Joe Posnanski
Wednesday August 12th, 2009

Reporter: "Well, at least you have to be proud that your team didn't quit."

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder: "They don't let you quit."

I've long wondered what it really means for a team to "quit." You hear people say it all the time. This team quit. That coach needs to go because his team quit. The other team lost but they never quit. And all that. The problem is the word, "quit." It connotes a certain unfathomable image ... of Roberto Duran turning his back and walking away during the Sugar Ray Leonard fight, of a tennis player tanking points when the set looks lost, of a golfer picking up his ball and disqualifying himself.

Well, Bill Snyder is right. They don't let you quit a team game, not like that. And because they don't let you quit, we probably should try to understand the word. Seems to me that teams don't quit. They fade. Teams don't give up. They give in. Teams don't stop trying. They stop trying hard. These are tougher things to pinpoint.

Yes, we have to use the Kansas City Royals as our example ... but only because the Royals for the last three months have been (by far) the worst team in baseball. The Royals are 25-57 since May 8. Only once in team history have the Royals been worse over 82 games ... and that was in 2005 and included a 19-game losing streak. There have not been too many teams in baseball history that have been worse than 25-57 over 82 games.

Or to put it another way:

Since May 8 (through Monday) Royals 25-57 -- Nats* 31-54 4 1/2 Pirates 33-50 7 1/2 Reds 33-50 7 1/2 Padres 34-50 8 Orioles 34-49 8 1/2 Mets 38-47 11 1/2 Oakland 40-46 13

The Royals are 4 1/2 games WORSE than the Nationals over the last three-plus months. Bryce Harper is in their sights.

*This is totally unrelated, but have you noticed how the National Geographic Channel now refers to itself as "NatGeo." Maybe this is something that has been going on for a while but ... really? National Geographic is going hip hop now? NatGeo? I am NOT calling it NatGeo. I'm just not.

Now, of course, May 8 is not just an arbitrary date. On that day the Royals were 18-11 and it looked like they might contend in the wide open American League Central. It obviously did not work that way, and the reasons are multiple. But let's not go down that road again. No, we're left to ask the original question: Have the Royals quit? And, beyond the terrible results, how can you even tell?

Well, first thing, I don't believe the Royals quit in the way most people mean it. I don't think they have ever stopped trying. For me, that's just the wrong use of the word "quit." Professional baseball players don't stop trying. There's no point in it. Hitters go up to the plate and they TRY to get hits. Fielders have balls hit their way and they TRY to catch them. Pitchers step on the rubber, and they TRY to get batters out. These things don't change no matter how badly a team does. There's professional pride involved. There are future paychecks involved. There is ambition -- all these guys have worked all their lives to play in the big leagues. And there is team success involved too ... and I will never believe that athletes do not care about their own team's success. They all want to win. Who doesn't want to win?

No. Quitting in sports isn't about QUITTING. No, I think it's about something else. While I don't think that players ever stop TRYING to do well, I do think that in a bad environment players will stop believing that any of it matters very much. And I think that comes closest to what we're talking about here. This might not be the best comparison -- and you might not even relate to this -- but for me there was always a very different feeling when we played baseball games around the neighborhood than we we played official Little League games. Sure, we TRIED in the neighborhood games. I would suggest we tried just as hard as we ever did in the real games. But we weren't wearing uniforms, and we didn't have coaches, and we didn't have dirt infields, and there were no repercussions for messing up other than your friends busting your chops. There was this sense that the Little League games MATTERED in a way that the neighborhood games did not. You played with a certain attention and inspiration that was missing in the neighborhood games.

And I think that's what can happen to a lousy team. In baseball, I'm thinking, there are really two levels of belief. There's the belief the player has in himself. And there's the belief a baseball player has in his team. And those two beliefs intertwine and intersect. A player's self confidence can be withered by a bad team, and it can be boosted by the success of a winning team, and it can be affected in odd and unexpected ways, too. And a player's confidence in his team can be affected by how he's playing, too. You always hear guys on great teams say something like, "It's hard to explain, but we just knew, night in and night out, that we were going to win." And you always hear guys on lousy teams say, "We are just not executing." Sure, it comes down to talent. But it also comes down to the confidence that infuses people who are good at whatever they do.

