he laughs all the way to the bank.

There’s a good reason why Bostock isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and it’s the same reason you’ve never heard of him. Toward the end of the 1978 season, he was visiting his uncle in Gary, Indiana. Bostock’s uncle pulled up to a stoplight with his goddaughter in the front seat of his car and Bostock in the back. The goddaughter’s estranged husband walked up to the car and fired a shotgun blast into the car. The shot hit Bostock in the head and he died two hours later.

I never actually saw Bostock play, seeing as he died when I was 3, but he posthumously became one of my heroes. He wasn’t just the kind of guy a father can point to and tell his son, "Play baseball like him." He was the kind of guy a father should point to and tell his son, "Live your life like him."

A story of baseball, drugs, vengeance and redemption

I saw a familiar name that I hadn’t heard in a long time–years, probably–mentioned on a Royals fan site.

Lonnie Smith.

Lonnie Smith was a talented but troubled outfielder who rose to prominence while playing for Whitey Herzog’s 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. He could run like nobody’s business and he was a fearsome hitter on top of that, but he also had a drug problem.In 1985, Smith had a minor injury and missed the beginning of the season. His bat was diminishing anyway, and the Cardinals had a young guy by the name of Vince Coleman waiting in the wings. Coleman got Smith’s job, and the Cardinals shipped Smith off to the Royals in exchange for John Morris, a prospect who made it to the majors the next year but never became a star.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Smith put up respectable but unspectacular numbers. But the Royals needed someone who could hit between Willie Wilson and George Brett and, like Wilson, run like his hair was on fire when Brett made contact. Smith did that pretty well.

Now, about that drug problem. Smith spent 30 days in rehab in 1983 when he was playing in St. Louis. In 1985, after the World Series, when the players all had a chance to speak, Smith thanked three people specifically. He thanked Royals’ hitting coach Lee May and Royals’ DH Hal McRae for helping him get his hitting stroke back, and Jesus Christ for helping him get off drugs and stay clean.

He stayed clean for about four years.

Smith’s hitting improved the next season in Kansas City, but then history repeated itself, and Smith lost his left field job to another prospect, the two-sport flameout Bo Jackson. Jackson’s 1987 season showed much more promise than it did powerhouse, but the Royals liked what they saw enough that they considered Smith expendable, and they released him in December of that year.

Smith waited for a call from another team interested in giving him a chance, but the phone never rang. Depressed, Smith started taking drugs again. And as the story from earlier this month goes, if the phone hadn’t rung one day with the then-lowly Atlanta Braves offering him one last chance, he might have flown back to Kansas City and tried to murder the general manager who released him.

Instead, Smith signed a minor-league contract with Atlanta and worked his way back into the major leagues. He once again blossomed into a minor star, and earned $7 million in his 6-year comeback tour. Unlike many professional athletes, he saved enough of his fortune that neither he nor his wife have to work today. They live comfortably and he has established trust funds to take care of his kids’ future.

I had never heard the murder plot angle of the Smith story.

The story (linked above) makes for an interesting read. After reading so many stories about ex-Royals with unhappy endings, it’s nice to see a happy ending this time.

I miss my rivalry

So, the St. Louis Cardinals are traveling across the state for a much-anticipated series with the Kansas City Royals. Even when the series was meaningless, it could always be counted on for at least a few potshots, or something.

Not this year. I was born a Royals fan and I’ll die a Royals fan, but this year, I find myself agreeing with the St. Louis columnist.The Kansas City press has barely even noticed the Cardinals are coming to town. I can’t link directly to the stories because the Kansas City Star requires registration, but they’re all talking about Carlos Beltran.

Carlos Beltran is arguably the most talented human being to ever wear a Royals uniform. George Brett, as great as he was, didn’t have Beltran’s abilities. Bo Jackson did, but he spent less time in a Royals uniform than Beltran, thanks to an injury suffered in his unusual hobby. Maybe Amos Otis had them, but few people outside of Kansas City know much about A. O., and he didn’t have Beltran’s durability. Beltran got better as the season progressed, while A. O. generally got worse.

