You hear it every year.
Some aging or oft-injured player shows up at Spring Training and proudly declares that they are in the best shape of their life. They say they’ve dropped some weight, or stopped eating fast food, maybe hired a chef or personal trainer.
It’s an annual rite of passage that (aging and oft-injured) former Royal Mike Sweeney perfected in the spring of 2007 with his revelation that yoga* had “paid big dividends” for him in the off-season. At the time it was a ray of hope for Royals fans who had seen Sweeney labor for years with an unforgiving back. But as is often the case, it was a mirage.
*Another classic nugget from that yoga article: Buddy Bell’s spring training assertion that Sweeney would be plugged in as the every day clean-up hitter behind, wait for it, 2006 franchise home run leader Mark Teahen. Sweeney ultimately played less than half the season due to injury and hit only seven home runs. Teahen played the whole season and also hit only seven home runs. Makes you appreciate Eric Hosmer, no?
The “best shape of my life” routine has become such a popular spring training cliche that it has (naturally) inspired its own internet meme. Maybe it’s just something about the hopeful nature of spring training. Maybe it’s the thin Arizona air. Regardless, something about the spring inspires a certain delusional hyperbole that affects both players and fans alike.
I’m not immune. I buy into the hype*. After all, how could yoga not provide increased flexibility for Mike Sweeney’s woeful back?
*Maybe I’m just a hapless writer with an exercise regimen that even Bartolo Colon considers lax, but if I could only get in touch with Manny Ramirez‘s fertility doctor, jet over to Germany for a controversial blood spinning procedure, and show up for the first day of spring training, I just might be in the best shape of my life too.
So when the Kansas City Star’s Bob Dutton reported that current Royals Mike Moustakas and Billy Butler had shown up to camp in terrific shape, I immediately began daydreaming excitedly about the possibilities. Here’s the choice quote from manager Ned Yost, who may or may not have giggled gleefully immediately after delivering it.
“There are a ton of position players here, too. Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas — I’m extremely proud of both of those guys. They are in the best shape they’ve been in their career. Billy looks great, and I hardly recognized Moose, he looks so good.”
First, let’s consider Butler. He has been the most consistent player on the team for three consecutive seasons, yet somehow seems to leave fans wanting more. It’s early in the spring, but gushing quotes like “best shape” and “Billy looks great” bode well for turning 2012 into a career year. In a recent interview with Robert Ford at 610 Sports in Kansas City, Butler sounded bound and determined to make this season his best yet. In listening to the interview, I couldn’t help but think that Butler sounded mature for a 25-year old. It’s exactly what we’ve all wanted to see from him.
Butler needed to come into camp ready to go, especially after he spent parts of the off-season as the subject of internet trade speculation. Although nothing ultimately happened, and the front office never seemed especially close to making a move, it’s worth wondering whether the trade rumors had any impact on Butler’s decision to come into spring training sporting a more svelte physique. Regardless of motivation, I’m just happy to see Butler looking trim at the start of camp. My overactive imagination can already envision Butler legging out triples and providing a serviceable backup at first base.
As for Moustakas, he was already a guy who was expected to make big strides in 2012 after a roller-coaster 2011. But when he showed up for camp 10-15 pounds lighter after a season spent focusing on conditioning and lateral movement at third base, the Royals brass must have been impressed. Nothing is better for a young team than for its young team leaders to seize the role as the hardest workers, and Moustakas seems to understand that. It’s another example of a player who is mature beyond his years. Moustakas is not interested in beginning this season with another prolonged cold spell, and he’s willing to whatever is necessary to avoid such a pitfall.
All of this determination, all of this potential, all of this pride and confidence, it’s an amazing feeling for Royals fans. After so many years of spending these hopeful February and March days talking ourselves into an inferior product, there is finally reason for fledgling optimism in Royal Nation. It’s a unique place for Royals fans of my ilk, who have never even been alive when a Royals team made the playoffs.
Most years, I try to convince myself that “this is the year” for the Royals to turn the corner. The logic is always flawed, and the basis for optimism wobbly. A case for the Royals to compete was always a hollow argument.
But this year is different. When I have delivered my annual argument for why the Royals can compete, it feels measured. Reasonable. Real. Today the Kansas City Royals are in the best shape I’ve seen them in my lifetime.
It feels good to say that with a straight face.