There is something about the Kansas City Royals hitting that has been bothering me lately. Well, let’s be honest, there’s something about the Kansas City Royals hitting that has been bothering more or less everybody – that is that they do not score runs. They are tied for 14th in the American League in runs scored, this one year after finishing 11th in the league, this one year after finishing 12th. They have fired hitting coaches and hired legends to be interim hitting coaches and hired other guys to be assistant hitting coaches and fired assistant hitting coaches and asked legends to come back and who knows what else. Everything changes. And nothing changes in Kansas City.
Lately, it has become clearer to me why nothing changes.
When I talked with Oakland’s super-smart Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi, he explained in pretty specific terms what the Oakland A’s want. They want hitters who do not strike out substantially more often than they walk. They want hitters in their prime years. They want hitters who have a verifiable skill – that is, they are good against lefties, or they are good against righties, or they can hit home runs with some regularity, or they make pitchers work. These all sound obvious, but … we’ll get to that in a minute.
We can start here: For a long time I have believed that Ned Yost would not be the manager for the Kansas City Royals when they actually contended for the World Series. He always seemed to me a transitional manager, a pro who works well with management, follows the plan, does not hesitate to play young players and so on. That’s important for a terrible team. That also goes only so far. When the Royals were ready to actually win games, I figured that, one way or another, Yost would be replaced with someone who could match up with the best managers in the game and could instill a sense of confidence.
Yost filled that transitional role with Milwaukee. And just like in Milwaukee, Yost’s Royals teams gradually improved.
In Yost’s fifth year with the Brewers, they finally had a winning record.
It took Yost four years in Kansas City.
Red Klotz died Saturday. He was 93 years old. He lost more games than anyone in basketball history, and he won also more hearts along the way than anyone in basketball history. He had his pants pulled down, he was drenched by buckets of water, he fruitlessly chased basketballs through intricate dance routines. He sank more long jumpers, I’ll bet, than anyone who ever lived.
The last time I saw him, at his home by the water in Margate, New Jersey, he and his lovely wife Gloria asked me to come back again and, next time, bring my children. “This is a home for children,” he said. I kept meaning to go back.
This was the story I wrote about the man who lost more, and in the process won more, than anyone I’ve known in sports.
When I was a kid, the Cleveland Indians ALWAYS won when we went to the ballpark. No, really, always. I don’t remember how many years the magical stretch lasted or how many games it involved, but it seemed pretty remarkable at the time. My Dad favored doubleheaders because my parents have always liked bargains — double-coupon days, buffets, doubleheaders, bat days, refunds, cap days, jacket days, etc. I know we went to at least five consecutive doubleheaders where the Indians swept. I know it.
Well, I don’t “know it.” But I believe it. I went back nervously to Baseball Reference because it seems unlikely that the Indians even swept that many doubleheaders. But it’s easy to forget: Teams played A LOT of doubleheaders in the mid-70s. it turns out the Indians swept 18 home doubleheaders in my childhood years, including two against the Yankees. I remember being at both of those. My childhood delusions live on!
In any case, by 1978 I know our family winning streak was very much a part of our baseball experience. And I vividly remember a Friday night in July, on the way to the ballpark, we talked confidently about how the Indians HAD to win because we were coming. It was July 7, I now know, and I’m pretty sure it was my first night game. My Dad was not much for night games (no bargains there). We only went that night because of a promise. He had taken my brother David and me to the July 4th game against Baltimore*, only we never got there. We got started late, and we got caught up awful traffic, and my Dad couldn’t find a parking spot (the crowd of 36,000 or so seemed like a million). At some point, in frustration, he begged us kids to just go bowling. In return, he promised to take us to the Friday night game. So we went bowling. It was just as well: The Indians lost, further confirming our belief that we were blessed.
*We had gone to the Independence Day game in 1977 (July 3rd against the Royals — a 6-3 victory!) and my Dad liked the bargain of fireworks after the game. It wasn’t QUITE the bargain of a doubleheader or bat day, but it was close.
On July 14, 1946, Ted Williams seemed utterly invincible. He WAS in many ways invincible as as hitter, but in the middle of that 1946 season there was still reason to believe that he was so good he might actually break baseball. Remember that in 1941, he had become the first American League hitter since the twenties to hit .400. In 1942, even while distracted by his draft status (and the relentless criticism that crashed down on him when he applied for a deferment), he won the Triple Crown. And then he went to war.
When he came back in ’46, he was better than ever. He homered his first day back and was hitting .427 in early May. At that moment, there seemed no limit to his talent. Could he hit .500? Maybe. Could he drive in 200 RBIs? Perhaps. Could he break Babe Ruth’s home run record? It was possible. Anything was possible with Williams. Paul Richards, the Tigers catcher and future White Sox and Orioles manager, was in favor of walking Ted Williams every single time he came to the plate; interestingly he was not in favor of INTENTIONALLY walking Williams but instead in favor of never throwing him a strike. He might get himself out swinging at bad pitches.
