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Why don’t wins count anymore?

In Kansas City, baseball fans are celebrating. In St. Louis, they’re fuming.

It’s usually the other way around. Right now, Royals fans are celebrating Zack Greinke’s highly deserved Cy Young Award. In St. Louis, fans are complaining that Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, expected to finish 1-2 in the voting, got "snubbed" and lost to San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum, who won a total of 15 games.

Greinke, for what it’s worth, won 16.The Cy Young Award usually is "the pitcher with the most wins" award. And that makes a little sense–Cy Young won 511 games in his career, the most all-time. And that itself shows the problem with wins.

Cy Young is the winningest pitcher of all time, but he’s not the best. Walter Johnson won 417 games pitching mostly for last-place Washington Senators teams. Put him on the teams Young pitched for, and he would have won more than 511 games. Win 110 games over the course of your career and you’re considered a pretty good pitcher. Johnson pitched 110 shutouts.

I learned playing Micro League Baseball in the mid 1980s that wins are an overrated statistic. Cy Young was an outstanding pitcher, but Walter Johnson and Lefty Grove could beat him most of the time. Advanced baseball statistics barely existed in the mid 1980s and my Commodore 64 sure didn’t know anything about them, but I quickly started paying attention to WHIP–walks plus hits per innings pitched.

In their best seasons, Johnson and Grove permitted fewer than one baserunner per inning. And they permitted fewer baserunners than Young. Fewer baserunners means fewer chances to score, which means a better chance of winning.

Greinke and Lince*censored*won on the strength of their advanced statistics. Carpenter and Wainwright were very good this year. But they gave up more baserunners per inning than Greinke and Lince*censored*did, and other advanced statistics also indicated that Greinke and Lince*censored*were the better pitchers last year.

In the case of Greinke, the Royals lost six games in which he gave up one run or fewer. Yes, you read that right. Six times, Greinke took the ball, pitched seven or eight innings and gave up one run, or zero runs, and the Royals still lost.

So it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Greinke would have won many more games. Had Greinke pitched on a team that could consistently score more than two runs, had the Royals had more than one reliable relief pitcher to back him up, and had he had more than one above-average fielder playing the field behind him, for example.

Greinke realized he only had one guy behind him who knew how to catch the ball, so he would intentionally pitch in such a way as to make them more likely to hit a fly ball to wherever David DeJesus was playing, usually left field.

Lince*censored*suffered from less bad luck than Greinke did, but still won his 15 games while pitching for a weaker team than the Cardinals.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, pitching for a team with average offense, Lince*censored*and Greinke each would have won 18 games. Under the same normalized conditions, Carpenter would have won 15, and Wainwright would have won 17.

Both pitchers had good years, and admittedly they played for a team that had problems. But Tim Lince*censored*pitched for a team with even bigger problems.

I see the words "which pitcher gave their team the best chance to win every fifth day" thrown around by St. Louis fans a lot. The answer, when you normalize the statistics, is Lincecum.

Or, to look at it another way: Carpenter’s and Wainwright’s win totals showcase just how good Albert Pujols is.

The case for Tim Lince*censored*was less clear than the case for Greinke, and that was why the vote ended up being so close.

But it’s obvious to me that the voters got it right in both cases. And that’s good.

Twenty five years ago, it wasn’t as easy to go much deeper than conventional statistics like wins, losses, and ERA. Today it’s simple, so there’s minimal excuse to pay attention to them.

On transitioning from high school to college

I took a phone call tonight from my old college fraternity. I’ve been trying to be nicer when they call asking for money. The organization and I see eye-to-eye on virtually nothing, but the poor pledges who have to make these phone calls every year have no control over any of that.

We actually ended up having a nice conversation about the transition from college to high school.I can’t say it’s something I’ve ever talked about, but the transition was a bit rough for me in some ways. I wasn’t valedictorian, but I generally took harder classes than many of the people who outpaced me in GPA. In some of my classes I was more like a teacher’s assistant than a student, because I knew the subject matter better than the teachers did, and they would readily admit it.

Frequently I was the smartest guy in the room, and I liked it that way.

In college, I was never the best at anything. I told him one of my classmates is now the beat writer covering the Cardinals for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That’s the caliber of person I found myself competing against.

It was hard to settle for being good, or very good, when I’d spent the previous 12 years being elite.

Yet, it wasn’t until I got over my ego that I actually managed to even be good. Considering my course load, my first-semester 2.8 GPA wasn’t all that bad, but it was a lot closer to average than I’d ever been. I never dropped below 3.0 the rest of the way, but I never approached my high school numbers.

