Driving Cadillacs in our dreams
KANSAS CITY — The Royals finally broke their nine-game losing streak Monday, a streak that actually seemed much, much longer than nine games. As Bill James points out, nothing feels worse as a baseball fan than when your team just cannot score runs. It’s daily frustration. There’s a helplessness that comes with anemic offense. The Royals have scored two runs or fewer in half their games so far.
Those offensive problems, it seems to me, are very real and not likely to go away anytime soon. It’s easy to forget now, but the Royals were not an especially good offensive team even when they won the back-to-back American League pennants. They finished ninth in the league in runs scored in 2014 and sixth in 2015 when they won the World Series. They had a marvelous knack for scoring runs at the right time, they had a defense that ended opponent rallies prematurely, and they had a bullpen that basically never blew leads. It was a winning formula. But the offense was never up for actor in a leading role.
And now … that offense has gotten kind of ugly.
That story begins with Alex Gordon, who looks entirely lost at the plate and has for more than a year now. The Royals made a calculated gamble in January 2016 when they signed Gordon to a four-year, $72 million deal. The stars were aligned. The Royals were coming off their first World Series victory in 30 years; money and love was in the air. The Royals had expected Gordon to get a huge and unmatchable offer elsewhere, but that offer never came. It seemed like one of those “Hey, if I’m not doing anything, and you’re not doing anything, we should just go out,” kind of things.
Also there was an admirable sense of loyalty, both sides. The Royals were appreciative of Gordon, the one player who had been through the really bad times as well as the good, a Midwestern kid whose brother is named Brett after Royals great George. And Gordon, in his own quiet way, wanted to stay in Kansas City, the one Major League baseball home he’d ever known. They signed the deal.
Almost immediately, it was a mistake. Signing a 30-something player to a multi-year contract is, with the rarest of exceptions, a mistake. Gordon was a terrific player for five years, but, well, two buts.
But №1: He was a terrific player because of many subtle things. Gordon always struck out too much, he never hit 25 homers in a season, he didn’t play a premium defensive position. What he did do was stay healthy enough to play every day, get on base, crack a lot of doubles, run the bases and play left field so impossibly well that he turned it into a premium defensive position. These are things that, generally, do not age well.
But №2: He had already showed obvious signs of decline in 2015. He was hurt for the first time in years. His defensive metrics dropped considerably; he didn’t win the Gold Glove for the first time in five years. He stole just two bases and was caught five times. He didn’t hit in the postseason.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore tries not to be too emotional when running the team, but he IS an emotional person. The Royals, he believe, need to be a family in order to overcome their various disadvantages. Signing Gordon was a family matter.
And it just hasn’t worked at all. Since the beginning of the 2016 season, Gordon is hitting .215/.305/.354. He’s still a fine left fielder, but just that and not the defensive maestro he was three years ago. The Royals keep hoping he will make a winning adjustment at the plate — stand up straighter, move his hands, try something new — but the hard reality is that this might just be who Alex Gordon is at this point in his career. He’s 33. Baseball history is littered with superb baseball players who were more or less done by this age.
With Gordon not hitting at all, there really aren’t too many places in the lineup where the Royals can turn. They wait for Eric Hosmer to start hitting (he did hit his second home run on Monday). They wait for Brandon Moss to start hitting. They wait for any of their middle infielders to start hitting. They wait for Jorge Soler to be healthy and to live up to some his promise.
And maybe they hope a little for rookie Jorge Bonaficio, who drilled a 432-foot home run on Monday. Well, it’s something.
Every team in baseball fully understands the Royals predicament right now. They have four pending free agents — Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar — and if things don’t turn around they will at some point have to start making moves. It won’t be easy to trade any of those four for value; like I said, every team in baseball fully understands the Royals predicament. Moore might be forced to package a few players who the Royals have under control such as reliever Kelvin Herrera (the Nationals, reportedly, have already called) or one of their veteran starters. The official rebuilding campaign could launch any time now.
There is still faint hope that the Royals will rediscover some of their old magic. They Royals did win on Monday 6–1 and the theme in the clubhouse seemed to be that, hey, the calendar turned to May and sometimes something that simple can completely alter a team’s outlook.
