Letter from Camp Uneventful

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Spring training is time for stories, funny stories, and the Kansas City Royals have more than their share. We sit around a dinner table one evening after a game, and we remember a few. Here’s one: In 2006, Royals centerfielder Kerry Robinson chased a long fly ball hit to deep center by Chicago’s Joe Crede. Robinson slowed down as he reached the warning track, set himself and gracefully leaped at the wall.

Midair, however, he watched bewildered as the ball landed five feet in front of him on the track and bounced over his head for a ground-rule double.

The umpire watched this strange scene and initially called it a home run. Royals manager Buddy Bell raced out to the field to shout that the ball was not a home run, it had hit the ground before going over the wall. The confused umpire looked out at Robinson, looked back at Bell, back at Robinson, back at Bell and said in a disoriented way: “Um, your guy climbed the wall.”

This happened three weeks before the Kansas City Royals hired Dayton Moore to be general manager and save the franchise.

“Well, we can laugh about it now,” Moore says at the table, though, to be honest, even now everyone is laughing except him.

* * *

The Kansas City Royals have something unusual on their spring training credentials this season: “American League Champions.” Those three words force people to face a fact that still seems unreal: The Royals really did win the pennant last year. They really did break an almost 30-year postseason drought. They really did win the hearts of millions of baseball fans with their stellar defense and quirky smallball and killer bullpen. All of it happened. It wasn’t just a weird, pizza-induced collective dream.

Now, it’s the year after, and the Royals proudly run the single most boring spring training camp in Major League Baseball. Call it Camp Uneventful. The team is basically set; the only open battles are for back-of-the-bullpen pitchers. The players clearly understand their mission. “There’s a swagger,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. Even the handful of new players — right fielder Alex Rios, designated hitter Kendrys Morales, starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, mainly — feel remarkably familiar. They are all veterans, and they blend into the background like they’re wearing camouflage uniforms.

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The only even mildly interesting thing that has happened to the Royals this spring is when a swarm of bees delayed a game against the Angels. Then, after the bees were killed, Ned Yost took a public stand against the injustice. “I’ve never seen mass bee genocide like that,” he said.

All of this monotony is very different — Royals camps have been many things through the years, but “boring” and “predictable” have never been among the adjectives. This was the 20th time I’ve been to a Kansas City Royals spring training, and they have always been among the weirdest and most fun things in sports.

The Royals used to train in Florida, in an an old amusement park with an old roller-coaster track. The Royals called it “Baseball City,” and that was the dateline we used. One year in Baseball City, Royals manager Tony Muser brought 69 players to camp, and he had them doing all sorts of wacky things. He had pitchers throw balls through chicken-wire strike zones. He marked an X on a baseball and, after batting practice, offered a C-note to the guy who could retrieve what (before Michael Lewis) he called the “moneyball.” Watching those players knocking each other out of the way as they went to find the ball is one of the joys of my sportswriting life.

That camp included one of my favorite baseball exchanges. For some reason, Muser had his pitchers take sliding practice, even though there was no chance any of them would have to slide during the season. Afterward, this was the exchange between Muser and longtime pitcher Erik Hanson.

HANSON: “Look, I ripped my pants.”

MUSER: “Good for you!”

HANSON: “I had reconstructive surgery on that knee.”

MUSER: “Oh.”

At another Royals camp, Muser decided he needed to lighten up a little bit. The Royals players created a “Smiling Tony Muser” calendar. On days they saw Muser smile, they would put a little smiley face on the chart. Muser was fired 23 games into that season.

There was the Tony Pena “Nosotros Creemos” camp, where he handed out T-shirts with those words on them — “nosotros creemos” means “We believe” — and he kept telling everyone who would listen, and also people who would not listen, that the Royals were going to shock the world.*

*To complete the story, the Royals DID shock the baseball world briefly that year — they started off 16-3 and actually led the American League Central into September. Pena won Manager of the Year. It remains one of the strangest seasons for any team in baseball history, a little bit of competence crammed between four impossibly dreadful 100-loss seasons.

A guy named Trey Hillman managed this team for a while — his is mostly remembered because he would sometimes ride a unicycle in the outfield for exercise. In his first spring training, he decided to hold a lecture about baserunning after a poor exhibition. This was fine, but he decided to do it on the field, right after the game, so people walking out of the stadium were treated to a Major League manager lambasting his team like they were the Vic Morrow team from “The Bad News Bears.”

Yes, Royals camps always had this tragicomic “Breaking Bad” vibe to them.

This year? No. There’s none of that surreality. The trains run on time. Everyone knows their role. Everyone seems to be working into shape. Every major position is filled. Nothing is happening. Well, yeah, there were the bees.