I guess it was good preparation for adult life. There’ve been times when I was the smartest guy in the room again. But it doesn’t happen very often at work. But at work, the guys who are smarter than me who also have bigger egos than me also aren’t all that happy.

Give me a choice between being content and being the star, and I’ll take contentment every time.

I only talked to the 18-year-old pledge for about five minutes, so I didn’t go into this kind of depth. I don’t think he wanted to hear that kind of a lecture from a stranger 15 years older than him.

There are lots of other questions I would have liked to ask him, but I know the answers to all of those are the same as they were in 1993, and I can’t change any of that for him. I don’t know if that brief conversation that resulted from me asking how his studies were going helped him. But maybe it did. Or at least I didn’t make him feel any worse.

The sad story of Scott Spiezio

Scott Spiezio was a mediocre baseball player who could really rise to the occasion. A good defensive first baseman with a so-so bat, he was nevertheless a key part of the Anaheim Angels’ 2002 World Series team. During the regular season he hit .285 with 12 home runs, and when injuries called for it, he slid across the diamond, filling in capably at third base. During the postseason, he went ona tear and hit .327 with three home runs.

In 2004 he signed a lucrative contract to play third base for the Seattle Mariners. His career quickly imploded, with only a .215 batting average in 2004. The next season, he sported a microscopic .064 batting average in 29 games and the Mariners released him in August.

In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals gave him a chance as a bench player. He filled in at five positions: first base, third base, second base, and left and right field. He also hit well, and his clutch hitting in the postseason when other players faltered made him a fan favorite.

Unfortunately in 2007, the honeymoon ended. The 2007 Cardinals had a lot of off-field problems. First, manager Tony LaRussa was involved in an embarrassing DWI incident. Then pitcher Josh Hancock plowed into a tow truck at high speed on an interstate while driving drunk, killing himself. Then Spiezio abruptly left the team, checking himself into rehab for unspecified substance abuse problems.

Spiezio returned with a lot of fanfare. St. Louis fans are quick to remember past heroics and eager to forgive when someone makes an effort to right wrongs. In late January 2008, he spoke to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Derrick Goold of ways to avoid making what he called “bad decisions,” and taking responsibility as an example-setter.

What Spiezio didn’t mention in that interview was that about a month earlier, in late December, he’d made at least one of those bad decisions. According to a California police report, he got behind the wheel of his BMW after drinking vodka, wrecked the car after driving erratically, and fled the scene. A neighbor then tried to help him, and that ended in a fight, with Spiezio throwing punches at the neighbor and slamming him into a wall.

On February 27, the story hit. Spiezio was wanted in California, facing six charges. The Cardinals promptly released him.

Unless there was an unusual provision in his contract, the Cardinals will pay Spiezio about $2.5 million to not play baseball this year. Over the course of his 10-year career, he’s already made nearly $17 million. He should be more than set for life. Even if that money is gone, this year’s salary should provide for him and his children for the rest of his life.

The question is whether he’s lost enough.

I don’t know what will happen next to Scott Spiezio. He had a good job with the Cardinals, a good organization where he fit in well and the fans loved him. Right now is a bad offseason to be unemployed. A lot of talented players are still trying to find work. Some of them have more baggage than Spiezio, but some don’t. Spiezio does have several things going for him: He’s young enough to still have two or three or more productive seasons left, plays five positions competently, he switch-hits and has some power. He probably can’t be an everyday player anymore, but there aren’t very many players who have his mix of skills and he could be a useful player coming off the bench for almost any team–if he can keep it all together.

I can see Spiezio landing on his feet and perhaps even ending up on a contending team. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see him playing in the World Series again this year.

Staying clean and sober is the harder challenge. I know from watching my dad and others struggle with alcohol that the only way you overcome it is when you hit bottom and realize that unless you overcome the addiction, you will most likely lose absolutely everything that matters to you (if you haven’t already). And even then, it’s possible to relapse, however briefly. As far as anyone knew, former Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter had been clean and sober for the better part of 21 years when he died from side effects of recreational cocaine use in 2002.

I believe the Cardinals did the right thing by releasing Spiezio. It sends a much-needed message to him, the organization, and the fans that no matter how versatile and important you are, staying free of substance abuse is more important than playing baseball.

For Spiezio’s sake, I hope that whatever happened in California is an isolated incident and he is able to do whatever he has to do to keep it that way. History is littered with the names of good baseball players whose lives turned tragic in spite of what they accomplished on the field. There’s no need for him to become another one of them.

