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It's Always Next Year for the Royals

The cruel souring of promise is something my team, the Kansas City Royals, knows all too well.
CG
Κείμενο Corban Goble
14.6.12

In the early 2000s, a column called "Rob & Rany on the Royals" ran on ESPN.com, then the home of baseball writer Rob Neyer. I was obsessed with it. The irregular feature—basically a stitched-together e-mail thread before that sort of thing got popular—documented a running conversation between Neyer and his pal Rany Jazayerli, one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, who also happened to be a dermatologist in suburban Chicago. They made for a great pair: Neyer was a conventionally-minded baseball reporter and Jazayerli was more of a stat head. This bizarre coverage of one of baseball’s most prodigious losers, who also happened to be the team I rooted for, floored me. The Double-R’s also covered the Royals’ minor league prospects in a more fully realized way than I was accustomed to seeing, peering a little further behind the Major League curtain than dutiful, thoroughly old school beat writer Bob Dutton was ever willing to go, or anyone else for that matter.

I started thinking about that old, odd column because of something else Jazayerli wrote a few days ago, a piece for Grantland that heralded the triumph of Bryce Harper, the rare prospect whose performance had actually exceeded expectations, instead of the oft-seen inverse where a talented young player becomes yet another example of the cruel souring of promise.

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That souring is something the Royals not only know well, but have become synonymous with. They’ve been bad for so long it’s easy to forget all their blunders in all their individual anti-glory. If it’s not drafting Colt Griffin, the high school pitcher who could throw 100 mph but never knew where the ball was going, it’s trading Jermaine Dye, a young stud at his peak, for Neifi Perez, on the short list for shittiest player ever. If it’s not throwing $55 million at Gil Meche, and then ruining his arm, it’s stunting Alex Gordon’s development, yo-yoing him between Triple-A and the big leagues a few years ago, shredding his confidence and nearly his career. If it’s not signing Jose Guillen, surly ‘roidman, it’s keeping Guillen on the team and in the lineup every day. It’s always something, and the future was always a year away, then another.

But spring of this year was supposed to be different. The 2012 Royals, the end-product of baseball’s best farm system, was billed as the real dope, a roster painstakingly built from the ground up by GM Dayton Moore, who started his career in the front office of those ultra-successful 90s Atlanta teams. The fan base, morphined-up on glowing prospect reports and the announcement of an All Star Game rolling through Kaufman Stadium this year, seemed less jaded. 2011’s rough showing didn’t seem so bad compared to the help on the way. (Jazayerli was right when he said there’s no such thing as a bandwagon Royals fan.) KC’s marketing team came up with a new slogan, “Our Time,” which probably trumps the former Royals Manager Tony Pena’s war cry of “Nosotros Creemos (We Believe),” which didn’t keep him from getting canned in 2005.

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Of course, the future is still not here yet. The Royals would go on to lose 12 straight games in April. They’ve been bad since, allowing five or more runs in over a third of their games and generally playing uninspired baseball. Their rotation is horrid and their prospects have stalled. If not for the Twins’ complete and utter tailspin, they’d be at the bottom of the division.

In less than a month, the team will host the All-Star Game, another jewel Kansas City can point to as proof of its cultural renaissance, a revitalization which the Royals sadly aren’t a part of. Tuesday night brought the return of Zack Greinke, maybe the only troubled prospect the Royals ever brought back from the depths of a floundering, almost medically doomed career—Zack’s 2009 Cy Young campaign is something I will remember fondly forever. He is now the lynchpin of Milwaukee’s rotation, and after his start, he reflected on his time in Kansas City.

“I was pretty rude on the way out,” Greinke told the media. “…I didn't want to have to be the bad guy, but I felt like I had to be. I liked it here. The fans were great. I don't know how so many of them come to the games when they've been bad for so long, but it's pretty impressive.”

There are more “sure things” coming down the pike from Kansas City—Jake Odorizzi, a piece of the Greinke trade haul from the Brewers, and outfielder Wil Myers. My fanhood still flickers as I hang on to visions of the future, even though I’ve sometimes thought of my Royals allegiance being a compartmentalized piece of self-loathing. Do I really want them to win? Don’t I know better than to expect anything out of them? Does that defeat the purpose of being a fan?

In 2008, after a pretty historically horrendous five-year stretch of Royals baseball, Neyer quit putting together "Rob & Rany on the Royals." He didn’t go so far as selling his allegiance on eBay, but to me, he quit on them. For a time, I was bitter about it. In a way, I considered Neyer someone I could use to protract my own desired career, especially since we both went to school at Kansas, we both wrote—shit, we even had a lot of the same teachers in college. But now, as I've grown older and started covering stuff I love professionally, I understand why he left. “Next year in Kansas City” was the oldest tale in the book, and he’d just lost interest in fiction.

@CorbanGoble