Monday, April 24, 2006

Dear Mr. Glass

Dear Mr. Glass,

Look, we need to talk. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and it’s time for us to face facts and make some big decisions. It’s time for us to be truthful about how things have been going for the last few years. It’s time for us to take a serious look in the mirror and choose what we want for the future. You see, I think I’ve been pretty patient. I think I’ve looked the other way about a lot of things. I think I’ve listened to your words and I’ve really tried to believe them. But, after a lot of thought, plenty of frustration and more than a few sleepless nights, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are just not ever going to change.

Here are the facts, as I see them. You are the owner of a Major League Baseball team – the Kansas City Royals. I am a fan of that team. For the here and now, that means we are connected. In three of the last four years, that team has set franchise records for losses – all three in triple digits. With your team’s 4-13 start this year, you are well on your way to setting yet another record for futility. Based on this start, you are projected to go 41-121 this year. Yet, even though your team finished with the worst record in all of baseball last year and earned the number one pick in this year’s draft, you are one of only a few owners that actually made money in 2005. In fact, one publication indicates your operating income was more than $20,000,000 last year. To put that in perspective, that same publication indicates the New York Yankees lost $50,000,000 last year. However, the only reason you made money in 2005 is because you received $55,000,000 from the MLB central fund and from the revenue sharing plan currently in place. With a current combined salary of less than $45,000,000, you don’t have to pay a dime of your own money to put a team on the field. And despite these astounding figures, the citizens of Jackson County still saw fit to give you $275,000,000 for stadium renovations just to keep you at the Truman Sports Complex.

And that takes us to the product you are willing to put in front of the fans 162 times a year. You have yet to hire a coach with a winning record while with the Royals. The 2006 edition of the Royals has been swept in four of the six series they’ve played. Not just lost the series – SWEPT! Your general manager has tried to sell the same tired, old Three Year Plan song and dance since he got here six years ago. The product you put on the field is barely able to fill the stands and the franchise seems to be a permanent fixture in the bottom third of the league attendance marks. Let me know if I have missed anything!

Those are the facts, but what about the emotion. You see, Mr. Glass, you’ve sucked the joy out of Kansas City baseball. Since the Royals came to town in the late 60s, Kansas City has been supportive. The Kaufman family is revered here because of their love of the area and their efforts to put a winner on the field. They weren’t afraid to spend because, for Ewing Kaufman, owning a baseball team wasn’t about putting money back in his pocket. He had other business ventures to do that. Owning the Royals was about pride in the area and love of the game itself. And that was obvious in how he treated the team and the fans. There’s a reason his statue stands outside the stadium that bears his name – and why yours will most likely never join him.

I grew up watching the Royals battle the Yankees in the late 70s and early 80s. There were fights on my little league team over who would wear George Brett’s number 5 on their uniform. We watched in frustration as the Phillies beat us in 1980 for the World Series crown, than jumped up and down five years later as we knocked off the Cardinals for a World Series of our own. We cheered Brett, Frank White, John Wathan, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson, Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Seitzer, Mike MacFarland and so many others. We hurt for Willie as he battled drug problems. We laughed when Brett came charging out of the dugout in the Pine Tar Game. We cried when Dick Howser lost his battle with cancer. In the early 90s, we watched the unbelievable power and skill of Bo Jackson. I remember in high school going out to games during the week and grabbing G.A. seats in left field, then hanging over the wall during pitching changes because Bo would come over and talk with us. Going to the ballpark was one of the great places to hangout as friends or family. It was a place to be, then brag to your friends that you were at the game where Balboni hit that monster home run, where Quiz came on for another save, where Damon and Dye used speed and power to terrorize the other team.

What do we look forward to now? I think a co-worker of mine said it best the other day, “As long as they don’t lose every series. . .” That’s what we’ve come to? Hoping they can pull out a series win here or there? That makes me feel sick, sad and angry all at once. 200 miles down I-70, St. Louis has billed itself as Baseball Town, USA. They claim to have the greatest fans in the world and play in an amazing new ballpark. And every time I hear an announcer gush over the fun of watching baseball in St. Louis, there’s a part of me that believes they stole that title from us. But, we got duped. We got a new owner that ran one of the richest corporations in the world. He was loaded! Money would not be a problem. We’d be competitive. We’d bring another title to Kansas City. That owner vowed to move to Kansas City and run the team from here, instead of jetting back and forth in the company jet. But, it was all a lie. You had no intention of moving and money was always the object.

