As a Royals fan living in exile here in snowbound Columbia, Mo. I often get reminded that my team is comically bad and get ridiculed for sticking up for Bruce Chen.
My fandom is perpetually in doubt. Everywhere I go here I see Cardinals merchandise or the hats and t-shirts of more famous and successful clubs. I’m tempted and wonder why I stick with this bunch of bums.
Fandom, to me at least, means more than just tuning into the game on a lazy afternoon and heading out the ball park a few times a year. It means emotionally investing in your team and believing beyond the point of reason.
In my life, there has been little right about the Kansas City Royals. I was born in 1989 and since then the Royals have won more than 80 games only three times. By the time I was old enough to understand baseball the Royals were already firmly entrenched in the basement of the AL Central. Back then, my Dad took the the family to Buck Nights and we stayed all the way through nine innings of flimsy baseball to watch the fireworks.
It’s nights like those and the players that stood out that stay in your mind. The wondrous pitching of Kevin Appier dazzled me. He was a real star, a king on the mound and we loved him.
As a kid, I didn’t understand all of baseball. I knew the clapping and screaming for team in white and booing those losers from Detroit and Minneapolis, and that seemed like it was good enough. Times were good, people were happy, and all was well. At least, that’s how I remember it
1995 was a special year for the Royals. It seemed like the team would fulfill their winning tradition once again. After all, the newly-formed AL Central was wide open and the Royals were only two years removed from 84 wins. Gary Gaetti drove in 96 runs and smacked 35 homers, Tom Goodwin robbed 50 bases and Wally Joyner put together a .310/.394/.447 line and drove in 83 runs while Kevin Appier, in the prime of his career at 27, and Mark Gubicza, in his last great season, started 64 games and brought home ERAs under 3.90.
I had the Ape’s baseball card hanging in my locker and my Dad always told me how good he was, so I liked him, too. Back then, when I heard about “The Ape” I always thought about a gorilla donning high socks and a blue hat taking the mound and wasn’t so sure people were still talking about baseball.
Now, I understand Appier a little better. Appier was already an established star by 1995. He was called up in 1989 and reared in the dying years of Kansas City’s relevance. In 1990, he finished third in pitching Rookie of the Year voting with a 2.76 ERA in 32 starts. In 1993, he improved his ERA to 2.56, put together an unreal 179 ERA+ won 18 games, finished third in AL Cy Young voting and compiled the highest WAR, 8.4, among AL pitchers. By 1995, he was named an All-Star and everything seemed to be working in the Royals favor.
In 1996 and beyond, the Royals became increasingly unrecognizable. There was little going right with the team. No consistency in the line-up from year to year. Diminishing returns from the offense with the exception of outliers like Jeff King’s 112 RBI, 28 home run 1997 and Jose Offerman’s .315/.403/.438 season in 1998. No rotation except for Appier and occasionally an aging Tim Belcher. Fitting for a team that lost 86, 94, and 89 games shortly after challenging for first place.
In those morose seasons, there was little to appreciate except for the Ape. Appier, ever the professional, kept his game at a high level. In three seasons of terrible Royals baseball, Appier showed remarkable consistency. From ‘95 through ‘97 his ERA never once dipped below 3.90, his ERA+ never sank below 123, he never struck out less than 185 batters, and Appier never started less than than 31 games in a season. In 1996 he quietly won the Roberto Clemente award after he fanned 207 batters, won 14 games and collected a 3.62 ERA and a 138 ERA+.
After a hopelessly bad 1997 season, Appier signed a long-term contract extension on good faith that the team would rebuild around it’s proven ace. Then during the ‘97 off-season, Appier separated his clavicle and later missed most of the 1998 season with a torn labrum. Soon after hearing news of the injury, the Royals dealt Appier to Oakland and the Ape continued to bounce around the major leagues until making a cameo appearance in Kansas City in 2003 and 2004.
By 1998, I was old enough to miss the Ape for more than just his nickname, but there were new stars to look up to. Joe Randa was supposed to be the new George Brett, and Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye were primed to be the best young outfielders in the game. Times moved on, and those players came and went.
Now, as I look back I deeply respect Appier and argue that he should be recognized as one of the best pitchers to ever play in Kansas City if not one of the best pitchers of the 1990′s. He was a great player and a great professional, his game never dropped off despite the team’s general inability and he committed to the organization even when times were as bad as they ever were.
As we go forward, we can only hope that one of our young guns turns out so well.