Desiring Something That Once Was

If you have lived long enough you have seen something or someone that was once great deteriorate into nothing more than a hollow shell of its former self. Your grandfather who was built like an ox from the time he was a teen until well into his fifties and then once he hit seventy his physical body was worn out after all the abuse it had taken. Your ultimate high school/college ride that was shiny and aerodynamic but in an instant it was totaled by someone who wasn’t paying attention and rear ended it at sixty miles an hour. A once thriving baseball franchise with an owner that cared and wanted to bring in the talent to win, and now the same franchise has an owner who is only concerned about bringing in enough talent to fill some seats. At least that is the perception.

Since the passing of Ewing Kauffman the Royals have been that hollow shell. Sure they have had a handful of players (ranging from good to all-star caliber) that have played for a year, two, maybe three but once they were offered a trade to a contending team, (Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, Cardinals, White Sox) they were gone. Carlos Beltran, David Cone, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Jeff Suppan and the list could go on. This theme started soon after the strike of 1994 and has continued well into the twenty first century. Sure the Royals haven’t always finished in the gutter but they either finished fourth or fifth fourteen times since 1993.

That was not the baseball team that I grew up listening to on the radio, watching on TV or the stands from before I could even throw a baseball. The Royals had a premier minor league system that was the envy of even the New York Yankees. They had at least a handful of all-stars every year and they weren’t “mercy” picks either. In no way am I dismissing the talent level of the recent selections for the mid summer classic, they deserved it. Zach Greinke and Joakim Soria are some of the best players at their position. These guys are winners and deserve better.

Now this year has been slightly different. The coaching changes have helped. Bringing in one of the best Royals hitters in history as the hitting coach and bringing in a replacement manager that has had success, and has instilled optimism into the team, is a move that all die hard fans are hoping will lead to a brighter ending rather than the basement of a competitive division. It is looking like the Royals might have found the beginnings of a core group that could lead them back to prominence.

In theory the Royals could have had arguably the best outfield of the first decade of the twenty first century. It would consist of Jermaine Dye in right, Carlos Beltran in Center and Johnny Damon in Left. All three of these players have played and/or started in the All-Star game and the post-season. Two of them have World Series rings. If the Royals would have kept these three, Mike Sweeney would have stayed for sure. Now we are up to four perennial all-star players that are not pitchers. These four could also have been the 1-4 in the batting lineup. Add Billy Butler and David DeJesus to the lineup there’s number five and six. Both of these may not have the power numbers but both are capable of being a .300 or better hitter, year in and year out. This line up would stack up well against just about any other lineup that has been put out there by any team the past ten years. But it never came to be. Money, and more importantly the potential for a ring, lured away the talent that the Royals for the most part had groomed themselves. The Royals’ brass was content to be a feeder team to the rest of the league who wanted to win pennants.

There have been many theories that have been started by fans or by the media of what would fix the Royals problems. One of these being hiring former Royals’ talent to manage or coach the team. Frank White or George Brett have both been mentioned in certain circles at one point. George is right where he needs to be. He has the power to influence more than just the starting lineup for the game but has some influence on who the manger has to pick from for his lineup. He still makes his spring training appearances and that is enough for a guy who gave a town the best years of his life and then some. The same can be said for Frank White. Frank managed in the minor leagues and is now in broadcasting. It’s not a matter of if either one could do the job. They could. They have the abilities but the expectations would be set way too high by the media and the fan base.

There is only one solution that works in winning it all in baseball at the major league level. It is a combination of things and it starts at the top with the ownership and the other top brass. The owner, the president, the VPs, and the GM must be committed to produce a championship team. Owners are already rich before they buy or start the team. That’s why they’re the owner. Ewing Kauffman’s wife encouraged him to help his hometown out by bringing in a professional baseball franchise. Mr. Kauffman was already a very successful business man at this point and like all good businessmen wanted to have success in all of his ventures. The Royals finished fourth in their first season. It was a good start.

Mr. Kauffman built the template structure that other franchises would later mimic. Their minor league system was superb and in less than ten years won three division titles. The organization drafted well, traded well, and when they signed good players and coaches they kept them. Some of these were quite expensive investments but it made the franchise a winner. David Glass has been taking his Wal-Mart/cutting cost approach and you can’t do that if you expect to win. Even the small market teams, such as the Twins or the Reds (I might even consider the Braves a small market team in comparison to others) are willing to bite the bullet and bring in enough talent to contend for a playoff spot.

After having a solid, single-minded, optimistic, business side of the franchise you need coaches who know the game and how to get the most out of their players. Each coach has their own personality and style. A manager has to be passionate about the game and passionate to win. Why do you think Bobby Cox (Ned Yost worked for Cox 1991-2002) has coached as long as he has and has gotten himself thrown out in as many games? He cares about winning and letting his team know about it, even if it means being sent to the showers early himself. Yost wouldn’t have stayed long in Atlanta if he (Cox) didn’t want him around.

