The truth--what somebody really thinks of you--usually comes out
when you're not around. Early in spring training a few baseball
writers were sitting in the office of a National League manager.
A challenge was issued: Name 10 Kansas City Royals correctly
before getting five wrong.
"I can't do it," a veteran scribe said.
The manager shook his head sympathetically, not for the writer's
plight, but for the Royals. He smiled thinly and said, "It's
March 23, 1998
Last year Kansas City paid substantial sums for the talents of
DH Chili Davis, first baseman Jeff King and shortstop Jay Bell.
They all had good years. It didn't help. The Royals finished
last in the American League Central for the second consecutive
year. Davis and Bell, free agents and smart men, left for richer
pastures. King opted to stay behind, re-signing for two years.
Among his teammates are Brian Bevil and Matt Whisenant. There
are no typos in the preceding sentence. Those are the names of
two pitchers in the Kansas City bullpen.
The Royals are an organization with a lot of pride. They keep
their ballpark beautiful. Their players are role models, solid
citizens. They field respectable teams--or they did, until last
year (67-94) and the year before that (75-86). The timing of
this funk is awful for the team's board of directors, who soon
will be looking to sell the club and now will have to test the
market with a bargain-basement team.
This spring the players were given a fancy sheet of paper with
the club's mission statement printed on its center: "Our purpose
is to develop a winning organization, provide exciting
entertainment, quality services and value to baseball fans,
customers and stakeholders." The namby-pamby nature of that
sentence may reveal the underlying problems at the top of the
Royals' organization. Memo to the brass: Before writing your
next mission statement, see Jerry Maguire.
The mission statement did not come from the typewriter of Larry
Doughty, Kansas City's vice president for player personnel and a
baseball lifer. He's old school. He supported the firing of Bob
Boone as manager midway through last season. "Bob was a manager
who gave the players too much credit," Doughty says. What is his
take on Boone's successor, Tony Muser? "Tony understands that
young players are not always finished products."
Muser's a tough guy, by modern-skipper standards. He doesn't
allow golf clubs on road trips. Jeff Conine, picked up from the
Marlins in a trade for minor-league righthander Blaine Mull,
says Muser works his players much harder than Florida manager
Jim Leyland does. (Conine wasn't complaining; he's a worker
bee.) For whatever it's worth, Muser won 31 games and lost 48
after taking over from Boone.
Muser, managing in the majors for the first time, says his
players suffered from "an inability to concentrate, a lack of a
clear vision of what's expected of them." He says the Royals
lost 20 swing games after he took over, by which he means games
decided by one or two runs. He believes that by teaching
fundamentals--how to hit the cutoff man, how to lay down a
sacrifice bunt--many potential swing losses will become swing
wins. In the meantime he may need a teacher of his own, to learn
how to relax. After a 6-5 loss to the Indians, he said, "We lost
a swing game today. We got a long bus ride tomorrow and another
big game." And that was during spring training.
One more thing. It's not that hard to name 10 Royals, if the
rules allow you to count George Brett. He's 44 now and hasn't
played for four years, but he's vice president for baseball
operations and still a presence. There are Conine and King.
There are Lee Smith, 40, and Terry Pendleton, 37, hanging on.
There's Jose Offerman, the second baseman, who cut his errors
from 35 in '95 to 16 in '96 and nine last year. There's Hal
Morris, the DH, who has hit well over .300 in three of the last
five years for the Reds. There's Dean Palmer, the third baseman,
who has 163 homers in less than seven seasons. There's Jeff
Montgomery, the Royals' alltime save leader, with 256.
Then there's Tim Belcher, the wily righthander, 36 years old and
the winner of his club's award for pitcher of the year last
season. "I don't think a 13-12 record with a 5.02 ERA warrants
an award," Belcher says, chagrined, of course. "But on our club,
I guess it did."