You are a business man and an excellent one, at that. I respect that. I work in the corporate world and Wal-Mart is the model to follow for maximizing income and cutting costs. And you’ve approached the Royals in the same way. For the last six years, Royals’ baseball hasn’t been focused on wins and losses. The focus from you and your family has always been the bottom line. You’ve cut payroll, raised prices and collected the handouts from Major League Baseball. You trade high salary for low salary, veterans for youth, excitement for stability. As a business model, your plan should be commended. But, in your haste to make sure the Kansas City Royals can turn a profit no matter what, you’ve overlooked one simple factor: By simply putting a competitive product on the field, you’d fill the stadium. Weekends would be sold out. People would be paying for parking, buying concessions, snatching up merchandise. The money would be rolling in.

You see, Mr. Glass, we want to support baseball in Kansas City. A couple of years ago, when Tony Pena’s Royals were mildly competitive into the later part of summer, the fans came out to the ballpark in droves. We wanted to see a team with a chance. We wanted to yell and cheer for Beltran, Randa and Sweeney and the others. It was fun. But, even then, you didn’t get it. Payroll got slashed and we started a new rebuilding phase the following year. And the losses started to grow.

Now, here we sit. We are the laughing stock of Major League Baseball. The Marlins might have more youth and a lower payroll, but they also have two World Series titles in the last ten years. No, people look at this once proud franchise and shake there heads in pity. Poor Royals fans. Another year of poor coaching, of weak talent, of no chance of winning. Talk radio began the season full of anger. But the anger is gone. It’s been replaced by disgust and resentment and that feeling you get when you know you don’t have a chance. My kids are young enough to root for the Royals because I do. I want them to fall in love with the Royals like I did. But, at the rate things are going right now, my kids are going to seek a winner. I’m afraid I’m raising Red Sox fans, Cardinal fans or, and it pains me to say this, Yankee fans.

Mr. Glass, you can change that. I don’t pretend to be the voice of the people. Not everyone may share my views. But, I think we can all support this one initiative. Mr. Glass, please step aside. Sell the Royals. Think of the time and the public relations headaches you would save? No more awkward visits to Kansas City when you’d rather be anywhere else. You’ve got plenty of money. You don’t need the Yankees and MLB to keep filling your pockets. Take up a hobby. See if you can win a BBQ contest in your true hometown – Bentonville, Arkansas. Go see a show in Branson. Spend some time at the Lake of the Ozarks. Play some golf on one of the many gorgeous courses down there. But, before you do any of that, please leave us alone. Consider this your unconditional release. We won’t be upset. Just walk away! Don’t keep tormenting us. Don’t keep claiming love for something we truly cherish. You’ve taken your shot and more than doubled your investment. It’s time to get out.

There are plenty of local investors that would love to own the Royals. Go to George Brett and ask him to lead a group that is ready to buy. Talk to Bud Selig about the importance of keeping the team in Kansas City. He’ll listen to you. Let him know that it is vital that the Kansas City Royals stay with an owner that is focused on winning. Let Major League Baseball put us to the test to see if we will support a competitive team. If we don’t, then we don’t deserve to have Major League Baseball here. But until there is a competitive product on the field, it won’t be a fair test.

Remember that silly old saying, “If you love something, set it free”? This is your chance to prove you love the Royals. Our relationship is irreparable. But you can do the honorable thing and leave us alone. You have all the leverage here. All I want is my baseball team back.


Matt Karpowitz

The race for 63! The Royals finished off their road trip in extremely meek style, scoring only one run in a three game sweep to the White Sox. After dropping their eleventh straight to the Indians to start the home stand, they finally showed some backbone and some offense in taking the last two from Cleveland to finish the week 2-4. Current Record: 4-13.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Huggy Bear

There’s an old saying that goes something like, “When you lay down with dogs, you may get fleas.” I know, that might not be exactly right, but it’s close. This saying should not be confused with other, commonly known mantras like, “Don’t mess with the bull, you’ll get the horns” or “Don’t buy anything from the trunk of a man named Moose.” Each of these offers good, common-sense advice and the overall meaning is true for all – there are some situations, places and people that should probably be avoided. And, if you choose not to avoid them, you need to accept the potential consequences. So, in a matter of speaking, you could say that when the Kansas State athletic department hired Bob Huggins to coach their men’s basketball team, they effectively bunked down in the doghouse, climbed into the bull’s paddock, opened up Moose’s trunk.

