Poor Royalty

The Cardinals will continued the interleague portion of their schedule this week with three games against the Royals. It's amazing, somehow Mike Sweeney is still a member of the Kansas City Royals.

Interleague play gives us an annual excuse to disdain our immediate neighbors to the west, to kick ourselves for whatever massive karmic sin we committed to bring the deeds of 1985 down upon our heads, and then to drive the three hours to fill our anti-Mecca to the brim with red as our boys proceed kick the royal crap out of the Royals, a team that makes headlines in St. Louis exactly six times a year, no more and no less.

This has been our due for each of the past five seasons. This year, though, something went awry. Cardinal fans, those hardy enough to make the trip – tenth World Series ring in hand, the first since that bygone atrocity of umpiring and managing – came back chastened as the boys in powder blue couldn't help but heap piles of runs on our feckless* excuse for a pitching staff.

(*feckless: ineffective. incompetent. futile. See also: St. Louis Cardinals, 2007)

Our boys were not only beaten, but humiliated. They scored 16 runs in three games, which would have been hailed as a minor miracle in April, but allowed an eye-popping 28 of the bad men across their home plate. Watching this series, I felt like a man whose intestines were being pulled out by buzzards – a part of me is dying, and another part of me is oddly fascinated by the sheer amount of my guts that have been spilled, and that continue to be spilled.

Even after our redemptive assault on the pitching of the Oakland A's, no team has a wider gulf between their runs scored and their runs allowed this season than our own World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. And no team has exhibited a wider gulf between last season's highest high and this season's lowest low.

Driving home in shamed silence was merely the final drop of ink on the exclamation point that follows the blood-curdling oath yelled at some point this season by every Redbird fan, young and old, genteel and coarse alike: "What the h#@% is happening to my team?"

Is there a doctor in the house?

Losing has been called a disease that can spread throughout the clubhouse and breed more losing, but it's more than that. It's a plague that can devastate a team and its fan base alike. One need only to search for the last remaining healthy fan of the Kansas City Royals, a team that has had one winning season (83-79! Huzzah for 2003!) in the last thirteen and a half seasons, to find the truth in this.

Baseball America has done research onto the correlation between various aspects of what a franchise does, and how many people attend its games, and found – with the obvious exception of the Cubs – that winning brings people to the seats more than anything else. (Well, duh, right? Thanks for the tip, Sherlocks.) But what's more they've put some hard evidence behind a common truism, that the perception that a team's ownership is trying to win also sells seats.

This is why the Yankees felt compelled to keep spending and spending back when their string of four World Series championships was broken: because the New York fans hadn't had enough. Fans don't get tired of winning championships, and they never get tired of seeing their bosses do whatever it takes to try to win one.

On the flipside of this argument, losing year after year, and showing absolute resignation to the losing, drives fans away like – wait for it – a plague.

Of course, this brings up the big market/ small market debate, which is unavoidable when you're talking about teams like the Royals, Pirates, and Brewers. But one of the keys to avoiding entering a fifteen-year attendance graveyard is selling the public on your brain trust, and on your ability to develop talent. The successful small-market teams do this relatively well – there is a cult around Billy Beane in Oakland, and A's fans have largely bought into it, even though it may pull their team out of Oakland and move them down into the lush blandness of Silicon Valley.

Thus, when Oakland had to sell off one generation of talent, and lost their hold on the AL West back in 2004, A's fans still had Billyball to believe in. They held out hope for the next generation of talent (hello Nick Swisher), and for the prospect of getting something good back in trades (hello Danny Haren).

The Kansas City Royals never really learned this lesson.

When Bud Selig preached the mantra that "small market teams can't compete," Royals owner Philip Glass was in the front row, among the first to raise up his hands and yell "Amen!" When Bud passed the pan and called for revenue sharing, Mr. Glass and his ilk yelled "Hallelujah!" And when Bud looked the other way as Mr. Glass pocketed the dozens of millions of dollars without any reinvestment in payroll or minor league development, former fans of the Royals had one more reason to recycle the sports section of their newspaper, unopened, for six months out of the year.

Just as baseball fans never get tired of winning championships, businessmen never get tired of getting money for nothing. But both groups can be led far astray by only pursuing this immediate gratification.

Now however, with the hiring of Dayton Moore, a former assistant GM to the Braves' mastermind John Schuerholz, Kansas City is making a bid for relevancy. They have a crop of young players that they are touting as the next wave in left fielder Mark Teahen, third baseman Alex Gordon and outfielder Billy Butler, and trying out the novel tactic of selling the home team to what remains of their fan base.

The new crop: can any of them pitch?

The Royals have traditionally had one good player at any given point in time, and it's highly likely that Gordon – a young man with the sweetest lefthanded swing this side of Dave Justice – may become the next one.

When they won it all they were riding in the broad hands – calloused by thousands of hits and permanently stained with pine tar – of George Brett, a man who stands among the all-time greatest Royals as Paul Bunyan stands among a collection of bonsai trees.

In the more recent years, they had Johnny Damon, until they held up their hands and cried "small market!" … they had Carlos Beltran, and ditto. They had Jermaine Dye, and you know how this goes. They had Mike Sweeney, and amazingly, they still do.

Out of the bunch, Sweeney was willing to put up with the most and take the least. Sadly for a guy who is generally considered to be one of the nice guys of the game, he has spent most of the past years laid up on the couch watching his former brothers in arms make the playoffs year after year.

Nonetheless, not a bad collection of hitting talent. It's fair to say that if they had spent the money to keep all four of these players, they might be scoring some serious runs.

However, since the departure of Kevin Appier in 1999, do you know how much quality pitching they have had? Exactly zero-point-zero. Imagine this rotation of Wellses and Wellemeyers and Reyeses, proven failures and scrap heap salvages and would-be prospects that are wistfully called "bargains" and "future stars" by disingenuous press releases, and stretch that out for six or seven years, and you have an idea of the misery of the Royals fan.

Last year's ERA leader for the Royals, among pitchers who pitched at least 50 innings – hell, at least 15 innings – is Wellemeyer himself. The Royals gave him up for nothing this year. The second-best man was 35-year -old Elmer Dessens (4.50 ERA), who was quickly traded – for perennial punching bag Odalis Perez.

This is a franchise that hasn't imported talent via free agency; like a discount airline, they've just been trying to fill seats.

However, Dayton Moore has taken one big bet, and laid money on several smaller-stakes markers, to try and change this. He signed a player named Gil Meche from the Seattle Mariners (career record at the time: 55-44 with a league-average ERA and only two injury-free seasons to his name) to Chris Carpenter money: five years, $55 million dollars.

How he twisted Philip Glass's gnarled paw around the pen to sign that contract, the world may never know.

However, Meche and a totally revamped bullpen (any of the top five Royals relievers would have been the best pitcher by far on last year's team) have helped to isolate and fumigate the culture of losing that infested their clubhouse all those years. These Royals are losing too, make no mistake, but they are doing so on their own merits and with little help from ghosts of the past.

Moreover, they're 8-4 in interleague play this year, following a 10-8 campaign last season against the NL. Consider that they held a winning record against 1 of 13 American League opponents last season, versus 3 of 5 National League teams. The Cardinals were a lonely bastion of NL pride.

Do we have any pride left? Come on men, let's see.

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