As I write this, I’m watching game 3 of the World Series, and because the match is between the Kansas City Royals and my New York Mets, it’s not at all surprising that I’m cheering against the Royals. Here’s the thing, though: like a lot of baseball fans, last year I was pulling hard for the Royals. They were a great underdog story, the classic team that is overmatched in talent but somehow scrapped their way to almost winning a World Series championship. And, like a lot of fans, not all opponents of my favored team are equal. I have nothing against the Dodgers (whom the Mets defeated in the NLDS), and these days I actually have a bit of a soft spot for the Cubs (who were swept by the Mets in the NLCS). The point being, my present hatred of the Royals is not simply because they’re playing the Mets.
So whence my hostility? I’ve been pondering this since the playoffs began. I was cheering against the Royals when they were almost defeated by the Astros, and I was cheering against the Royals when one of their fans stole a decisive Game 6 from the Blue Jays in the ALCS. (I suppose you can also look at the Kansas City spin here.) And I’ve come to the conclusion that I hate this Royals team for two reasons.
1. The Royals pick fights and act like the victim.
In the first month of the 2015 season, the Royals seemed to have almost daily run-ins with their opponents. When the Royals played the Athletics in a three-game series in April, benches cleared on three straight days. The precipitating event was a hard slide into second by Athletics infielder Brett Lawrie, for which Lawrie apologized, and even Royals manager Ned Yost (to whom I’ll come in a moment) said was a clean play. But the following day, Royals flamethrower Yordano Ventura came out firing—at Lawrie. In the fourth inning, Ventura threw at Lawrie and hit him. Ventura was immediately tossed from the game. If there was any doubt as to Ventura’s intent, while Lawrie walked to first, ignoring the proceedings, Ventura walked straight at Lawrie, yelling at him the whole time. Even by baseball’s absolutely idiotic unwritten rules, this was out of bounds: Ventura had his pound of flesh, no need to continue to pick a fight (or so the unwritten rules go). Here’s that encounter:
The next day (the final day of the series), A’s pitcher Scott Kazmir hit Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain in the first inning, with a pitch that looked to be inadvertent. (Kazmir hit Cain in the foot with a breaking ball.) Royals manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland were tossed from the game for yelling at the umpire. How do the Royals retaliate? Reliever Kelvin Escobar threw a 100 mph pitch at the head of Brett Lawrie in the 8th inning. Herrera was tossed, and while walking off the field, Herrera looked at Lawrie and pointed at his head.
If this were the end of the story, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Teams get into scrapes all the time, bad feelings bleed over. You don’t like to see heaters thrown at players’ heads, but it happens sometimes. But this isn’t the end of the story. Four days after the A’s and Royals series, the Royals got into another fight in Chicago, with the White Sox. At the center of this brawl? The aforementioned Yordano Ventura, who fielded a comeback grounder from Adam Eaton and instead of throwing Eaton out, stared him down for a while as Eaton ran to first. Benches cleared, Ventura and a bunch of others were ejected, yada yada yada. We’ve heard this story before. (Not mentioned here: the fight Ventura also picked with Angels star outfielder Mike Trout.)
Still, the biggest problem I have here is not the fighting, or the playing by the “unwritten rules” wherein pitchers have to “defend” their own hitters by throwing at the other team’s hitters. Stupid, but not unusual. What really pisses me off about the Royals is the way they seem to have an enormous chip on their shoulder about how other teams are out to get them, other teams are the aggressors, other teams are starting fights. Eventually, the Royals learned how to “say the right things” to the media. Such as this gem from Kelvin Herrera, after nearly decapitating Brett Lawrie:
I don’t mean to hurt anybody. I was just trying to throw inside, but just a bad grip on that fastball. It started raining pretty good. And they just tossed me out of the game.
Then, in tonight’s game 3, Mets starter Noah Syndergaard found a novel way to counter Alcides Escobar’s ability to hit first pitches for hits: a high 98mph fastball. The ball wasn’t terribly inside, and it didn’t really come that close to Escobar. It sure looked like it slipped out of Syndergaard’s hand, because it rode much higher than catcher Travis d’Arnaud was expecting. No intent, no harm, no big deal—right? Well, cut to Mike Moustakas in the Royals dugout who starts shouting “Fuck you” at Syndergaard, leading the chorus of heckling from the visitors at CitiField. Yes, the Royals are the victims again, even though no infraction of the rules—or even the unwritten rules—had been breached.
But, of course, this sort of thing usually comes from management, which brings me to the second reason why I hate the Royals:
2. The Royals are the ultimate American team: their success rewards incompetence.
I’m not even going to waste time talking about Ned Yost, the concussed mule who manages the Royals, aptly described in a headline last year as “the village idiot of managers.” My real quarrel here is with the upper management of the Royals, led by general manager and aspiring bro Dayton Moore. There’s a lot that can be said about Moore, not all of which is negative. But for me, the real winner was Moore’s assertion that “character” was the most important thing to consider when building a major league roster. (I’ll simply remind anyone reading that I think the “character” of the Royals was made quite evident by the events described in part 1 of this post.)
Among modern stat geeks, “character” has become a catch-all for “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Teams value “character” when they don’t know how to use modern metrics to assess skill. Teams that have prioritized character in recent years include such robust failures as the Diamondbacks and the Phillies.
Here’s some of what “character” means to Moore (via a profile in the unsurprisingly narrow-minded Baptist Press):
Our goal from day one here in Kansas City was to create an organization we’d want our own sons and family to be a part of. With scouts that we hire, [we ask] would we want this particular scout in our home representing the Royals, talking to our son about joining the Royals? Would we want this coach, this instructor, this manager around our sons on a daily basis?
The profile encapsulates Moore’s view to baseball success: “patience, trust in Christ and an emphasis on character within the organization marked the path to turning around the franchise.” Which seems lovely as a matter of personal faith, but really not so much when it comes to a large business venture that probably ought to have rational methods for evaluating the performance of its employees.
And under Moore’s stewardship, the Royals have done some massively stupid things. Like trading the consensus top prospect (Wil Myers) and top-50 pitcher (Jake Odorizzi) for 2 years of a good pitcher (James Shields) and what was then a reclamation project (Wade Davis). In retrospect, it’s easy to say that the Royals were “right” to make that trade, but they were universally trashed at the time by anyone with knowledge of baseball talent. In retrospect, we have seen the Royals go to the World Series twice in a row, while the Rays have been fairly middling for the past couple years. But based on the information available in December of 2012, and the dismal position the Royals were in, the trade was absolutely indefensible.
But this is part of the myth of baseball (and all of sports, really)—and the myth of America. The Royals have been successful in the past couple years, so they must have done the right things leading up to that success. Ass-backwards reasoning, yes—but that’s the myth of American meritocracy. If you have a good character and you work hard, the reasoning goes, then you’re bound to succeed. This, too, is the myth of the underdog, as highlighted by Mitchell Nathanson in his insightful A People’s History of Baseball. We believe—need to believe—that the underdog, at a structural disadvantage, nonetheless has the pluck and moxie to take down the people (teams, companies, etc.) that have all of the power and all of the privilege and all of the advantage. It’s obviously a lie. As Nathanson observes, the underdog almost never wins. That’s why he’s the underdog. To believe otherwise is to doubt all reason and evidence to the contrary—essentially the same as asserting that “character” is how to build a team. Dayton Moore is a snake oil salesman, and it’s infuriating that he’s never going to have to answer for it.