KANSAS CITY — There’s a fun little exchange at the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy” where Dey — a sort of policeman in the Nova Corps — is telling the guardians that even though they are heroes, he will still have to arrest them if they commit any future crimes. Rocket, the raccoon-type character, has an ethical question:
Rocket: What if I see something I want to take and it belongs to someone else?
Dey: You will be arrested.
Rocket: But what if I want it more than the person who has it?
Dey: It’s still illegal.
Rocket: That doesn’t follow. No. I want it more, sir. Do you understand?
This, as I see it, sums up the current Kansas City Royals All-Star Game controversy. As you might know, the All-Star Game voting is in full swing and at the moment there are EIGHT Kansas City Royals who are in line to start in the game, ranging from the reasonable (Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas) to the shaky (Eric Hosmer) to the absurd (Alicides Escobar, Kendrys Morales, Omar Infante). Infante just took the lead at second base even though Kansas City fans, in general, DO NOT EVEN WANT HIM STARTING FOR THE ROYALS.
For a long time now, I’ve had a pretty straightforward view of the All-Star Game: It’s the fans’ game and fans should be able to see whoever they want. Sure, I used to get all riled up by who got jobbed, who coasted in on an expired reputation, who can’t get noticed no matter how well they play … and, sure, I sometimes can still get riled up by all that. But in the end, I believe that the All-Star Game is supposed to feature the players that most fans want to see. In other words, I believe that the fans can make baffling or illogical or unfair choices but they cannot get it wrong. Because it’s their game.
And right now, simply put, Kansas City fans want their players in the All-Star Game more than anybody else. They want it more, sir.
These are heady times for Kansas City baseball fans. Between 1994 and last season, the Kansas City Royals never finished higher than 10th in the American League in attendance. They never drew even two million people in a season. Their television ratings were pitiful, laughable. I was the columnist at the Kansas City Star for most of the time, and I saw first-hand how far it had fallen. You almost never saw a Royals hat around town. You certainly didn’t see many Royals flags in front of houses. Royals postgame talk radio shows would be filled with Kansas City Chiefs talk. From a baseball standpoint, it was as dead as dead could be.
And yet, underneath it all, there was always this faint but steady baseball heartbeat. Baseball goes back a long way in Kansas City, to the Kansas City Cowboys of the old American Association and the Kansas City Packers of the Federal League. The greatest minor-league team in baseball history might be the 1939 Kansas City Blues featuring Phil Rizzuto and Tommy Holmes and Vince DiMaggio, who cracked 46 home runs. Satchel Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs were the New York Yankees of Negro Leagues baseball. Lou Gehrig played his last game in Kansas City; Mickey Mantle almost quit in Kansas City before he even got started.
And then there were Charley Finley’s Athletics with all their silly stunts, and then the 1970s Royals of George Brett and Frank White and Amos Otis and Hal McRae.
And so, even in the worst times, Royals fans suffered through, soldiering on even when the team was losing 100 games every year, even when the team would do something embarrassing just about every night. And then there were many dormant Royals fans, checking in periodically, looking to see if it was safe to come out to the ballpark again, looking to see if they could wear their Royals gear again without people laughing at them.
Here’s a story: I was once wearing my Kansas City Royals hat when, through a series of connections, I met Paul Reiser, the actor and comedian. He saw the hat and proceeded to put together an impromptu stand-up bit about the Royals, beginning with the premise, “Are they out there looking for the worst players they can find? Do they hire scouts who say, ‘No, you have too good an arm to play for us?’”
Yes, for the better part of 20 years, wearing a Royals hat was too much trouble. It meant EXPLAINING why you still cared about a team that had no hope.
So, it’s striking to come back to Kansas City now — more than striking, it’s emotional. The Royals will likely draw 2.7 or 2.8 million people this year, which will set the franchise record. The team is the hottest thing on Kansas City prime time television, drawing an insane 12.4 household average, far and away the highest in baseball.
More than that, though, when you drive around town you just feel the Royals presence. Drive around town … there are Royals flags EVERYWHERE. There are Royals hats and shirts EVERYWHERE. People are talking about the Royals EVERYWHERE. This is what happens, of course, when the local team starts playing well after a long drought; it happens that way all over the country.
The real difference is that the Royals were not just in a drought. They were left for dead. Entire seasons could go by where you would not even hear their name. I made a bit of a living writing down the ridiculous things that happened to this team — players climbing the wall for ground rule doubles, baserunners toppling and falling off first base, outfielders plunking throws into the backs of their cutoff men, managers jumping in the shower with their clothes on or having the first batter of the game bat out of order or saying wonderfully gloomy things like, “I never say it can’t get worse” — because almost nobody else was paying attention.
So now, it’s like Kansas City was given a brand new team. The magical World Series run last year, the great start this year, the amazing defense, the unbreakable bullpen, the glorious players like Lorenzo Cain and Salvy Perez and Wade Davis, the unlikely reemergence of 36-year-old Chris Young, the rapid improvement of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, the steadying force of Alex Gordon … all of it has felt like a long-awaited miracle.
And so … you better believe Kansas City is going to vote in their players into the All-Star Game. You should know the history. There has not been a Royals starter voted as starter in the All-Star Game since Jermaine Dye 15 years ago. The All-Star Game has, for years now, been an annual reminder of the Royals’ hopelessness. One year, the Royals’ All-Star representative was a first baseman named Ken Harvey, who used to swing the bat with one hand overlapping the other. Harvey’s career as a Royals was marred (or enhanced, depending on your point of view) by numerous unfortunate moments including the aforementioned cut-off-man plunking (he was the cut-off man who got hit in the back), the time he threw a ball into the face of a pitcher and one rather inauspicious battle with the tarp (he lost). After his All-Star season, he played 12 more big league games.
