Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

The Royals were swept at home by the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend. Now, this is not the kind of headline that anyone is going to look at in shock. It’s sort of similar to saying, “The sun rose in the East this morning!” or “Brittney Spears had a visit from social services.” So, the sweep at the hands of their cross state rivals is hardly a lead story. You see, the Cardinals are twice the team the Royals are right now. They have a strong, if not spectacular pitching staff with some solid starters, dependable middle relief and a great closer. They have a powerful lineup that can knock the ball around the park with the best of them. And, they have, in all likelihood, the 2006 MVP and home run leader in Albert Pujols, one of the most exciting young stars in all of baseball. The Cardinals have a legitimate shot at going back to the World Series for the second time in three years.

The Royals? Not so much. The Royals have, by all accounts, a pretty weak pitching staff. There is no ace on this team, nor even a king, queen or jack. It’s entirely possible that no Royals starter will finish the year with double-digit wins. Their middle relief is probably the strongest element on the team. Not exactly a great selling point for a professional baseball team – “Come see Mike Wood hold the opponent scoreless for two innings before Burgos gives up a game breaking three-run homer in the ninth!” Yes, their closer leaves plenty to be desired. Now, all of this would be fine if the offense was solid. Not even close. The Royals are not known for their ability to string together consecutive hits, never mind put up a lot of runs. “But the Royals are young,” you say. Certainly their youth would allow for some leniency if they were playing solid, fundamental baseball and showing growth from game to game. No luck there, either. The Royals’ defense has been atrocious and each night they seem to find new ways to lose.

So, when the Cardinals strolled into Kaufman stadium on Friday for a three game set, few people considered that the Royals would be able to put up much of a fight. And, believe me, they didn’t. But, here’s the hard part for the lifelong Royals’ fan. It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, there was a time when Kansas City and St. Louis were the best two teams in all of baseball. The competition between the powder blue Royals – led by tough as nails Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett – was fierce for in-state loyalties with the red birds of St. Louis – led by silky, smooth Hall of Fame short-stop Ozzie Smith. And at no time was that rivalry stronger than in 1985 – when the two teams came together in the World Series.

Certainly, the 1985 Fall Classic will not go down as one of the best in history for the national television audience – and definitely not for the network that carried the match-up. The I-70 series held little interest for most of the country. But, here, in the Midwest, it was huge. Remember, this was before interleague play so up until 1985, we could only argue about which team was better, but we couldn’t ever prove it. I went to school with lots of Cardinal fans. I collected the baseball cards of Brett and White and the Quiz – and willingly traded away Ozzie and McGee and Andujar. They were the enemy and we were thrilled to be facing them. Those were heady times for baseball in the Midwest. The Royals had been to the series in 1980, losing to the Phillies. The Cardinals won it all in 1982 and went back to the series in 1987. But, for a Royals fan, 1985 was the moment to remember. The series went seven games but turned on a controversial eighth inning call at first base in Game 6 when Jorge Orta was called safe – a dubious judgment at best that even most Royals fans admit was wrong today. But, after the crushing Game 6 loss, the Cardinals were no match for Kansas City in Game 7 and we were celebrating in the streets.

And, frankly, that was pretty much it for the Royals. That was the high point. I don’t know if it was the Orta call or the increasing salaries or the change in ownership, but the Cardinals stole our Mojo after that. After winning their division six times between 1976 and 1985, the Royals haven’t been to the post season since. Attendance peaked at 2.4 million in 1989 and fell all the way to 1.3 million last year – just 100K more than after the 1994 strike when many baseball fans stayed away to make a point to Major League Baseball. And, of course, you are aware of the brutality of losing endured over the last four years in Kansas City, losing 100 in 2002, 104 in 2004 and 106 last year. The Royals are well on their way to crushing that mark this year. It’s a frightful and frustrating time to be a Royals fan.

Meanwhile, just three hours away down I-70, things couldn’t be more positive. The Cards returned to the series in 1987 and then again in 2004. They’ve appeared in the post season seven times since the ’85 Series, each time as their division winner. Their attendance marks have gone through the roof with 3.5 million last year. That mark will certainly be eclipsed this year as they opened the new Busch Stadium. They’re exciting. They play good baseball. They are competitive each and every night.