The Royals have had chances go right by them in the past ten years but either the coach was uninterested or the Royals wouldn’t fork over the money. A high quality coach such as a Bobby Cox, Joe Torre or Tony LaRussa does not become available every year and the good news is they don’t cost that much either (At least compared to the players that you would have to sign.) Tony LaRussa is the ideal manager because he has won it all from both sides of the league. The only other manger to pull that off was Sparky Anderson. But since the Cardinals won’t let him go anytime soon, the Royals are still left with plenty of quality prospects.

Coach Yost so far seems to be doing a much better job than his predecessor to this point. Tony LaRussa actually picked him to be on the 2005 All-Star team coaching staff. So he has some qualities that LaRussa likes, these are a definite plus for the Royals. If two of the best managers of all time think you’re a good coach, then you have to have hope as a Royals fan.

He has proven that he knows how to win when he was with the Brewers. He lead them to winning seasons and a playoff birth before getting the boot near the end of the 2008 season. The 2007 campaign was the first winning season that franchise had seen since 1992. Stats mean a lot in baseball but the most important stat is the “W” at the end of the day. This being said, a manager is only as good as the rest of his staff. If we look at the Royal’s numbers up through yesterday’s game we will clearly see what changes, if any, need to be made.

Offensively, the Royals are one of the best teams in the majors. They lead the entire league in batting average and are second in hits. Power numbers are pretty dismal but the Royals currently don’t have a 30-40 HR/year hitter on their roster. They are on pace to have three starters with 200+ hits by the end of the season with an average of .310 or better (none of them were selected to be an All-Star). Now these three players do have talent and they have to execute, but it has been cited during this season that Kevin Seitzer has helped these players improve their approach and their swing. The man knows about hitting and how to make the players comfortable at the plate. He is definitely a keeper.

The Royals pitching staff has been injury plagued this year. Gil Meche, who is the highest paid player on the team, has not pitched in months. The newest addition, Anthony Lerew just took a ball to the gut and is out for an undetermined time. Bob McClure played for nineteen years at the professional level and has coached for only two different organizations in the past decade. The Royals are his first major league level pitching coach assignment. He is doing the best he can with what he has to work with right now. A cook is only as good as the ingredients that he has in his kitchen.

The ace of the staff is in some kind of funk that needs to be figured out before his next start. The bullpen and the starters are fickle in their performances with only one or two exceptions. I will say that statistically, the Royals pitching staff has improved since McClure took the job. The Royals have posted improved team ERA in recent seasons but for some reason not enough to stay out of the cellar or at least the stairs next to it. Greinke’s Cy Young win last season has been one of the few bright spots that McClure can point to while working with the Royals’ pitchers. He has shown he can manage a staff at the big league level. I just hope the Royals see that he is worth keeping as well.

So we have assessed the business part of the franchise, which is in need of a tune-up, wake-up call, or a kick in the pants, depending upon your level of frustration you have as a Royals fan and a passion for wanting this franchise to win again. We have assessed the three main coaches responsible for player performance and they seem to be doing what anyone in their current position would be doing. That is, doing the best they can.

I would like to say that this is not an article about “there’s no talent in this town.” There is talent here. Is there enough to win a championship? No. The Royals have three all-stars in their everyday lineup and two of them are home grown. Scott Podsednik being the talent that was brought in from the White Sox is a legitimate everyday player in the outfield. He has had success in the post-season with one ring to show for his efforts. He can get on base with a bunt if he has to, and once he is on he can steal a base.

Billy Butler is coming into his own these past two years. He hit above .300 last season and is currently hitting above .315 going into this week. He has also made huge strides with his defense thanks to a lot of work he has done to make himself a better player. Billy is young, talented, and ready to be a star. The Royals need to somehow make it work and lock him up with at least a five year deal.

David DeJesus, without a doubt, is one of the best starting outfielders in the league. He has hit well and has played better defense than Ichiro this year. In fact, he is on the verge of setting a major league record for consecutive errorless games. To say he is one of the most balanced outfielders in the league is putting it mildly. To top it all off he is currently leading the team in batting average. The Royals front office again needs to find a way to make it work for him to stay and help solidify both the lineup and the defense.

If you look at championship caliber teams, they have at least a half dozen or more potential all-stars between their pitching staff and their position players. I’ve already mentioned that Greinke and Soria are deserving all-stars. If the Royals want to make a serious run, they will need to up their game on the free agent market and the trading block. One starting pitcher and a solid slugger would go a long way to helping this team return to its once glorious tradition.

I have my opinion about who they should be and it would be unprecedented under the status quo to get them but then I have been known to dream for something better. If the Miami Heat can pull it off, why not the Royals? Being a life time follower of baseball has taught me one thing, anything is possible on any given day. Royals, this true blue fan is ready for you to turn your season motto “It all happens here” into more than just words on a website or a poster. The “all” in major league baseball is hoisting that trophy at the end of the season. A foundation has been made, now let’s build some walls. Let’s build something great.

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