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Kansas City ROYALS
Jeff Pearlman.
March 29, 1999
Fate has not smiled upon these Royals, who nonetheless smile at their sad fate
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March 29, 1999

Kansas City Royals

Fate has not smiled upon these Royals, who nonetheless smile at their sad fate

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By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (AL rank)

1998 record: 72-89 (third in AL Central)

BATTING AVERAGE

.263 (12)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.291 (12)

RUNS SCORED

714 (13)

ERA

5.16 (13)

HOME RUNS

134 (12)

FIELDING PCT.

.980 (10)

If there's a bright side to a 6-15 record, it can be found only in Kansas City. "Yes, I was 6-15 last season," pitcher Glendon Rusch says almost cheerfully. "But I'm a young pitcher, just like most of the other guys around here. I've learned a lot about success and failure—how important it is to stay focused, to come back strong after a poor start, to stay positive."

A small-market team with the typical small-market woes, Kansas City is similar to cash-poor teams like Minnesota and Montreal in every way but one: smiles. The Royals players, it appears, have accepted the cruel realities confronting this once formidable franchise. "We know we're not gonna compete for the division title," says veteran outfielder Jeff Conine. "But why should that stop us from playing hard and having fun?"

Last year the Royals relied on Dean Palmer's 34 home runs and 119 RBIs, Jose Offerman's .315 average and 45 stolen bases, Tim Belcher's 14 wins and a whole lot of string, tape, and bubble gum to patch together a 72-win finish. That the Royals did not lose 100 games was a miracle. There will be no such miracle this year, not in the wake of off-season events. Palmer signed a five-year, $36 million deal with Detroit. Offerman took $26 million over four years and went to Boston. Even Belcher, who has but one season with an ERA under 4.00 since 1992, was lavished with a two-year, $10.2 million contract by Anaheim. The bloodletting isn't over, either. Royals general manager Herk Robinson, a nice man with a horrible job, has been told by the team's board of directors to cut the payroll by another $5 million to $7 million, to approximately $20 million. That means sooner or later pitching ace Kevin Appier and hard-hitting first baseman Jeff King (a combined $8.8 million in salary) will probably be traded for prospects.

Aside from those two players, this is what's left of a franchise that from 1976 to '85 won five divisional titles, two pennants and one World Series: a bunch of past-their-prime vets and somewhat promising, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time pimple faces. At shortstop there's 31-year-old Rey Sanchez (picture, if you can, Buddy Biancalana with less clout), who joins his fourth team in three seasons. At third base there's 29-year-old Joe Randa, a former Royals farmhand who hit .254 with nine homers for the Tigers last season, thereby solidifying his status as one of the game's most mediocre players. The new catcher is 34-year-old Chad Kreuter, a lifetime .238 hitter who's wearing his sixth major league uniform.

Kansas City manager Tony Muser, however, believes the newcomers will be valuable additions to the club. "We brought in veterans we could afford, but also who could help our younger players develop," he says. "I expect Randa to start 162 games at third base. I think Chad is a very good catcher. These guys can help us right now, and their success will give our younger guys hope."

In Kansas City the official poster children for hope are Rusch and lefty Jose Rosado, two of a half-dozen youngsters the Royals believe will carry the team into the new century. Muser says that despite a 12-24 record over the last two years, Rusch has matured considerably. His fastball, curveball and changeup are all above average, but he must avoid lapses in his concentration. "If he can do that on a regular basis," says Muser, "there's no reason he won't be a regular winner in this league."

The same goes for hard-throwing Rosado, who made the American League Ail-Star team in 1997 but is 10-19 with a 5.33 ERA since. He and Rusch will be joined in the rotation by Arizona castoff Jeff Suppan, 24, and Brian Barber, 26. "They all have pretty live arms," says Muser, ignoring the fact that the quartet had a combined 17-37 record in '98. "If you have live arms, you have something to work with."

In 25-year-old Johnny Damon, the Royals have something else to work with. Last year the speedy leftfielder surprised the club with his 18 home runs and 26 steals. He'll be joined in the outfield by Conine and rookie centerfielder Carlos Beltran, who jumped straight from Double A to the majors at the end of last season. Another rookie, Jeremy Giambi (.372 in the Triple A Pacific Coast League last year), will also be in the outfield mix once he fully recovers from a hamstring injury that has nagged him since the end of last season. Though his power is average, the younger brother of Oakland first baseman Jason Giambi has a knack for finding gaps and driving in runs (66 in 96 games).

Second baseman Carlos Febles, 22, is yet another top prospect who will get an opportunity to be a major contributor in 1999. After hitting .326 with 14 home runs at Wichita, Febles batted .400 in 11 games during his September call-up with the big league club. "No matter what people think, I feel I'm ready," says Febles, a native of the Dominican Republic. "I've played this game since I was a boy. It is, to me, always the same game. Simple, easy, fun. Just go out and play."

Sadly, the upbeat Febles will learn that a positive attitude doesn't translate into victories. Even with a clubhouse full of eager kids, the Royals are, as Rusch says, still learning to play. Come September, they'll find the smiles much less easy to summon.

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