As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Our unspoken pact
Not too long ago, I went to a David Copperfield show in Las Vegas — I might have mentioned that I’m writing a book about Houdini. Copperfield is 60 now, but he’s still the hardest working guy around. His work ethic really is astonishing. He puts on one helluva show.
Anyway, about 30 minutes into the show, some idiot started screaming at Copperfield. The guy began by thinking he was funny — “Hey David, make me disappear!” — which he was not, but after a while it was clear that he had no real intention to be funny or unfunny or anything else. He just wanted to be mean. He started screaming more and more vile things.
A few minutes in, two security people came by and said, “Is there a problem here?” which I think is the official security thing to say. The guy said there was not and that he would calm down. They left. Of course he did not calm down, and soon he was screaming again, nastier and nastier, until finally Copperfield himself was forced to point at him, and security took him out (but not before he screamed about paying a lot of money and deserving to finish his beer first).
I’m not saying the guy ruined the show for everyone, but he came close. And he definitely ruined the show for some people.
A few weeks later, we as a family went to see the show “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.” If you’ve seen it, you know: It’s a pretty intense show, takes you right to the edge, tries to make you feel what the characters feel. It’s pretty spectacular.
Toward the end of the show, two idiots — apparently a husband and wife idiot team — began screaming nasty things at the stage. They were definitely not trying to be funny; they didn’t like the show, didn’t get it. People all around them tried to shush them, but they were apparently as drunk as the Copperfield idiot, and were as Seinfeld once said “The Unshushabbles.” Their yelling might not have ruined the show for everyone, but it came close. And it definitely ruined the show for some people.
When we go in large groups to see things — sports, music, magic, plays, group experienes of any kind — we have this unspoken pact with each other: I won’t ruin your experience and you won’t ruin mine. We will have fun together. It seems a pretty good plan.
But it’s a pact that has had many bumps through the years. Everybody has some story of some loudmouth ruining a show for them. And there have been times and places and events where the pact was so thoroughly broken that things kind of fell apart — all the hooligan stuff at Premier League games in the 1980s, for example. I do know many people who say they will never go to an NFL game because of other people ruining their experience.
On Monday, at Fenway Park, an unspecified number of idiots racially taunted the absolutely wonderful player Adam Jones. This obviously is more extreme than the first two incidents, but it’s in the same genre.
I can write how horrifying that was but you are either in the vast majority that was mortified by it or in the small minority that isn’t going to have your mind changed. The Red Sox have apologized on behalf of the idiots, so has the mayor, and I know there are millions and millions of people across America who would love to personally apologize to Adam Jones for the words and actions of deranged and drunken minds.
But I think it brings up larger questions: How do we make sure that our pact with each other holds? Should there be more security? Harsher penalties for misbehavior? Easier ways for fans to report revolting behavior? Should an entire group be punished for the acts of a tiny few as some suggest?
Each of these questions leads to other questions and unexpected consequences and so on. In the end, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is absolutely right: “The behavior of these few ignorant individuals does not reflect the millions of great baseball fans who attend our games.”
That behavior does reflect baseball fans, no. But it does affect baseball fans. Some security changes and new policies can work on the edges — and I think most of us would be all for them — but they can’t change everything. In the end the unspoken pact is really all we have. We need to fight for it.
The Cubs treading water
Let’s face it: The Cubs are playing pretty dull baseball right now. Last year, they had 10 blowout wins in April — winning by five runs or more. This year, they had two. Last year, they felt like a team of destiny more or less from Opening Day. This year, well:
— They continue to lead off Kyle Schwarber, who just isn’t hitting.
— Javy Baez is back to swinging at shadows.
— Jake Arrieta is giving up long balls like crazy.
— Kyle Hendricks, whose margins are razor thin because of his mid-80s fastball, is not hiding balls in the corners quite like he did in his Maddux-like season a year ago.
— Their defense, which was on another planet in 2016, has been meh so far.
The Cubs are still in first place, but for the first time in a while you can see actual cracks in the foundation. You have to believe things will stabilize, the offense will score a bunch of runs, the defense will be among the best in the game by year’s end, the Cubs will win the division. But as we all know, baseball is not so much a regular season game anymore. It’s about October, and with some real questions, especially with the starting pitching, you have to wonder about them.
It would not be a surprise at all if Theo Epstein and company are pretty aggressive in making some mid-season moves.