Now, I make no apologies in this space regarding my allegiance to Kansas Jayhawk basketball. From Clyde Lovellette and Wilt Chamberlain to Danny Manning and Paul Pierce, I am definitely a Jayhawk, through and through. But, truth be told, I want Kansas St. and the rest of the Big 12 to improve for one simple reason. If the Big 12 is better, than Kansas will have to be better to win. And, if Kansas is better, they will most likely have more post-season success. I just want to clear this up before I get accused of being a homer and just not liking Kansas State basketball or being jealous of their sudden – and somewhat uncomfortable – success. I’m not Wildcat hunting for fun. I believe the folks in Manhattan, Kansas, made a decision that has been made in athletic departments all around the country – and quite possibly to some degree in my beloved Lawrence, Kansas.

You see, the world of Division I men’s college basketball is more than its glossy, One Shining Moment exterior that CBS puts forth every March. There’s a definite underbelly out there and when you turn it over for a peek, you see it’s filled with AAU coaches acting as player agents, unauthorized visits and illegal benefits, shady tutoring and jobs for parents. These are the components of the dark and dreary world of the year round recruiting wars. Despite countless checks from the NCAA, these things have gone on for most of my lifetime. About 25 years ago, Kansas coach Larry Brown hired Ed Manning as an assistant on his staff. Ed’s 17 year old son, Danny, was a highly recruited power forward. Danny eventually committed to KU and led the Jayhawks to the 1988 NCAA title. Two years ago, Bill Self used the same technique with Mario Chalmers and his father. Illegal? Nope. Feels a bit unscrupulous? Absolutely.

I believe KU’s cross-state rivals in Manhattan got tired of being lumped in with the NCAA have-nots. So, when they fired underachieving, but perennial good-guy Jim Wooldrige last month, they had a decision to make: stay with the K-State norm of hiring a somewhat unproven up-and-comer with a spotless record or hire a proven winner and ignore the baggage. There were five or six potential candidates in the first category, but only one that really mattered in the second – former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins.

I have never met Bob Huggins. The only exposure I have to him involve sideline tantrums, press conferences explaining player arrests, disturbing charges and video regarding his drinking and driving, and the standard early flameouts from the NCAA tournament. However, for some reason, Huggins has an incredible rapport with young, often troubled, high school basketball stars that see themselves playing in the NBA. For whatever reason, these guys love Bob Huggins and want to play in his offense. The man is a recruiting machine and as his name surfaced for several jobs this spring, the underlying feeling was the same: if you hire Bob Huggins, you are going to rocket up the recruiting standings almost immediately. Maybe it was too much to pass up for the Wildcats. After years of being overshadowed by the Jayhawks, they had a chance to make a splash and get really good really quick. So, they hired Bob Huggins.

Already, the team is changing. The best unsigned player in America – a 7’3” center from Florida, signed with the Wildcats on Wednesday. Manhattan could soon be the home of another seven foot center or the best point guard coming out of the JUCO ranks. What’s more, if the collection of kids claiming allegiance to Huggins all commit to K-State in next year’s recruiting class, the 2007-08 Wildcats should be a pre-season top 10 basketball team. I’m not saying that will happen for sure, because I do believe, for a 17 year-old boy, there is a big difference between being recruited to Cincinnati – a relatively large city – and recruiting to Manhattan, Kansas – in the middle of the farm belt. It may be a tough sell, but if there’s any salesman who can do it, it’s Bob Huggins.

So, what is the tradeoff for Kansas State University, it’s athletic department and its fans? Potentially, there are no tradeoffs. Potentially, Huggins has overcome his demons and will not have any problems. The standard line from K-Staters on talk radio these past few weeks has been unabashed excitement at being lumped with the college basketball blue-bloods combined with this head-in-the-sand qualifier – “He hasn’t done anything wrong here, yet!” And it’s true. There is no evidence that Huggins has done anything improper in the recruitment of the kid from Florida or with any other of the five star recruits that seem to want to call him their coach. His contact with them stopped when he was hired except for that which is allowed within the confines of the NCAA rules.

