Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Excitement about the Royals! In August!

When you're a Royals fan, you become accustomed to certain routines, especially when you live in a town with divided loyalties. (Yeah, we'll call it that.) You laugh off poorly-crafted mockery of your team, even if it's so unimaginative, because A) most of the mockers are just ignorant of what's really going on with the Royals and B) the blanket mockery is still largely accurate. They aren't very good, haven't been since I was eating Graham crackers in Kindergarten. Also, you have a canned set of responses ready for banter with waitresses or strangers who see your Royals shirt: "Well, they need all the support they can get" or "We're always rebuilding (insert dry, patronizing chuckle)" or "Hey, Greinke's lights out." You also balance tempered optimism with a pessimistic attitude, because pretty much everything of consequence for the team has gone wrong during the days of my fandom, except for maybe a Cy Young here or a Rookie/Manager of the Year Award there. 

And, perhaps most commonly, at some point when the summer heat just seems like too much, at some point that's arbitrary but that you can still clearly feel, you put baseball definitively on the back burner and turn your attention to football. I don't want that to sound wrong, because the grim loyalty of Royals fans is admirable if not crazy, but the team has only been within shouting distance of the playoff race after July once since baseball's 1994 strike, that year being the quirky 2003 season, in which they blew a seven and a half game lead at the All-Star break, still the only time in the wild card playoff format that a team with a lead of five games or more at the break has not made the playoffs. 

It just gets to be too much. They are hopelessly lost, the heat makes you pine for fall, training camp rolls around, and suddenly football fever locks in its grip. It's natural. 

This year feels different, however. Several of the old, depressing, no-place-here veterans have been traded. Some were having decent seasons (Podsednik, Callaspo, Farnsworth), others were having just the kind of bad seasons that were expected (Okay, that's really just Rick Ankiel), but the point is they are gone. Roster spots are opening up for the kids, exactly what the fan base has screamed for all year. Now if they could just move Jose "F--- the Fans!" Guillen, we'd be rolling. The Star's Sam Mellinger wrote in a fine column on Monday that he believes Guillen will be traded, benched or simply released (oh, the joy) within a week. Fingers crossed. 

Kila Ka'aihue, the Royals Hawaiian cowboy who has been buried in Triple A Omaha for, well, years now, started today. It seems he will finally get some regular big league playing time. For the record, Kila had one of the Royals' four hits in today's loss, and he narrowly missed a home run on a leaping catch up against the wall. 

Kila combines a skill the Royals have long seemed to undervalue (getting on base) with one they have historically lacked (power, given their quaint single-season home run total of 36), meaning he could produce in the two statistical areas the Royals are weak in: on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Heck, he even started at first today, why not see if he can play the position better than Billy Butler, who has become admirably adequate at first, but nothing more. 

Also, Alex Gordon is back up from Triple A Omaha, reborn like a Phoenix, rising from Arizona. Actually from Nebraska, but I couldn't pass up even a reach opportunity to quote Frank Costanza. He mashed a walk-off homer on Friday, added a couple more HRs, and scored the winning run in the ninth on Tuesday night. 

Kila and Gordon represent the first wave of youth to hit the beach. They are 4-2 dating back to Gordon's walk-off last Friday (July 30, 2010), which kicked off the final day of frantic trading and roster-clearing, a blast that really may be a day of significance if this group of youth turns things around. The record, of course, probably doesn't matter a ton right now, but the arrival and progression through the minors of the Royals young hopefuls is happening rapidly, almost daily in a game that otherwise takes months and years for the destinies of franchises to play out. Mission 2012, as Mellinger calls it, is coming into focus, ever so slightly. 

This has been building for years. Despite the abject failure of General Manager Dayton Moore's unacknowledged plan to keep the big league club respectable while building for a sustainable future of success, the system has been stocked, and the path to big league starting jobs has been largely cleared. The team could get worse before it gets better, so we've got to use another KC fan routine: patience. But hey, maybe they'll play better, play inspired at the opportunity. In any event, the players that matter to the future of this team are beginning at long last to fill up the roster and impact roster moves (maybe, just maybe, no more Mike Jacobs signings). And that, my friends, is exciting and worthy of attention. Even with football winding up. 

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