* * *

[parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/03/150313-ned-yost-1600.jpg” height=600 credit=”Ned Yost (AP Photo)”]

Of all the Royals mishaps through the years — the time they lost a game when a baseball hit a seagull, the time a player lost a fly ball in the sun because his prescription sunglasses had not arrived, the time the team brought a fast-pitch softball pitcher to camp, the time a first baseman was hit in the back with a throw from the outfield — my favorite remains the time when outfielders Terrence Long and Chip Ambres settled under a fly ball.

The two teammates looked at each other the way teammates often do in such moment and then, properly triumphant, jogged back to the dugout. It was a well-designed baseball play except for one minor detail; they both forgot to actually catch the baseball, which plopped behind them on the outfield grass.

Though I’ve written about it many times, this was not a play that translates well to the written word. It was a you-had-to-be-there moment, an exquisitely timed ballet of Royals ineptitude.  The lazy fly ball. The outfielders getting into position. The fans marking “7” on their scorecards. The outfielders jogging back happily to the dugout. The ball dropping softly onto the green … and then Three-Stooges-like the outfielders scrambled back to get the ball. Perfection. To watch that was to understand just what Royals baseball was all about.

That was the Royals baseball team Dayton Moore inherited in 2006.

“You never know what you’re getting when you come into a new situation,” he says about taking the Royals job in 2006. Many people around baseball advised him not to take it. Even his hiring was bungled. The Royals’ owner, David Glass, offered him the job before he had the decency to fire his loyal longtime general manager Allard Baird. It was a spectacularly botched transition. Moore’s introductory press conference was no celebration; it was an opportunity for a couple of radio reporters to berate David Glass about how poorly he treated Baird.

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Then the Royals stripped the two reporters of their credentials to cover the team.

That’s the sort of team we are talking about here.

So, in many ways, the real miracle Dayton Moore helped engineer was not the Royals winning the pennant and going seven games with San Francisco in the World Series, a three-week flash of skill and speed and luck and late-inning door-closing. No, the real miracle is this camp … one of mind-numbing stability, clear objectives, quiet conviction and stunning competence.

“Yes, it does remind me a little bit of those the old Braves spring training camps,” Yost says, referring back to the 1990s when the Braves won every single year. “Everybody understands what they’re here to do. Everybody knows that feeling of winning. Everybody wants to have that feeling again and go one step beyond.”

Oh, of course, there are doubters about the 2015 Royals. Lots of them. PECOTA — Baseball Prospectus’ prediction system developed by FiveThirtyEight guru Nate Silver — forecasts the Royals to go 72-90 and battle the Minnesota Twins for last place in the American League Central. Fangraphs does not have them quite that bad but does predict a losing record. Most of the preseason magazines have the word “regress” or “collapse” somewhere in their Royals articles.

Then, doubters are to the Royals as paparazzi are to Katy Perry. The Royals know they’re there but don’t even notice them anymore.

“Obviously, we have to do it again,” says J.J. Picollo, the Royals assistant general manager and one of the bright young executives in baseball. “And until we do it again, there will be people who see last year as a fluke. … But we know some things about ourselves now. We know that, if we stay healthy, we’re going to catch the ball, we’re going to scrape for runs and, if we’re leading after six innings, we should be really tough to beat.”

That’s exactly how it worked last year. The Royals were ninth in the league in runs scored, and they were the first American League team in two decades to hit fewer than 100 home runs in a season. They had a good, but not great, starting rotation. But they reached the playoffs and then won their first eight playoffs games. How? It’s just like Picollo says:

1. They caught the ball — by John Dewan’s “Team Runs Saved” statistic, the Royals’ defense saved the team 41 runs, second only behind Baltimore. The outfield in particular — led by left fielder Alex Gordon and center fielder Lorenzo Cain — was breathtaking.

2. They scraped for runs — the Royals scored five or more runs 65 times, among the best in the league. They won 57 of those games.

3. They were all but unbeatable in the last three innings. In 2014, the Royals took 69 leads into the seventh inning. They won 65 of them. They lost just one time when leading going into the eighth inning. The three-man law firm of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was not just good, but historically good. All three pitchers had ERAs lower than 1.50. Their strikeout-to-walk ratio was 258-69. Davis and Herrera did not give up a home run all season.

“We know that those guys might not be THAT good this year,” Picollo says. “It would be hard for anyone to be that good. But we don’t think they will have to be that good. We think we still have some players who have not reached their ceiling, some players who have room to grow.”

* * *

[parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/03/150313-eric-hosmer-1600.jpg” height=600 credit=”Eric Hosmer (AP Photo)”]

That “room for growth” theme — one of the few usable themes for Royals beat writers this year — begins with 25-year-old first baseman Eric Hosmer. He became something of a national name in October last year by hitting .400 in both the Division and Championship Series. Miss California 2013, Mabelynn Capeluj, tweeted that every girl has a crush on him.

