Royal Revival Bolstered by castoffs such as righthander Jose Lima, Kansas City is the unlikely leader in the AL Central. But are the Royals for real?

August 03, 2003

When you're on Lima Time, the Kansas City Royals are learning,
every hour is Happy Hour. Every base hit, every runner moved
over--heck, every two-strike foul ball--is cause for a bellow or
chirp from the dugout's top step, and every fifth day the
pitcher's mound is home to the stylings of the indefatigable Jose
Lima, back from the baseball dead. "I'm still here," he says.
"I'm not going nowhere. There's a lot of Jose Lima left." ¶
Typically demonstrative on Sunday afternoon at Detroit's Comerica
Park, the 30-year-old righthander threw five shutout innings in a
5-1 win over the Tigers, lifting his record to 7-0 while lowering
his ERA to 2.17. Since Lima joined the team on June 15, the
Royals had gone 24-14 by week's end and rallied from a
five-game deficit to a 4 1/2-game lead in the AL Central. With
Lima starring in the latest scenes of this midsummer theater of
the absurd, the nondescript Royals stood poised to pull off the
greatest encore to a 100-loss season in history (chart, page
53). "We just seem to know we're going to win somehow, some
way," says leftfielder Raul Ibanez, tied for the team lead in
homers (14) with centerfielder Carlos Beltran. "Something will
happen, someone will throw a ball away, whatever. We're doing
the stuff that I've watched the good teams do to us."

Despite the brevity of his sojourn with Kansas City, Lima has
come to symbolize the club's renaissance. After a lousy,
acrimonious season with the Tigers--used sporadically, he was 4-6
with a 7.77 ERA and opined that Detroit "stinks from the front
office right on down" after he was bounced from the starting
rotation in September--the former 21-game winner was released. A
back strain curtailed his winter ball season in his native
Dominican Republic, and when spring training began he couldn't
wrangle even a nonroster invitation to a big league camp. He was
adrift in baseball limbo. Lima believes he was blackballed
because Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski labeled him a
clubhouse cancer, both in conversations with fellow executives
and in a letter to MLB headquarters. (Dombrowski denies the
allegations.) "I thought I was going to get a job right away,"
Lima says. "[But] no minor league deal. Nobody wanted my
services. 'We're not interested. We've got plenty of talent.'
Something was said, and I know who said it."

As March gave way to April, Lima, still unemployed, pondered
retiring or globetrotting to the Japanese or Korean leagues
before he got his first bite: Joe Klein, the former Tigers G.M.
who's now the executive director of the independent Atlantic
League, offered Lima a $3,000-a-month gig with the Newark Bears.
("My phone bill's higher than that," Lima says.) Chastened but
still possessed of his bottomless optimism, Lima accepted and
immersed himself in the farmhand's life. "He never asked for
special treatment," says Bears manager Bill Madlock. "He worked
hard, showed up early and did his running, threw on the side, and
he really took care of the kids on the team. They don't eat the
same since he left."

That's because Lima and fellow Bear Rickey Henderson, now with
the Los Angeles Dodgers, routinely handed their paychecks to
clubhouse attendants to cover postgame spreads, getting
deliveries from Outback Steakhouse instead of the usual cold cut
platters. When Newark played the Pennsylvania Road Warriors, a
quasi-barnstorming team without a home ballpark, Lima paid for
their spread too. On days he didn't pitch, Lima coached first
base and tossed so many balls into the crowd that the
cash-strapped club had to remind him that there was a $20 fine
for doing so.

Lima quickly regained the stuff that had made him an All-Star
with the Houston Astros in 1999. Always a two-pitch pitcher who
approached hitters "backward" (that is, throwing his changeup
instead of his fastball in hitter's counts), Lima had lost so
much velocity on his four-seamer that the two pitches became
nearly indistinguishable and fooled no one. But with regular work
and by tweaking his windup--he now brings his left leg toward
second base as he pivots on his right foot, rather than opening
it up toward third--Lima nudged his fastball back into the low
90s. His bravado returned too. "He pitched against Long Island,
middle of May, and somebody hit a home run off him, and you heard
'Big league, my ass' from their dugout," Klein says. "Jose came
back and struck out something like five of the last seven he
faced, including the guy who said it. That's when I knew it was
just a matter of time."