2016 update: A couple of months after I wrote this, Scott Spiezio signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent. They released him a week later. Spiezio never played baseball in the major leagues again. From time to time he makes promotional appearances in St. Louis, where fans still fondly remember his role in the 2006 postseason.

A story of a truck, some trains, a vet, and a possible scam

I think I’ve been taken for another Internet scam.

Of course the Internet is ripe for this kind of thing. The story of Kaycee Nicole Swenson is one infamous example. Unfortunately I fell for that one too, although not as hard as some people did. All I really wasted in that case was some bandwidth and a little disk space. That’s more than I can say for the people who sent her gifts and other things.Some people are skeptical of everything they see online. When I was younger, it made me mad. Not anymore.

People can come and go as they please with their blogs, but forums are an even easier target. Back in April, a disabled veteran showed up on a forum that I frequent. He had an interest in trains. My father in law, Jerry, was a disabled Vietnam vet. Jerry was hit by machine gun fire the first time he saw combat and received a Purple Heart. He never walked without a brace again. I don’t want to say the time in Vietnam ruined Jerry’s life, but it certainly sent everything off in a different direction.

By the time I met Jerry, he wasn’t bitter. He shared my love of baseball. He was a rabid Cardinals fan, so we’d talk baseball. We’d also talk about playing baseball and softball, because we both used to be outfielders. It’s always fun to hear another person’s take on playing the position you played. The difference was that at 29, I could still play center field. By 29 I had almost certainly lost a step out there, but my loss was due to age. At 29, all Jerry could do was coach. Jerry’s loss was from serving his country in an ill-advised war.

Jerry died in 2005. He had cancer, but his treatment was working, or so we thought. Then one day he started having a lot more abdominal pain than he was used to having. One Saturday afternoon they took him to the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine visit to find out what was going on with the pain, and he never went home.

I didn’t know Jerry very long, but he certainly influenced my life. Jerry was the first person who told me I could be completely debt-free in seven years or less. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. Now I probably had those tendencies before I met Jerry, and maybe I would have gone down that road regardless. But the first time I ever heard the idea was sitting on a porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, drinking coffee with Jerry.

I miss Jerry.

When I heard this guy’s story, something reminded me of Jerry.

He came from out of nowhere. He’d bought this old Lionel train at a garage sale. He was a disabled veteran (I can’t remember if it was Gulf War I and Gulf War II, or just Gulf War II), he shopped at garage sales, and he liked Lionel trains. What was there not to like about him?

But there was more to it. He was young, was married and had a kid or two while he was in the war, was wounded in combat, and when he came home, his wife and kids had left him. He’d served his country and nearly died and lost everything that meant anything to him in the process.

Regardless of what you think of Gulf War II, that story tugs at your heartstrings.

I wanted to help this guy. It started with me offering him some advice on getting that old train running. It was similar to a train that had belonged to my Dad. I’d worked on that kind of thing before, and I had some books with some advice in them. He never did get it running. I couldn’t tell if the problem was his locomotive or the track, so I offered to send him a cheap Marx locomotive and a loop of track. He told me he would have a hard time paying me. I told him not to worry about it because the stuff I was sending was probably worth about $10. It wasn’t; a fair price for it probably would have been closer to $20. It all shipped for about $7. Regardless, we aren’t talking huge sums of money. I can make that in an hour, and it would probably take more than an hour’s work to extract that value out of the stuff.

He thanked me profusely, but then I never heard from him again. Not directly, at least. I assume the box got to him, both because it’s unusual for a package that size to get lost in the mail, and because he made reference on the forum to having a Marx locomotive. But he came back with weekly tales about his garage sale finds. Part of me was a bit suspicious. He was finding stuff every week. I go to a lot of garage sales. I get up about 6 or 6:30 every Saturday morning, drive all over the St. Louis metro area, and the only time I’m home before noon is during December or January when there are only a couple of sales to hit. There have been days that I’ve gone out at 6 am and come home at 2 pm. I find trains about once or twice a month, and it’s probably about half as often that what I find is priced realistically.

He’s not exactly from a small town, but the metro area is 1/10 the size of St. Louis. There’s every reason to believe he should find about 1/10 the number of trains I find. Maybe less, since much of that area was probably still farmland when Lionel was in its glory days.

Looking back, I probably should have sensed some Tom Foolery going on.

