Saturday, June 6, 2009

Radical Situations Call For Radical Solutions.

Baseball is a funny game. The day after Zack Greinke channels his 2005 form en route to giving up seven runs in five innings, hurtling the Royals ever deeper into the bottomless pit they fell into four weeks ago, the Royals have close to a perfect day. The day certainly had a perfect start, when Dayton Moore decided that Horacio Ramirez’s contract was less unpalatable than his performance, and chose to eat the rest of it. Fifth starter Luke Hochevar then returned with a start that reminded us why we were so excited about this team a month ago: say what you will about the rest of this team, but every pitcher in the starting rotation projects to have a long and successful career ahead of him.

The Royals’ metronomic out-making on offense – Scott Richmond faced the minimum through four innings – suddenly came to an end in the fifth when Mark Teahen homered to the opposite field – you know, that thing he used to do back when the Royals started 18-11. Alberto Callaspo followed with a double – also a blast from the past, if by “past” you mean April. Then Mitch Maier and David DeJesus followed with walks – you may remember the Royals had some success with that earlier this year – and finally the Spork himself, Willie Bloomquist, cleared the bases with a triple, his fourth of the season (only Coco Crisp has more in the AL!), the first 3-RBI hit for the Royals since Miguel Olivo hit a three-run homer back on May 15th.

And when Hochevar got into a spot of trouble in the seventh inning, he was rescued by the remarkable Kyle Farnsworth, who completed his redemption story from bullpen pariah to set-up savior by retiring all four batters he faced in the seventh and eighth. Five appearances into his Royals career, the Professor already had three losses along with an 18.90 ERA. Since then, working entirely in garbage relief, Farnsworth had thrown 15.1 scoreless innings, allowing just nine hits and two walks while striking out 15. He actually got the win in the Miguel Olivo Walks! comeback game when the Royals scored four in the ninth, but Hillman was understandably so reluctant to trust Farnsworth in key situations that not one of his last 15 appearances came with a Leverage score of more than 0.30 – where 1.00 is average, and a “key” situation might easily rate 2 or higher.

Maybe Bob McClure fixed a flaw, or maybe Farnsworth pitches better when the pressure is off, but the only way to find out was to do what the Royals did today, and bring him into a game that was on the line. I’ve been waiting for this move since at least last Sunday, when I was sitting behind home plate at Kauffman Stadium as John Bale got into a mess in the ninth, Hillman called for the righty in the bullpen – and I realized with much discomfort that I was actually disappointed to see Juan Cruz, not Farnsworth, entering through the bullpen gate.

Farnsworth didn’t get the call then, but he got the call today, and pitched with the same sense of purpose that he has for the past six weeks, retiring four batters on just 11 pitches. With Cruz tanking, with Jamey Wright hit or miss, with Robinson Tejeda on the DL, we’ve reached the point where Farnsworth isn’t just the go-to guy in set-up situations…he’s clearly the go-to guy in set-up situations.

Like I said: baseball is a funny game.

But that’s not really want to talk about right now. I have bigger fish to fry. As I write this, the Royals are 24-31, amazingly just 5.5 games out of first place, but also just 1.5 games out of last. The offense is next-to-last in the league, and the once-vaunted pitching staff had fallen to 8th in the league in runs allowed (although the rankings are so tight that the strong performance today bumped the Royals back up to 6th in that category). And as Sam Mellinger points out, neither the offense nor the pitching is the team’s real problem – it’s the defense.

Anyway, the point is that despite what Dayton Moore might say publicly, privately he must be looking to make some changes. Maybe he doesn’t want to take a bomb and blow up the clubhouse, but perhaps he’s looking to make a surgical strike and change the complexion of the team with a single move.

If he is, well, I have a move I’d like to suggest. I also would like to suggest that those of you who are reading this right now ought to take a seat, because you’re about to read something that might disturb you. Rest assured, this is not some cockamamie idea I came up with today. Well, it might be a cockamamie idea, but it’s an idea I’ve been considering since spring training.

I think the Royals should trade for Jeff Francoeur.

