There is one thing I absolutely, positively don’t want to hear Ned Yost say this Spring. It’s just five words, but they strike fear deep into my Royals loving heart. Five words that bring back bitter memories of a time in Royals history I’d like to forget. Five words I don’t ever want to hear again, and here they are: “We’re going back to fundamentals.” This sentence is the death knell, the sign that all hope is lost and your season is over before it begins.
It wasn’t all that long ago that our favorite team was in such dire straits that our coach uttered these dreaded words. The Royals ended 1996 in 5th place and followed this up by losing 46 of their first 82 games under Manager Bob Boone to begin 1997 before he was fired. Tony Muser finished the remainder of the ’97 season with an even worse winning percentage than Boone had begun the year. The following Spring of 1998, Muser’s inspired solution for the Royals poor performance was to emphasize fundamentals.
If you’ve ever attended a Little League team practice you’re probably familiar with baseball fundamentals. The coach teaches the kids how to grip the bat, how many steps to lead off the base, how to turn a double play, how to use the crow hop technique, how to stand on the rubber when you pitch, take a walk after the 4th ball, chew gum and spit sunflower seeds, rub out the back line of the batter’s box, scratch your crotch, kick dirt on the umpires shoes, and never change your socks when you’re on a hitting streak.
With great wisdom and understanding of the complex nuances of the game, Muser cleverly focused on the truly critical aspects of baseball skill proficiency during his preseason practice sessions. He stressed that the players must use the expression “My Fault” when they made a mistake rather than “My Bad”, and to wear their baseball caps straight on their heads during batting practice. He also encouraged the team to start pounding tequila instead of milk and cookies. You think I’m kidding – I’m not. Muser will never be mistaken as the genius strategist “Bill Belichick of Baseball.”
To this day, Muser remains so completely hard-core old-school that he is probably still dumbfounded that these fundamental concepts didn’t turn the team around. I’m old school too, but I’m not stupid and I know how to prioritize the important issues. Every good Manager in any industry must do this correctly if he wants his team to win. How successful was Muser’s regimen of bizarre elementary and foundational philosophies? 72 wins in 1998. 64 wins in 1999. 77 wins in 2000. 65 wins in 2001. I’m shocked we didn’t ride this wave of fundamental excellence to a title. (If it’s not obvious, that’s sarcasm.)
Is it really so hard for a professional to master the fundamentals? If my boss thought I needed to work on fundamentals in a job that I had made my vocation after years of training and experience, I would be fired. If the Royals players of 1998-2001 couldn’t master the fundamentals, they should have been fired too.
I understand everyone needs to practice so they don’t get rusty and we all have the ability to improve (and of course everyone knows American Leaguers don’t know how to bunt, mostly because it’s a useless talent, so I suppose this could have been a reasonable basic skill they could have worked on), but if these guys aren’t long past the fundamental stage by the time they arrive in the show, then they have no business whatsoever playing in the major leagues.
Fortunately, I don’t have any fear that Ned Yost will announce a focus on fundamentals during Spring Training this year. The Royals of 2012 are perfecting their techniques, not learning them. Alex Gordon has already won a Gold Glove and I’m confident Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, and Sal Perez are fully capable of the same accomplishment. Four Royals players hit 44 or more doubles in 2011. The outfield led the league in assists. (And turned in some stunningly memorable plays while doing so.) They had the 4th highest team batting average in the majors and 9th most double plays turned. The Royals haven’t arrived yet, and they have plenty of skills that require improvement, but as for fundamentals – the team is far past worrying about this as a concern. And for that, I am extremely grateful.
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