I guess a lot of people started giving this guy some stuff. Train hobbyists can be pretty generous. Stuff we’ll never use tends to accumulate in boxes underneath our layouts, and the stuff we don’t give away probably won’t ever see the outside of that box for a very long time. It’s always been an unwritten rule to let useless stuff go to someone who can make better use of it. I’ve made a few trades in the past with people I’ve met online and never had any trouble. In most cases, I think we both walked away thinking we got the better end of the deal. And that’s how a deal should end–with both parties happy.

Then one day the guy disappeared. That happens. We get busy with other things sometimes. Word came that he was in the hospital. Then he reappeared. He had fantastic stories about his various medical conditions. Only there was one problem–other people on the forum had been in the hospital for the same thing, and the things he was saying weren’t consistent.

Then some people from other forums, one related to remote control cars, boats and planes and another related to the military, came looking for him and posted on the train forum. He’d told similar stories there–but the differences in the stories he told in each forum contradicted each other.

I’ve bounced back and forth between thinking whether it was a scam or just a misunderstanding. At first I wasn’t sure that I cared. Like I said, I’m out about $27. I can recover from that. But there are other people who are out a lot more than $27. At least one person sent him a brand new train set. After shipping, they were probably out closer to $300. Does that guy make 10 times what I make? Not likely.

Actually, I was wrong about not ever hearing from him again. He e-mailed a whole bunch of people, including me, yesterday while all of this was going on. It started out saying, “The evidence against me is overwhelming but this much is true.” And then he went on to rehash his story. It was pretty much all stuff I’d heard before.

The problem is, people don’t like being lied to. When part of the story is exposed as being a lie, it’s impossible to know if any of the rest is true. And then when someone turns up saying he sent him a $300 R/C truck two months ago in trade for something that never showed up, people are inclined to believe the guy. He may be a total stranger, but at least he’s never lied to them. And if the person in question has been scamming this stranger, it’s only natural to wonder if he’s been scamming other people too. Including you and your friends.

I suspect the next time someone comes along on that forum who needs something, a few people might not be feeling as generous. And that’s unfortunate.

And as for this one? I responded to his e-mail. I had several suggestions for him, including that he make things right with the guy who sent him the $300 R/C truck. He told me he would.

We’ll see. I know where to find the guy who sent the truck.

Meet Melvin.

I have a new un-friend now. His name is Melvin.

Thanks to Melvin, I can almost add library sales to places I’ve been kicked out of. It’s a short list, but it includes the library, church, Best Buy, and substitute teacher Rick Hannebutt’s seventh grade theology class.It began innocently enough. My wife and I arrived early. We were 10th in line. The problem was that within about half an hour, we were 15th in line. For example, one guy came in, asked where the end of the line was, and then walked up and took a spot two or three places in line ahead of us. He wasn’t the only one who did it, but he was the closest one.

The guy behind me said something to him. They had a brief exchange, then the guy who cut in line apologized, got in his car, and left.

It was stupid, because if he’d gone to his proper place in line, he would have only been five or six places back. There’s not much difference between being the 10th person in and being the 15th.

Then Melvin came staggering out of Applebee’s. He walked over to his black Chevy Celebrity (very much like the one my driver’s ed instructor drove, back in 1990), got out his bag, and then went to the front of the line and talked to the people standing up there. Nobody up there let him in, so he settled back, two places ahead of my wife and I.

Melvin seems to go to all the places I go, and he’s elbowed in front of me (or tried to) twice in the last two weeks. Furthermore, I saw him steal from an estate sale. It takes a special kind of scumbag to steal from an estate sale–the deceased’s survivors could be relying on the proceeds from that sale to pay for the funeral, for all we know.

Needless to say, I’m pretty tired of Melvin.

"Sir, I think you got here after we did," I said.

"You’re wrong, Junior. I got here two and a half hours ago, then I walked over there to have a couple of drinks. You can ask anyone here. Now why don’t we step over here into the parking lot and we’ll settle this. You’re messing with the wrong guy," Melvin said.

"If you take a swing at me, I’ll call the police. And keep in mind I do have your license plate number."

"If you call the police, I’ll call my lawyer and he’ll be over here so fast, and I’ll be sure to get your number too–"

I wonder what it says about Melvin that he has his lawyer on speed dial?

Just then, one of the people running the sale walked past.

"Ma’am, this guy is threatening me."

"Actually," I said, "He’s trying to start a fistfight and I don’t want a fistfight. I don’t want any trouble here."

She took my admission money and gave me the don’t-give-us-any-trouble look. I nodded and thanked her. She told me she’d keep an eye on him.

