Breaking bad

In July of 2003, something amazing happened. You might remember (and, then again, you might not) that the baseball All-Star Game was in U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago that year, and two Kansas City Royals* were chosen for the team. This, alone, was pretty rare stuff. It was the first time in more than a decade that two Royals players had made the All-Star team. The Royals did have three All-Stars in 1996, but one was manager Bob Boone and another was trainer Nick Swartz.

* – Mike Sweeney and Mike MacDougal, if you are scoring at home.

Anyway, the Royals had two players because, illogically, they were in first place at the time. Nobody, including the players themselves, understood how first place was possible – the team had lost 100 games the year before and would lose 100 games each of the three years after — but it said so in the papers, and so the Royals had two players announced before the All-Star game.

And here was the amazing part: The Chicago fans actually booed the Royals players.

Unless you have followed a team that was so irrelevant you often felt invisible, it would be impossible to describe how good those boos sounded. For more than a decade – and for a decade to follow — people did not boo the Royals. People did not cheer the Royals. People did not notice the Royals. Every now and again, there might be a Royals punch line – like Jimmy Fallon making his Red Sox friends dance in “Fever Pitch” so they don’t end up getting Royals tickets – but even those were rare. Nobody knew the Royals existed. Nobody cared to know the Royals.

So, hearing those Chicago fans boo in 2003 was a watershed moment; hey, the Royals mattered enough in that moment to make someone boo. That was thrilling. True, the moment didn’t last. Neither of the Royals even played in the game. The team faded badly in September. The next decade would be mostly nightmarish. But for an instant, one glorious boo-filled instant, the Royals mattered enough to spark even slight emotion in baseball fans.

And so here we are, a dozen years later, and suddenly the Kansas City Royals are … controversial? Provocative? Even: Notorious? Is this possible? Thursday night, back in Chicago, the Royals and White Sox got into a big ol’ baseball brawl with a lot of talk and a couple of missed punches and, yes, there were plenty of boos surrounding. Seven players were disciplined over the weekend, including a seven-game suspension for the Royals’ Yordano Ventura and five games for Edinson Volquez.

This followed the Royals having six players ejected against Oakland last weekend. Oakland’s Brett Lawrie — who had himself one wild series where he made a questionable slide into shortstop Alicides Escobar, said he texted his apology to the wrong number, got plunked by a 99-mph Ventura pitch and had a Kelvin Herrera fastball whizzing behind him – was a bit perturbed. He proceeded to rip everyone in Kansas City including the players, the management, the fans, the barbecue, the jazz, the humidity, the Plaza, the central location of the place, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (who wrote the song “Kansas City”) and Lorde (who wrote the song “Royals”).

“I don’t think you can even call it baseball,” he said of his nightmare series. “Because it wasn’t.”

Lawrie is not the only one grumbling. There are whispers all around baseball about the way the Royals play, the enthusiastic celebrations after hits, the trash-talking on the field (it was a two-word soliloquy from Ventura that sparked the White Sox brawl), the eagerness to retaliate for slights both real and imagined. “What kind of crazy, surreal world do we live in,” the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro texted me, “Are the Royals are the most hated team in baseball?”

Yes, it seems true: A lot of people all around America do not like what these Kansas City Royals have become.

Based on what I’m hearing from people in Kansas City, the official team, player and fan response to this seems to be something like … well … like Yordano Ventura’s two-word soliloquy.

When it comes to baseball I’m generally a big believer in things that can be quantified. I’m pretty skeptical that hitting better in the clutch is an actual skill that can be repeated year after year. I’m pretty skeptical that a manager’s gut decisions will work out often enough to make them worth doing. I’m pretty skeptical of ambiguous words like leadership, grit, chemistry, instinct and momentum. All of these words matter in baseball, but I just tend to believe they are almost always overstated.

But there is one imprecise word I have come to believe in: “identity.” It’s probably a blind spot in my life as a sportswriter. I’ve just seen so many teams (and players) who develop an identity – that is, who start to have a clear sense of self – and go on to do great things. I have seen the other side of it, too: Most teams, it seem to me, just PLAY without any overriding purpose. They play hard. They play together. They play to win. But they don’t really agree on who they are or what they are about or how they will be better than other teams. They don’t really have an identity.

Last year, in October, the Kansas City Royals developed an identity: They were the small-ball team that you could not beat in the late innings. They played this role with relish. The Royals bunted liberally, they caught everything, they stole some bases and they gave leads to their three dominant relievers, who closed things out. And the thing was: Everyone on the team was into it. Everyone on the team believed that if the Royals did those things they would win … and they did win except when Madison Bumgarner decided to reveal his own secret identity of Superman.

Anyway, starting in spring training this year it was made perfectly clear by just about everyone that the Royals were about to regress back into irrelevance. Over at Grantland, the writers picked just about every team EXCEPT the Royals to win the American League Central. Baseball Prospectus projected them to lose 90. Vegas oddsmakers were willing to pay if the Royals actually finished with a winning record.

So, right away, there was a whole lot of, “Yeah, OK, you guys were a cute story last year, lots of fun, but, see, fun time’s over, go back and sit in the corner,” kind of patronizing. And there still is. See if you can spot any in this bit by our pal Craig.

And then the Royals roared through spring training – won 20 of 30 – and the season began and teams started plunking the Royals. A lot. Through 18 games, the Royals have been hit 18 times – the second-highest total in baseball. One of those hit-by-pitches broke the pinky finger of outfielder Alex Rios. The team, rightly or wrongly, began to feel targeted. And dismissed. And angry.

And, you know, they started breaking bad. They’re jawing. They’re throwing high and tight. They’re fighting. They’re ticking off everybody.

Is it really wise for the Royals to take things so personally, to play up the disrespect card, to bark obscenities at players, to get into beanball battles, to play every game like it is Game 7 of the World Series? Common sense would say no, would say that the season is too long, would say that such emotional investment and edginess will leave them exhausted and despised by the time July rolls around. And things will then go downhill fast.

Let’s add this: Common sense also says the Royals will be lousy this year. But the Royals are doing all sorts of things right now that few expected. Mike Moustakas, who had for four years proven to be a limited pull-hitter, is suddenly cracking line drives the other way. He has almost as many opposite field hits ALREADY this year as he did last year. Eric Hosmer is on pace to walk 100 times – he walked 35 times last year. Lorenzo Cain two years ago was widely considered a fourth outfielder; he might be the April MVP this year. The bullpen – and I mean the WHOLE bullpen – gave up three runs (two of them by Chris Young) in its first 50 innings.

So, something is working … and I don’t think the Royals mind this new business of being the heel. I’m quite sure most Royals fans don’t mind it. For years, they were irrelevant. Last season they were fluky. Last October they were quaint. This offseason they were written off.

None of those identities are sustainable for very long. But this theme – loathed, despised, viewed as punks – getting booed in every town, having writers rip them and having players gripe … well maybe it works. It’s like Ric Flair once said: “Anyone can be the good guy. But it takes real talent to be bad.”  Do the Royals have the talent to pull it off? The only answer to that also comes from Flair: “Woooooo!”

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