But he was not the most wretched All-Star selection of the decade; that would have been left-hander Mark Redman, who had a commendable 10-year career in the big leagues. He had come over to Kansas City in a trade back when the Royals were sort of the last resting stop for struggling veterans, and he had a 5.27 ERA at the All-Star break. He was chosen anyway. And, to be fair, there really wasn’t anyone else to pick.
Oh, the Royals All-Stars. Every year, as the columnist for the Star, I would go to the All-Star Game to record the Royals performances. They are as follows:
1997: Pitcher Jose Rosado
— Came into a game the American League was leading, 1-0, promptly gave up a home run to Javy Lopez, somehow got the win when the American League came back.
1998: Infielder Dean Palmer
— Sent in as a pinch-hitter with the American League up, 10-6, and a runner on first base. I turned to the Star beat writer Dick Kaegel and said, “So, Dick, do you want to write about the double-play grounder or should I?” Palmer good-naturedly hit into a double play on the next pitch.
1999: Pitcher Jose Rosado
— Pitched one scoreless inning. Within a year, because of injury and ineffectiveness, he would be out of baseball.
2000: Outfielder Jermaine Dye and first baseman Mike Sweeney
— Dye, the last Royals player voted in by the fans, went 0-for-2 with a walk and a run; Sweeney entered as a pinch-hitter in the fourth, two batters after Dye walked. Sweeney reached on an error that pushed Dye to third. Dye later scored, and Sweeney made it to third base before the inning ended. He was subbed out before the next inning
2001: First baseman Mike Sweeney
— Came in as a defensive replacement, flew out to right in his only at-bat.
2002: First baseman Mike Sweeney
— Came in as a defensive replacement, flew out to right in his only at-bat.
2003: First baseman Mike Sweeney and pitcher Mike MacDougal
— The Royals had shocked everyone by being in first place at the break and so they had two representatives. Neither played.
2004: First baseman Ken Harvey
— Pinch-hit and struck out against Randy Johnson.
2005: Designated hitter Mike Sweeney
— Came in as a pinch-hitter, struck out.
2006: Pitcher Mark Redman
— Did not play.
2007: Pitcher Gil Meche
— Did not play.
2008: Pitcher Joakim Soria
—Would not have played but game went into extra innings; pitched 1 2/3 hairy but scoreless innings.
2009: Pitcher Zack Greinke
— Probably deserved the start in the Cy Young season but did not get it. He struck out two in one perfect inning.
2010: Pitcher Joakim Soria
— Did not play.
2011: Pitcher Aaron Crow
— Don’t ask. He did not play.
2012: Designated hitter Billy Butler
— Got two at-bats — a groundout and a strikeout. This game was in Kansas City.
2013: Outfielder Alex Gordon, catcher Salvador Perez, closer Greg Holland
— Gordon flew out in his only at-bat. Perez singled and came around to score. Holland pitched one-third of an inning and gave up a hit.
2014: Outfielder Alex Gordon, catcher Salvador Perez, closer Greg Holland.
— Gordon did not play. Perez got the start because of injury and grounded out in his only at-bat. Holland pitched a perfect inning.
So there you have it. The last two years have been good, but in the 15 years before, the All-Star Game was a dirty phrase in Kansas City. And now that the fans are showing up in droves, yes, it’s payback time. I hear people complaining that Royals fans are ballot stuffing, but this is silly: the All-Star Game voting has ALWAYS been about ballot stuffing. That’s the whole point of the exercise; that’s why teams are constantly encouraging their fans to “vote for your favorite local player.” Everybody’s ballot stuffing. Right now, Kansas City is just ballot stuffing better.
In time, of course, we might find out that the Royals’ dominance of the All-Star voting is not pure ballot stuffing but some quirk in the computer system or a brilliant hack. But other teams have hackers too. I suspect that Royals fans just want this more, and are more intent on voting for their players than any other group of fans at this particular moment of time.
If you are talking about who deserves to start in the All-Star Game — based on their excellence as players and the kind of year they are having so far — I think you can make a strong case for Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez. You could make arguments against them too, but I think those three are legitimate All-Star starters.
At first base, it’s pretty silly to argue for Eric Hosmer over Miguel Cabrera, but Hosmer is having a good year. At third, it’s pretty silly to argue for Mike Moustakas over Josh Donaldson, but again, Moustakas is playing very well. His improvement over the offseason is one of the cool stories in baseball right now.
And then there are the absurd ones. Kendrys Morales is having a nice year, but he has no business starting in a year when Nelson Cruz, last year’s home run champion, is hitting .323 and on pace to hit 50 homers. And shortstop Alcides Escobar, while a superb defender, is having a nightmarish season at the plate and is certainly not worthy of All-Star consideration. Infante is batting .204, which is decent for a pitcher and more than 130 points behind Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis.
But, hey, you know, sometimes there’s an overreaction. Recently, Sports Illustrated’s Cliff Corcoran wrote a fun little piece called Fixing the AL’s All-Royals All-Star Team. In it, he suggested other players who would be more worthy choices than the Royals. All around town, people were talking about the article, using words like “mean” and “uncalled for.” I tried to explain that Cliff’s point was that the rest of the country might want their best players in the All-Star Game too — and some of them are actually having better seasons than Kansas City players.
The fans consistently looked at me with the same look Rocket had in Guardians. No sir, they were saying. We want it more.