But, there are two sides to potential and the Wildcats must acknowledge that as good as things might go, there is potential for them to turn out equally as bad. Manhattan, Kansas is a long way from some of the big city playgrounds and gyms these kids are playing at today. Where will they go to have the fun they are used to? Aggieville, Salina, Topeka? Nope. Those kids will be looking for parties as far away as Kansas City. What if one or two of these guys have the off-the-court troubles exemplified by some of Huggins’ players at Cincinnati – the worst of which resulted in kidnapping, weapons and drug charges? What if Huggins – who never showed any remorse over his DUI conviction – encounters the same issues on the streets of Manhattan? Are the Wildcat faithful going to be able to justify it by saying, “Yeah, but our team is favored to win the Big 12 this year!” Will that be enough? Is Huggins serious about Manhattan or is he looking for a stepping stone to revive his reputation so he can go somewhere with a bigger budget and an easier recruiting sell? And, the biggest question of all – can Huggins actually deliver at crunch time? No matter his abilities in recruiting, he’s not proven himself as a great tournament coach. Will simply making the field be enough at K-State or will the desire for more continue to grow? I speak from recent experience – early exits are painful.

My point is this: if we are going to extol the virtues of this decision and the opportunity for serious college basketball success that non-traditional Division I powerhouses seek, let’s not ignore the trade off that comes with the same decision. My soap box today is as the moral conscience for the Wildcats and they definitely need to ask themselves, “Is this really the path we want to take?” Stop pretending that Huggins past is lilly-white or that his future is without serious questions! It shouldn’t all be roses in Manhattan, nor at just about any other high-profile athletic department.

They call NCAA football and basketball the money sports for a reason. As much as they are about athletic accomplishments, they are about the revenue generated as a business. Gone are the days of playing for the hometown team and love of the game. That Bob Huggins could get a job just a year after the things that happened at the University of Cincinnati is all the proof we need to know that we’ve entered an era of college sports hedonism – if it feels good, do it, no matter what the consequences. But, like life as a whole, that “live on the edge” attitude does have potential costs, and the fleas that may be hiding under the surface will definitely bite.

The Race for 63! The Royals had a chance to get this nine game road trip off to a great start on Tuesday. But, after a ridiculous decision by manager Buddy Bell to pull a hot pitcher in the 8th, the club promptly gave up five runs, the lead and the game. They ended up getting swept by the Yankees, then heading to Tampa Bay and getting the same treatment from the Devil Rays. That’s right, not a single “W” this week. Current record: 2-9.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Stadium Paranoia

If there’s one thing I know about sports, it’s that there is one issue that every fan dreads more than an any other – even more than a season so bad that entire blooper DVDs can be devoted to their play in the field – it’s the all-powerful stadium issue. No professional franchise is immune. This single issue can drive a wedge between fans and ownership faster than Lindsey Lohan can change boyfriends. The words “new stadium” or “upgraded facilities” or “additional luxury accommodations” can make the heart of any fan freeze in their chest when spoken by a local owner. And for good reason! In this 21st Century world of nomadic Fortune 500 sports owners, we all know that loyalty and community are only words spoken at end of the year banquets and in United Way commercials. When it come to stadiums, most owners seem to be looking for the biggest potential revenue stream, the lowest potential hit to their wallet and the greatest number of tax breaks and luxury boxes. And, with the possible exception of the publicly owned Green Bay Packers, no team is immune. That’s right, no team.

The issue of stadium generated revenue seems to play the loudest in small market Major League Baseball towns. But, you probably already figured that out since I am taking the time to write about it in this space and since Royals’ baseball (new slogan, “It’s mediocre!”) is here again and since nothing seems to get me riled up like Kansas City ownership asking for more tax-payer paid perks while fielding a team that would have trouble winning the California Penal League, never mind the A.L. Central. And, yet for the last six weeks, Kansas City sports pages and radio talk shows have been debating the merits of a nine-figure stadium renovation project that would benefit both Kaufman and Arrowhead Stadiums, as well as a pie-in-the-sky rolling roof proposal that might land a Super Bowl for the city.

First, a brief and somewhat accurate history for all of you who have never been to a game at either Kaufman or Arrowhead. The two stadiums are located side-by-side in the middle of a wide expanse of land now known as the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex. The Sports Complex is an asphalt prairie nestled in the armpit of Interstates 435 and 70. The best thing the complex has going for it is space, the vast majority of which is filled with parking areas. One thing is for sure, unless, by some fluke, both the Chiefs and the Royals were playing on the same day, you are almost guaranteed a parking space that is within a half-mile of your seat.

