A quarter of the season is in the books, and baseball has a new pecking order. The young Astros (the Astros!) are running away with the AL West—two years ahead of schedule. In Boston and L.A., young centerfield studs are infusing old-money franchises with new energy. And the suddenly badass Royals are proving last fall was no fluke. You got a problem with that?
A SOUND AROSE among the Royals after a 5--1 defeat to the Yankees on May 16, one you hear in a losing clubhouse about as often as Mendelssohn: laughter. First baseman Eric Hosmer and outfielder Jarrod Dyson yukked it up so much that losing pitcher Danny Duffy had to raise his voice to answer questions from reporters.
"We've been through it before," Hosmer explained later. "You can't live and die with every game. [Manager] Ned [Yost] gave us the freedom to create our own atmosphere."
If you want convention—baseball played under the ancient, unwritten code of conduct, stiff upper lips firmly in place—don't come to Kansas City, where the Royals have become the most rambunctious team in baseball.
Wait. The Royals? The same team that before last season went 28 playoffless years while losing the most games in baseball? The same team that would have been everybody's homecoming opponent for almost three decades if baseball adhered to football's best-chance-for-a-win tradition? The same team whose best player this season could, as recently as 12 months ago, "pretty much go anywhere in town and nobody would recognize me"?
Well, not exactly the same team, because this version of the Royals, having grown muscles from a wholly unexpected playoff run last year that took them to the seventh game of the World Series, has gone rogue. It's not just that Kansas City leads the American League Central or that it is 75--40 since July 30, including that chest-thumping, fist-pumping postseason. It's also that this team, extra-large chip placed firmly on shoulder, is more than happy to play the kind of baseball that practically announces over the P.A. system, "Hey, you got a problem with that?"—which helps explain why in an 12-day span in April it was involved in five bench-clearing incidents that resulted in the most exiled Royals (nine ejections) since the Romanov Dynasty.
"They don't back down," Yost says. "In fact, if other teams were trying to get us so mad we couldn't be successful, the opposite happened. We actually got better after every one of those incidents. I think teams started to see, 'You want to stir up the beehive? Go ahead. But you're going to get stung.'"
The core Royals are six players between the ages of 25 and 31 who have been together for five years: Hosmer, 25; catcher Salvador Perez, 25; third baseman Mike Moustakas, 26; shortstop Alcides Escobar, 28; outfielder Lorenzo Cain, 29; and outfielder Alex Gordon, 31. They are the backbone of the ultimate postmodern team: The Royals sacrifice power to put the ball in play in a strikeout-dominated game (they are last in baseball in strikeouts for a fourth straight year), perform the lost art of defense with sleight of hand that would make the Harlem Globetrotters envious (they turn 73.7% of batted balls into outs, the best conversion rate in baseball) and have taken modern bullpen specialization to Mariana depths of offensive deprivation (9--2, 1.68 ERA, opponents batting .190 against).
Though Kansas City exhibited all such traits last October, Baseball Prospectus pegged the team for a 72--90 fallback season this year, a slight that should be officially recorded as the first beehive kick of the season (the second: SI's prediction of a 78--84 finish). "You go through the postseason run we had and see predictions that you're going to win 70-something games, that just fires you up," Hosmer says. "It was the same last year. We all watched it. The TVs are on. You definitely see everybody picking somebody else."
Says Cain, "I feel like we're even better than we were last year." Not only does he hit .303 out of the third spot in the batting order and, with his glove, cover the most ground in Missouri since Marquette and Jolliet, he also is the best example of how quickly the Royals have ascended.
At age 16—the same age Escobar signed as a professional—Cain had never played baseball. But after getting cut from the basketball team at Madison County High in the Florida panhandle and being barred from football by his concerned mother, Patricia, Lorenzo (then a sophomore) asked a friend who played baseball, Jeremy Haynes, "Do you think I could make the team?" Haynes took him to the office of the coach to find out.
"Have you ever played?" the coach asked.
"No," Cain said.
"Perfect. We have only eight guys on the JV team. We'll stick you on JV."
Cain showed up at his first practice wearing a collared shirt, jeans and basketball shoes. He did not own a bat (he wouldn't get his first one until his senior year), a glove (his first was the kid-friendly kind with a seam cut through the middle of the palm to facilitate closing around the ball) or a cup (he played third base his first two weeks without one, booting "two or three balls a game" before he was stashed safely in the outfield).
