Who could have scripted a better ALCS than this?

I watched the Yankees’ 19-8 trouncing of the Red Sox on Saturday, all 96 hours of it. Well, I guess that game only seemed 96 hours long. Officially it was only four hours and 20 minutes.

A brave sportscaster interviewed Stephen King during the game. King insisted the Red Sox could come back. David Ortiz would win it with a homer if he was writing it, he said.

It didn’t happen. They were down 3 games to 0 and coming off a game where the Yankees broke almost every conceivable postseason record, and the only bright spot was they were headed back to Boston, so at least they could face insurmountable odds at home.What followed was an epic 12-inning game, pitched effectively by a very bitter Derek Lowe,
followed by an epic 14-inning game. Boston wasn’t dead. David Ortiz won both of those games. But Boston’s pitching staff was depleted. Tim Wakefield, the knuckleballer who was supposed to be Boston’s #4 starter, had to be used in relief again and again.

Game six. Do or die. Tim Wakefield was supposed to pitch. But he had to pitch the night before. As much as Boston fans boast of Wakefield’s ability to pitch on no rest, it’s really not a good idea for him to do it. Not at age 38. Since Boston left first baseman/pitcher (and former Kansas City Royal, I must add) Dave McCarty off its postseason roster, their two options were third baseman Bill Mueller (yeah, right) or Curt Schilling.

Fortunately, Boston’s medical staff had anticipated needing Curt Schilling again and had been experimenting, trying to find ways to patch the torn tendon in his right ankle together enough that he could pitch after being blown out by the Yankees in Game 1.

So they literally sewed the torn tendon to the skin to hold it together, and Schilling managed to hold them to one run in seven innings without his best stuff.

Schilling said in a postgame interview that he became a Christian seven years ago and that was him relying on God out there in that game. I don’t know how much God cares about baseball, but I can’t come up with a better explanation.

Boston deviated from the script a little on this game. David Ortiz didn’t deliver the game-winning hit. They also managed to keep the game under four hours.

The Yankees and their fans also showed their true colors. On a close play at first, with Derek Jeter on base, Alex “$252 million” Rodriguez did his best Ed Armbrister impersonation and smacked the ball out of pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s hand.

Jeter started mouthing off in the dugout. The Red Sox protested the call. The umpires huddled. The rest of the umps, who would have been able to see the cheap shot pretty clearly, reversed the call. They put Jeter back on first where he belonged and sent Rodriguez to the dugout where he belonged.

A-Rod’s reaction? “I should have run [Arroyo] over.”

I think A-Rod earned himself a new nickname. Hint: it rhymes with “stick.” The fielder’s job is to tag you out, whether you’re paying to play like I do, or you’re being paid more than a quarter of a billion dollars to play a kid’s game.

And I thought Julian Tavarez’s temper tantrum in the Houston/St. Louis series was out of line.

Yankees fans reacted with similar class and maturity. They started chanting four letter words and throwing everything they could find onto the field. Officials had to dispatch riot police. Really.

Note to self: Don’t worry about who to root against when the Yankees play the Mets anymore. For six days out of the year now, the Davester is the world’s biggest Mets fan.

Game 7. Do or die. The Red Sox called on Derek Lowe again. On short rest. But he was the best-rested pitcher on the Bosox staff. Still, Boston had plenty of reason to be nervous. Lowe’s inability to put crucial games away earned him a one-way ticket to long relief, which was why he was bitter. Only Curt Schilling’s injury followed by Tim Wakefield’s heroic sacrificial lamb performance in Game 3 got him out.

(Count Terry Francona brilliant for using Wakefield instead of Lowe in Game 3.)

Lowe pitched brilliantly. Kevin Brown suffered a meltdown, and subsequent Yankee pitchers weren’t much better, serving up fat pitch after fat pitch and letting Boston’s left-handed hitters take advantage of the short porch in right field. Although, in all honesty, all but Johnny Damon’s initial homer probably would have gone out of every park, not just the House that was Built for Ruth.

Derek Jeter drove in a run in the third. But we saw something no human being has ever before seen on Derek Jeter’s face: desperation.

The Sox answered every run the Yankees scored and maintained a six-run lead, but I still remembered Game 3. I never got comfortable and I doubt many other people did either. But as the Yankees failed to make play after play that they’ve been making in the postseason for the past eight years, it became evident which team showed up to play Game 7 and which one didn’t.