So, back to the Royals. Have they lost belief? Are they playing these games without the heightened sense of emotion and energy that good teams have? Hard to argue. You just look at the dreadful record and deduce that teams don't play THAT bad unless, in some way, they have checked out (mentally or emotionally or physically).

But I think you can go even deeper than that.

Look: The Royals don't walk. At all. In those 82 games, they have walked 193 times (struck out 548) and that's just sickening. True, the Royals don't have anyone on the team who is particularly proficient at working a count, but that is 2.35 walks per game -- no team has walked that little over an entire season since the 2002 Detroit Tigers. The Royals' on-base percentage over those 80 games is .302 ... which is beyond dreadful.

Now what does that tell you? That the Royals have terrible offensive players? Yes. Sure. But think about walking for a minute. To walk, you have to be confident enough to hit with two strikes. You have to be intense enough to grind it out through long at-bats. You have to be assured that if you work hard to get on base (without even helping your batting average) that your teammates will work just as hard to drive you in. The Royals are not built to walk, no, but they walk even less than that. It's like there's no fight left in 'em.

Look: The Royals are a dreadful baserunning team. If you measure the Royals on the baserunning basics -- going first to third, second to home, first to home on a double, sac flies -- they are by far the worst team in baseball. The Bill James ranking has them minus-74 bases at the moment.

Now what does that tell you? That the Royals have built a slow team? Yes. Sure. But to be good on the bases, you also have to be aggressive, you have to be assertive, and you also have to be disciplined enough not to just go in some sort of desperate effort to "make something happen." The Royals may be slow, but their base-running follies goes beyond speed. It's like there's no fight left in 'em.

Look: The Royals are a terrible fielding team. You can see this by any number of measurements. They have allowed 56 unearned runs -- most in the American League. They are minus-52 runs according to John Dewan's system, worst in baseball* and the infield is minus-42, which is unimaginably godawful.

*Nobody is even close ... except (believe it or not) the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox, you might recall, have been seen as a very good defensive team -- last year they were plus-20 on the Dewan. They are minus-50 this year, largely because the the left side of the infield is a staggeringly bad minus-30 and because their pitchers apparently are brutal defensively (minus-12).

Now what does that tell you? That the Royals have built a team without good defensive players? Yes. Sure. Going into the season, everyone expected the Royals defense -- and especially the infield -- to struggle defensively. The hope was that Alberto Callaspo might fight second base to a draw. The hope was that Alex Gordon might take a step up defensively. The hope was that Mike Aviles might solidify the shortstop position. These were extreme hopes even at the time, but now they seem plain silly. The Royals are a defensive wreck. Mental mistakes. Dropped pop-ups. Ridiculous decisions. Missed cutoff men.

The other day, with a man on second, a single was hit up the middle. What followed was an Abbott and Costello routine. The centerfielder threw home. The runner was not going. The catcher threw to second too late and the batter was safe. The shortstop threw to the plate too late, and the runner was safe. The catcher threw to to the third baseman too late, and the batter was safe again. Triple play.

It's like there's no fight left in 'em.

Again, I don't believe the Kansas City Royals have stopped trying. They're trying. They're working out after games, they're taking batting practice and infield practice, they're "working hard." Of this I have no doubt. And they care. I almost never buy into the easy notion that players or managers or owners don't care. This is their livelihood, and they care.

But I just don't think that's what quit means ... I think what quit means in team sports is that it just stops mattering. The players stop diving for balls or stop stretching singles into doubles or foul off pitches when they need to hit the ball to the right side because ... well, seriously, what's the difference? Then, a burst of aggression, maybe they will dive for a ball they have no chance of catching or try to score from third on a play and get thrown out by 20 feet because -- well, you have to try and get something going, and really what's the difference?

I think quit means playing numb baseball with the knowledge that the season is lost, and the victories won't change anything, and there's plenty of blame for everyone. It's rotten to watch a team play in this mode ... but it happens every year. It's a manager's job to keep his team from quitting. It can be a hard job.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.