Yeah, that Jeff Francoeur. The one that’s become the bane of Atlanta Braves fans and the laughingstock of baseball.

Some players get called “underrated” so much that they become overrated in the process. And for some, the opposite occurs: they get labeled overrated, and that label sticks to them so tightly that the pendulum swings too far the other way.

I’m not arguing that Francoeur’s performance as a ballplayer the last two years has become underrated: he really has been as bad as everyone thinks. But here’s the thing: Francoeur’s performance has become so maligned that I feel the public has lost sight of the fact that underneath those numbers still lies an enormous bundle of talent.

Talent can be a curse if you can’t convert that talent into performance, but let’s not forget: Francoeur has already performed at the major league level. In 2005, he made his major league debut on July 7th, and within two months was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He hit .300/.336/.549 for the season, and finished 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in just 70 games. It helped that in just 67 games in the outfield, he threw out 13 baserunners.

Granted, Miss South Carolina could explain the strike zone more coherently than he could. But he was just 21 years old. The following year, in full-time play he hit 29 homers. The year after that, he hit .293 with 19 homers and 40 doubles – and walked a respectable 42 times. He also won a Gold Glove. He played in every single game both years.

As recently as 14 months ago, Francoeur was a trendy breakout pick among some analysts. Instead, everything has gone to hell in a handbasket for Francoeur; he’s stopped hitting, the fans have turned on him, and the Braves are openly shopping him.

As Warren Buffett recently said, “be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” The collapse in Francoeur’s market value rivals that of any bank or automotive company. But while the stock market is nowhere near its peak value, those who invested near the market bottom on March 9th has done very well for themselves – and while Francoeur may never reach the heights once expected from him, I suspect that anyone who trades for him now will get a very good return on their dollar.

Since the start of last season, Francoeur is hitting .241/.289/.357. He’s a mess at the plate. He famously – though perhaps not entirely seriously – said a month ago that “If on-base percentage is so important, then why don’t they put it up on the scoreboard?” His defense has gone to pot as much as his offense – according to Ultimate Zone Rating, Francoeur has been about 6 runs below average on defense over the last year-plus, after being +17 in his Gold Glove year of 2007.

So yes, pretty much every number you look at suggests that Francoeur is a waste of a roster spot. Except for one, which is the most important number for any player.

25. As in, Jeff Francoeur is just 25 years old. It’s waaay too early to give up on him. If you don’t believe me, you might want to consider the history of a very similar player. I am frankly stunned that I have not seen this comparison made before, though it’s possible I just haven’t looked in the right places.

Once upon a time, the Braves had a right fielder who, like Francoeur, met with immediate acclaim, stepping right into the lineup in mid-season and hitting .281/.304/.459 in 98 games, garnering a few Rookie of the Year votes. Like Francoeur, he was young (22) and considered an all-around talent despite the lack of speed (just one stolen base as a rookie). And like Francoeur, he swung at everything. He walked just eight times all season.

This right fielder struggled terribly the next two seasons, largely because opposing pitchers learned to exploit his impatience at the plate. In his sophomore season, he walked just 17 times in 75 games; in his third year he regressed even more, drawing just 11 walks in 60 games. He hit .235/.277/.354 combined.

The wrinkle is this: after his rookie season, this right fielder was traded, a trade that looked brilliant for the Braves when he struggled over the next two years. The team that traded for him looked like a bunch of morons.

That team was the Kansas City Royals. That player was Jermaine Dye.

Everything that has been written about Jeff Francoeur over the last year could have been written about Dye. I know, because I was the one writing about Dye 12 years ago. The comment I wrote about Dye in the 1999 Baseball Prospectus ended with the line, “His window of opportunity is just about closed.” Yeah, I missed a little with that one. Dye hit .294/.354/.526 for the Royals that year. He also drew 58 walks. Ten years later, he’s still hitting.