Frankly, I expected exactly the opposite of what happened.

So now Boston’s headed to the World Series for the first time since 1986.

One of the sportscasters said Boston always wants to clinch things at home, but clinching in New York is the second-best thing.

Wrong. This depleted team pieced together four wins out of scraps after being down 3-0, something that’s never, ever been done in baseball or, for that matter, any professional sport other than hockey. There is no better way to win it than to win it on their archrivals’ home turf.

Next year, Steinbrenner will offer the A-Rod money to Scott Boras for Carlos Beltran’s services, and Scott Boras will take it. I’m sure he’ll also add whatever starting pitchers he can find on the market, next year’s payroll might jump to a quarter billion, and the Yankees might manage to buy themselves another championship, assuming the new, expensive players don’t melt in New York.

No matter. This year belongs to Boston.

Is there hope in Kansas City for baseball?

I spent some time in Kansas City this weekend. If I had any doubts this season, where the Royals went from favorites to win the division to worst team in the league in a matter of about a week, had eroded fan support, that doubt is gone now.

So now what?First, there’s the question of what went wrong. To me, the biggest thing that went wrong was Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez proved a lethal replacement for Manny Ramirez in Cleveland not so long ago, so there was reason to believe he could be the big booming bat in the cleanup spot the Royals have never had.

The question was whether you got the healthy Gonzalez or the Gonzalez who’s more injury prone than George Brett and Fred Lynn combined.

They got the latter, and thus a waste of almost enough money to keep Carlos Beltran.

Ah, Beltran. The guy who someday would have broken the Royals’ record for number of home runs hit and bases stolen in the same season. The most underrated defensive center fielder in the game. The Scott Boras client.

Trading Beltran was the only thing the Royals could do. Scott Boras is going to ship Beltran to the team willing to pay the most money for him. Can the Royals afford to give $18 million to one player? Doesn’t matter. George Steinbrenner will top the Royals’ best offer, because he’s got Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton in center field.

I find it very encouraging that none of the Royals’ high draft picks this year was a Scott Boras client.

The fear in KC right now is that the Royals will never keep any good players they develop, because they look back at Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye. Beltran and Damon were Boras clients. They couldn’t keep them. I won’t try to explain the Jermaine Dye trade, other than to say they didn’t think they’d be able to re-sign Rey Sanchez and they felt like it was easier to find outfielders than shortstops, and they thought Neifi Perez could hit his weight outside of Colorado.

Judging from the production they’ve had out of left field this year, I think they were even wrong about that bit about outfielders being easier to find than shortstops. But at least they’ve learned.

I see upside out of this year. I really do. David DeJesus is turning out to be a fine center fielder. It would be nice if he could steal more bases, but he’s a good defensive center fielder and he can hit, and he has good speed, even if he doesn’t know how to use that speed to steal bases. Ideally he should be a #2 hitter, but even still, he’s the best leadoff hitter the Royals have had since Johnny Damon left.

Abraham Nuñez is turning out to be a steal. He may or may not be a superstar, but he’s a good defensive outfielder with respectable speed, good power, looks like he’ll be able to hit .270 or better, and can play center field when you have the need to rest DeJesus. He’s an affordable Jermaine Dye.

I haven’t seen John Buck play since his first series in the majors, but he has managed to pop some homers even if his batting average is still below .220. Still, he got off to a tremendously slow start, so hitting .220 indicates he’s making progress. But an even-up John Buck for Carlos Beltran would be a better trade than Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez turned out to be. Buck is already a better hitter than Perez, and the Royals didn’t have much in the way of catching prospects before Buck.

Angel Berroa has been a disappointment this season, but he’s in his second year and he watched the team implode around him. Of course he’s going to be jittery.

Zack Greinke looks like the best young pitcher the Royals have developed since its amazing Class of ’84 (Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson and Mark Gubicza). If Runnelvys Hernandez comes back from Tommy John surgery and pitches like he did in 2003, and if Jose Bautista lives up to expectations (he’s Pedro Martinez’s cousin, so hopefully that counts for something), the Royals might have fearsome pitching again for the first time in a decade. Jeremy Affeldt could come back from the bullpen and start if Mike MacDougal is healthy, and suddenly the pitching rotation looks awfully good.

