On Sunday night, following the recording of the Royalman Report, co-host Troy and I dropped by Kelly’s in Westport for a post-show pint.
If you’ve never been to Kelly’s it’s in a very old building – it’s the oldest in Westport – with a ton of character and it boasts a loyal clientele. On this night, some of these regulars were at the bar, glancing at Sunday Night Football and the Rangers/Angels games. Troy and I were talking about the Royals with Ezra, one of the bartenders (who was wearing a Mr. Celery hat), when one of the men, an older man probably in his early 60s asked about what we were going to do about the pitching if there’s any chance of turning things around.
The man at the bar looked somewhat astonished and asked “Well if they have all of these pitchers coming up, why don’t they talk about them more?”
This exchange made me think back to days before Twitter. Before instant updates. Before there was so much information out there waiting for the people looking for it.
In the case of the fan at Kelly’s, he said he was a casual fan but followed the Royals with some regularity. Another patron joined us in a good discussion of the team’s chemistry and how they look on the field. Troy and I, with our “inside” information, were able to corroborate the idea since players like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and Johnny Giavotella are very close friends off the field as well as on. Clearly, the team is forming an identity around the young players.
But it wasn’t too long ago that if you’d asked me the first round draft pick of the Royals in a given year, I may not have had a clue.
Somewhere along the way, the poor performance on the field led me to look at what was on the horizon. With hopes of MLB winning dashed, year after year, I absorbed a few more names to watch out for to the point that now, I feel comfortable discussing the farm system and can even point out names outside of the main chunk that many hear about regularly.
Which is convenient when, say, writing on a Royals blog.
There was a time where I had my eye on a few names here or there in the minor leagues.
Back when I was in middle school and getting into high school, my dad ran newspapers for USA Today. He’d get up at about 1 a.m. and drive out to Salina, KS from my hometown of Hays to meet the truck from Lawrence then drive back toward Hays. Along the way, he’d stop at rest stops, gas stations, hotels, restaurants, what have you, and restock their newspaper dispensers before getting back into town usually around 7 or 8 in the morning.
He’d pick up the old papers to report how many hadn’t sold, and it was usually my task to bundle them up and, after I’d gotten my license, to take them to the recycling plant. Fun stuff.
It wasn’t so bad, though, because every week, USA Today would distribute Baseball Weekly. One feature, along with a full week’s worth of box scores and transactions for each team, was a look at each level of the minor leagues and highlights of upcoming prospects.
I tell ya, you haven’t been a baseball fan until you find yourself excited for the arrival of Joe Vitiello (lifetime OPS of .749 in 791 plate appearances from 1995 to 2003).
There were always other names. By the time Johnny Damon was promoted, I knew the name and the night he was called up, I had to mow the lawn, but with the help of a radio and earphones, followed the game and ran inside when Damon would come to bat.
Having all this information set me up to take to the realm of video games to make my own team. I’d pop in Hardball ’94 for the Sega Genesis and edit player names to reflect that of the current Royals team at the time. I don’t know what kind of sickness compelled me to create Les Norman or Edgar Caceres, but then again, I follow a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since Ronald Reagan’s fifth year in office.
As new players would come up and old ones would leave, I’d simply edit names again, or I’d call up a prospect earlier than the real team would. Larry Sutton was an early name I started following in the papers. I’d always had a penchant for tracking first basemen for the Royals. George Brett was my favorite player growing up and I started following the Royals closely as he was moving across the diamond, so I saw him there. Later, Bob Hamelin won Rookie of the Year, but had fizzled out by 1997 when I started to read about Larry Sutton.
Sutton hit 26 homers in 1994 for Wilmington and another 22 in Wichita in 1996. After that year, he started 1997 in Omaha, but in Hardball-Land, he was the every day first baseman, thanks to what I’d seen was a batting average around .300 all year and some power.
Of course he did even less than Hamelin.
Then high school started, I got a job, I found myself watching more professional wrestling than baseball for a while and never really updated the team as much as I used to.