But, do you know what really bugs me about St. Louis right now? Despite all the losing here and all the winning there, the thing that really pushes me over the edge is that they now pass themselves off as Baseball City, USA. There’s this sense of superiority that goes beyond wins and loses. It’s this idea that they are simply better fans and that’s why their team has been better. That drives me crazy. If Royals fans really thought it would make a difference in how ownership spent the money and how the team was run from day to day, Kaufman Stadium would sell out every night. But we know that won’t make a difference. While St. Louis fans have been coddled and nurtured and rewarded by their ownership group, Kansas City fans have been neglected and ignored and punished with viciously ugly baseball. We’ve been treated poorly and you can only take that kind of neglect for so long.

My frustration stems from this neglect. It’s an issue that Kansas City management just doesn’t get or, if they do get it, they just don’t care. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The fans in Kansas City are good fans. Kansas City is a baseball town at its core. There are 2.5 to 3 million people that will buy tickets over the course of the year. We want to be there. We want to wear our Royal blue throw-back jerseys with Patek or Wilson or MacFarland on the back. We want to walk through the Royals Hall of Fame and see Splitorff and McRae and Montgomery. We want to sit and talk and say “remember when” about George Brett and “what if” about Bo Jackson and “why not the Hall” about Frank White. These guys were our heroes growing up. We rifled though our mother’s baking cupboards to find toothpicks so we would look like U.L. Washington when we took the field. We got in arguments with the Reds bandwagoner in the early 90s who though Chris Sabo was tougher than Kevin Seitzer – a laughable proposition at best and fighting words on some days. We were jealous when our friends had tickets and we didn’t. We wanted to be there. It didn’t matter if you had box seats behind the plate or upper level right field line seats for Mormon Night at the Royals. The stadium was the place to be in the summer. It was an event.

Not anymore. Now, we are the fools. Now, we mumble to our friends that we are Royals fans. The response is an incredulous stare – “Really? Why?” We wait for the evening sports report and hope that there wasn’t a play so atrocious that it will make the SportCenter highlights. We secretly watch the waiver wires and listen to baseball insiders and we hope for some tidbit of positive information about a prospect or a trade or a hot hitter. And we wait. And we wait. And we wait. All we need is a sign – a little bit of positive news, a sincere effort from ownership to improve without asking for money for stadium renovations at the same time. We need a manager that gets mad and looks more than just downtrodden at the losing. We need a captain who doesn’t spend a third of every year on the disabled list. We need a player – any player – who says, “I love playing in Kansas City. The fans are the best. This is a wonderful baseball town and a solid franchise!” Except it isn’t. It’s a joke. You want Major League Baseball? It’s available and just a short, three hour drive east on I-70. We don’t play that way anymore in Kansas City.

The Race to 63! For the second time this year, the Royals returned from a road trip without a single victory. They are just the ninth team in the last 30 years to have two double-digit losing streaks in the same year. And it’s only May. The Royals spent last week getting swept by the Indians in Cleveland before returning home and getting embarrassed by a sea of Cardinals fans at Kaufman Stadium. Since I’m posting this a day late, they added a shutout by the Tigers after a players only meeting. They are, in word, pathetic. Current record: 10-32. Projected Record: 39-123.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Barry's World

713 and holding. That’s the number of home runs Barry Bonds has hit in his career. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot of home runs. That’s the third most of any player in the history of Major League Baseball. It’s more than Mickey Mantle, more than Willie Mays, more than Mark McGuire. But for Barry Bonds, it’s not going to be enough. Neither is 714 or 715. Neither is 755 or 756 or 800, for that matter. For most people, Barry’s athletic accomplishments are going to be discounted severely. They are going to be asterisked, they are going to be rationalized, they are going to be tainted by a single, one-word accusation – STEROIDS. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that.

Here’s what I do have a problem with. As ESPN brings us every Barry Bonds at bat until he passes Babe Ruth’s mark of 714 – not the record, by the way. Ruth is number two behind Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs. However, as we are inundated with seeing Barry stand there every 45 minutes in his full-body armor and either walk or pop weakly to short, there is one question that everyone seems to be ignoring – at least in San Francisco, California and Bristol Connecticut. It’s the proverbial pink elephant that no one seems to want to discuss. Certainly, I can understand the hesitancy in San Francisco. The answer could cast a cloud over all the things that franchise has accomplished in the last seven years – most notably their trip to the World Series a few years ago. But I’m shocked by the Worldwide Leader’s willingness to be a pawn for Barry Bonds by continuing to hype the Ruth mark. They are the current journalistic voice of American sports, no matter what Sports Illustrated or Fox Sports of CBS Sportsline wants you to think. And, yet, ESPN, Baseball Tonight and all the rest are looking the other way why this giant, pink elephant looms in the corner.