I don’t know what the Royals will do in left field or at second base. But with Gonzalez gone, that leaves them some money to go after a better-than-average player for one or both positions. Or maybe they can swing a trade in the offseason for a prospect.

As hard as it may be to believe, they do seem to be getting smarter. They seem to have learned a lot from this season. Which is really all you can ask.

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.

KC: Don’t give in to Scott Boras

Well, with the Royals having been all but mathematically eliminated from contention by Memorial Day–that’s what happens when you forget how to field, pitch, and hit, and aren’t fast enough to steal any bases–it looks like they’ll soon be disassembling the team. And the first to go out the door will be Carlos Beltran.

He shouldn’t be.Beltran is possibly the most underrated player in baseball. He’s a classic five-tool player, in that he makes spectacular catches, has a great throwing arm, can steal bases, hit home runs, and hit for average. For the past four years or so he’s been one of the most exciting players in baseball, but because he’s played in Kansas City, even a lot of Kansas Citians don’t know it.

Trouble is, Beltran is represented by Scott Boras, who is a leading candidate, along with George Steinbrenner, Bud Selig, and Donald Fehr, to do the most to ruin the game of baseball. I think the nicest thing I’ve ever heard Boras called was "a one-man wrecking ball." Hey, none of those words will get you fined by the FCC…

Boras gets called lots of colorful things because Boras is a master at extracting every red cent out of you. Boras gets seven-figure salaries for pitchers who can’t pitch and position players who can’t hit or field routinely. And if you happen to be any good at all, Boras will get you an eight-figure salary.

How’d World Series MVP Ivan Rodriguez end up playing for the Detroit Tigers, a team that lost 119 games last year? Easy. They were the only team willing to pay the salary Boras demanded.

So, back to Beltran. Scott Boras’ job now, the way he sees it, is to present Beltran as the best player in baseball. Or at the very least, twice as good as anyone else available. And as we all know, if you’re twice as good as someone else who plays baseball, you should make at least four times as much money.

Scott Boras is going to try to get Beltran $25 million a year. And if he can’t get it, he’ll take the best offer on the table, which needless to say probably won’t be the $9 million the Royals are paying Beltran now.

So the Royals, desperate to get more than nothing for the best player they’ve developed since George Brett, are shopping Beltran. The only thing is, how many teams are willing to give you anything in exchange for a Scott Boras client, who’s going to walk at the end of the season?

The Yankees will, but the Yankees don’t have anything the Royals want or need. They’ve depleted all of it trading for less-talented players for their pennant drives the last few years. The Royals and Yankees discussed an even-up trade of Beltran for Alfonso Soriano during the offseason, but then the Yankees traded Soriano for Alex Rodriguez.

Seeing as nobody else is likely to have an Alfonso Soriano-caliber player at an Alfonso Soriano price to offer, the Royals’ best bet is to keep Beltran around and let him give them some highlight reel exposure. The Royals’ pitchers give him plenty of chances to chase down long fly balls.

The reason for this is simple: When a free agent the quality of Beltran departs, you don’t get nothing. You get a draft pick. In the case of Beltran, you’re virtually assured of getting the team’s first-round draft pick.

When you’re a small-market team, drafting is just about your only hope for being able to find and afford another player like Beltran.

OK Tony, I still believe

Let’s see if I can get this one straight. My Royals are losing by thee runs in the ninth inning. They get two guys on base, and slap-hitting Tony Graffanino is due up. Matt Stairs, a hulking, clutch-hitting, lefthanded batter is sitting on the bench. The Royals signed him for situations like this.

Tony Pena signals for Stairs to go face fireballing White Sox closer Billy Koch.Jose Guillen, the new White Sox manager, knows what Matt Stairs does to fireballing right-handed pitchers, so he summons the left-handed Damaso Marte from the bullpen, liking those odds better, since Stairs hasn’t batted against a left-handed pitcher since Warren G. Harding was president.