Look, there’s obviously a good chance that Francoeur’s problems are terminal. As a professor of mine used to say, the plural of anecdote is not data. The fact that Dye turned into a star doesn’t mean that Francoeur is destined to do the same. But he has a chance to turn into a star. Go ahead and write down a list of every player in baseball who has the chance to become a star in the not-too-distant future, and is available to acquire for next to nothing. I’m guessing it’s a short list.

I thought the Greinke-for-Francoeur rumors this winter were ridiculous, and I mean that literally – I thought they were fabricated or at least exaggerated, because Dayton Moore is not that dumb. Today, you could probably pry Francoeur from the Braves with Greinke – Luke Greinke.

In a Facebook exchange – I can’t believe I just wrote that – Craig Calcaterra, the brilliant writer and authoritative Braves fan, put the price tag on Francoeur thusly:

“If I were running the Braves I’d accept a nice thank you card from Moore and call it a deal. Wait, that’s not true. I’d accept a slightly shabby thank you card if that’s all he had. I just can’t stand the sight of that guy in right field anymore.”

That is not the voice of a 15-year-old fan on an anonymous message board – that is the voice of someone who speaks on behalf of all Braves fans: they are sick of Frenchy.

Every baseball team has some sort of niche that they alone occupy, some unique strength that they can exploit to build a better baseball team. The Yankees are able to offer their players the personal use of a Brinks truck to haul all of the cash they’re being paid to the bank every two weeks. The Braves are the boyhood team of almost every young player that grows up in the southeast, and they mine the talent in their backyard with uncanny ability. The Cardinals offer players the chance to play in front of The Greatest Fans In Baseball™. And so on.

The Royals offer something to. They offer a player the chance to get away from the crush of overwhelming expectations. The team’s biggest weakness – its lack of a fan base – can become its biggest strength. A player that has fallen on their face somewhere else, with the bright glare of public scrutiny directly on them, can come to Kansas City and play in front of a small but loyal group of fans, a small and mostly non-threatening local media, and for a team whose expectations have already been ground down to nothing by the weight of 15 years of non-stop losing. For a player whose talent remains untapped, whose potential has become a curse, the Royals are the perfect team to rehabilitate that talent in a low-pressure environment.

As much as Francoeur reminds me of Dye, if the Royals trade for him he could equally remind us of Jose Offerman. Offerman, remember, was considered one of the best prospects in baseball in 1990, when he hit .326 in Triple-A and played dazzling shortstop at age 21. Offerman’s bat was almost as advertised, but his glove wasn’t; in his first full season in 1992, he made an amazing 42 errors, and 37 the year after that. The fans turned on him, he started to press, he hit just .210 in 1994, and despite rebounding to .287/.389/.375 in 1995, both the Dodgers and their fans were sick of him.

Which is where the Royals come in. Dye-for-Michael Tucker was Herk Robinson’s best trade – a direct challenge of two outfielders in which the Royals clearly came out on top. But the trade for Jose Offerman was Robinson’s most brilliant trade, because there was no downside. The trade worked beautifully – the Royals did what the Dodgers should have done years before and moved Offerman off of shortstop. He made a decent second baseman – although Bob Boone, God bless him, thought he had more value as a rangy first baseman – and in three years with the Royals Offerman hit .306/.385/.419. (And when he left as a free agent the Royals got two draft picks, one of whom was Mike MacDougal, who was later traded for Dan Cortes and Tyler Lumsden, who was then traded for Jordan Parraz. The shadow of Robinson’s trade can still be found in Northwest Arkansas today.)

But I didn’t explain why this trade was so brilliant. It was brilliant because the Dodgers were so desperate to get rid of Offerman that they were willing to take almost anything for him. All Robinson gave up was Billy Brewer, a former Rule 5 pick who as a lefty reliever was coming off a 5.56 ERA in 1995. Offerman turned out to be a perfect fit in Kansas City – but suppose he hadn’t. Suppose he was so bad that after two months the Royals finally called uncle and just released him. In which case, all the Royals would have lost in the trade was…Billy Brewer? Who cares?