The address of the Sports Complex is in Kansas City, Missouri. However, when at the Sports Complex, you could be in Sioux City and it wouldn’t make any difference. There’s nothing else around except a loan Taco Bell about a mile’s walk away. Kansas City, Missouri is in Jackson County and the Truman Sports Complex was built by and is owned by the government of Jackson County. The stadiums opened in the early 70s, Arrowhead in 72, Kaufman – then Royals Stadium – in 1973. So, the Complex is my age, which will soon become relevant. Jackson County leases the stadiums to the two sports franchises and the leases guarantee the teams will stay in Kansas City as long as Jackson County holds up their end of the lease – one stipulation of which is that the County will keep the stadiums modern and up-to-date – an ambiguous idea with no real detail behind it, at best. This, too, will soon become relevant.

Now, I have several friends and co-workers that live in Jackson County, and, despite the incredibly poor treatment of my Mormon ancestors in the 1840s, I don’t really have anything against Jackson County. I like to go there for their cheap gas. I drive through it to get to St. Louis. There are several historically significant religious sites that are enjoyable to visit – with more to come in the future. However, I do have serious reservations about the Jackson County Sports Authority – the government arm that operates the Sports Complex. You see, the one essential role of the Sports Authority is to make sure the county is compliant with the leases so that the teams cannot bail out if the county fails to do its part. Over the last 30 years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been given to the Sports Authority to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

So, what happened? With nine years remaining on their current leases, the unthinkable has happened. The stadiums have gotten old. They are having plumbing issues, the beating they take after any event is clearly visible, and they are far from state of the art. In a word, they are me. You see, I, too, am getting old. My plumbing is not what it once was. An evening of basketball means several days of muscle aches. I enjoy 80s hair bands far to much to ever again be considered state of the art. The biggest difference between me and the Truman Sports Complex? I haven’t had millions of dollars worth of tax payer money handed out for my upkeep and improvement. I guarantee you, if I had, I’d be as modern and up to date as (fill in the name of some really cool band. Maybe try Google for hints.)

So, even though Jackson County told all of us that they would make sure the stadiums were in good shape when they put their signature on the lease, they haven’t kept up their end of the bargain. They don’t have enough money left from the last lease agreement and tax increase to make the needed updates. So, the Royals and Chiefs could conceivably void the remainder of the leases and start shopping for a new home. Now, let me be clear, neither team has made any overt threat to leave. Their new home shopping could be in Las Vegas, Portland or Los Angeles, but it could just as easily, and perhaps even more likely, be right here in the Kansas City area. Maybe not Jackson County, but the city has developed on the Kansas side to the west and to the south and there are several areas locally that would like to make a run for one if not both of the teams. Not to mention, the fact that Kansas City, Missouri and Jackson County could keep one or both teams by building stadiums downtown – a proposal that could revitalize downtown businesses and capitalize on the Missouri river that cuts through Kansas City and is such a distinctive part of the character of the city itself.

But, Jackson County didn’t want to do that. They didn’t want to lose “their teams” – a rather boorish and short-sighted idea that the teams are more theirs than ours – those of us that grew up on the Chiefs and the Royals and have supported them our entire lives, but happen to live in Johnson County or Cass County or Wyandotte County. So, a new proposal was presented a few months ago that would renovate the stadiums, extend the teams’ commitment to the Sports Complex another 25 years and only cost $425 million of tax-payer money to do so. With an additional $25 million from the Glass family – who own the Royals – and $75 million from Chiefs’ owner Lamar Hunt, the proposal would repair the wiring and plumbing in the stadiums, add restrooms, widen concourses, add a Hall of Fame for each team, build a house for the Royals’ mascot – Slugger – and add restaurants in a “Taste of Kansas City” type open area. A second proposal was placed on the ballot to put a rolling roof over the two stadiums that could cover Kaufman, roll to a pavilion area between the stadiums, or roll a little farther and cover Arrowhead. The roof price-tag was $200 million. And it came with a guarantee from the NFL that if passed and built, would bring the 2013 Super Bowl to Kansas City.