Now, the Royals deserve credit for getting something for Beltran, which is more than I can say for what they got for Kevin Appier or Jermaine Dye when they sold them off. The Royals pried a starting pitching prospect out of Oakland, who seems to have a knack for developing pitchers without destroying their arms. They also got a line-drive-hitting third baseman who bats left-handed. If he’s half as good as the last one of those the Royals had, they’ll be happy. They also got a catcher who can hit. The last one of those they had was Don Slaught, but Slaught made his name in Pittsburgh. The last one of those they had before Slaught was Darrell Porter.

Getting the first-round draft pick from whoever signed Beltran would have been nice, but this deal gives the Royals the catcher they need now, as well as a starting pitcher they need now, and the third baseman they’re going to need next year.

Only time will tell whether that first-round draft pick would have been another Carlos Beltran or another Jeff Austin, and only time will tell if one of these guys is going to be another Jermaine Dye or if all of them are going to be A. J. Hinch.

I have a hard time not blaming the Royals for not wanting to pay Carlos Beltran $18 million. The Royals would be much better served by six slightly above-average players, each making an average of $3 million. Besides, injuries are a funny thing. The Royals are still stinging from giving Mike Sweeney a lucrative long-term contract, only to see him struggle with injuries the past two years. When you’re the Yankees, you can afford to take that risk. When you’re the Royals, you can’t. Right now, Carlos Beltran looks like Willie Mays. But he’s only an injury or two away from being Andre Dawson. A major injury could turn him into Mark Quinn.

So what’s Jeff Gordon saying here in St. Louis?

He’s lamenting that back in the 1970s, the Royals were baseball’s model franchise while the Cardinals languished. And today, the Royals are able to develop star players but unable to keep them, while the Cardinals field a team of perennial All-Stars. Both teams have their problems, but the Cardinals’ problems don’t push them into last place, and while they disappoint fans, they don’t alienate them.

The sad thing is, the worst thing the Royals could do to the Cardinals this year is trade their best player to one of the Cardinals’ Central Division rivals.

Wait. That’s exactly what they just did.

And maybe, just maybe, after age and media pressure catches up with Carlos Beltran and he turns into more of an Andre Dawson than a Willie Mays, maybe once again, the Royals will be able to afford him, and maybe a little bit of sentiment and nostalgia will kick in, and maybe the more enduring half of dos Carlos who captured the imagination of Royals fans in the late 1990s will decide it would be nice to end his career where he started.

Thanks for the memories, Carlos. I know this doesn’t have to be goodbye.

And I hope you don’t take this personally, but in the meantime, I hope we don’t miss you too much.

The Kansas City Royals, where everything is wrong

I was pretty happy that the Royals were just a game under .500 a week ago. That’s good for them. After all, their closer, Roberto Hernandez, has been injured all year. Other players are nursing injuries as well. Even the team trainer, Nick Schwartz, is hobbling around on crutches.
That seems like a long time ago now. Cleveland rolled into town, and then Boston, and now the only thing keeping the Royals out of last place is the positively awful Detroit Tigers.

Part of the problem is economics. But the Royals have trimmed their payroll and, comparatively speaking, aren’t throwing a whole lot of money away. There are far fewer high-priced flops on the Royals roster than there are on other teams, and the typical salary of a Royals flop is much lower than that of the flops sitting on the bench in, say, Pittsburgh or Texas or Boston.

The Royals turned a small profit last year. They need to be willing to lose $10-$15 million the next couple of years, which would allow them to get a top-tier pitcher (Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are free agents next year) or a couple of pitchers the caliber of their ace, Jeff Suppan. I’d rather see them go get one veteran pitcher to help their army of young pitchers learn how to pitch. Greg Maddux had Rick Sutcliffe and Scott Sanderson to learn from when he was 21. Royals’ pitchers have Jeff Suppan to learn from. He’s 27. Hardly a grizzled veteran.

You have to spend money to make money, which is something I would think owner David Glass would know from the time he spent running Wal-Mart.

And when you look at the billboards in Kansas City versus the billboards in St. Louis, you see a big difference. In Kansas City, Royals billboards have the Royals logo on them. In St. Louis, Cardinals billboards have Jim Edmonds on them. Or J.D. Drew. Or Matt Morris. Fans identify with teams, but they identify even better with players. A lot of Kansas Citians are hard-pressed to identify a current Royals player besides George Brett. Oops, I mean Bret Saberhagen. Oops, I mean Bo Jackson. It’s been nearly a decade since the Royals have had a marquee player.