I suspect that the Braves are close to that point with Francoeur. And Francoeur is close to that point with the Braves. Keep in mind, as much as any player would feel the pressure that comes with being anointed as “The Natural” at age 21, Francoeur must feel it worse. He was born in Atlanta. In the SI article about his rookie season it talks about the razzing he got from his high school buddies who – just three years after graduation – were coming to his games.

As perfect as everything must have been for him when he was playing well, it must be an absolute nightmare now for him to be struggling the way he is, in his hometown, for his favorite team, after being a first-round pick and potential franchise savior just a few short years ago. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his defensive numbers have collapsed along with his offensive ones. If it was just his offense that deteriorated, you could blame that on a poor approach at the plate. That his performance has declined in every phase suggests that the problem is psychological as much as it is physical.

Jeff Francoeur needs a new start, and Kansas City is just the place to give it to him. Working with Kevin Seitzer can’t hurt. Terry Pendleton, the Braves’ hitting coach, has come under a lot of fire of late in part because of Francoeur’s struggles. Pendleton may be a good hitting coach, but he’s not the right guy to be teaching plate discipline – just once in his career did he walk even 45 times. The Royals have already handed Seitzer a bunch of impatient hacks – why not turn the degree of difficulty up a notch?

Maybe Francoeur learns the strike zone and turns into Dye. If he doesn’t, he still could carve out a career as an overrated but still useful RBI guy, a la Joe Carter. Carter is one of the most overrated baseball players of my lifetime, but he wasn’t a bad player. You could win a world championship with him. Legend has it that he even had a big role to play in one.

Bottom line is this: the rumor du jour is that the Boston Red Sox are interested in Francoeur. Let me repeat that: THE BOSTON RED SOX ARE INTERESTED IN FRANCOEUR. If that isn’t a big flashing neon sign that the public opinion of Francoeur has shifted to the point where he’s now an underpriced commodity, I don’t know what is.

In a dream world, I’d like to see if Moore could interest the Braves in a swap of Francoeur for Jose Guillen. I mean, the Braves are going for it this year – they just traded for Nate McLouth – and Guillen can help them in the here and now. I suspect Guillen’s bat will translate nicely to the inferior league, Bobby Cox knows how to keep players like him in line, and as Guillen is a medicine best taken in small doses, the fact that they only have him under contract for a year-and-a-half minimizes their risk. I doubt this could be done straight up, because while Francoeur has negligible value, Guillen has negative value the way his contract stands. But if the Royals were able to pick up, say, the rest of Guillen’s contract for this year, I think that’s a gamble the Braves might consider. They get a free Jose Guillen for 2009, who along with McLouth dramatically upgrades their lineup, and they only have one year left on his contract to pay.

For the Royals, this move has the advantage of freeing up payroll in the future, clearing up the clubhouse in the present and the future. And it does so without significantly hurting the team on the field in the short term.

Guillen’s defense is so bad that he’s become almost unplayable. Alex Gordon returns in a month, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the best lineup when he returns is one that has Gordon at third base, Mark Teahen in right field, and Guillen platooning with Jacobs at DH. But Guillen’s personality threatens to blow up the clubhouse if he is relegated to a bench role. Better to move him now if the Royals can do so.

Even if the Royals can’t interest Atlanta in Guillen, though, they should see if some collection of second-tier talent can fetch Frenchy. Carlos Rosa, anyone? Rosa’s been hit hard in Omaha, but there’s a bunch of relief prospects in Double-A and below, and I’d be willing to give up any of the non-Disco variety. The Braves took a high-school pitcher drafted in the second round (Eric Cordier) in exhange for Tony Pena Jr; I wonder if they’d take another one – the disappointing Sam Runion – as part of their haul for Francoeur.

If the Royals do get Francoeur, they have the additional option of letting him figure things out in Triple-A for the rest of the year. He has options remaining, and my front office sources tell me that a player can not refuse an option until he has five years of service time accrued. Frenchy came into the season with 3 years, 88 days of service time, so depending on how long he stays in Omaha, it’s possible that a demotion will keep him in Kansas City an additional year. As it is, Francoeur would be under contract for 2010 and 2011, and if you can find three players under contract to the Royals who are likely to be better outfielders over those two seasons, you have better vision than I do.