So, last Tuesday, Jackson County voters went to the polls and ignored the last 30 years of mismanagement by the Jackson County Sports Authority. Question one passed and the taxes will be collected, the renovations made, Slugger will be given a new home. The space-age rolling roof did not pass, but the Sports Authority immediately went on delay mode and will attempt to get it back on the ballot in December. And, after much debate, the Chiefs and Royals will remain at the Sports Complex until 2031 or until Jackson County defaults on the new lease. And, despite my obvious skepticism, I will continue to support them. I will pay the use tax when I buy tickets and pay for parking. I will go to games, walk through the Hall of Fame, even take my kids to Slugger’s new digs.

However, and maybe you could tell, I’m not all that happy with the outcome. You see, all the voters of Jackson County have done is delayed the inevitable. In 25 years, the teams are not going to be willing to stay at the Sports Complex. In 2031, the stadiums and I will be nearly 60 years old. Now, I will most likely be struggling with bad joints and gray hair and wrinkles. Sports teams, like the athletes that play for them, are perpetually in their mid-20s to 30s. They always want the best and the most luxurious. So, they’ll look at their aging partnership with Arrowhead and Kaufman stadiums, they’ll see the wrinkles and the sagging and the age beneath the makeup and they’ll be ready to move on. They’re not going to stay with something 60 years old. Let’s just hope my wife doesn’t feel the same way!

You see, in the long run, if we really want to keep the Royals and the Chiefs in Kansas City, we’re going to have to build new stadiums. The Truman Sports Complex was innovative and unique when it was built. But professional sports found a new business model and it isn’t a sea of concrete with parking spaces and a stadium or two sitting in the middle. That might work for the Chiefs, where tailgaiting before and after a game will keep fans coming. And, maybe Arrowhead will stay where it is if they bulldoze Kaufman and build a new Arrowhead there. But, maybe the Chiefs look for greener pastures in Kansas City, Kansas out by the Kansas Motor Speedway. Would that really be such a bad thing? I’ve spent all my life driving 30 to 45 miles to go to the Sports Complex. Will Jackson County residents no longer support the Chiefs if they move across the river? I can’t believe that would happen.

As for the Royals, the answer will someday be a downtown stadium. Major League Baseball teams play 81 home games a year. Baseball is played at a more leisurely pace than any other professional sport besides golf. Fans want something else to do on their way to and from the ballpark. They need restaurants and clubs, night spots and music. They need something more than a “Taste of Kansas City” and a Taco Bell across the parking lot. It’s time for all of us, no matter what county we’re from, to come to grips with the fact that if the Royals are going to stay in Kansas City, it will eventually need to be in a brand new stadium down by the river. No promises of All-Star Games and Super Bowls under a rolling roof will ever change that. For now, Jackson County has closed its eyes to its past of poor management and fiscal irresponsibility. Now it’s avoiding the gaze of the future like a seventh grade boy sitting firmly against the wall at a junior high dance. You had the chance to get up, cross the room and sweep the girl off her feet, Jackson Countians. You’d just better hope she’s still interested in you in 25 years!

The Race for 63! In their quest to avoid being the second team in history to lose 100 or more games in three consecutive seasons, the Royals got off to a rocky start by blowing two games against the Tigers while the aforementioned stadium vote was underway. But, the team got some respect back over the weekend by taking two of three from the World Champion White Sox. Current record: 2-3.

Monday, April 03, 2006

I'm Back!

To paraphrase the great Jimmy Chitwood - I think it’s time for me to start playing ball again. Granted, I don’t have Indiana high school basketball super-coach Norman Dale to hound me about shooting over ladders or running the picket fence. But, nonetheless, I’m ready to make my triumphant – or at least mediocre – return to blogging. Now, hopefully, I can remember my password so I can actually post this article online.

I took some time off. Maybe it was the lack of enthusiasm for winning fostered by the Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe I didn’t want to jinx my beloved Jayhawks during what turned out to be a surprisingly solid season. Maybe it was the fact that it was the off-season for the Royals and nothing gets my blood boiling like the Kansas City front office trying to get people excited about AAA baseball in Kansas City. Or, maybe it was because it’s taken me a good five months to get comfortable in my new job and, until recently, I haven’t even wanted to look at a computer when I wasn’t at work. Whatever the reason, what’s done is done and I think it’s time for me to start writing again. Hopefully, I haven’t driven my fives and tens of faithful readers away. If I have, I hope you’ll take me back and give me another opportunity to get riled up about small market sports. Because, as Jimmy Chitwood told Coach Dale and the rest of his Hoosier teammates at the end of the big game, “I’ll make it.”

