So this is my last Royals game as a Kansas Citian … we move to North Carolina this week. I figure I might as well ramble a bit about some of my feelings about all that. Here are 3,639 words of ramble.
Kauffman Stadium is a wonderful place to watch a baseball game. I’ve probably watched four or five hundred games here through the years, and the place feels the same to me, though it isn’t. When I first got here, they had only just replaced artificial turf with natural grass. The Royals had been a wonder on that turf. They were a remarkably fast team then. In 1976, they had six different players steal 20-plus bases. They led the league in triples and stolen bases every year from 1978-80. They were a team in motion, and the way the ball bounced and skipped off the hard turf made them a terror to play in Kansas City in those years.*
*The turf would also get absurdly hot during those scorching Kansas City Sunday day games. There are many stories about cleats melting, about players standing in buckets of ice water between innings and so on. My favorite of these involved pitcher Al Fitzmorris pitching slowly on one of those hot days. And at some point first baseman John Mayberry wandered over to the mound and said, “If you don’t speed up, I’m going to kill you.”
“What did you do?” I asked Al.
“I sped up,” he said.
They replaced the turf with grass before the 1995 season. And, at the same time, they moved the fences in 10 feet and lowered them from 12 feet to 9 feet. Up to that point, Kauffman Stadium was a famously difficult park for home runs. Look at the seven years before the change:
1994: 89 homers (last in AL by 16 homers)
1993: 99 homers (last by 8 homers)
1992: 65 homers (last by 21 homers)
1991: 87 homers (second-last)
1990: 88 homers (last by six homers)
1989: 64 homers (last by 30 homers)
1988: 92 homers (last by 26 homers)
Now, don’t misunderstand. Kauffman Stadium — Royals Stadium then — was still a very good hitter’s park. The background was perfect. The turf helped create some extra base excitement. It was a great place to hit — heck George Brett won three batting titles and almost hit .400 one year. It just was a dreadful home run park. So the Royals made those moves, which at the time did not seem especially stark. What, after all, is 10 feet less outfield? They lowered the walls to give outfielders a chance to make home-run saving catches — one of the most exciting plays in baseball. So what? In 1995 and 1996, Kauffman Stadium still yielded the fewest home runs in the American League.
But in 1997 — my first full year writing about the Royals — things shifted dramatically. There were 179 home runs hit in Kauffman Stadium, by far the most ever, and right around the middle of the pack. It was more or less the same story in 1998 and 1999. In 2000, the homers jumped to 190. In 2002, it was 197 — third in the American League. It was getting out of control. And after the 2003 season, the Royals moved the fences back. And immediately, in 2004, Kauffman Stadium was once again the toughest home run park in the American League, where it has been almost every year since.
So the place has changed quite a lot. A couple of years ago, they completely renovated the place — adding a gigantic video scoreboard in center field, widening concourses, turning the bullpens and so on. But it still FEELS the same, at least to me. There is no more comfortable place in America to watch a Major League game. People sometimes ask me to rank my favorite ballparks 1-to-30, and I might do that, but the truth is that different ballparks offer different experiences. Comparing the experience of watching a game at Fenway and Pittsburgh is kind of pointless –they’re both great in very different ways. Comparing the joy of Wrigley and the joy of San Francisco is equally futile. The best ballparks, I think, give you a sense of place. A game at Camden Yards still feels out of time. A game at even the new Yankee Stadium feels connected somehow to Mickey and DiMag and Ruth. A game at Dodger Stadium echoes with Vin Scully’s voice.
A game at Kauffman Stadium feels like a day in Kansas City. It feels sensible and close knit and without frills. The tickets are among the cheapest in baseball. The traffic in Interstate 70 rushes by beyond the outfield and the seats provide good views and barbecue is for sale in the concession stands. The cliche you hear so often — a true phrase, at that — is that Kansas City is a great place to raise a family. Kauffman Stadium is a great place to take your kids to see a ballgame.