I’d still know some prospects and would usually listen to games when I got a chance, but it wasn’t the same. The Royals had a successful blip in 2003 and interest perked up for everyone, but I was more interested in looking at who the Royals might get for 2004 than looking down the line at some Greinke kid or the first round pick in that 2004 season, Billy Butler.
What really got me back into following prospects at any level was the 2005 draft.
The Royals had finished 2004 with the second worst record in the league and every indication was that they were to select Alex Gordon out of Nebraska.
That day of the draft, I was working a shift in the middle of the day with a coworker who also followed the Royals and we both agreed that Gordon should be the guy taken. This was more based off of what I’d read (just enough to get by) and what others had speculated, but I was paying attention. How I recall it, the draft began in the afternoon, so I remember running home to see if Gordon was the pick.
Flash forward to 2007.
As evidenced by my Hardball ’94 episode, I can be a bit obsessive in some aspects of baseball video games. I’d since upgraded from Hardball to MVP Baseball 2005 on the PlayStation 2 – a vastly superior game. Mark Teahen was coming off of his big second half in 2006 but he wasn’t on the game. I had to edit a player and turn them into Teahen who turned into an MVP candidate.
Alex Gordon made his debut and ended up struggling as we all know, and as I watched him flail at the plate, I took matters into my own hands and added him to the roster on MVP. Then one night, I learned of the Ryan Braun call up and decided he should be in the game too. And if he’s being added, Troy Tulowitzki should be added too. And Ryan Zimmerman.
In the end, I added every team’s top prospect.
But I didn’t stop there.
One of the great things about MVP ’05 was its inclusion of three levels of the minor leagues.
See where I’m going with this?
Through hours of painstaking work on the internet, I created depth charts for nearly every level of the minor leagues and set out to add every player I could to the Royals minor leagues.
I started to learn of other prospects which became a gateway to adding draftees to the game. For a time, Sam Runion was looking like a digital superstar. Chris Lubanski managed to make his way up the ladder and debuted with the Royals, eventually becoming not just a regular, but a star, hitting 20+ homers a few times. *
*An interesting side note: with Mark Teahen at third being an MVP candidate and Lubanski moving to first base, to get Alex Gordon into the lineup, I plugged him in at second base until an injury and a surprising ascension of a computer-generated player named Chris Lopez forced me to shift Gordon to left field after his return. The year was 2008.
Derrick Robinson went from project to everyday leadoff hitter. Tyler Lumsden became a functional situational lefty. Jeff Bianchi made some appearances as a utility man. Even Jordan Parraz got a look here or there.
I won’t lie. There were a few years where my interest in baseball waned. The dark ages of Royals fandom pushed me towards the NFL and shifted my primary obsession to fantasy football.
The drafting of Alex Gordon, in a way, pulled me back in. It begot my search for other prospects, which gave me deeper look into the organization and it happened at a time when the Royals were starting to pile up some impressive prospects once Dayton Moore took the helm.
It’s appropriate that my need for completion on the game ended somewhere around my start on Kings of Kauffman. It’s fine to look up information about minor leaguers for the purpose of a video game, I guess – at least it’s expanding knowledge of the game. But even better is to turn around and get back into the real world where real Eric Hosmer is on a tear, where real Mike Moustakas is figuring things out and where hopefully real superstars bring a real trophy to Kansas City.
I still don’t have an answer for why the Royals don’t discuss the minor leagues more often in their broadcasts. Such an approach would enable more casual fans to learn about these players and perhaps inspire optimism and garner the city’s attention. They can’t talk about everyone, and I’m sure there’s a group that will dismiss the hype because we’ve heard it before and been left wanting.
Sometimes it’s the one mention that pulls you deeper into the rabbit hole where you find more than you’d expected. Seeing players make their debuts this year feels less like a surprise and more like a development I’ve been watching for years.
In the internet age, one would have to avoid Twitter and the like to not hear about some of the prospects. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s a product of knowing how to find the information, but also knowing that there’s information to find.