2008 Kansas City Royals Preview: Fear Starts At The Bottom

[from Royally Speaking, March 21, 2008]

It’s tempting to talk up some kind of White Sox/Royals rivalry or feud, as though a team’s mere presence in the same division creates a de facto hatred and all-consuming rage from one fan towards another. In another time and place, maybe this is true. Maybe in some alternate universe, there’s a Gil Meche/Mark Buehrle September showdown entering its 11th inning with the division on the line. Paul Konerko and former understudy Ross Gload battling for the home run crown, Rocky vs. Tommy Gun-style. Up-and-coming Kansas City Jermaine Dye taking the extra base on the declining arm of White Sox Jermaine Dye.

But alas, that just isn’t the way things are, save for those precious few weeks last season where the Royals actually snuck into fourth place after the Sox were systematically brutalized day in and day out by the entire American League.

On the other hand, rest assured we did a dance of joy the day Mike Sweeney and his career .302 against the White Sox left the division. At least now we’ve got a chance to stay out of the basement, or can at least look forward to someone besides Sweeney putting us there. When the White Sox lost 90 games last year, it was pretty much the end of the world, with fans and press alike calling for the heads of every player, manager, and batboy in the organization. Conversely, when the Royals went a step further and lost 93, no one cared because all hope and expectation for the team died the day the Jermaine Dye/Johnny Damon/Carlos Beltran outfield was broken up.

When Ozzie Guillen carries a .531 winning percentage through his first four seasons as a manager, he’s an idiot and a sociopath. When Bob Schaefer is hired as manager just long enough to lose 12 of 17 for Kansas City, the world does not fall off its axis but not because everyone expects the Royals to tank; life goes on because no one expects anything at all out of the Royals. When Paul Konerko spends half a season hitting .230, Sox fans will tell you he’s a bum and should be traded for a wheelbarrow full of line chalk. When Sweeney makes $11 million a year hitting .260 and missing 190 games between 2006 and 2007, his exodus to Oakland has fans in tears mourning the departure of the face of the franchise.

The thing is, after the insane loss totals over the past few seasons, the Royals are not in that bad a position where bottom-feeding franchises go. You’ve got some promising young players coming up, and a GM and owner who just might be crazy enough to both expertly scout and recklessly buy the team’s way into respectability. The Tigers and Twins have one or the other, while the White Sox and Indians have neither. Could Kansas City be the next great Midwestern baseball city? Could David Glass be the new Mike Ilitch? Dayton Moore the new Terry Ryan? Probably not, but at least Royals fans can dream, which is more than some of us can say as we pin our hopes and dreams to the likes of Nick Swisher and his career .260 average.

And that, Royals fans, is the single greatest thing a team can and its fans have going for them. No pressure to win, no shock when you lose. For that, take heart in the rest of the division’s fans being at least a little envious of your carefree summers and heartbreak-free Octobers. As we Sox fans look anxiously forward to what comes next after a season at rock bottom, it’s strange to consider that we’re starting from a place closer to the perpetual basement-dwellers than to the theoretically great division race between the Indians and Tigers. Suddenly the ghetto of the American League Central isn’t that far away, and as the Sox’ pitching staff takes a huge step back, complete with the gamble on yet another former Royals reliever, we’re watching you. Cleveland and Detroit will, to no one’s shock, win a lot of games. What scares us is the idea of the Royals we so regularly write off in March being not all that far behind our beloved White Sox, either because the Royals keep gaining traction or because the Sox slip further and further from what happened just a few short years ago. No one in Soxdom worries about the top of the division, but what’s shaping up at the bottom of it is nothing less than terrifying.

But just a little. Ask me again in July.