I mean, put yourself in Barry’s situation. Let’s say you are a world class mechanic. For the first 30 years of your career, you are known for your ability to do just about anything well when it comes to fixing cars. You can tune the engine, fix the brakes, rotate the tires, replace the filters and even change the oil frequently enough that people say you might be one of the best ever. Certainly good enough to be mentioned with Wal-Mart auto and NTB and Tires & More. You are truly a five-tool mechanic.

Then, all of a sudden, as you should be putting the finishing touches on a career filled with mechanical glory, you see all of the publicity going to these younger guys that can’t do everything you can do, but can change the oil faster than anybody in history. They are re-writing the record books with their oil-changing ability. And you get a bit jealous. So, you decide to change your game. You realize that, based on your career, if you really focused on oil changes, you could challenge the career record holders in the next ten years and knock some of these snot-nosed punks off their pedestal. You could someday surpass the immortals – maybe even exceed Jiffy Lube – a mark most people thought was unreachable. So you do it. You make the changes and they are all natural.

But now, people are getting suspicious. “Why is he suddenly so good at oil changes?” They’re asking. “He barely does any of the other things he used to do. If all I need is my brakes fixed, he still just goes for the oil change. And why does he look so different? His coveralls have ballooned to twice their normal size. He’s just an oil change machine, now. Plus, he’s really surly!” Well, you know the answers. You’ve honed your body to be ideal for oil changes. You’ve changed your tools and perfected your routine. And you’re grumpy because it’s hard focusing on one thing all the time and the rumors are really starting to get to you. “It’s not right for him to be like this. The all-time greats didn’t have these kinds of technologies. I hear he’s using synthetic oil!” Soon, the government is looking into you and the guy who made your ratchet set is sent to jail. People assume you are a cheater because you know these guys. But you know better. “It’s all real,” you say. “I simply started focusing on strengthening my body to change oil!”

Then, the unthinkable happens at the worst possible time. Just as you are about to surpass Firestone to move into second all-time, those jerks at Popular Mechanics write a book. They say it is well researched, but it is based on the testimony – illegally obtained – of the guys that went to jail for their own illegal-ratchet activities. They just want to bring you down, too. They just want to keep their names in the yellow pages. So they accuse you of the using black-market ratchets to gain an advantage, even though it may be damaging your other equipment. They find an old girlfriend and she is more than happy to tell people what a mean guy you are. It’s all coming down around you. You go to change the oil in San Diego and someone throws a bottle of Castro Synthetic into the grease pit.

So, what do you do? Do you really just sit back and take it? If you know the book is a lie, don’t you sue the authors for liable and defamation of character? Don’t you let them have it with both guns, turning over sales receipts and journals to show that you didn’t cheat? Do you really go into Milwaukee and struggle to change the oil while someone stands behind the yellow chain holding a sign that says, “Jiffy Lube’s record will stand forever!” Or do you go to Popular Mechanics to tell your side. And answer every question asked and make yourself available to any other mechanics rag to make sure they know you are clean. Do you really try and put on a “reality” show on the Speed Channel - the only media outlet that seems to ignore the rumors - that only makes you look like a self-absorbed baby? Or do you challenge all comers by putting your history – medical, professional, emotional – out there for all to see. At the bare minimum, don’t you fight? Don’t you hold the press conference and deny all the charges? Don’t you address the issue head on instead of accusing the press of hating you and trying to hurt your family, then making them sign a waiver to appear on your reality show?

See, to me, this is the problem. Where’s the indignation? Where’s the righteous anger? Where’s the public challenge for proof? And that leads me to that Giant elephant standing in the corner. If Barry really didn’t use steroids, why isn’t he declaring his innocence? Why didn’t he go after the Game of Shadows authors? Why isn’t he screaming from the rooftops, “I didn’t do steroids. I’m clean! Here are my medical records. They prove it. I will take a test weekly. I’ll allow MLB to release any of my samples from the last five years (assuming there are any). Take me for who I am. I deserve to be mentioned with Ruth and I’m going to challenge Aaron!” Instead, we get this ridiculous charade of a reality series and the obnoxious nightly Bonds Tracker.