Most managers agreed that there wasn’t much percentage in throwing Ted Williams strikes. He walked 156 times in ;’46, 162 times the next year and again in 1949. Only Babe Ruth in 1923 had been walked so often.
In 1946, Williams couldn’t hit the Yankees (a temporary phase; he hit .345 and slugged .600 against the Bombers in his career), but he bashed the Indians, Tigers, Senators … and what he did against St. Louis was something a level above bashing; he would end up hitting .472/.624/.847 against the Browns in 100 plate appearances that year. If not for the Yankees, many writers guessed, Teddy Ballgame would be chasing .400 again.
I don’t often write here about my World Famous Movie Plus-Minus System because I’m no movie critic, and because the system is personal, and because my first inclination always tends to involve writing something obscure about baseball, say, something about Wade Davis’ current streak of holding batters without an extra base hit (41-plus innings and counting — the 11th longest streak of the last 100 years).
However, as a public service, I feel it necessary to write about the movie “Earth to Echo.”
I came to Sunday’s Wimbledon final desperately hoping to see Roger Federer win his 18th grand slam. And, in the end, I found myself rooting for Novak Djokovic.
I’m still not sure how it happened, so I wrote about it.
In the lost summer of 2001 — one of so many lost summers of Kansas City baseball — I was on the field watching batting practice with relatively new Royals general manager Allard Baird. People could never appreciate that he had an impossible job; he was trying to build a competitive baseball team with no money, no ownership support, no staff to work with. Especially: No money. Walmart CEO David Glass bought the team for less than $100 million in 2000 — this one year after the Cleveland Indians had sold for more than $300 million. That’s how little the Royals were worth then.
The stories from those days are legendary. The Royals would give $1,000 signing bonuses to anyone they drafted after then fifth or sixth round — yeah, a $1,000 bonus. They could not afford more. You suspect the $1,000 came only after negotiations; first the Royals offered baseball socks and McDonald’s gift certificates.
The team one year brought in a professional softball player in the hopes of getting a bargain. The team one year decided not to wear authentic Negro Leagues uniforms for the annual Negro Leagues Day — they could not afford them (the uniforms, both teams, cost less than $15,000 — business called in offering to pay for them like it was Little League). The Royals canceled the annual banquet to save money. There is a story, one that I believe, that the Royals were $1 million away from locking up the best player they have developed in the last 25 years, Carlos Beltran, to a long term deal … and ownership would not come up with the money.
Three or so years ago, during the U.S. Open, I wrote a column about American men’s tennis that kind of ticked off some people I worked with. They were big American tennis fans. And if you are something of a tennis fan, you might remember that was the U.S. Open the first week was basically spent CELEBRATING American men’s tennis, at least here in America.
Yes, that was the tournament where a young American wildcard named Donald Young took out the No. 14 seeded Stan Wawrinka in five grueling sets. He then crushed another good seeded player, Spain’s Juan Ignacio Chela. Young was summarily evicted from the tournament in straight sets by Andy Murray, but that was OK, it was a promising run for a 22-year-old. At the same tournament, John Isner big-served his way into the quarterfinals before also losing to Murray in four semi-competitive sets. And Mardy Fish made it into the Round of 16 before losing a five-set heartbreaker to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It seemed like a lot of good news.
Then I wrote the column about how the news really wasn’t all that good — that was the 32nd consecutive grand slam not won by an American man and ninth straight without an American man even in the semifinal. Like I say, a few people emailed and called and said that U.S. men’s tennis was on the rise and I was missing the point.
Well, they were right. I was missing the point. The signs were actually much, much worse than I thought.
The biggest sports story in the world over the weekend was probably the foul called when the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben fell to the ground after some sort of tangle with Mexico’s Rafa Marquez. The foul led to the penalty shot that led to the Netherlands stunning come-from-behind victory over Mexico. Replays, like art, will be interpreted different ways by different people. Many feel sure that Robben took a dive.
Here’s something crazy: Robben would ADMIT taking a dive in the game … but not that one. That’s precious, isn’t it? Robben has a reputation of being — as the superb ESPN announcer and Everton manager Roberto Martinez would say — “fragile.” Even the slightest touch can send him sprawling, especially if he happens to be in the box. This hardly makes him unique among gifted players; you have probably seen the many YouTube videos mocking Cristiano Ronaldo’s diving tendencies, including this classic one: How to dive like Cristiano Ronaldo (Tutorial by a 2-year-old). Neymar is a glorious player; there’s a Neymar Top 5 Diving compilation on YouTube too.
Robben admitted that earlier in the match he had taken one of his Robben flops — “I have to apologise — in the first half I took a dive, and I really shouldn’t do that. That was a stupid, stupid thing to do.” He then insisted that in extra time he really was fouled. And that the sky WAS falling.
Was it a dive?
Well, we can argue about that forever — it does seem that Marquez stepped on his foot, which can be called a foul. And it does seem that Robben then went into a crazy, stretching, “Help! I’ve been shot!” plunge. My guess is that the more orange in your eyes, the less of a dive it seems.
But there’s something else I find more interesting, something seemingly unrelated that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of weeks.