Facing imminent DL trips by starters Miguel Asencio and Runelvys
Hernandez, the Royals came knocking. On Klein's recommendation to
his longtime friend Art Stewart, general manager Allard Baird's
senior adviser, Kansas City inked Lima, sight unseen, for the
major league minimum. Says Baird, "We thought, Let's at least get
an innings guy." By reeling off a seven-game winning streak and
holding opponents to a .197 batting average, Lima showed he was
much more. Still blessed with pinpoint control and equipped with
a new slider, taught to him by Royals pitching coach John
Cumberland, Lima has become a more well-rounded pitcher. "He's
putting the ball where he wants to," says catcher Brent Mayne.
"Opponents aren't really getting much to hit."

Lima's unconventional path back to the majors underscores not
only the constitution of this first-place team, but also the
success of the often-maligned Baird, who is still remembered for
trading Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez. Limited by a $40.8 million
payroll, the game's second-lowest, Baird has expertly trolled
backwoods leagues and castoff piles to construct his roster. In
addition to Lima, there's lefthander Darrell May (5-4 with a 3.33
ERA in a team-high 127 innings at week's end), signed in 2001
from Yomiuri of the Japan Central League, and rightfielder and
leadoff hitter Aaron Guiel (nine homers, .941 OPS since his May
28 callup), plucked in '00 from Oaxaca of the Mexican League.
Asencio, one of the organization's best pitching prospects, and
righthander D.J. Carrasco, a bullpen workhorse with a 3.93 ERA in
50 1/3 innings, are both Rule 5 draftees.

Credit for their artful use, however, goes to skipper Tony Pena.
"You have to have a manager who is willing to put that Rule 5 guy
in a pressure situation," Baird says. "In our market size, to
make it work, it has to be that way." Pena constantly says that
he's comfortable using any member of his 25-man roster in any
situation, and the results have borne him out. Pena has trotted
out 10 starting pitchers, and they'd gone a combined 37-27 with a
4.46 ERA through Sunday.

Lightly regarded minor leaguer Angel Berroa, whose listed age
went from 22 to 25 during the imbroglio over the birthdates of
Dominican players last year, earned the Opening Day shortstop
assignment, and at week's end was hitting .289 with 13 home runs
at the position Perez had turned into an offensive sinkhole. When
All-Star first baseman Mike Sweeney was lost to upper back
stiffness on June 19, Pena inserted Ken Harvey, who'd hit .244 in
his 57 major league games; Harvey has hit .284 since.

Pena is able to maintain the easygoing, open demeanor essential
to a young club. "I give my players some freedom," he says. "You
need some space, room to make mistakes and correct yourself. I'm
not going to scream at you, call you some kind of name or grab
you by the chest." Last Thursday afternoon at Minnesota, Harvey
misplayed a Shannon Stewart bunt in the bottom of the eighth,
throwing wide of the bag for a two-base error that keyed a
four-run inning and the Twins' 6-2 victory. Afterward Pena
brusquely cut off a reporter who asked about the miscue. "My
players know I am not going to crucify them for one mistake," he
said. "All I want is for him to come back with a clear head
tomorrow." The next day in Detroit, with the Tigers trailing 2-1
and two men on in the fourth, Harvey vacuumed up a blistering
Eric Munson grounder inside the chalk, pivoted neatly to fire the
ball to second, then hustled to the bag to complete a difficult
3-6-3 double play that ended the inning. Kansas City would win
8-3. "[Pena] obviously remembers what it's like to play, what
it's like to fail and succeed," says reliever Jason Grimsley. "He
knows when guys need a kick in the ass and when they need a pat
on the back."

The Royals' fortunes have already picked up at the gate. Although
their average attendance of 22,487 ranked 21st overall through
Sunday, it's their highest since 1994, when they finished four
games out in a strike-shortened season. How high the turnout
climbs depends on how K.C. plays down the stretch. Sweeney's
return to the lineup, expected in mid-to-late August, will add an
impact bat, but the team has more serious deficiencies than any
other division leader. The bullpen is undependable--at week's end
it packed a 5.59 ERA and had surrendered 1.2 home runs per nine
innings (12th)--but at least it's a tight-knit group. Last
Thursday night all the relievers scored backstage passes to Ozzy
Osbourne's Ozzfest show in Detroit, but arrived straight from the
airport still clad in suits, prompting one onlooker to observe,
"There go Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers."

