So much for flashes in the pan

I’ve had some questions about the Royals’ wheeling and dealing for their pennant drive, and of course I have an opinion about that.

Mostly I’m glad I was wrong about last year’s heartbreak turning into a flash in the pan. But you may be surprised to hear I’m not too heartbroken that the Royals traded away five pitchers so they could rent Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist for two months, or three if everything goes as planned.

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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.

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.

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