It’s not difficult to understand. Everyone who is part of the human race seeks praise and self-esteem, even if you’re a loser like Fredo Corleone. Being recognized for your abilities is even more important for professional athletes, who are scrutinized by the public and the critical news media. These folks are in the sports entertainment business and are no different than a movie star or head of state. They have big egos that need to be stroked.
The guys who play for the Kansas City Royals are a case in point. This was an organization that suffered through decades of mediocrity, even though they had a terrific farm system and appeared to follow a blueprint for small-market success. Then a very weird occurrence took place last season. The Royals actually claimed a wild card berth, cheated elimination in the first round and went on to almost win the whole enchilada. For once, this club was feeling good about itself, and headed into spring training believing that they would be perennial contenders. But apparently this group was branded as overachievers.
When I was filling out my 2015 Team Predictions for TTFB, I was surprised to discover that not a single colleague had Kansas City returning to the playoffs. Similarly, none of the industry big shots gave the Royals a snowball’s chance either, including ESPN, The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. Shame on you, Tom Verducci.
I know it’s very early but the Kansas City Royals, that lucky squad of junior varsity players and one-year wonders, seem to be doing quite well. Yet, the only publicity this modern day version of the Bad New Bears seems to get is a scolding for inciting bench-clearing brawls.
Now don’t get me wrong. I certainly don’t condone the head-hunting threats made by Kelvin Herrera, who throws the ball in triple-digits and has a peanut for a brain. It’s also likely that bad boy Edinson Volquez has been a negative influence on 23-year-old Yordano Ventura. The Royals pitching staff is still very talented, however, despite the loss of free agent James Shields, who didn’t live up to his “Big Game” handle last October. As for Ventura, this kid has already proven to be legit and is struggling because he’s trying to do too much. So maybe the hyper Dominican should heed the advise of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brett Anderson and “dial it down several notches.” Then again, Anderson is an overpaid reliever with a losing career record who should probably mind his own business.
Did the baseball gods bless the Royals in 2014? I suppose so. Even George Brett seemed at times to be stunned beyond belief. The American League kings also lost Billy Butler and Nori Aoki in addition to Shields, and the counter moves to acquire Alex Rios, Kendrys Morales and Volquez seemed sketchy. I get it. But thus far, the latter two players have performed well, and the oft-injured Rios looks good to go in June. That rock-solid bullpen got even deeper with the acquisition of hard-throwing lefty Franklin Morales. Then there was the major league contract offered veteran rotation guy Chris Young, which was a risky move by general manager Dayton Moore given Young’s fragile health. Grateful for the opportunity, the 6′-10″ Princeton grad has compiled a 4-0 record and leads the world with a 0.78 ERA.
I guess the real reason I picked the Kansas City Royals to make another postseason appearance is because this group finally knows how it feels to get there. And once a taste of success is acquired, it lingers like fine wine. Proof of that theory is the club’s fast start, ranking third among 30 MLB teams in both hitting and pitching. I might also add the Royals core position players — Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez — are all in their primes with a year of crunch time under their belts.
I couldn’t help but notice the other night when the 25-year-old Perez, an All-Star catcher and the youngest member of that group, was greeted by Miguel Cabrera during a game against the division rival Detroit Tigers. Cabrera, healthy again and one of baseball’s best hitters, playfully tapped Perez on the leg guard with his bat while stepping into the batter’s box. Then, as if on cue, the native Venezuelans engaged in an old-school competitive conversation. Three pitches later, the Tigers first baseman weakly flied out to right field. As he trotted across the diamond toward the Detroit dugout, Miggy looked at Perez, shook his head and smiled. And Salvador, who called the correct pitch, nodded and flashed a wide grin in return.
The moral of this story is that mutual respect is appreciated. It’s a professional courtesy that good teams and their personnel expect, and the Kansas City Royals feel slighted. That’s why they play with a swagger while having chips on their shoulders. In my book, this franchise deserves better. But unless the Royals have the unlikely opportunity to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, this team will always be the ugly red-headed stepchild, even in the state of Missouri.