Pena, not wanting to be the first manager in decades to let Stairs hit against a left-hander, especially a left-hander he’s never so much as watched from the bench, looks around for a right handed hitter. There’s backup catcher Kelly Stinnett, who’s two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Stairs. Career batting average: .236. And there’s Mendy Lopez, a utility infielder the Royals keep around solely because he knows how to play 8 different positions. Career batting average: .257. And a few pitchers, but most of them hadn’t batted against a left-handed pitcher since before Harding was president. Or Little League, whichever was earlier.

Pickings were slim.

If I were managing the Royals, I’d take my chances with Stairs.

But I’m not managing the Royals. Tony Pena is. And what did Tony Pena do? He motioned for Lopez, because Lopez had seen Marte so many times playing against each other in winter ball. Pena ordered Lopez to hit a home run.

Now, Lopez has up until this moment hit a grand total of five home runs in his 7-year career. The Royals have guys who can hit that many in a single game. Tell a guy like Lopez to hit a home run, and more than likely he’s going to strike out trying.

So what’s Lopez do?

He plants a 420-foot bomb behind the center field fence. This is the same fence the Royals moved back 10 feet in the offseason because they were tired of musclebound teams like the White Sox coming into town and hitting 47 home runs in a weekend.

Game tied, 7-7. Now it’s a new game, the Royals have home field advantage, and if it goes into extra innings, well, Mendy Lopez knows how to play second base.

Angel Berroa, the incumbent Rookie of the Year (deal with it, Steinbrenner), followed with a single, bringing up Carlos Beltran, the most underrated player in the game. Beltran hit one into the left-field fountains, a mere 408 feet away. Upstaged by Mendy Lopez. How insulting.

But 408-foot homers count just as much as the wimpy 312-foot homers a left-handed hitter can hit at Yankee Stadium. Game over. Royals win, 9-7.

I think this is going to be a good year.

Dave’s formula for winning a pennant

I’ll lead off with my best, like the Royals need to be doing, but more on that later. New Wikipedia entries for the day: Rick Sutcliffe (I couldn’t resist) and Chris von der Ahe. I wrote up Rick, well, because he’s family, and von der Ahe, well, let me tell you about him.
Christian Frederick Wilhelm von der Ahe was the George Steinbrenner of the 1880s. Actually, take George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley, and Ted Turner all wrapped up in one, and you’re not far off. The eccentric von der Ahe was the clown plince of baseball, and if you called him that to his face, his English was so bad, he’d probably take it as a compliment.

After winning the World Series in 1885, von der Ha Ha, who liked to run around calling himself “der boss president”, celebrated by erecting a large statue outside of Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. But the statue wasn’t of any of his star players. It was a statue of himself. How totally aristocratic.

By 1898 his micromismanaged team was a consistent cellar dweller and literally was a side attraction to an amusement park and a circus. Late in the season, a fire broke out in the stands causing numerous injuries but, remarkably, only one death. He lost the team in the resulting lawsuit. He ended up tending bar in a grubby little saloon. When he died in 1913, the statue got moved to his grave.

Von der Ahe’s team got sold to two brothers named Robison, the owners of a really bad team called the Cleveland Spiders. The owners pretty quickly figured out that the solution to the problem of owning two really bad teams is to shuffle all the best players to one of the teams and make one good team and one incredibly bad team. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders made the 1962 Mets look like the 1927 Yankees by comparison, and the league voted on contraction the next year, killing off the Spiders and leaving the Robisons with one good team. They changed their name the next year, to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Note to David Glass: Buy the Detroit Tigers! Then, after you win the World Series, build a large statue of yourself… outside Yankee Stadium!

It’s probably a good thing I don’t own a baseball team.

So, what’s new? An awful lot.

The Royals’ problems with young pitchers continue… They’ve burned out Dan Reichert, Chad Durbin, and numerous others in recent years, and now their opening-day starter, Runelvys Hernandez, needs Tommy John surgery. I don’t get it. I think the Royals need a new team doctor. Terry Weiss, D.O., where are you?

But the Royals, to their credit, have made two trades this week. Yesterday they acquired veteran left-handed pitcher Brian Anderson from Cleveland, which gives them two dependable left-handed pitchers. In their glory days, they had two lefties named Gura and Splitorff, who fared well against the Yankees in the playoffs. I sure hope history repeats itself. Then I hope the Yankees end up in the cellar. There’s historical precedent for that–and George Steinbrenner looks a little like Chris von der Ahe.