The guy standing behind me told me he’d heard people at a sale last week talking about Melvin too.

Melvin went up to the front of the line and started ranting at the people up there about me. They kept looking back my direction with confused looks on their faces.

None of the people up there are people I know well, but I see them often enough that I don’t want trouble with them. Melvin came back, took his place in line, and tried to burn holes through my skull with the laser death rays in his eyes.

For a few seconds I stared back, then I decided that was stupid. I tried to egg him on a bit. I looked back behind me, tried to look confused, looked back at him, and mouthed, "There’s nothing back there."

Well, the other people in line thought it was funny. That was probably too far over the top though.

Once I was pretty certain Melvin was going to stay put, I walked up to the front of the line.

"Hey, I don’t know what he told you, but he tried to get me out in the parking lot and start a fistfight. I just want you to know I didn’t threaten him. I’m not that way," I said.

They nodded. "So we’re cool?" I asked. They nodded again. I smiled, thanked them, and took my place in line.

Melvin continued his gaze of death. I turned around and made smalltalk with the guy behind me. He cracked a few jokes about drunks.

Finally we got to go inside. I watched my back pretty much the whole time. You can’t trust a drunk guy with his lawyer on speed dial, after all. Wherever Melvin was, I stayed away.

Finally, he walked up to the counter. I heard him say he had 10 record albums. I was standing a good 15 feet away with a big crowd in the room, so I guess a lot of people know he had 10 record albums. I breathed a sigh of relief when he left.

My wife asked if I found something I wanted. I told her I got what I wanted the most.

"What was that?" one of the people running the sale asked. "Anything good?"

"My fistfight buddy left," I said.

"Is that a CD or a book?" she asked. "I’ve never heard of that."

"Oh, it’s not a thing. The guy who tried to start a fistfight with me in the parking lot left."

"That was YOU?" she asked.

Yeah, I’m pretty harmless. I’m usually fairly polite too. But I guess the word was out about me now, even if the people who knew the story couldn’t place my face with it.

A few minutes later, I ran into one of my acquaintances from the front of the line. "You know Melvin’s gone now," he whispered.

I nodded.

"What happened?"

"He challenged me to a fight, and I said if he took a swing at me I’d call the police," I said.

"Ah, so that’s why he brought up the police. Nothing wrong with that. You have to protect yourself."

He told me a little more about Melvin, that he tends to be paranoid and he’d been drinking. When he’s sober he’s harmless, he said. He laughed when I told him Melvin told me he’d been drinking.

"In the morning he probably won’t remember any of it," he said. And he told me I’d handled the situation pretty well.

We’ll see how much Melvin remembers. I’ll see him again, I know. But I’m pretty sure the people who run the sales we both end up frequenting like me better than him. I don’t pick fights, and I buy a lot more stuff.

And they know it.

And now, since I know I’ll get asked about it, here’s the story behind the places I actually have managed to get kicked out of.

The library: It was closing.

Church: It was closing too. Yep, both of them sound a lot more interesting than reality.

Best Buy: I uttered a couple of colorful words when they wouldn’t honor the extended warranty I’d bought. The manager and customer abuse rep asked me to leave. I went to a different location and got my stereo exchanged under warranty there.

Substitute teacher Rick Hannebutt’s seventh grade theology class: He never liked me because I wasn’t a Cardinals fan. I didn’t like him much either. The kid sitting next to me hit me with a dusty mitten. I pushed his arm away and told him to quit.

"Davit," Hannebutt bellowed, "You may leave now."

I was really mad then. Twenty years later, I don’t know why. I don’t think anyone in that room wanted to be there, and I was the one who got to leave.

I think Melvin makes for the better story.

Incidentally, Melvin isn’t his real name. I would never mention someone who has his lawyer on speed dial by his real name.

It’s pretty close though. His real name is the same as that little Martian from Looney Tunes.

Before they were Cardinals…

I just finished reading Before They Were Cardinals, a history of the American Association St. Louis Browns, by Jon David Cash.

I have mixed feelings about the book.Most people know the Cardinals are one of the oldest baseball franchises. What most don’t know is that the Cardinals didn’t start out in the National League, were formerly known as the Browns (not to be confused with the later St. Louis Browns of the American League that moved to Baltimore in 1954), and that the tradition of the World Series originated here in St. Louis,

This book gives a nice overview of the early history of the St. Louis franchise and the American Association, the league in which the team had its first early successes.

The upside of the book is that it is very academic. It cites everything and the old maps and photographs prove the author spent hours at the Missouri Historical Society unearthing treasures.