Come on, Dayton. I appreciate you heeding my last suggestion, but this is much bigger. We all know you want to trade for him – he’s an ex-Brave, and you were reportedly very fond of him while you were in Atlanta. Not that one fan’s opinion means anything, but you’ll have my full support if you do. Even if every other fan out there thinks this particular fan is off his rocker.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Horacio Ramirez Sucks. Get Over It.

Come with me, if you don’t mind, on a tour of recent history.

May 21st: Zack Greinke allows two runs in six innings, departing the game with a slender 3-2 lead against the Indians. Horacio Ramirez, who comes into the game with a sparkling 5.84 ERA (his lowest at any point this season), starts the top of the seventh. He allows a leadoff single, and after a bunt and a groundout, surrenders another single to blow the lead. Jamey Wright comes in and allows a go-ahead RBI double; Ramirez is eventually saddled with the loss.

May 22nd: With the Royals now in St. Louis, Kyle Davies follows Greinke’s effort with a six-inning, two-run performance of his own, but his teammates fail to score a run for him. Ramirez once again starts the seventh. After getting two quick outs, Ramirez surrenders a home run to the mighty Tyler Greene. Nonetheless, Ramirez is brought out to pitch the eighth as well, and gives up a single to Skip Schumaker, followed by a double to Brian Barden. He IBB’s Albert Pujols, retires Chris Duncan, and then heads to the showers as Kyle Farnsworth gives up a two-run single to put the game out of reach.

May 24th: Two days later, the Royals once again get a six-inning, two-run effort from their starting pitcher, this time it being Brian Bannister. With the Royals holding a 3-2 lead on St. Louis going to the bottom of the seventh, once again Trey Hillman inexplicably calls on Ramirez. Ramirez retires the first two batters in order, then intentionally walks Pujols with the bases empty. He then allows a wild pitch on his way to walking Chris Duncan, forcing Hillman to make the unconventional move of replacing one lefty reliever with another. In his season debut, John Bale, uh, bales out Ramirez by whiffing Rick Ankiel on three pitches; the Royals would hold on for the win.

May 27th: Ramirez is called on with two outs in the sixth inning to rescue Davies, who has allowed seven runs so far and leaves a man on first base. Ramirez gives up a single to Josh Anderson, and is immediately replaced by Roman Colon, who gives up another single to plate the eighth run before ending the inning.

June 2nd: Once again, Davies is on the mound. Once again, the Royals’ starter has allowed two runs, only in this instance the game is tied, and instead of being called upon to start an inning, Ramirez is brought in with two outs in the sixth – and men on first and second. The first batter he faces, Matt Joyce, hits a two-run double that effectively ends the game. Ramirez would pitch a scoreless seventh, but the game is already over.

Over his last five appearances, Ramirez has pitched four innings, allowed eight hits and five runs. He blew a one-run lead in one game, gave up the tie-breaking runs in another game, allowed a 2-0 deficit to get out of hand in a third game, had to be rescued by another pitcher to preserve a lead in a fourth game, and gave up a hit to the only batter he faced in mop-up relief in the fifth game.

And before this stretch, he had a 5.74 ERA.

It’s now June, and Horacio Ramirez has a 6.86 ERA for the season. He has allowed 27 hits in 19.2 innings. He only has 12 strikeouts. He has walked 10 batters (granted, three intentionally). He has allowed three homers. There is absolutely nothing on his statistical record that is positive.

Lefties are hitting .261/.306/.348, which isn’t bad, but not particularly good. Right-handers are hitting .405/.500/.811. Even Jimmy Gobble thinks that’s bad.

And still Hillman sends him out there, in key situations, gambling that Ramirez won’t cost the Royals yet another game.

I guess it would make sense if the Royals were desperate for a LOOGY, even though Ramirez, you know, doesn’t even make for a good LOOGY. Except last I checked, the Royals have both Ron Mahay and John Bale on the roster, meaning that they’re keeping Ramirez around even though they have two better left-handers in the bullpen.

