Why I Hate the Royals

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.

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The Gift: Thoughts on Ethnographic Exchange

In 1991, Steven Feld released a recording based on his fieldwork in the Bosavi Rainforest. Called Voices of the Rainforest, the recording is a “soundscape of a day in the life of the Kaluli people of Bosavi, Papua New Guinea.” The recording was originally released on the Rykodisc label and produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, making it one of the most curious ethnomusicological recordings of all time: Continue reading “The Gift: Thoughts on Ethnographic Exchange”

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Totally Useless Predictions

Tomorrow night is the beginning of yet another Major League Baseball campaign, and I couldn’t be happier. First pitch between the Cubs and Cardinals is scheduled for 8:05—which means that by 8:10 or so, the Cubs will be in “wait ’til next year” mode—and then the full slate of games on Monday. As is customary at this time of year, it’s time to make predictions for the coming season. I do so knowing full well that most of what I have to say here is grade-A bull plop, based on little more than a gut feeling and a personal desire to see certain outcomes. I encourage you to stop reading right now.

The National League

On paper, there isn’t a single division in the NL that should be even remotely competitive. The Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers are so much better than their divisional competitors, that by all rights they should win their divisions running away. Cliché No. 1: That’s why you play the games. The Nationals should win about 143 games this year. Clayton Kershaw should cruise to his fourth Cy Young Award, and then proclaim himself Emperor of Pitching. But just because those things should happen doesn’t mean that they will happen.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers run away with their divisions. I’m also going to predict that the Mets, Marlins, Pirates, and Padres end up contending for the two wild card spots. I’m looking forward to the Giants and their self-righteous assholery sinking into their odd-year mediocrity. It’ll be fun to see what Kris Bryant does when the Cubs finally promote him to the majors. (And if you’re really a dedicated baseball fan—or just a compulsive gambler—you can create an office pool to predict which day that actually is.)

But how about some individuals of interest? For Rookie of the Year, I’m going with the obvious frontrunner, Kris Bryant—although Noah Syndergaard of the Mets might give him a run for his money. And we shouldn’t forget about the high-profile Joc Pedersen in LA. But service time-shortened season or no, Bryant’s going to hit a ton when he gets promoted. Cy Young? Well, Jose Fernandez isn’t due back until June, which should keep him out of the running. Kershaw’s the obvious choice, although Matt Harvey’s been throwing awesome this spring (and he’s also great at talking himself up). Andrew McCutchen’s always a good bet for MVP, but he’ll have stiff competition from Giancarlo Stanton and maybe Bryce Harper. (I almost typed Troy Tulowitzki’s name here, but my computer started laughing so hard…)

Some other intriguing players to watch: I think Ryan Braun is due for a bounce-back year. (Why? See my remark above about this all being “bull plop.”) I’m guessing Madison Bumgarner, despite all the hype and all the concern about his 2014 workload, ends up being just middle-of-the-pack this year. Phillies games should be great fun, what with Ryan Howard utter uselessness, Cole Hamels’s trade value dissipating with every pitch he throws, and the $37.5 million they owe to a pitcher who’s unlikely ever to throw another major league pitch. Here’s a marketing idea for the Philly club: Jonathan Papelbon wieners, delivered to your seat by the overpriced closer himself. Boo and shout abuse for some free “special sauce.”

American League

As lopsided as the NL divisions are, so are the AL divisions wide open. In the East, it’s not totally ridiculous to think we’ll see all five teams hanging around (and that the eventual division winner will have won a sparkling 86 or so games). In the Central, the Tigers are still relatively strong, but Cleveland is on the upswing, as are the White Sox. (Personally, I don’t see the Royals as much more than a .500 team this year.) The Angels are probably the favorites to win the West, but the Mariners made a strong showing last year and, on the back of their terrific pitching staff, should do so again. And we can’t ever count out a Billy Beane team.

So here are my predictions: Red Sox, Indians, and Seattle win their divisions; Angels and Orioles take the wild cards, although with the White Sox and Rays barely missing out. I think the Tigers’ weaknesses are going to catch up to them: a rapidly declining Verlander (and no Sherzer), a bullpen that half the time would issue a free pass to my 90-year-old grandmother, an incompetent first baseman who’s going to make the team regret his massive contract extension before it even begins…

I’ve got Felix Hernandez down for the Cy Young, with David Price a close second in his walk year. For MVP, I’m picking Mike Trout again (in what will be his second—and should’ve been his fourth—award). I’ll be surprised if it’s even close. For ROY? I dunno. Pick one of the many youngsters who are going to debut for the Astros and maybe the Red Sox. Carlos Correia? Rusney Castillo (once he finally takes the right field job away from the Flyin’ Hawaiian)?

I’m also interested to follow (gratefully, from afar) the A-Rod saga, as well as the still-developing situation in California with Josh Hamilton. After an independent arbitrator ruled that Hamilton couldn’t be punished for his drug relapse this offseason—which means that he can go to rehab and that the Angels have to pay him his full salary—the Angels mucky-mucks dropped the charade of neutrality and flat out indicated that they were disappointed and that they had been hoping that Hamilton would have been suspended by the league. Which was taken rather amiss by at least one of Hamilton’s teammates. GM Jerry DiPoto had better hope that the team gets off to a fast start and this all disappears from view, because otherwise, the growing hostility between the team and the team’s management has the potential to turn real ugly real fast.

So that’s what I have to say. If you made it this far, I commend you. Take it for what it’s worth (nothing), and enjoy the season!

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