Cain spent his sophomore year playing on the JV team and his junior year sitting on the varsity bench. He played only one year of varsity baseball. Only one college made him an offer: Tallahassee Community College. "Our own little college didn't even offer me a scholarship," says Cain, referring to 2,000-student North Florida Community College. "It kind of hurt a little bit."
Toward the end of his senior year Cain was playing video games at home when his mother told him he had a telephone call.
"Hello?" Cain said.
"Hello, this is Doug Reynolds of the Milwaukee Brewers. We just selected you in the 17th round of the draft."
"Oh, thank you," Cain said, and promptly hung up the phone as if it were a solicitor.
"Who was that?" his mother asked.
"Somebody with the Brewers. He said they drafted me in the 17th round."
Says Cain, "I just went back and played video games. I didn't tell anybody. I think a few days later there was something in the newspaper. That's when I thought, I guess it's a big deal, because I didn't know the draft was a big deal. I didn't keep up with baseball. I didn't know anything about baseball."
Cain eventually told the Brewers he wasn't ready for pro ball yet. He played one season at TCC and then signed for $95,000. He reported to minor league camp in Arizona in the spring of 2005 and was so bad ("Embarrassing," he calls it) that he heard that coaches and officials were questioning Reynolds about the signing. But then the games started. Cain went 3 for 4 in the first game, banging two doubles off the wall. Just three years after playing baseball for the first time, Cain hit .356 in the Arizona Rookie League.
Five years later he was in the big leagues, hitting .306 in 43 games for the 2010 Brewers. By then, Zack Greinke, Kansas City's ace pitcher, who was two years away from free agency, was so fed up with the Royals' losing that he asked general manager Dayton Moore to trade him. Yost asked Greinke to reconsider.
"I kept telling Zack, 'Look, we've got these guys coming; we're going to win, and we're going to win in the near future,'" Yost says. "And he said, 'I don't believe it.' I said, 'Look, I'm telling you the truth. These guys are going to find a way to win. You just have to stay with it and stay patient and you'll be a part of it.' He goes, 'I don't believe it. I've heard it too many times.'"
On Dec. 19, 2010, Moore traded Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to Milwaukee for Cain, Escobar and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress. Cain slowly developed into a solid player for the Royals, but he hit another level last September when Yost, who most often had been batting him seventh or eighth, graduated him to the three hole. Cain, a career .277 hitter to that point, has hit .313 since, including .533 while being named American League Championship Series MVP.
"It's confidence more than anything else," Yost says. "He always has been a guy with tremendous talent. But something transformed him in the middle of September. He just turned into a totally different player. His attitude went from a mild-mannered, steady player to a total beast."
IT WAS Cain who kicked off this Battle Royale of a season for Kansas City. On Opening Day, on the next pitch after Moustakas hit a home run, White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija drilled Cain with a fastball off his left arm. As Cain walked slowly to first base, he stared down Samardzija and then barked at him. Cain said Samardzija hit him "for no good reason."
Seventeen days and four Royals bench-clearing incidents later, Cain and Samardzija tried to take swings at one another in a brawl that began with Kansas City pitcher Yordano Ventura and Chicago centerfielder Adam Eaton yelling at one another after an otherwise routine ground ball back to the box.
"With me, I guess I was still upset about being hit Opening Day," Cain says. "My emotions definitely came out, which is very hard for me because I'm so laid back. It just goes to show you how tight a group we have. We're not going to take it. We're not going to back down."
The climate has changed so much around Kansas City these days that Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie, one of the principals in another April incident with the Royals, blamed Kauffman Stadium fans—previously known for politeness if they showed up at all—for "antagonizing everything." For 22 straight years the Royals ranked in the bottom five in the AL in attendance. This season they rank third, with a 28% jump at the gate and a much higher profile around town, as the formerly anonymous Cain attests. "Since the World Series," he says, "I can't go to Chick-fil-A or someplace without everyone recognizing me. It's cool."
Says Yost, "I think last year, especially during the playoffs, people fell in love with this team for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason was they saw the joy this team had playing together. This enthusiasm and passion they showed was infectious. Does it [tick] off other teams? Yeah, probably. But that's who they are. I'm not taking any of that away from them."
In the stands, on the scoreboard and on the field, it's as if the 2014 postseason never ended in Kansas City—it simply went on hiatus for five months before firing up again. Hey, you got a problem with that?