But in truth last season in total was a disappointing one for Hosmer. As a 21-year-old, Hosmer hit .293 with power, and many scouts were calling him a younger version of Joey Votto. He followed that up with a dreadful season, a pretty good one, then last year he hit just .270/.318/.398. It was that last number — that .398 slugging percentage — that disappointed the most: A guy who scouts saw as the Royals’ first true power hitter in a generation seemed sapped.

Hosmer has come to camp this year feeling stronger and believing that he and many of his teammates showed their true selves in the postseason.

“A lot of guys turned it up for the postseason,” he says. “I think we’re all feeding off that.”

That is certainly a driving force in Surprise, the belief that something fundamental clicked last October for numerous players and that:

  • Mike Moustakas is not the guy who struggled to hit .200 last year and was a constant threat to be sent to the minors but instead the slugger who set a Royals record by hitting five postseason home runs.
  • Lorenzo Cain is not the fringe fourth outfielder that many had pegged him to be but is instead the amazing defensive force of October, a center fielder who runs down everything and still has enough offensive pop to hit somewhere in the middle of the lineup.
  • Yordano Ventura is not a 24-year-old starter with insane stuff still learning how to pitch but is, instead, an ace about to emerge. The Royals were blown away by how Ventura responded after giving up what seemed a devastating home run in last year’s Wild Card game. Ventura was pretty fantastic the rest of the way, he had a 1.46 ERA in the World Series, and the Royals believe he is the next big thing.

“The way he bounced back after the Wild Card game — you can’t teach that,” Picollo says. “That’s not normal. He just doesn’t think like a normal player.”

* * *

Ned Yost is a funny guy. Those six words would have had a different meaning if uttered in July or August of last season, when the Royals struggled and some of his, er, unorthodox moves tended to backfire. But now Ned Yost is the manager of the American League Champions, and about 10 million pounds seems lifted off his shoulders. He is freer to be himself, to be the Ron Swanson of Major League managers, to be what his friend Jeff Foxworthy calls “The funniest guy I know.”

“The Oakland game, no question” he says when I ask him when he felt that weight lifted. The Royals made the postseason last year with an 89-73 record, but they only made it as a Wild Card, which means playing the other team in a one-game playoff. The team that loses the one-game playoff, well, it hardly feels like you made the postseason at all.

“I won’t lie, I was nervous for that game,” Yost said. He’d had an interesting career path to the game. He was a backup catcher for a while in the Majors, then he was a taxidermist, then he became bullpen coach for those great Braves teams. He took over a dismal Milwaukee Brewers team that had losing records for 10 straight seasons, developed a bunch of young kids, got the Brewers to the brink of the playoffs …

… and it was decided that Ned Yost did not have the spirit to take the team the rest of the way. He was fired 12 games before the end of the 2008 season, with the fading Brewers in Wild Card position. Yost has not talked much about it publicly, but you can imagine how a proud man like him would feel when told that he didn’t have the right stuff. He went to his farm in Georgia, hunted and fished and worked and tried to get his mind right.

So when his Royals trailed Oakland, 7-3, in the Wild Card game — and with the sublime Jon Lester pitching for the A’s — there could have been Milwaukee flashbacks. This was the Royals’ first postseason playoff appearance since 1985 and yet, with a loss, it would have felt more like a disappointment than triumph.

“I never doubted we would come back,” Yost says, and the Royals did come back with a blinding array of singles, stolen bases, wild pitches and crazy baserunning. Then the Royals took off. Then Ned Yost allowed himself to be himself. He has been funny and charming all spring.

“That’s the Ned Yost we see all the time,” Moore says, and then — half joking — he says, “But I do like it when Ned has an edge.”

* * *

Everyone at the table is telling a Royals story. There’s a great one about a former Royals outfielder named Mark Quinn, who finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2000 and is one of only four Major Leaguers to hit two home runs in his first game. Quinn also had an aversion to walks, and in 2001 he had a remarkable three-month run — 194 plate appearances — where he did not walk a single time.

Then, on August 12, against a pitcher named Adam Pettyjohn, Mark Quinn walked. And, immediately, fireworks were set off at Kauffman Stadium. No. Really. Fireworks. It seemed in the moment one of the greatest gags ever pulled by a scoreboard operator.

Dayton Moore, hearing this, does not laugh at all. He is, in fact, a bit angry about it. That was wrong for the scoreboard operator to show up a player like that. That was wrong for an organization not to be on the same page, not to be working together for a common goal, not to be acting like winners even if the team is losing.

Only then, he’s told that the fireworks were an innocent mistake. The scoreboard operator looked up and saw Mark Quinn jogging to first base, and he heard the crowd going crazy. He naturally assumed that Quinn had hit a home run.

And with this bit added to the story, Dayton Moore does laugh. Yes, he can laugh now. The Royals have come a long way from there.

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