The downside is that the book is academic. While I certainly understand the desire to rise above the sensationalist, opinionated late 19th-century journalism that serves as most of the book’s primary sources, a lot of the color that makes the early history of this team interesting isn’t in the book. The colorful and eccentric owner, Christian Frederick Wilhem von der Ahe, is presented as a German immigrant who bought a bar, noticed one day that his patrons all left in a rush for a few hours on Sunday, then returned to spend a leisurely rest of the day. After asking where everyone went and hearing about baseball, he invested in the team and made (and later lost) a fortune doing so.

That’s all fine and good, but it’s a one-dimensional picture of Chris Von der Ahe. Yes, he was an astute and successful self-made immigrant businessman–the embodiment of the American Dream if there ever was one. While some mention of his nouveau riche excesses is in the book, much of what made him so despised outside of St. Louis isn’t mentioned.

My personal favorite Von der Ahe story, the larger-than-life statue of himself erected outside of Sportsman’s Park to celebrate the successful 1885 season, gets no mention in the book. There is mention that Von der Ahe is buried underneath a large statue of himself, but no mention of where the statue came from.

I did find it very interesting that Von der Ahe, convinced there was no money left to be made in St. Louis, plotted to win the 1887 World Series and then move his world championship team to New York where he could draw bigger crowds, more beer sales, and bigger profits. The team never won another World Series under his ownership, however, so Von der Ahe never put that plan into motion.

Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly with the American Association’s merger with the National League, with only a brief epilogue at the end talking about the slow fall of Von der Ahe and his loss of the franchise.

In the book’s defense, Von der Ahe gets more treatment elsewhere while the American Association is little more than a footnote today, so I can see why the author chose to focus on the more neglected subject. It makes for better scholarship. Since this book is published by the University of Missouri Press and not Random House, I can see why the book was written the way it was.

If you want good history, particularly of what it was that made the American Association what it was–and this is fair, because the St. Louis club was the dominant team of that league and era–then this is a great book. If you’re looking for colorful stories about a guy who was like Ted Turner and George Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley and Bill Veeck all wrapped up into one with a dash of Jay Gatsby thrown in, look elsewhere.

So my Royals got some pitching…

Up until this past week, whenever anyone asked what my Royals have done this winter, all I could say was they got a new backup catcher. Hardly exciting.

Now it’s not like they’ve replaced Angel "Swings at pickoff throws to first" Berroa with Alex Rodriguez, but now they’ve gotten themselves some pitching.They weren’t exciting moves. They traded the talented but wild Ambiorix Burgos to the Mets for Brian Bannister, the son of former big-league pitcher Floyd Bannister, who was one of the better strikeout pitchers of the 1980s. They signed ex-Mariner Gil Meche, the biggest objection being his contract, since he’s an average pitcher at best but once Mike Sweeney’s contract expires, he’ll be the highest-paid player on the team. And they pulled reliever Octavio Dotel off the scrap heap to be the closer.

Far be it from me to criticize any of these moves. This is a team that had a team ERA of almost 6 last year. When you can count on the pitching staff giving up six runs and your best hitter is a second-year guy named Mark Teahen who was playing hurt all year, you’re not going to win very many games.

The front office hopes Meche is about to break out and become a superstar. More likely, he’ll remain average. But average means he’ll give up 4-5 runs each start, which is a substantial improvement over what else they’ve got.

Dotel is damaged goods, but at least he’s closed out games before. If he comes in and he’s awful, then the Royals just have to explore other options, such as making Zack "Future Greg Maddux" Greinke the closer until they come up with another plan that allows them to put Greinke in the rotation. The Cardinals did that with Adam Wainright last year and that didn’t turn out so bad at all.

Bannister projects to be, well, the next Gil Meche. He won’t be great but the Royals need a starter, and they haven’t been able to get through to Burgos. Now Burgos might thrive with the Mets, or he might implode, but he’s someone else’s problem now.

Last year I got burned thinking the Royals would improve; instead they lost 100 games for the third year in a row. So I won’t count on miracles, but like John Lennon cynically sang in the background of "Getting So Much Better all the Time," things can’t get much worse.

Meanwhile, we can dream of the day when superprospects Alex Gordon and Billy Butler suit up in Kansas City and walk onto the field together for the first time. It might or might not happen in 2007, but once those two are ready, pitching really won’t matter as much because the Royals will stand a chance of scoring seven or eight runs a game a couple of times a week.

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.