The Royals didn’t land the best impact bat on the market, but they picked up a decent bat in Rondell White. I sure would have preferred Pittsburgh’s Brian Giles, but it was San Diego’s acquisition of Giles who made White available, and supposedly the Royals have been after White for some time. If they’re smart, White will go into left field and Raul Ibañez will move to first base. I could also see them putting White in right field in place of Aaron Guiel, and Carlos Beltran taking Guiel’s leadoff spot. It would be a bold move, but I kind of like starting things off with a bang. He leads the team in home runs, but Beltran’s the ideal leadoff hitter with his blinding speed and high on-base percentage.

Why not combine the two ideas? How’s this look?

Carlos Beltran, cf
Joe Randa, 3b
Mike Sweeney, dh
Raul Ibañez, 1b
Rondell White, lf
Desi Relaford, 2b
Angel Berroa, ss
Dee Brown, rf
Brent Mayne, c

That looks like a lineup that could score some runs to me. It’s better by a longshot than the lineup the Royals used in 1984 and 1985, and both of those teams won plenty. Ibañez is a little uncomfortable at first base, but Ken Harvey can’t hit right-handed pitching and he’s not exactly agile. Brown’s been disappointing but he’s been more consistent, has some pop, and he has good speed so he won’t clog up the bases. Harvey’s better defensively at first than Ibañez, so in late innings he can come in as a defensive replacement and earn his keep. I think Harvey still can be a good player, but winter ball is the place to learn to hit. We’ve got a pennant to win.

Question of the day: The Yankees released 46-year-old Jesse Orosco today. Does he have anything left? Are the Royals interested in taking a chance on another situational lefty who spent his glory years in New York? I’d be tempted to sign him, if only to mentor the few young pitchers the Royals still have on the roster who aren’t hurt. He certainly knows how to stay healthy; the guy’s been on the DL once in his life.

And I see the Yankees sent disappointing Jeff Weaver to the minors. Steinbrenner’s obviously not happy with him; he didn’t send him to AAA, which would be the most normal thing to do (you generally don’t send pitchers with five years’ experience to the minors), but he sent him to A ball. Three steps down. Weaver can’t be happy. Not that I’ll cry for him–he’s the pitcher who picked a fight with Mike Sweeney two seasons ago. But it’s nice to see Steinbrenner regain his old form. Or something.

Life has returned to Royals Stadium

The last time I went to a Royals game at Royals Kauffman Stadium (it’ll always be Royals Stadium to lifelong fans like me), it was 1996. Mike Sweeney was riding the bench. Johnny Damon was lifted for a pinch-hitter when the opposing team brought in a left-handed pitcher. And the place was as quiet as a library.
On Saturday night, I finally returned. The Royals were in first place, powered by a young and hungry starting pitching staff, the bats of a bunch of people who never got a chance elsewhere like Desi Relaford and Raul Ibañez (superstars Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran have been hurt much of the year). But the weather looked threatening and they’d just lost 4 straight, two to the traitor Johnny Damon’s Boston Red Sox and a doubleheader to the Baltimore Orioles. You can explain away the losses to the Red Sox. You’re happy to take one of three from them. Baltimore’s a different story. Maybe the Royals were fading.

Yet, 25,930 still turned up for the game. A year ago, the attendance would have been half that. There have always been much better things to do in Kansas City on a Saturday night than to go watch the Royals lose.

I knew things were different when earlier that day, I’d gone to the grocery store and I saw people wearing Royals hats and t-shirts. Those had become nearly as common in St. Louis as in Kansas City. Royals hats had become something worn by the fashion-conscious because their royal blue color looked good with the rest of their outfit. Most of them probably didn’t even know that hat had anything to do with a pro sports franchise. Then, on the way to the game, I saw ticket scalpers stationed along the exit ramp off I-70 near the stadium. I haven’t seen people scalp Royals tickets in, well, forever.

The stadium itself is electric. I remember the Royals’ division championship season of 1984. George Brett was still in his prime, and Bud Black was electrifying hitters and the rotation was rounded out with rookies like Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson, and Mark Gubicza, none of whom is a hall of famer, but all of whom showed signs of brilliant careers to come. It wasn’t a great team, but it was a fun team to watch.

