Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Must Wins

Here’s a question: When was the last time a Major League Baseball team faced a must-win game this early in the season? Give up? Okay, the answer is last year at this same time. However, it may have been a trick question since the team needing the win today and last year are one and the same. That’s right, it’s mid April and once again my Kansas City Royals are fighting for their playoff lives. It they were an NBA team with two games to play, that would be exciting. Alas, they claim to play in the MLB, and that means they have 148 games left. And this afternoon, they must win.

It’s terrifyingly eerie, actually, the similarities between the start of this season and last season – especially since this team is supposed to be so much better. It’s the first full year of the Dayton Moore Experience. His free agent moves are now on the clock – Gill Meche, Ryan Shealy, Tony Pena, Jr. His improvement of the Royals’ minor league system is ready to produce – Alex Gordon and Zack Greinke now, Billy Butler and Luke Hoechaver soon. He’s got the veterans who can build on great things from last year – Mark Teahen and Mark Grudzielanek. This should be so much better right? Well, based on the first 14 games, we’ve seen a whopping one game improvement.

In 2006, the Royals started strong with a 2-3 home stand. All they had to do was have a mildly successful nine-game road trip and they’d start generating some confidence and keep the fans coming back. So, what did they do? They went 0-9 on the road. Nothing ever really improved after that point. Just that quick, they were 2-12 and out of contention. So, now we have all these high hopes for 2007. So what do they do? They open up 2-4 at home, but they played Payroll, Jr. (Boston Red Sox) and the defending American League Champion Detroit Tigers. Plus, they got some great pitching performances. The only concern were their quiet bats. All they needed to do was have a mildly successful 10-game road trip. 4-6 would do it. So, what happens? The only two positives are a win in the second game in Toronto and a rain out of the fourth game in Baltimore. That’s right. They are 1-7 on the trip. They did give up grand slams in three consecutive games, so that was pretty cool. And David DeJesus. That guy’s awesome. But, if they lose this afternoon, they come home at 3-12. If they win, it’s 4-11. That single win can make a world of difference. If they don’t get it, the wheels might just come off again.

So, as you probably know from reading this site, it’s time for me to make a couple of well-intended suggestions. Look, I love the Royals and always will. And I’m in no way saying that the front office hasn’t considered these options. Perhaps they have. What I am saying is that there are a couple of things I would do in order to keep that feeling of hope for winning Royals baseball, especially if they aren’t going to actually win on the field. So, here are my top three suggestions.

1) Trade Mike Sweeney. Now, I’m not saying trade him today, because I think he’s hitting .162 and you’re not going to get much considering his injury history. But, as soon as he warms up a bit and gets that average up to about .250, I say start shopping. Two reasons: First, he’s still a big enough name to draw some interest from those teams that like to spend in the A.L. – the Angels, Red Sox and Yankees all might take a look. Second, you’ve got a better hitter cooling his heals in Wichita. Let Billy Butler take over the D.H. duties. We want to see him in K.C.

2) Play Reggie Sanders every day. The man is hitting .391. He deserves to be on the field every single day until they decide to trade him. And they will decide to trade him. Reggie is playing his way into the perfect fourth outfielder/pinch hitter on any contender in either league. If he stays healthy, he’s going to command some decent value in return come late June, early July. Let him show off what he’s got so we can get something back for him.

3) Start looking for a new manager. This must be done quietly. I’m not in any way trying to disparage Buddy Bell’s character. He seems to be a truly nice guy. He is not, however, by any stretch of the imagination, a successful major league manager. At the end of this season, if not sooner, he needs to go. We need someone who knows how to prepare a team to play. This team has been woefully unprepared for several years. Buddy is not the answer. He been keeping the seat warm since Tony Pena quit, but he hasn’t shown the ability to motivate the players or manage the game. I’m not saying do it now, but at least by the end of the year, be ready to hire someone new.

So, that’s it. That’s where I would start. Well, that’s not quite true. The place to start is by getting a win this afternoon. Then come home and build on it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Kansas City is a baseball town. It always will be. We want a competitive team and the parts are tantalizingly close. We’re almost there. We just need a win to keep the hope alive.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Just the Way It Is

True story: It’s Wednesday night and I’m surfing the net. I happen upon the tee-times for the 2007 Masters, which begins the next morning. Suddenly, it hits me. I need to make a change. I need to stir the pot. I need to back a winner. So, leaning on my background as a suburban, conservative father-of-three, I decided to turn in my membership card to the Phil Mickelson fan club. I decided to no longer support the sometimes spectacular, often infuriating left-handed risk taker and hitch my rooting interest to the one guy I thought surely could win me a championship. That’s right. I turned to my wife and said, “Okay, if anyone asks, I’m a lifelong Tiger Woods fan.”