* * *
I saw the young Carlos Beltran play baseball here. I know people think I’m a bit gaga over Beltran — and I am. But really, how often can you say that you watched a player like Beltran grow up. How many players have ever been like him? He could run like few in baseball history — in his career he has stolen 289 bases and been caught 39 times. No base stealer in baseball history has been so efficient. He could play center field like a dream — I can’t tell you how many times I saw him gracefully outrun line drives into the gap. He could hit with power from both sides of the plate. There have not been many who switch-hit with power.
In 2003, the one decent team he played on in Kansas City, Beltran hit .307/.389/.522, he stole 41 of 45 bases, he hit 10 triples and 26 home runs, he scored 102 runs and drove in 100 in just 141 games and he was an absolute marvel in centerfield. That was the year I saw him do one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen a player do. With the Royals down to Arizona 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth — and with the Royals in something resembling a pennant race — he fought off pitch after pitcher from the 100-mph throwing Matt Mantei before earning a walk. He stole second. He stole third. And he scored on a pop-up into shallow right field.
I wouldn’t say Beltran was a moody player, not exactly, but he did seem burdened by his talent and the losses. His mind would wander sometimes. His desire would flicker — or at least that’s how it looked to fans. Whatever he did, it always seemed like he could do more. As I’ve written before, he was cursed with the gift of grace.
But watching him grow up … it’s one of the sporting thrills of my life. The Royals were a bad team just about every year I wrote about them. But they had some wonderful players. I’ve written this before, but when Beltran went absolutely crazy during the 2004 playoffs for Houston — when he hit .435 with eight homers and six stolen bases in 12 games — people kept coming up to me and saying: “Well, you didn’t know he was THIS good.”
And I said: Actually, I did. i sat through a lot of bad baseball games. Carlos Beltran was my oasis.
* * *
The Royals shortstop, Alcides Escobar, is a fascinating test case. As you may know, if you’ve checked into this site a time or two, I was not particularly crazy about the skill level of the previous Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. There were two reasons for this: His offense and his defense. I guess there was also the issue of his base running.
Before Betancourt, there was Tony Pena Jr., who was a heck of a nice guy and a solid defender. Boy he couldn’t hit. In his 51 plate appearances in 2009, he hit .098. He then became a pitcher.
Before Pena, the Royals shortstop was Angel Berroa who won the Rookie of the Year award in 2003 and then aged about 28 years in one off-season. In 2003, he was energetic, his body had life, he hit 17 home runs, stole 21 bases, scored 92 runs, played what looked to be a fine shortstop. In 2004, he seemed about two steps slower. By 2006, he had his case as the worst everyday player in baseball.
But he was not even the worst everyday shortstop for the Royals in the decade. And that wasn’t Yuni Betancourt either. In 2002, Neifi Perez was the worst everyday player I’ve ever seen. The season was so remarkably bad, it’s almost impossible to put into words. He hit .236/.260/.303 in 585 plate appearances. That was a 44 OPS+ for those of you scoring at home. He was caught stealing more times than he was successful. His defensive WAR suggests he was only subpar, but I recall him being an abomination defensively. And he did not seem to care. At one point, he refused to go into a game and then said he was joking about it. The Royals finally released him soon after.
With this as background, you can see what Escobar is so interesting. He cannot hit. At all. He’s hitting .207/.241/.240 this year. The Royals seem to believe he will hit someday — he’s only 24. I suppose it’s possible. But, certainly for the time being, he cannot hit at all.
But he’s a marvel at shortstop. And that’s something. Longtime Royals observers are already calling him the best defensive shortstop in Royals history, and they might be right. You know, I have said for years that while Derek Jeter surely was not the best defensive shortstop in the American League the five times he won the Gold Glove, it didn’t bother me much because there really wasn’t a great defensive shortstop in the league. There is now. Escobar’s defensive numbers are fabulous. He’s plus-14 in the Dewan Plus/Minus — tops in the baseball. And his wow rating is off the charts. He seems to make a play or two every single game that leaves everyone in the park awed.
Which leads to the question: Just how good would a shortstop have to be defensively to make his bat all but irrelevant? This used to be a real question in baseball, of course. Earl Weaver might be the most brilliant strategic manager in baseball history — he played Mark Belanger at short. Ozzie Guillen was, in his own words, a “horse-s— hitter,” and he was out there year after year. Well, there were a lot of guys, some of them who were probably overrated defensively, who were put out there despite being overmatched at the plate.