There was more fire in that stadium on Saturday than I remember seeing in 1984. Well, at the start of the game, that is. The word “Believe” floated across the scoreboard, fading out to highlights of the still-young season like Ken Harvey muscling out home runs and Michael Tucker and Desi Relaford making diving catches in the outfield. A left-handed pitcher wearing number 32 took the mound. Twenty years ago, the Royals had a left-handed pitcher who wore number 32. His name was Larry Gura. He was good for 15-18 wins and made the All-Star team a couple of times.

This guy’s name was Chris George. If he can pitch like Larry Gura, I thought, this is gonna be a good year.

George retired the first batter on two pitches. The crowd was electric.

By the end of the inning, it was like a library again.

Chris George had a no-hitter through four innings. A walk here and there and a balk here and there had gotten him into trouble, but an umpire can call a balk if there’s a guy on first base and he doesn’t like the way you scratched yourself. Just ask my cousin. He was the perennial league leader in balks throughout the 1980s, pitching for Cleveland and Chicago. I think Chris George must have known that, because he pitched out of those situations. George impressed me. He’s definitely a finesse pitcher–he didn’t register higher than 88 MPH once that night–but he mixed up his stuff enough to keep Baltimore guessing and he racked up plenty of strikeouts.

But then Baltimore scraped together a couple of runs. The Royals came back in the bottom of the inning, with a couple of speed demons on first and second and the smooth-hitting Joe Randa at the plate. Randa stroked a double to center field. One run scored. Desi Relaford rounded third and was halfway home when he noticed his third base coach screaming for him to hold. He tripped, tried to make his way back, and was tagged out to end the inning.

That got the crowd’s attention.

The next inning, Baltimore’s slugging young right fielder, Jay Gibbons, hit a two-run bomb to right field. Well, the way the wind was blowing that night, I probably could have hit something that would clear the right field. fence. But it counts. Baltimore was up 4-1. But there’s some life in the Royals’ bleachers. Before Gibbons had rounded the bases, his homerun ball was back on the field.

By then, the temperature had dropped more than 30 degrees since the start of the game. The fans were shivering. Many had left. I stayed, only hoping there was as much life left in the Royals’ lineup as there was in that fan who’d thrown the ball back on the field.

The Royals rallied for three runs in the seventh off a Baltimore left-hander named Ryan and the immortal Kerry “Freak Boy” Ligtenberg, acquired from Atlanta in the offseason. Ligtenberg puts up good numbers, but every time I’ve seen him pitch in person, he’s given up a busload of runs. He didn’t disappoint. By the time Freak Boy managed to put out the fire, the game was tied, 4-4.

D.J. Carrasco, one of the best of the Royals’ young flamethrowing relievers, held Baltimore hitless in the top of the 8th.

With flamethrowing Mike MacDougal warming up in the bullpen, Raul Ibañez led off the bottom of the 8th with a double, which brought up Royals bruiser Ken Harvey. Harvey overswung at a couple of pitches, then cranked an up-and-in fastball 378 feet against the wind over the left field fence, giving the Royals a two-run lead. “It’s Mike MacDougal time,” I muttered. Fans jumped up and started chanting, “Har-vey! Har-vey!”

But this was to become the neverending inning. Between Baltimore meetings on the mound and Kansas City hits, the bottom of the 8th drug on for what seemed like 30 minutes. I swear that by the time the inning ended, MacDougal looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway. And the Royals had a 4-run lead. There’s no reason to bring in your closer to protect a four-run lead.

Except so much time had passed since the last time Mike MacDougal pitched, the rookie probably had two kids in college. And, well, when you’re Kansas City, you have to give the fans something exciting to watch. Royals fans used to pay to see George Brett, no matter how the rest of the team was playing. And Mike MacDougal is the kind of guy fans want to see.

So in the top of the 9th inning, the bullpen door opened, and MacDougal ran onto the field. The scoreboard went black. “Mike” appeared on the screen in white letters as “Rock You Like a Hurricane” blared on the stadium’s speakers. The word faded to show MacDougal striking out a couple of batters. “MacDougal” appeard in white letters on a black screen, followed by still more strikeouts. An animated baseball trailed by flames lit up the scoreboard. A few more highlights from MacDougal’s spectacular 10 prior saves showed up.

By now the crowd was pumped. And so was the team.