And that’s their own fault. The Cardinals lost their marquee player to retirement, so they’re making new ones. The Royals have people to promote. Mike Sweeney’s the best hitter the organization has developed since George Brett. Put a couple of action shots of him on a billboard. Carlos Beltran is the most exciting outfielder the Royals have had since Bo Jackson. Put shots of Beltran crashing into the center field wall and stealing a base on a billboard.

They’ve got another really big problem too. The KC front office says it hasn’t discussed the status of manager Tony Loser Muser. I guess their last names should be Loser too.

Muser should be fired just for having Donnie Sadler lead off two games in a row. Just to give you an idea how bad Donnie Sadler is, the Royals ran out of roster spots in spring training, and even Muser had to admit Sadler was the 26th or 27th-best player on his team. But Sadler was out of options, so to send him to the minors, first any team in the majors could have him for virtually nothing if they claimed him within three business days. The rule may state they have to pay the Royals $1.

Not a single team thought Donnie Sadler was better than the worst player on their roster. Not even the five teams with worse records than the Royals. Not even Detroit!

Sadler cleared waivers and packed his bags for Omaha, the Royals’ AAA affiliate. Within weeks, the Royals had enough injuries that Muser could justify bringing back his favorite player.

The Royals’ regular leadoff hitter is Chuck Knoblauch, he formerly of the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. The Royals rented his services (both of them swear he’ll be back next year; I doubt it) for the year. He’s batting about .200, but unlike anyone else on the team, he draws a lot of walks, so he has the highest on-base percentage on the team. And he has good enough speed to be a real pest once he gets on base. As a result, Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney finally have someone to drive home when they get to bat.

Knobby’s been nursing some minor injuries himself, leaving his left field spot vacated. The Royals have several competent outfielders. Michael Tucker generally only plays against right-handers, but he’s played every day in the past, and his defense is superb. Raul Ibanez is one of two Royals batting over .300 and he’s a passable left fielder. Rookie Brenden Berger is unproven but he’s hitting decently.

Who does Muser insert in left field?

His backup shortstop, Donnie Sadler, that’s who.

And what .133-hitting backup shortstop takes over leadoff duties?

Donnie Sadler.

Why?

Donnie Sadler has blinding speed.

What someone needs to tell Tony Loser is that you can’t steal first base, which is why Donnie Sadler is hitting .133. What else someone needs to tell Tony Loser is that a so-so-field, worse-hit shortstop in the National League isn’t going to get any better in the American League. Sadler probably hasn’t seen a fastball since he came over from Cincy last year.

Since the Royals insist on sending all of their good players to Oakland, they really need to take a cue from Oakland. The Royals sent their speedster, Johnny Damon, to Oakland for a few no-good pitchers a little over a year ago. Damon, showing his typical loyalty, left after one season to go play center field in Boston. Left without a leadoff hitter, the Athletics did something unconventional. They inserted another former Royal, Jeremy Giambi (the younger brother the former Oakland star Jason Giambi, who sold out everything to play first base for the New York Scum Yankees.)

Jeremy Giambi has stolen exactly the same number of bases in the major leagues as I have. Zero. But he gets on base, giving the really big sticks someone to drive home. You don’t have to be very fast to score from first or second on an extra-base hit. The people behind him get a lot of extra-base hits, so Giambi scores a lot of runs.

Conventional wisdom says you want someone with blazing speed to lead off, but speed demons who get on base a lot are relatively rare. So most teams settle for someone with good speed who sometimes gets on base. Or with blinding speed from home plate back to the dugout, in the case of the Royals and Donnie Sadler.

But the Royals’ mishandling of Donnie Sadler isn’t the Royals’ only problem. Friday night, rookie Chris George was faced with the thankless task of pitching against Pedro Martinez, the best pitcher in the American League. George held his own, giving up 2 runs in 5 1/3 innings. Martinez was impressed with him. Now, keep in mind that Pedro Martinez has every right to not be impressed by anyone who isn’t Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux.

“That kid has got some talent,” Martinez said. “I was worried when he got hit [by a line drive]. He stood there like a bull. I like that.”

Tony Muser liked what he saw too, but he’s not certain he’s going to let Chris George start again. Never mind what Pedro Martinez says. Martinez has only won 86 games since 1997. What’s he know about pitching?

My guess is Muser wants to hand the ball to Donnie Sadler. After all, Sadler hits like a pitcher.

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