And now that the balance between offense and pitching has calibrated, even shifted a bit toward pitching again, if Escobar continues to field the way he fields and hit the way he hits can the Royals afford to keep him out there? Can they afford NOT to keep him out there?
I don’t have any answers right now. It’s just something to babble about during my last game in Kansas City.
* * *
Steve Fehr — brother of Don, agent of David Cone, force in the players union for years — just wandered up to chat and he asked the television trivia question of the day: The Royals drafted three players who were eventually the No. 1 picks overall in the NFL draft. Can you name them?
I love and despise trivia questions. I love them because they give my crazy mind things to think about. And I despise them because they give my crazy mind things to think about. Once I get my mind stuck on one, I cannot let go of it. And Steve hit me with the worst kind of trivia question: One where he did not know the answer.
I knew two of the three right away. Bo Jackson is easy, of course. He’s one of the most exciting Royals players ever. He’ s one of the most exciting ATHLETES in the last 100 years. So that’s one. The second one, well, if you are around the Royals for a while, you learn pretty quickly that the team drafted John Elway out of high school. It was brought up just every time Elway led the Broncos to victory over the Chiefs. Elway was one of a handful of future great NFL players the Royals drafted — they took Elway, they took Dan Marino, they took Deion Sanders …
Anyway, those two were easy. The third one, though … I wasn’t sure. The question seemed vaguely familiar, and I had a hunch, but I wasn’t sure. And Steve Fehr didn’t know. And nobody else knew. This meant I had to spend the last 10 minutes scouring around to find out if my hunch was right. Don’t they know I’m writing a 3,500-word blog post here?
Turns out, I was right. The third guy was Steve Bartkowski, taken by the Royals in the second round in the 1971 draft.
You can’t beat fun at the ol’ ballpark.
* * *
Just talked to Steve Palermo. Stevie is one of my favorite people in the world — someone I have spent many hours talking with at ballgames. You undoubtedly know his story. He was a big league umpire — and one of the best in the business. To this day, people still talk in hushed tones about Steve Palermo’s ability to call balls and strikes. He has a million great stories, my favorite being that he was the left field umpire who made the unnecessary but official call that Bucky Dent’s home run was fair. Well, Palermo’s father Vincent lived and died with the Red Sox and one day he starts screaming at Stevie for calling that home run fair.
“Dad,” Steve said. “It was fair by like 30 feet.”
To which Vincent Palermo said: “What, you couldn’t have called it foul?”
One day in Dallas, Steve Palermo was in a restaurant with some friends after a game, and the bartender yelled that two women were being mugged outside. Steve and others rushed outside to help. In the horrible flurry, Stevie was shot in the back. The bullet hit his spinal cord. He was instantly paralyzed. He was told he would never walk again. He has walked.
I’ve written about Steve many times. The story I stands out is one I wrote one story a few years ago about how life goes on after the movie fades to black. Steve Palermo’s movie faded to black the day he walked when doctors had said he never would. That was the moment of sweeping music and happily ever afters for our hero. But to me Steve’s heroics come in living day-to-day, in trying to help people who have been paralyzed, in working with Major League Baseball to guide the sport he loves. It isn’t easy. He has a hard time getting around. He feels a lot of pain. He has had to face the imaginary life he never got to live if that awful night in Dallas had never happened.
And he stays positive. He pushes forward. He tries.
I think often about something he told me for that story I wrote — I look it up and realize that I wrote it more than 10 years ago. Steve was talking about how people constantly ask him if he regrets going out to help the two women in trouble, if some small part of him wishes that he had stayed in his seat in that moment of danger. And what he said haunts me and inspires me still …
He said: “If I say no, I wouldn’t do that again, then what does that mean? It means I made a mistake. I can’t admit it was a mistake. … I went to help people in trouble. How can that be a mistake?”
* * *
They’re playing “Friends In Low Places” between innings here, and it reminds me of one weird opportunity the Royals gave me: I got to know Garth Brooks a little bit. No, not a lot. But a little bit. He came to spring training with the Royals in 2004 to promote his charity and because he loves baseball and just wanted to be a part of things. And so I got to talk to him some. He seemed a good guy.