MacDougal’s a bit wild, but that’s a big part of his mystique. The guy can throw 103 miles per hour. He generally tones it down into the mid-90s because his pitches have more movement at lower speeds. When someone can throw 100 miles per hour, he tends to be effective. But he’s more effective when nobody–not the batter, not the catcher, not even the pitcher himself–knows where the ball’s going to end up. It’s harder to hit when you’re afraid for your life.

MacDougal gave up two hits, but his control was on. He threw 21 pitches, and 13 of them were actually strikes. Despite the two hits, he managed two outs without giving up any runs. The final Baltimore batter fouled off a pitch that registered 46 miles per hour on the gun.

“Bull,” I muttered. “When MacDougal throws a paper wad in the trash, it clocks higher than 46 miles per hour.”

He struck him out on the last pitch.

And the stadium sounded like anything but a library.

This is a so-you-know-I’m-alive post

I don’t expect my daily doings to be interesting to anyone. I mean, c’mon. Who wants to read ordinary? But since I haven’t posted in forever, I’ll post what I’ve got, which is this.I’m getting a lawnmower today. That’s good because I can’t get anyone to mow my itsy-bitsy yard for less than $25. For that kind of money, I’ll do it myself.

A friend is coming over this afternoon to help me install a programmable thermostat. That’s good because my utility bills are out of control. If I’d done it in December, I’d be about $400 richer right now. I’m also looking at some other creative ways to knock utility costs down, like compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use about 1/5 the wattage of a standard bulb and have about 10 times the life expectancy. They claim to save you about $30 in energy costs over their life expectancy. Multiply that by the 20 or so bulbs around the house that they’d be suitable replacements for, and you’re talking some real money.

My DSL connection has been sporadic the last couple of days. It seems to finally be stable. I’d get better reliability by upgrading to a static IP, but that won’t happen before summer. I’m still dealing with those unexpected expenses that creep up on new homeowners, and, well, I’m young. I don’t have the kind of resources someone 10 years older than me would have.

If I can find a steady writing gig, that’ll help.

I’ve got a couple of tape backup issues to look at for work. And that’s pretty much my day.

I wrote what I thought was a decent piece on bleeding-edge hardware. But somehow I managed not to save it. I may get time to rewrite it tomorrow, depending on how productive I am today.

Oh, and, tee hee hee, my Royals are 8-0. The last team that started the season 8-0 won the World Series. It was the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, who beat an awfully good Oakland Athletics team. And there’s reason for hope: The Royals have been doing it without Carlos Beltran (leg injury), and yesterday they won in spite of half the team battling the flu. Beltran and Mike Sweeney are the Royals’ only star players.

But the 1990 Reds only had two bona fide stars too, in Eric Davis and Barry Larkin.

Do I really think my Royals will win the World Series? Not yet. But I think this is going to be a fun year.

How to reinvigorate the Royals

Please indulge me one last time this season to write about my beloved, who have currently lost 99 games and are going to make one last valiant attempt to avoid losing 100 this year.
The Royals are a small market. Small-market teams have a rough go of it, yes. But the Minnesota Twins have been doing OK. The Twins have some vision and a plan and they stick with their plan, and that’s part of it. So here’s what we need to do to duplicate that success.

1. Build a superstar. Back in George Brett’s heyday, the Royals had no payroll problems. The fans came out to see Brett, the Royals spent that money to get more players, and since the Royals had winning records, the fans kept coming. In the late 1980s, a bad season meant the Royals didn’t win any championships. But they had winning records. The Royals nearly have that superstar. His name is Mike Sweeney. He’s got a sweet swing like Brett. He’s got plate discipline like Brett. And he’s even more likeable than Brett. When Brett was Sween’s age, he partied as hard as he played. Sween takes care of himself and he takes care of his fiancee and he takes care of his community. The only people who don’t like Mike Sweeney are opposing pitchers.

But Mike Sweeney’s protection in the order is The Mighty Raul Ibanez. Now, The Mighty Ibanez has turned into a good hitter, but he’s not an All-Star. He’s a better hitter than a 50-year-old George Brett. That’s saying something. But to build a superstar, what the Royals really need to do it

And Mike Sweeney needs to get together with Dave Dravecky to put together a project talking about the Christian symbolism in baseball. (Pitchers can’t hit but it’s part of their job. Designated hitters come in and do that part of their job for them. Sound kinda like Christianity? I think so. I think God’s in favor of the DH.)