So, let’s look at this from the other point of view. Assume that Barry Bonds took steroids between 1998 and 2004. There’s no MLB steroid policy, so getting caught isn’t a big concern. Besides, Bonds has the money to buy designer steroids that can beat the tests. So, he’s on the juice. Maybe I’m too quick to denigrate the villain Barry Bonds, but this just seems intuitive. Just looking at him, you can tell something is wrong. He’s different now than he was in the mid 90s. He’s got all the characteristics of the typical steroid abuser. He’s never tried to refute the claims in Game of Shadows. In fact, Bonds and his legal team only did one thing. They filed an injunction to try and have the publication of the book held up by saying the information used by the authors was obtained illegally. The judge that heard the case told the Bonds legal team that they were welcome to proceed, but that he felt the case had no chance. The suit was dropped and the Bonds camp has remained mute. Isn’t this somewhat of an admission by omission?

Now look at the 2004 and 2005 seasons and assume that Bonds had to stop taking steroids. If the government is really interested in catching Bonds in a lie based on his grand jury testimony in the BALCO case, then he probably knows that he can’t get the steroids right now. He’s being watched. So, he comes off the roids. 2005 is a wash because he is hurt. His body can’t recover like it could when he was getting help. 2006 starts and he’s cold from the beginning. He starts to warm up, but he’s still way off the pace he had in 2001-2003. He’s not the home run machine he used to be. He only has the freakish physique. Isn’t it rationale that the reason for the sudden increase – steroids helping his body – is the opposite for the sudden injury and decline – no more steroids? I know I’m not a medical expert, but I do believe the simplest explanation is usually the right explanation – and that seems as simple as it comes.

And, so, each night we endure the Bonds report. He went 0-2 with two walks in a Giant loss. We get updates on which games he might or might not be in for the next series – usually two of the three games in any series unless it’s going to be cold or wet or Wednesday. The inevitable is certainly near. He’s going to catch and pass Ruth. No pitcher wants to give up home runs, but having your name tied to Barry Bonds right now is a new level of shame. Frankly, I’ve never seen such excitement over someone going for number two since we were potty training our twins. We need to remember that Ruth, as great as his career was, does not hold the record. And that, if his health continues to decline, Bonds will never approach Aaron. Certainly that’s what Major League Baseball is hoping for. Only San Francisco and ESPN will celebrate the Ruth homers. The rest of us will have to wait and see. In five years, will Bonds be the new career home run record holder or will he be in year two of a seven year suspended sentence for lying to the grand jury? I’m sure Barry is hoping for the former, but I’m guessing he knows the latter is a possibility. But, for now, we just count. 713. . .713. . .713.

The race for 63! The Royals got all of our hopes up early this week by coming home and sweeping the Cleveland Indians. For some reason, they really have the Indians number right now with a 5-1 record against them. But they are now 5-24 against the rest of their schedule after getting swept by the Orioles in Baltimore. The same old Royals showed up on Sunday night. Carrying a 7-4 lead into the bottom of the ninth, Burgos walked the bases loaded. Baltimore scored four in the ninth to steal the win. The beat goes on for KC – but they do get to go to Cleveland next! Current record: 10-25. Projected record: 47-115.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Wiz In Me

I hope you can forgive me. I hope you can let it slide. I hope you can see past my mistakes and understand that I may have been blinded by homegrown biases and mainstream media attention. You see, I’ve been lying to you. I’ve been telling you for some time about the shambles that is Kansas City professional sports. I’ve been using this space as a platform to get the powers that be to change their ways, open their wallets, use their heads and bring us a winner. My focus all this time has been on two major teams and their performance in two major sports – football and baseball. And I’ve been so focused on my love for and frustration with these two teams, that I failed to notice that we do indeed have a team right here in KC that competes at the highest level in their sport. That’s right, it’s time for me to get behind the Kansas City Wizards.

“Who’s that?” you say? “The Kansas City Wizards?” No, the Wiz are not a new NBA or NHL franchise that you have never heard of. Neither are they champions at Dungeons and Dragons, though with a name like the Wizards, you might expect to see them in the next Harry Potter novel. The Kansas City Wizards play football. Or, more accurately, the Kansas City Wizards play futbol, and apparently, very well. Yes, the Kansas City Wizards, or the Wiz as they are called by the locals, are one of the stronger members of MLS – Major League Soccer.

Now, forgive me if I don’t know all the facts surrounding this team. In fact, forgive me if all I know about the Wizards is as follows: They play at Arrowhead Stadium; they once had former U.S. National Team goalie Tony Meola guarding their net; they are owned by the same family – the Hunt’s – that own the Chiefs; and they may have one a league championship in the last five years. I think I remember hearing that. I don’t know the names of the players. I don’t know how often they play. I don’t have any idea how long the season lasts or how much a ticket costs. But, here’s what I do know: they are competitive – pretty good, even – at the sport most loved by the vast majority of the world.

