The first copy of that book, “Baseball Prospectus ’96” (I’m looking at the cover right now, and it’s ’96, not 1996, for some reason), sold maybe 150 copies – less if you don’t count family members. The “cover” is just a thicker piece of paper stock. After the book was printed, we realized that the font we used, when bolded – as it was, for instance, for all of the players’ names – the letters bled together until they were almost illegible. Oh, and that the
Anyway, we were too dumb, too stubborn, or too single to get the hint. A second book followed (with a real cover! And the Cardinals!) Then a third (with a real publisher!) Keith Law, who joined us as writer #6 in 1997, decided a few years later that he’d have more fun working as the Assistant GM of the Toronto Blue Jays instead. A pair of guys who started as BP interns, Chaim Bloom and James Click, got hired by the Devil Rays. Keith Woolner joined the Indians. Dan Fox jumped to the Pirates. Nate Silver showed up on the Colbert Report. And the 14th edition of Baseball Prospectus comes out sometime next month. As Bono sang, “Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce!”
And my one copy of that first book would probably be worth hundreds of dollars if I ever lost my mind and put it on eBay.
Oh look! It’s my navel!
The 14th edition of BP is also the first edition that I have not written for, and just the second that I have not written the Royals chapter for. (I could have written the chapter this year, but that would have been 8000 fewer words for my blog, and that would never do.) So instead I thought it would be fun to pull out that very first book, and see what I wrote about the Royals 13 winters ago.
I don’t think I’ve cracked open that first book in a decade, so re-reading that Royals chapter last week was very much like digging up a time capsule, a time capsule I had created for myself back when I was 20, and finally got to unwrap at age 33. I thought some of you might enjoy this trip down memory lane.
The first half of the essay is below; I’ve added some commentary in colored italics. Enjoy.
The Kansas City Royals were once the model of how to operate a successful franchise. (This was around the same time that GM was the model of how to operate a successful corporation.) With a wealthy, patient owner, a commitment to developing players from within the organization, and a GM who concocted some of the best trades in baseball history, the Royals were able to go from the depths of expansion in 1969 to a dominant force in the AL West by 1976. (The Royals built a perennial playoff team from scratch in seven years. In twice as many seasons since the 1994-95 strike, they’ve built absolutely nothing: they have no one to blame but themselves.) The talent amassed in the mid-70s was enough to keep the Royals among the elite teams in baseball for the next decade, capped with an improbable run to the World Championship in 1985.
The fly ball that Andy Van Slyke hit to Darryl Motley to close the 1985 Series closed a chapter in Royals history, however, and the Royals have spent the last 10 years more as a symbol of baseball mediocrity than baseball excellence. (Ah, mediocrity. If only we had known had good we had it then.) Winning the title in 1985 tricked the Royals into thinking that the glory days of the late 70s had come again to Kansas City, and that they would be able to continue dominating the historically-weak AL West for many years to come. The reality, of course, was that 1985 was the last gasp of a team whose once-great offense was a mere shell of itself, a team which owed everything to a great pitching staff and an otherworldly final month by George Brett. (I wrote this in the earliest days of the World Wide Web; there was no baseball-reference.com with daily logs, and a claim like this was simply unverifiable. It turns out that Brett had a pretty terrible September; he hit .210/.319/.340 from September 1st to 28th. But from September 29th until October 5th, Brett was 11-for-23 with five homers, three doubles, and 13 RBIs as the Royals won five of their last seven games, including three of four in a crucial series against the Angels. He then hit
The Royals have tried a variety of tactics to reclaim the lost greatness of the late ‘70s. Following their most successful season since 1985, the 1989 team which rode Bret Saberhagen, the Royals decided to make up for a dozen years of inactivity in the free-agent market in one offseason. The Royals succeeded only in proving that money is no substitute for intelligence in the front office, as they ignored the team’s biggest weakness – the offense – in an attempt to upgrade what was a stellar pitching staff with Storm “Run Support” Davis and Mark Davis’ evil twin brother. (I still submit that Storm – not Mark –
When that attempt crashed and burned, the Royals tried a new tack. They made a big trade in an attempt to beef up their offense – Saberhagen for Gregg Jefferies, Keith Miller, and Kevin McReynolds. (Quite possibly the most underrated trade in team history, largely because of the next sentence.) When the Royals saw how bad their defense had become with the influx of ex-Mets, they made an ill-advised trade to address that – Jefferies for Felix Jose. (One of the ten worst trades in Royals history, and probably the least-remembered of the top ten. Jefferies didn’t have a great 1992 season – he hit .285/.329/.404 in his one year in Kansas City – but it wasn’t a bad year, all told, for a 24-year-old third baseman, and there was plenty of reason to think he was capable of better than that – Jefferies was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Decade for the 1980s. But Herk Robinson traded him for Felix Jose, who had put up pretty much the same numbers in 1992, only he was three years older, an outfielder, and had nothing like Jefferies’ track record. In two years with
Reading this part of the essay 13 years later, I have to say that I’m impressed at how well it holds up. Last spring, I wrote the Royals chapter for a Baseball Prospectus book on the 1980s – a book that is currently on indefinite hiatus – and the analysis of the Royals decline in the 1980s that I wrote in 2008 isn’t much different than the analysis I wrote in 1995.
At least the first half of the essay. In the second half, let’s just say that Optimistic Rany makes an appearance. That’s right: in the winter of 1995-96 I was quite optimistic about the future of the Royals. Yeah, this isn’t going to end well.