Look, guys, I know you invested a lot of money in Ramirez. I don’t know why you invested a lot of money, mind you, because he had done nothing to deserve the money, and no other team was particularly interested in offering him a comparable deal. But you did. You blew $1.8 million on a pitcher who doesn’t belong in the major leagues any more. It happens. Teams make mistakes.

But the money is gone, and no amount of putting Ramirez on the mound to justify that contract is going to bring the money back. All you’re accomplishing by keeping Ramirez on the roster is proving that you can’t resist throwing good games after bad money.

I have no idea if the Royals are going to turn things around, whether they’ll get back to .500 this year, whether they’ll contend again in 2009. On paper, there’s no obvious reason why the Royals can’t reverse course. But I know that the Royals aren’t going to win a damn thing so long as they’ve got a GM who isn’t willing to cut losses on a contract that was a mistake the moment it was signed, and a manager who doesn’t understand that just because you have a pitcher on your roster doesn’t mean you have to use him in tight situations.

Horacio Ramirez sucks, guys. The sooner you accept that fact, the sooner we can get around to the business of putting together a winning roster.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Kauffman Stadium.

Alright, the intervention didn’t work. Time to call in Father Merrin.

I’m writing this from the American Eagle flight back to Chicago, a flight that I came precariously close to being bumped from. So I’m calling the fact that I made the flight home a win. It’s pretty much my only victory of the day.

We’ll get to the game later; I figure some of you will want my impressions of the park itself. Fortunately, a trip that had me leaving my house just before 8 AM had me at the ballpark around 11:20 – no longer a trip than it used to take to drive from Wichita, really – which gave us plenty of time to explore K2* before game time.

*: Sam Mellinger’s quest to name the renovated park The Kougar has gained sufficient traction within the clubhouse that I feel it would be inappropriate to try to fasten another name to the stadium – particularly given my own shameless attempts to make other nicknames into canon. But I understand and respect that the reaction to The Kougar is almost visceral with some fans. So you will see me occasionally slip in a K2 reference, which I think is by far the best of the other nicknames suggested. I love nicknames that convey multiple meanings, and K2 is not only a nod to the 2nd iteration of Kauffman, but conjures images of a massive and foreboding mountain for opposing teams to climb. But the nickname requires that Kauffman Stadium actually becomes a place that causes opponents to tremble in fear. The way the Royals played on this homestand, Kauffman Stadium was less K2 than Flint Hills.

I was surprised by just how different the ballpark looked from the highway as you turn into the complex – the new jumbo-jumbotron, the outfield seats, and the reconfigured fountains serve to create a tangibly different look from a distance. Parking’s the same – and that’s a compliment – but up close the exterior of the park was different in places, less concrete and more glass and steel, adding a little character to what previously was a somewhat soulless shell.

Once inside, the gestalt I got of the new Kauffman Stadium was that of the old Kauffman Stadium, only better. We walked along the narrow inner concourse from home plate all the way around the park. We stopped in left field to check out the Hall of Fame, where we told by an usher (who was surprisingly helpful and talkative; the years in Chicago have clearly jaded me) that construction would not be completed until after the All-Star Break. Immediately past the Hall of Fame came the kids’ section, which you occasionally get glimpses of during live look-ins on Royals broadcasts: the mini-K where kids can take their hacks, the speed pitch guns, the batting cages, the carousel, and the running lanes where kids can compare their 90-foot dash times against a variety of Royals players. (Though unfortunately not Jose Guillen. Perhaps there’s a section for toddlers that I missed.)

A carnival-like section for children is de rigueur at major league stadiums today, but it’s hard to balance the desire to keep kids happy and separate their parents from their wallets with the need to keep the focus on the baseball game being played. What I liked about the Royals’ setup was that while you could not see the field of play from most of these events – most of them are located beyond the batters’ eye in dead center field – you only need to move 40 or 50 feet to see the field in most places. Contrast that with Comerica Park in Detroit, where they have a kids area (including a much larger carousel – I believe it’s a double-decker) that is cordoned off from the rest of the stadium to the point where it’s easy to forget that you’re at a ballpark.