I don’t want to get into the whole soccer versus football debate. Though I admire the ability and stamina of soccer players, as a spectator, I prefer American rules football. I just do and that will most likely never change. I grew up before the massive boom in youth soccer leagues in the United States. Not much before, but early enough that when I played soccer in 2nd and 3rd grade, I still wore those double layer mesh jerseys – blue on one side and red on the other. No numbers. No sponsors. No piping or matching shorts. Every team had at least one kid that wore jeans to the games. Husky kids were defenders, fast kids were attackers. That’s about all I remember, except how boring it was to be the goalie against a team that you were creaming. Man, I could kick at dandelions with the best of them, waiting for the action to come my way. But, suffice it to say, in my two or three years of soccer at Holcolm Park, I never really picked up all the rules and definitely never fell in love with soccer.

But, all that’s about to change. I’m ready to join the billions of soccer fans around the world. I’m not necessarily giving up my standard sports, but I think I have room to add another team to my stable – especially if that team is actually capable of winning. And, why not? The Wiz are from Kansas City and I live in the Kansas City area. The Wiz play a professional sport and I love to watch professional sports. The Wiz ownership seem interested in more than just fleecing Kansas City and stuffing their pockets, and I’m tired of being fleeced and seeing my money go to people that already have enough money to buy small countries. Plus, their name is the Wiz! How can you beat that? I know it’s a play on the Wizard of Oz and all that, but the funny punch lines and slogans with a name like the Wiz are absolutely boundless – especially when another team in the league is the Fire and one of the major sponsors of MLS is Budweiser. You just can’t make that stuff up!

So, I’m jumping on the bandwagon – and it’s the perfect time to do it. The Wiz just had three players named to the 23-man U.S. World Cup team. That’s pretty impressive. I hear that they employ one of the best five or six players in the league – Eddie Johnson. Soccer is about to hit one of it’s peaks with World Cup play about to begin. And, best of all, the Wiz have “Kansas City” on the front of their jerseys. They are my hometown team and they actually have a shot at playing for a title. Not a Royals kind of shot where management tells you they are planning to be competitive in the next five years. Not an NFL kind of shot where every team has potential, but every fan can see the obvious flaws. The Kansas City Wizards could win the MLS title this year and no one inside the soccer community would be all that shocked. They are good! That’s something that has been missing from my professional sports watching life! "But wait," you say, "the Wiz is owned by the Hunts and you blast the Hunts for their dealings with the Chiefs!" Am I a hypocrite? Nope. The key here is that Clark Hunt, who runs the Wizards, is actually interested in Major League Soccer. He wants to be instrumental in the development of that league the same way his father was instrumental in the rise of the NFL. Simply put, ownership cares about the Wiz.

So, the Wiz can count me in. What can I do to help? Do I need to buy my own shin guards? Do you need someone that can shout “GOAAAAAAAAAAL!” at the top of his lungs? How about one of those crazy streakers running up and down the field with some internet gambling web-address tattooed on his back? I know I can contribute. Here are some slogans I’ve already come up with.

This Wiz is brought to you buy [fill in the blank of beverage sponsor]! (Okay, I may have stolen this one.)

Kansas City Wizards soccer. You’ve never had a Wiz like this.

Coming soon the Truman Sports Complex – an actual, real-life, not made up championship trophy!

See? I’m ready to roll!

The Race for 63! The Glass family is mad. Really mad. They expect results. They want to see some wins. They are going to make some changes. Great. After another long losing streak and coming within a game of the worst road start ever by a Major League Baseball team, there is an excellent chance that current G.M. Allard Baird will be fired this week. And I support that move. Baird’s original three-year plan is in year six. He’s not proven that he can evaluate talent and the Royals need to score big with the number one pick in the draft this year (and probably next year, too!). So, I agree that Baird’s time is up in Kansas City, no matter how much the local sports radio guys like him. But, if the Glass family really believes that this move is going to change the direction of the team, they’ve been up too late slashing prices at Wal-Mart. Until the mindset of the ownership group changes – or the ownership group itself changes – and we have an owner that isn’t trying to turn a profit, this team will continue to flounder. Running a Major League Baseball team is not about making money. It’s a community service. Spend some of that Wal-Mart cash to put a winner on the field and gate receipts, television deals and apparel sales will all increase. If you don’t understand that, sell the team. Current record: 7-22. Projected record: 40-122.