Royals, Nation

The Kansas City Royals are a lousy baseball team, but also something worse.
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I once read a joke in Reader's Digest that went like so: A young lady visits a sainted grandmother in (what was then called) the old folks' home. They sit down to supper, and the grandmother takes one look at the plate and sighs "Hebrews 13:8." Curious, the young lady excuses herself and sneaks off to gran's room to hit up her King James. She checks the reference and finds "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever."

This joke is built into the study of history—Marx famously claimed "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Father-of-the-discipline figure Thucydides came as close to joking as he ever did when he quipped—this is probably the only recorded instance of Thucydides quipping—in introducing his dismal study of the greatest war to that point in all of human endeavor: "an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it." You get the message. You get that it's a bummer.

Such a dim view of things may seem a bad fit for sports, which, as Fredorrarci reminds us, are "essentially an optimistic endeavour". But baseball is an uneasy, if seemingly stable, reconciliation of raw capitalist fervor and excess, what may be the strongest unionized labor force in the country, and a socialist nobody-goes-hungry arrangement under which poor teams get to share crumbs of revenue from and with good/rich teams, which in baseball as elsewhere are mainly a coastal elite. Moving from the economic to the military competitive, each city-state team is expected to battle the others; they do this 162 times a year. The repetition alone demands a historical view, even if the resource-competition/actual-competition analogy doesn't quite work. We are getting, now, to the Kansas City Royals.

***

The facts are these, and they are undisputed: late on the night of the ninth of December, two mediocre baseball teams engaged in the offseason's first major queasy chattel-exchange. The Kansas City Royals, coming off a (72-90) season marked by futility everywhere except the bullpen, acquired one of the several starting pitchers they obviously needed, and an additional arm for the bullpen:

RHP James Shields
RHP Wade Davis

Both acquisitions are obviously helpful; both players are obviously good-not-great. To attain such men, the Royals gave up (deep breath here):

RF Wil Myers
LHP Mike Montgomery
RHP Jake Odorizzi
3B Patrick Leonard

Wil Myers is the reigning Minor League Player of the Year. There is every indication that he will be not just a good player, but an excellent one, and quite possibly an All-Star. The other three players are all considered solid prospects. Losing four likely professionals, including one can't-miss guy, in exchange for two not-inexpensive years of a good-not-great starter and a good-not-great reliever—whom the team may use as a starter despite his not-good-or-great results in that role in the past—caught instant criticism. The Royals' justification came quickly, too, most strikingly in a piece for USA Today that offers bleak, sock-puppeted proof that history is not always written by the winner:

"People can second-guess it all they want," [GM Dayton] Moore says, "but we believe we are doing the right thing here."

When you're running a franchise that has produced one winning season since 1994, and at least 90 losses in 10 of the last 12 seasons, you owe it to your players, fan base and community to try and win now.

Doubters be damned.

This is not a new claim. It is a claim that Royals' General Manager Dayton Moore—just!—will!—not!—stop!—making!—that it is time to start trying to win. Going into the seventh full season of his reign, Moore is ready to consign the first six years to the gnawing criticism of the mice: it's time to move on. It's time to try.

There is currently a shibboleth among baseball smarks that one is always to judge process, not outcomes—most of the smarks who still care about the Royals (and it's a steadily dwindling number) have been righteous and fervent in their condemnation of the thinking they hold to underly this trade. To wit:

More to the point, it doesn't look like it will work. One starter doesn't fix a poor rotation. This rotation looks, as Royals Review had it, like "a number two, three number fours and a five. It's a rotation that will eat innings, and occasionally, eat too much and throw them up all over themselves. This is not the rotation of a contending team. It is a rotation of a team that hovers around .500." To shore up that rotation, Moore dealt the player who was perhaps most likely to help an offense was third-worst in the AL last year. But.

But process can be opaque, and it remains incumbent upon empiricists to yield at least some pride of place to base and prosaic outcomes; the teams do after all continue to play the games. The end result is at least part of what I'm a fan for, and while I'll accept style and personality and varieties of Doing It The Right Way in lieu of championships from the players, I require sterner stuff from the front office. "You play to win the game," is what I, and I suspect a goodly number of other fans, hope to hear. Or, in certain cases, "Winning is going to have to have to be a dream deferred for a time: we first need to..." you know, and so on, whatever.

For lucky fans, the first order of organizational business will involve a long view of institutional health—something like Dayton Moore's near-parodic commitment to "The Process." For unlucky fans, the Winning Times will be postponed until the team-owning oligarchs finish extorting exciting new stadia from the polity—stadia inevitably designed with an eye toward perfecting just those features most compelling to the oligarchs and their asinine peer group. "Sky" boxes, say: protected enclosures up where the gods live, in the sky; all televised sporting events will prominently display long and longing images of these luxurious bunkers and the glad-handing skull-faced buffoons within.