Last night, the 2006 Major League Baseball season started off with the World Champion Chicago White Sox taking on the Cleveland Indians. Those two teams are the pre-season favorites to compete for the American League Central title. Rounding out the bottom of that same division will most likely be my very own hometown Kansas City Royals. In fact, here in KC, this season doesn’t have anything to do with competing for the wildcard or even getting back to the .500 mark. At Kaufman Stadium, the big question is, can the Royals avoid becoming the second team ever and the first team in more than fifty years to lose 100 games three seasons in a row? It’s the race for 63 – not much to get your blood pumping and your wallet out as you head for the ballpark.

So, whether it’s an aging journeyman outfielder heading the free agent signees or the incredibly insulting and ridiculous stadium renovation project being voted on later this week, I’m guessing I’ll have plenty of time to comment on the shortcomings of the Royals this season. But, for MLB, the picture isn’t so bleak. From Seattle to Tampa Bay, from San Diego to Boston, the 2006 season is being hailed as the beginning of a new era. Dead and gone is the so-called Steroid Era, crushed to death by Congress and BALCO and Jose Canseco. Those images are being replaced by a younger, faster, more competitive game. Ticket sales are up, coming close to the 1998-99 levels when McGwire and Sosa swept the country on their own personal super-sized, not quite all-natural home run parade. New stars are rising with stats based not on the long ball, but instead on batting average and on-base percentage. With clubs getting comfortable with salary cap issues and team-first attitude, competitive balance is at an all-time high.

But, before we start patting ourselves on the back and handing out asterisks for would be records, we shouldn’t forget the remainders of the Steroid Era that still hang over the game. Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell is leading an investigation into steroid use that will most likely center on recently published details about the steroid use of Barry Bonds, among others. And, perhaps of greater concern to Major League Baseball, Bonds continues to play and, if his health holds up, will most likely pass Babe Ruth’s career home run mark this hear and Hank Aaron’s next year. How will the league in general and Bud Selig’s commissioner’s office in particular respond to Bonds’ continued assault on the record book? Do they celebrate it or ignore it? Do they condone his past accomplishments, hiding behind the farce that he was never caught breaking any of MLB’s steroid rules simply because there were no rules to break? Or, do they go hard-line and refuse to acknowledge Bonds’ home runs because they are more tainted than the Clinton White House? Only time will tell.

With the game changing and a policy in place that ought to actually curb steroid use, Major League Baseball wants the Steroid Era to be a thing of the past. And it will forever be remembered in the images of five men – baseball giants that crumbled under the pressure of the public eye and the glare of exposure when their actions – either accused or admitted – hit the front pages. Four of these five men came together in front of Congress last year. Their words, or lack thereof, were ridiculed for weeks on talk shows and in sports columns. And now, instead of remembering them for their on-field heroics, they will be remembered as jokes – caricatures of themselves.

It all started with Jose Canseco. When his book, Juiced, was released last year, he was lampooned as a buffoon – a disgraced slugger throwing his former teammates under the bus in a flagrant attempt to get back in the spotlight. But, despite some obvious inaccuracies, Canseco stood by his story. He took steroids, admitted it, and named names about who else in the majors was getting some unnatural help. His reputation was so bad, that when that strange day in front of Congress came, Canseco was ostracized by the other players. Now, things have changed. Once the fool, Canseco has emerged as the hero in this sordid saga. Like the old Mormon-ad that had my friends teasing me as a boy, Canseco can stand up tall after admitting to breaking the window and sing, “I told the truth!” This was an extraordinary turn of events – rivaling Donald Trump’s current popularity. Jose Canseco will go down in history as the HONEST one.

Sitting in the same room with Canseco in front of Congress was the one no one had really considered until the book came out – Texas and Baltimore slugger Raphael Palmeiro. He was strong. He was decisive. He had 3,000 hits and was approaching 500 home runs in a career that, though not spectacular, seemed strong and consistent. But none of those accomplishments will be remembered as much as what he did in front of Congress: he wagged that finger and swore that he had not taken steroids. After the hearing, Palmeiro came out looking like a prince. He was unimpeachable. He spoke his mind and told off those glory-seeking congressmen. His career wasn’t steroid enhanced! Then, the unthinkable – the man who scolded Congress for questioning his accomplishments tested positive for steroids. Suddenly, he was the laughing stock. He was the one being ridiculed. And he will forever be remembered as the LIAR.