Baird added righty Curtis Leskanic in a trade with the Milwaukee
Brewers last month--inspiring Pena to pen the ditty, "No need to
panic, we've got Leskanic," and Leskanic to respond, "I don't
know where he gets it from. It's like the child in him is coming
out"--but even with Monday's acquisition of Graeme Lloyd from the
New York Mets, the bullpen is short on lefthanders. Rookie closer
Mike MacDougal, whose heater grazes triple digits and whose
roller-coaster breaking ball occasionally looks brilliant, has
struggled to locate his fastball since the All-Star break.

To this point the Royals have overachieved. Says Ibanez, "When we
play good teams and you look up the runs per game, we're about
the same as them; ERA, about the same. And they might have
outscored us for the season, but somehow we've got more wins than
they do. I think we just find a way to win and we're resilient."
Or lucky. Bill James's Pythagorean theorem, which expresses the
relationship between runs scored and runs allowed as an
anticipated winning percentage, suggests that Kansas City, which
at week's end had outscored opponents just 531-525, should be a
.500 team; instead, the Royals were 11 games over. Using that
formula the second-place Chicago White Sox should lead the AL
Central by a game over K.C. The Royals are also streaky--their
16-3 sprint out of the gate was followed by a 12-26 skid, and a
concomitant 10-game swing in the standings, from 5 1/2 up to 4
1/2 back--and will face a slightly tougher schedule down the
stretch than the third-place Minnesota Twins. (The defending
Central champs are 6 1/2 games back but play 31 of their
remaining 58 games against pushovers Cleveland, Texas and
Detroit.)

All of this is lost on the Royals, who appear at home atop the
division. "It's like the weirdest thing," says Leskanic, "but
this clubhouse is exactly the same, win or lose. We don't blow it
out, and we don't mope. No one even talks about being in first
place. Maybe we don't want to jinx it, but guys out in the
bullpen don't even look at the scores." Kansas City has faith in
its rejuvenated ace and its inspirational manager, the man who,
while driving between Mayaguez and San Juan during a winter
scouting trip to Puerto Rico, concocted the slogan We believe.
Unveiled on the first day of spring training, it's still on
players' lips and emblazoned on T-shirts throughout the
clubhouse.

"What I saw in my ball club last year was players with great
enthusiasm, with ability, but making a lot of mistakes," Pena
says. "It seemed like they didn't believe in themselves, so I
said, 'O.K., I'm gonna come out and say I believe.' The veterans
were the first ones to follow." Kansas City believes. The rest of
us are watching, slowly coming around.

COLOR PHOTO: LINDA KAYE/AP I'M BACK! The fiery Lima has made a believer out of Pena (left) after being unloaded by the worst team in baseball. COLOR PHOTO: ED ZURGA/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS CARLSON/AP ONE-TWO PUNCH K.C. has bowled over opponents with rookies such as Harvey (above) and established stars like Beltran. COLOR PHOTO: ED ZURGA/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JEFF TAYLOR/REUTERS SEEING IS BELIEVING Says Ibanez of the suddenly swaggering Royals: "We just know we're going to win somehow."

TURNAROUNDS OF THE CENTURY

The Royals are threatening an unprecedented resurgence

AT ITS CURRENT PACE Kansas City, which was 62-100 last year,
would not only have a shot to become the first team to make the
playoffs following a 100-loss season, but would also finish with
the best record (91-71) of any of the 125 clubs that lost at
least 100 games the previous year. Since 1900 these teams had the
best winning percentages in a season after a 100-loss season.

TEAM RECORD PCT. FINISH PREVIOUS YEAR'S W-L

1905 Phillies 83-69 .546 4th in NL 52-100
Hall of Famer Kid Nichols, 35, joins staff in midseason, goes 10-6
with a 2.27 ERA in 17 appearances.

1967 Cubs 87-74 .540 3rd in NL 59-103
Ferguson Jenkins, 23, leaves bullpen for rotation, has first of
six straight 20-win seasons.

1989 Orioles 87-75 .537 2nd in AL East 54-107
Catcher Mickey Tettleton swats 26 homers; Gregg Olson (27 saves)
emerges as dominant closer.

1974 Rangers 84-76 .525 2nd in AL West 57-105
Deja vu: Jenkins, traded from Cubs, goes 25-12 as staff ERA drops
from 4.64 to 3.82.

1918 Pirates 65-60 .520 4th in NL 51-103
Billy Southworth hits .341, and Wilbur Cooper wins 19 games in a
war-shortened season.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)