“Singing’s easy,” he told me. “Baseball’s hard.”
* * *
The Royals and Blue Jays are going into extra innings now … because there was no way they could send me off with a regulation game. The score is 2-2, and there are a few thousand fans in the stands, the weather has cooled to a somewhat less sultry 88 degrees. The Royals are trying to bust a four-game losing streak, the Blue Jays trying to keep their chins above .500. Man, it feels like I’ve been here many times before.
I could leave, of course. But I can’t leave, of course. No, I have to stay to the bitter end. There’s too much history here. Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, whose defense I wrote so glowingly about a little while ago, just threw the ball away, but Joakim Soria finished off the Jays anyway. The Royals are trying to score three runs or more for the first time in a week.
This team has been a huge part of my life for a long time. And it undoubtedly still will be — I know that once we move to North Carolina I will spend an inordinate amount of time watching and studying and hoping for the Royals. But I won’t be here. It won’t quite be the same.
And we go to the top of the 11th inning.
This town deserves a baseball winner. Well, every town deserves one now and again. I’ve often mentioned the amazing and terrible things I’ve seen while chronicling the Kansas City Royals. I’ve often mentioned the outfielders trotting toward the dugout while a fly ball dropped behind them, the cutoff man who got hit smack in the back while turned to the outfield, the base runner who slipped off first base, the pitcher who allowed a runner to advance while he got lost in thought, the outfielder who climbed the wall on a ball that bounced off the warning track, the day the first hitter of the game batted out of order, the guy who went to the outfield without sunglasses and got hit in the face with a fly ball. That night, on the flight home, that same guy was wearing his sunglasses. There are a million more.
This town has endured all those things. More, though, it has endured a decade and a half of being all but irrelevant across the country. This was once one of baseball’s model franchises. This was once one of America’s best baseball towns. For many years, though, Kansas City baseball has been choked by money constraints and missed opportunities and awful decisions and bad luck — not necessarily in that order. And that made the Royals all but invisible across America. Anyway, it usually felt that way.
And we go to the bottom of the 11th inning.
My friend and Royals announcer Ryan Lefebvre asked me an interesting question today for an interview show he has started doing. He asked if the Royals losing has actually been a blessing for me as a writer. It is true that I tend to sympathize with the loser. I always felt closer to Charlie Brown than Bill Russell. I have always been more fascinated by the 1976 Buccaneers than the 1972 Dolphins.
So it’s a fair question. Have I matched up well with the Royals? Maybe. The Royals have been fun to write about, they’ve been frustrating to write about, they’ve been sad to write about, they’ve been ridiculous to write about. There’s no much more you can as for as a writer. They gave me as a character the morose Jeff King who despised baseball so much that he retired the day after his pension kicked in. They gave me as a character the brilliant Brian Bannister, who wanted to pitch well, of course, but also had this generosity of spirit so that he wanted to bring people in. They gave me Mike Sweeney as a character and a friend. There has never been a nicer man in baseball.
The Royals also gave me Zack Greinke — who is one of a kind. There are too many stories to tell about him. The Royals are rallying. The crowd’s getting into it. I’ll just say that when I walked into the press box today, I saw a blown up version of the Sports Illustrated cover with Greinke on the cover and it reminded me just how much he hated being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The Royals gave me many losses to write about — including a grueling 20-game losing streak — and they gave me spring trainings of irrational hope and they gave me just a few stirring moments I will never forget.
And here in the bottom of the 11th inning, the Royals load the bases. There are two outs. Eric Hosmer comes up. He’s 21 years old. He’s the most exciting young player in Kansas City since Carlos Beltran. I am no scout, but when I saw Hosmer swing the bat during spring training I thought: “This guy is going to be a star.” The fans, the ones who remain, are standing and cheering, and it’s not an overwhelming sound, but it’s a good sound.
And Eric Hosmer drills a no-doubt, line-drive single to center. The Royals win.
Have the Royals fit me? Sure they have. A few more wins might have been nice, though.