Next came the FOOL. As much as it pains me to say this, that role belongs to the one and only Slammin’ Sammy Sosa. Sammy was vital to the resurgence of baseball during the late 90s. He hit home runs at an alarming rate, his hop up the first baseline becoming a nightly fixture on Sportscenter. In the summer of ’98, Sammy joined Mark McGwire as the public face of baseball. He was personable. He was funny. He sprinted to the outfield at the beginning of every game. And he was always available for a funny comment and a big smile. But, suddenly, when steroid questions came up, Sammy forgot how to speak English. He had the audacity to attend the hearings with an interpreter. He couldn’t explain himself because he couldn’t speak the language. But the gambit didn’t work. Everyone knew Sammy could speak English. Everyone knew that Sammy simply didn’t want to answer the questions. And his ridiculous attempt at evasiveness was effectively the end of his career.

Sammy’s foil in that home run crazy ’98 season was Mark McGwire. Big Mac had retired as a St. Louis hero. Everyone loved him. He could do no wrong. Who would ever forget him crossing the plate and picking up his son or hugging Sosa after he broke Maris’ record? He changed the game and shattered marks no one thought could be broken. McGwire had a specific game plan when he came to Congress, most likely dictated by no promise of immunity. The one-time-sure-Hall-of-Famer’s perfect defense? Refuse to talk about the past. The future is all that matters. He’s only looking forward. He was loved and embraced by a city and, to some extent, a nation. We all were willing to look past the suddenly hulking physique, the obvious acne, even the Andro in the locker if only we could see one more towering drive into the bleachers. But, Canseco pointed directly at him in the pages of his book – even describing injecting McGwire while with the A’s. And, with Canseco’s testimony part of the public record, McGwire couldn’t risk unprotected incrimination and became, in a word, PATHETIC.

So that leaves one more player, a literal home run Giant, and the only of the five that was somehow allowed to escape the grasp of Congress – at least, so far: the one and only Barry Bonds. Canseco’s book brought up the steroid issue for Bonds, but these were all questions he had heard and ignored before. He never played with Canseco and there was no proof in Juiced that pointed to Bonds. However, Canseco’s book was followed by another one – written by two San Francisco journalists – and this one really brought the heat. Game of Shadows specifically details Bonds’ alleged steroid use and abuse. The book paints him as a jealous, mean and deceptive figure, only out for his own glory. The suspicions were everywhere – the remarkable change in his size, the inflated power numbers at an age when most careers where in decline, the “best friend” who was a known steroid distributor. But Major League Baseball and the San Francisco Giants stayed silent. No matter if you liked him or not, Bonds was the home run king and a celebration befitting royalty would be required when that king overtook Ruth and Aaron. But, suddenly, the tide of public opinion swelled. People couldn’t believe this man would be allowed to stand in front of the two greatest sluggers that ever lived. Now, what would Selig do when the records started falling? When things started to get serious, I’m guessing MLB honchos started hoping that Bonds’ injuries would keep him off the field for good. But they haven’t and with Bonds planning to play this year, Selig was forced to act. An investigation has been opened. Bonds is in the crosshairs. The outcome, the records, the asterisks are still in question. However, even though this appellation describes all five figures, Bonds is now the villain of the steroid era and will be known forever as the CHEAT.

So, there you have it. Baseball is doing all they can to get out from under this enormous shadow – the frighteningly massive noggin of Barry Bonds. And it will be billed as a year of renewal, of excitement, of honest competition. Players will value gap power because they don’t want to be questioned for hitting too many balls out of the park. Pitchers may not go as many innings without the ability to recover as quickly with a little help. And these are good things. I’m excited about the season. I’m excited about the prospects of the sixth new World Series champ in six years. I’m excited to watch closer games. And, perhaps more than anything, I’m excited to see how the fans, the players and the league responds if Bonds hits number 715. It will be a stark reminder that the Steroid Era is not quite gone. And we will have a front row seat to one of the most sordid affairs in sports history – all the while just hoping the Royals can go 63-99!