Sounds plausible, right? I could get used to saying I root for Tiger because then I could cheer when Tiger pulled on his fifth green jacket on Sunday. Despite the failures and shortcomings of my other “favorites”, I could have at least one “sure thing” in my pocket. I even considered calling my brother-in-law, who is ever faithful to any team or player with even the remotest of ties to Brigham Young University, and making the declaration official. I’m fairly certain the conversation would have gone something like this:

Me: Hey, I’ve changed allegiances. I’m rooting for Tiger Woods now. My guy is totally going to win the Masters.

Him: What? Why would you do such a thing? Have you considered the merits of Mike Weir? He played for the Cougars, you know! Did you know former BYU linebacker Rob Morris single-handedly won the Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts? With Danny Ainge running the Celtics, they’ll soon return to the NBA elite. Remember what he did to Notre Dame? Go Cougs!

Well, I didn’t make the call. But it didn’t matter. I knew I had done it. I had a winner. I could finally celebrate. I would be anxiously awaiting my Sports Illustrated with Mickelson, my new nemesis, helping Tiger into yet another green jacket. I was ready to start yelling, “You the man” after every Woods tee shot. I would buy red Nike gear to wear to Church on Sundays to celebrate Tiger in red walking up the 18th fairway. It would be the dawning of a new day in fandom for me. By Saturday night, I was getting ready to taunt my friends that supported lesser golfers. The conditions at Augusta were horrific and the field was in shambles. Despite playing less than stellar golf, they’d all come back to Tiger and he’d once again be in the final group on Sunday. It was his tournament. It was my tournament. I was sure of it.

Then reality returned to my world. Woods took the lead briefly on the front 9 and knocked in an incredible eagle on the back 9, but he never really made a significant charge. He never forced the other contenders to blink. He never got that intense look in his eyes that tells everyone the tournament is his. Nope. He didn’t do any of those things. You know what he did? He lost. He didn’t choke. He didn’t fall apart. He just lost. In other words, he played just like all my other favorites play when things matter. Somewhere between mediocre and crappy. Certainly this was just a fluke for Tiger! Those things happen, right? Oh, yes. They happen often. They happen with the kind of insidious frequency to the teams and players for whom I cheer, that I’ve been forced to turn to the fatalist’s mantra – that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing I can do to change it. Unless I jump off the Tiger bandwagon, his assault on Nicklaus’ major championship record is in dire straits.

However, despite this life altering realization, I’m not here to complain. I’m not here to scream. I’m not here to cry about bad plays or missed calls or if onlys. No, I’m here to make some money. I’m here to tell you that I have a business proposition for you. For only a nominal fee, I will become an ardent fan of your most hated rival. Can’t stand the Lakers? I’ll don a Kobe jersey and they’ll be out in the first round of the playoffs. Sick of Yankee dominance? I’ll sport the accent and start calling Mike and Mad Dog to tell them the Yanks are going to cruise to the World Series. Before you can say Derek Jeter, the Bronx Bombers will be dropping both ends of a double header with the Devil Rays. And, perhaps this little nugget. Are you a Buckeye? What if I grow my hair long, get a perm, tie it back in a crazy pony tail and start telling everyone how the Gator Boys are going to party like no one has ever seen before. That in itself could set Florida basketball back to peach baskets and granny shots!

That’s right. I’ve finally come to this important realization. It’s hit me and there is really no denying it. My teams don’t win – at least not championships. Next year is the 20 year anniversary of the last time any of my four favorite teams (Royals baseball, Chiefs pro football, Jayhawk basketball and BYU college football) won a major championship. That’s right. In 1988, Danny Manning took the Jayhawks to the title. It was the end of a phenomenal run for me. In 1985, George Brett and the Royals won the World Series. In 1984, Robbie Boscoe led the Cougars to an undefeated season and a national title. Granted, the Chiefs were pretty lousy back then, but it’s not like they’ve been to a Super Bowl since then, either – even with the great Joe Montana running the offense in the early 90s.

But, I’m not going to be down anymore. Nope, I’m looking to the future. I’m planning ahead. I’m hoping to pay for my children’s missions, college educations and weddings. Just let me know who you want me to back and they’ll fall on the kind of hard times that legends are made of. Together, we can do it! We can beat this thing. We can lose one for the Gipper! And don’t forget our new slogan – That’s Just the Way It Is!