There is something about being a terrible team that goes beyond wins and losses and boos and jokes and all the other obvious stuff. It’s hard to explain precisely, but every fan of terrible teams intuitively understands. When a team is terrible, everything goes wrong. It’s like reverse mojo — let’s call it “ojom.” Seemingly sound draft picks bust. Logical free-agent acquisitions turn into disasters. Promising young players get hurt. Sensible coaches and managers lose their marbles and start doing self-destructive things. Owners panic and overreact.
This is the stuff that happened to the Kansas City Royals for a quarter-century. It wasn’t just that they did a lot of dumb things, though of course they did. It was that everything they did TURNED dumb, even when it could have gone the other way.
After the 2003 season, for instance — a season where they shocked everyone including themselves by contending for five months — the Royals signed two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez. OK, it wasn’t a brilliant stroke of inspiration or anything, but it did not have to become a fiasco. Gonzalez was coming off a year where he hit 24 homers in just 82 games. He was 34 and had 429 career homers — more than Mike Schmidt or Reggie Jackson had at the same age.
Yeah, it didn’t work. Gonzalez made it clear more or less from the first day that he really didn’t want to play baseball anymore and he excused himself with a day-to-day injury that lasted five months. That’s how it went for the Royals then.
Another example: That same offseason the Royals also signed Brian Anderson, a smart and likable and solid lefty coming off what appeared to be his best season. That could have worked. Lots of other teams wanted him. He was 31 but seemed to have the makeup of one of those ageless lefties like Jamie Moyer or Kenny Rogers or David Wells.
He signed with Kansas City and then, almost instantly, just stopped getting people out. He was as stumped about it as anyone. Anderson worked hard to figure out what went wrong, worked hard to end the craziness and turn things around but never could. Then he got hurt. After games he would just sit at his locker and look at us and go, “Yeah, listen, I don’t know either.”
Every single thing the Royals did seemed to end like that. Even when a bit of good luck turned up — a Paul Byrd or Raul Ibanez or Angel Berroa emerged — it wouldn’t last long for some reason or another, and it was always overshadowed by the next black cloud. The Royals were on a treadmill of hopelessness in the Gold’s Gym of Despair in the strip mall of gloom.
If anything, this made them predictable. There was one thing the national media — and the local media — knew about the Royals: They were hapless. So when they made a move, there was a mad rush to be the first (and the most enthusiastic) to rip it. And almost every time, the critics won. In fact, critics over Royals was one of the longest winning streaks in sports history. I would say the streak ended on Dec. 9, 2012. That was the day the Royals made what was then called the James Shields-Wil Myers trade and completely changed the ojom around Kansas City.
By late 2012, the Royals were already on the right track. Royals general manager Dayton Moore and his staff had built a fantastic farm system, and they had cashed in on the Zack Greinke trade — getting back shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielder Lorenzo Cain. The team was getting better, but very, very, very slowly. They won 65 games in 2009. The next year they won 67, then 71, then 72. At this rate, they could become a .500 team by 2020.
Moore saw this and made the bold deal, trading away one of the game’s best prospects in Myers for a good right-handed pitcher in Shields. He was clear about his intentions: The Royals needed a shakeup to get out of their sluggish cycle. Shields was a 200-plus inning workhorse with a reputation as a great teammate. The Royals needed someone like that, Moore thought, to take the next step.
Of course the trade was ripped savagely across America … and I should know because I was one of the rippers. Well, it just didn’t add up. Myers was a fantastic prospect, the sort a developing team like the Royals just can’t give up. I mean, do you think the Padres might regret dealing Anthony Rizzo? Don’t you think the A’s might regret dealing Addison Russell? I’m pretty sure the Brewers wouldn’t mind having Lo Cain back.
And Shields, eh, he seemed more like a short-term innings-eater (he was never going to re-sign with Kansas City after his two years were up) than a franchise-transformer. I didn’t like it at all.
My own reservations were trumped across the country, where many people piled on the Royals. The theme was this: “Ha, ha, look at the Royals doing what the Royals always do.” And nobody seemed to notice that those laughable Royals days were over. The wind had shifted.
The Myers-for-Shields swap specifically was relatively uninteresting. The Royals probably earned a small win. Myers started out blazing and won Rookie of the Year, but he has since battled with injuries and he’s been traded again. Shields did much of what Moore hoped; he stabilized the rotation, pitched well and helped develop young players, and when he left, the Royals received a compensatory pick.
But as it turned out, neither Myers nor Shields were the key to the deal. No, the key was a tall, struggling starting pitcher that Moore and his staff just had to have. They expanded the deal and threw in a few prospects just to get this guy. He was brought to Kansas City, put in the starting rotation, and he was mostly terrible. It was hard to see what the Royals saw in him.
Then, the next year, a Kansas City reliever went down and the Royals said to Wade Davis, “We need you in the pen.” He nodded, strolled out to the bullpen like John Wayne and … became the game’s most dominant and important relief pitcher. Reliever numbers are unreliable for many reasons, so as impressive as Davis’ 19-3 record and 0.96 ERA over the last two seasons looks (that includes postseason), I don’t think that quite captures what Wade Davis did for the Royals. Other relievers have put up great numbers. Davis made the Royals feel invincible in the late innings, just the way Mariano Rivera once made the Yankees feel invincible.
And ever since that trade, the Royals suddenly seem incapable of doing the wrong thing. It’s exactly the opposite story in Kansas City … questionable moves the Royals make suddenly work out brilliantly. After last year’s stunning run to the World Series, the Royals signed 32-year-old Kendrys Morales, who was coming off an injury-plagued and dreadful season. That didn’t have to work out. But it did work out — he hit .290/.362/.485 with 41 doubles and 22 homers and 106 RBIs — his best season in years.
They signed pitcher Edinson Volquez. That definitely didn’t have to work out. He’d played for four teams in four years, his relatively low strikeout rate and high walk rate did not portend great things, he was turning 31 years old. But, again, it did work out. Volquez threw 200.1 innings, was very solid, and, yes, had his best season in years.
Nobody else wanted Chris Young. He turned out to be a pleasant surprise. They signed pitcher Ryan Madson, who had not played in the Majors for four years. He was superb. They were able to get Ben Zobrist at the trade deadline. He fit perfectly and helped stabilize the team. They pushed all their chips in on ace Johnny Cueto, and that looked as if it would backfire on them as he struggled immensely, sending the city into a panic. But then in Game 5 of the Houston series — the very game Dayton Moore had in mind when he went all in on Cueto in the first place — he retired 19 in a row, often making it look easier than waltzing.
This is not to say that every move has been genius — Royals fans can and will start listing off the various mistakes — but all the important moves have worked. It’s crazy. I talked about this recently with Moore, and he shrugged and offered up that bit about how you’re never as good or as bad as people think you are. That’s true. But here are the Royals again in the ALCS after finishing with the American League’s best record, and suddenly the same people who couldn’t do anything without falling down seem smarter than anybody else. They had been on a 20-year losing streak at the blackjack table. And now, it’s all aces and face cards.