As fans, regardless of our relative luck levels, we are supposed to accept initiatives like these. Whether we're handed "We must get our house in order" or "We can't compete as presently equipped", our job is to remain loyal—faithful might be better—while the Deciders change their goals from conquest to (metaphorical) infrastructural retrenchment to literal construction of marvels displaying the glory and magnificence appertaining to and concomitant with their steering of might. Columns and inscriptions even bad teams can build, when they can't manage memorials graven on hearts and minds. That stuff only costs money, and they all have that. Even the Royals have that.

***

Thus the script for these Royals this past couple decades. The franchise was once—really!—a proud one. Then, in 1993, Kansas City legend Ewing Kaufmann died. A guy named David Glass stepped in as Chairman of the Board and interim CEO: a born successor, his previous life had been as the first CEO of Wal-Mart not named Sam Walton. He instantly instituted a Wal-Mart-style rollback, taking the team's payroll from $41 million to $19. (Since 1995, the team has had exactly one winning record.) In 2000, Glass bought the team outright, securing the winning bid with $96 million against another dude with $120 million on offer. It's good to have friends on the Board. It was especially good, in Glass' case, to have all three of his children on the Board.

In 2006, he fired GM Allard Baird and replaced him with Dayton Moore; a couple local media gadfly types got mouthy at the press conference, and Glass pulled their credentials. Right around that time, the city staked the team to some stadium improvements, which finished in 2009. Thus did David Glass a stately pleasure dome decree; thus did Kansas Citians foot the bill.

As yet, the investment in the physical plant has yet to pay any on-field dividends. Again: one winning season since 1995; none since 2002.

So that's the owner. What of this oft-mentioned Dayton Moore, the man who engineered the trade that Joe Posnanski so "despised"? Well: "Dayton Moore will always have a big-time job in baseball." A purer exponent of the Peter Principle you will never find:

"He's brilliant at building a farm system."
"We should put him in charge of everything."
"Is he good at everything?"
"Only if everything is like building a farm system."
"Is everything like building a farm system."
"No."
"We should put him in charge of everything."

Dayton Moore is a man who we can get to know from a Posnanski column roughly as evenhanded and non-breathless as Paula Broadwell's best-known literary efforts, fulsomely full of "one of my favorite people in the world"-s and "deeply passionate"-s. Moore is a baseball lifer who has learned at least three completely false and intertwined lessons.

  • Nuance is bad: "in no uncertain terms, ... when [his boss] asked a question, he wanted and expected and needed a direct answer. Yes. No. That's it. He didn't have time for equivocations,"
  • Being positive and enthusiastic is decisively important: "he has an unabashed enthusiasm for life. I tell my kids all the time: Be enthusiastic. That's one of the secrets of success. People are drawn to enthusiasm. People want to be around a bubbling energy."
  • People wearing ties helps win baseball games: "For the Royals to win, he believed, they had to become winners in every aspect. Everyone needed to wear a tie."

These three lessons are super ways to impress observers and ingratiate at job interviews. They are also, unfortunately, terrible ways to analyze and prepare for an inherently unknowable future. Sure, it's only the AL Central, not Iraq or Afghanistan or anything, but still: the Detroit Tigers are not going to greet the Royals as liberators.

And so this "very quick learner" has acquired Yuniesky Betancourt twice and signed Jeff Francoeur the same number of times. He continues to employ the latter. Both of the players have ranged from gawdawful to world-historically bad. Being positive about what his current players bring to the table has led to an upcoming season with gaps so big at second base and in right field that "gap" seems inadequate. "Gulf" perhaps. "Crater." "Cavern from which good baseball players are unlikely to emerge." Pick one of those.

Moore's strict "up or down" with respect to future performances has presumably helped build the Royals' much-praised Best Farm System Ever, but a farm system isn't something that brings fans much in the way of joy, or a team anything in the way of success, until those players start showing up in the majors. We've had six years of ties—and losses. He'll always have a big-time job in baseball; he has a career winning percentage in the neighborhood of .435.

And this is because those who can grant these sinecures are men—and they are, overwhelmingly, men—like David Glass: rich and getting richer despite no discernible interest in the product's health, quality, or viability. It's an old number, but Glass was once said by Forbes to be profiting $20 million a year from the Royals. For years, of course, Glass has been among the league's biggest skinflints, an advocate for scabs during the last strike, an advocate of a salary cap, and a massive beneficiary of the league's policy of taxing profitable big-market teams and kicking down dough to second-rate franchises. What need has a man like David Glass of competence in his staff? He needs only enough chairs to seat appealing interviewees like Dayton Moore, and a few left over for his children.

The incompetent, employed by the indifferent, move pieces around according to unconvincing reasons or inscrutable whims. The bad stay bad. The Royals could still lose 90 games next year with their improved starting pitching and unimproved offense; the people overseeing it will keep overseeing it; an untrustable process unfurls toward a distant horizon. What's permanent is permanent.


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