2. Sign Jim Thome. Jim Thome doesn’t fit into Cleveland’s plans anymore. Blame it on mass insanity. Blame it on tightfistedness. Blame it on whatever. But the Indians don’t want Jim Thome. And guess what? Jim Thome likes Kansas City. I don’t blame him. In Kansas City, if you’re on the highway and you want to change lanes, you use your turn signal and someone lets you. In Kansas City, strangers smile at you for no reason. When the now-departed Miguel Batista arrived in Kansas City at the airport after a trade, some little old lady walked up to him and said, “You’re our new pitcher. Let me get one of your bags.” People are just nice.

Yes, Jim Thome’s going to cost buckets of money. But guess what? He won’t cost more than Roberto Hernandez and Neifi Perez cost combined. So here’s what you do. Rotate Jim Thome and Mike Sweeney between first base and designated hitter. Then try out this lineup:

Michael Tucker, 2b
Carlos Beltran, cf
Mike Sweeney, 1b
Jim Thome, dh
Raul Ibanez, rf
Joe Randa, 3b
Mark Quinn/Dee Brown lf
Angel Berroa, ss
Brent Mayne, c

We’ll talk about the Michael Tucker insanity in a second. Jim Thome’s .300 average and 52 home runs will make Mike Sweeney look a whole lot better to pitch to. It virtually guarantees he’ll hit .340 again, because pitchers will look forward to the half of the time he makes an out. Jim Thome will see good pitches because Mike Sweeney’s on base. Or someone else is. The Royals will score lots more runs. Meanwhile, Mark Quinn and Dee Brown have Jim Thome to learn from. The Royals’ lineup suddenly starts to look like the great Cardinals teams of the 1980s that had lots of jackrabbits who could hit doubles and one really big bat in the middle. Except Mike Sweeney and Raul Ibanez offer better protection than Jack Clark ever had in a Cardinal uniform.

3. Try Michael Tucker at second base. The Royals need a second baseman who can hit. Tucker’s not a great hitter for an outfielder, but he’s a really good hitter for a second baseman. He won’t be a great fielder. But the 1984 Padres solved two problems by moving Alan Wiggins from left field to second base. They got a good hitter at the position, and they freed left field for another bat. The Padres kept Jerry Royster around to play second in the late innings. The Royals can keep Carlos Febles for defense late in the game.

4. If the Tucker experiment fails, move Carlos Beltran to leadoff and Joe Randa to the #2 spot in the batting order. The Royals don’t score any runs because Mike Sweeney doesn’t have enough people on base in front of him. The Royals often give away their first out by having people like Chuck Knoblauch and Neifi Perez and Carlos Febles hitting leadoff. Joe Randa’s no speed demon anymore, but he gets on base. And he’s got enough power that a lot of times, when he gets on base, he gets on second base. Carlos Beltran gets on base. Mike Sweeney needs to hit with people on base. If the Royals were to sign Jim Thome, he’d be worthless without people on base. So disregard the traditional idea that your first two hitters should be your fastest runners, and just get some people on base. Carlos Beltran is your leadoff hitter anyway with him hitting second. Might as well accept reality and work with it.

5. Develop young pitchers. In 1985, the Royals brought in Jim Sundberg, a veteran catcher who couldn’t hit to handle their young pitchers. The formula of young pitchers with lots of good stuff and a catcher who knew how to guide them brought them to the World Series, and, ultimately, to a World Championship. Time will tell if any of today’s young pitchers will turn into Bret Saberhagen or even Mark Gubicza. Since the Royals can’t afford to go sign Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux (and since they wouldn’t score any runs for them anyway), they don’t have much choice but to take the chance. But since the Royals have been throwing their young pitchers’ arms out (witness Jose Rosado, Chad Durbin, and Dan Reichert) they need to re-think the way they develop their young pitchers. Throw fewer innings and watch more videotape.

And be patient. Greg Maddux spent two years as a so-so relief pitcher and sometime starter before he blossomed into the greatest pitcher of his generation.

Hmm. I’m already looking forward to April 2003.

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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