Continuing our walk around to right-center field, the view from directly above the fountains was excellent – I imagine the view from the Dri-Duck seats is terrific. We only glanced inside Rivals Sports Bar, but clearly the view from inside is more than adequate to watch the game – particularly for the type of people who want to sit down in a restaurant while a game is in progress.

We then headed around the outer (i.e. enclosed) concourse, which was wider than before (and enormous compared to the ones at U.S. Cellular Field) and featured the usual array of different food stations and menu items. Our tour ended in the Diamond Club behind home plate, where our seats were located thanks to my friends at WHB.

I hesitate to even talk about our experience in the Diamond Club, because I’m sure I’ll sound like the person raving about the width of the seats in first class, but…it was impressive. The Club, which I believe is accessible only to fans sitting in the four sections immediately behind home plate (126-129), is an air-conditioned, glass-partitioned sitting area with several food stations, and tables to eat at that face directly out towards home plate. The view was good enough that you could watch the entire game there without complaint – and in point of fact I did watch a few innings from this spot once it became clear that my pasty-white skin couldn’t take any more sun exposure without risking a nasty (and, for a dermatologist, embarrassing) sunburn.

Before gametime I ordered an $8.50 reuben off the menu, and while it wasn’t the best reuben I’ve ever had, it was very good - better than a lot of reubens I’ve ordered from actual restaurants (ones that charged more than $8.50) in the past. It came with a side of chips, which was enough to keep me from being hungry for the rest of the game.

Fluid intake was another matter. For some reason the Royals have decided to serve soft drinks in one size only. I understand that I’m going to get ripped off at a ballpark, but at least give me the choice of how I get ripped off – I’d rather pay $5 for a 48-ounce bucket than $4 for the 32-ounce ice-filled cup that I’m going to polish off in 10 minutes on a hot day.

But that’s a minor gripe. Kauffman Stadium has always been one of the most underrated places in baseball to watch a game, and if that changes in the new Kauffman Stadium, it’s only because people will stop underrating the park and realize that it is one of the very best baseball stadiums in the country.

The best thing I can say about the new park is that it feels like many of the other new parks in the majors. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the unveiling of two new ballparks in my backyard. In 1992, at the end of my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, the Orioles unveiled Camden Yards. I was on hand when the future of American stadium design was opened to the public (granted, it was an exhibition game against the Pirates), and it was immediately clear to me and everyone else there that day that every other ballpark in the major leagues had suddenly become obsolete. I moved to Michigan for medical school in 1995, and enjoyed the quirks of Tiger Stadium (old, lots of obstructed view seats, but the most intimate stadium I’ve ever been to) for several years before Comerica opened.

My point is that over the last 20 years, the standard for ballparks has shifted, not just in terms of design and architecture but in terms of things like culinary offerings. And on every issue, the new stadium appeared to at least meet that standard. I don’t know if it exceeds that standard, at least in terms of food – I would need a lot of trips to sample ballpark fare, and even then you would want a less gastronomically inhibited person to try all the pork-based barbecue items. But the new stadium does not appear to be deficient in any way. The infrastructure of the park is 21st-century caliber, while the soul of Kauffman Stadium has been kept intact.

And by overlaying the new stadium design on an existing structure, the cost of the project came in at roughly half of what most other municipalities have spent on new ballparks. That’s what makes the Kougar (sorry!) so impressive to me – the park itself may not be better than places like Comerica and Miller Park and Jacobs Field (though it’s certainly better than the Cell) – it’s that the new Kauffman is a hell of a lot cheaper than pretty much every ballpark built in the last 20 years, while measuring up in every other way.

I sympathize with the people who wanted the Royals to build a downtown stadium, and frankly if Kauffman Stadium had been destroyed by aliens or something and the team had to start from scratch, I would think a downtown location would make the best sense. But it’s hard to argue, even for someone like me who’s an out-of-towner and doesn’t bear the tax burden, that it makes sense to build a downtown stadium when you can get the same structure built at the Truman Sports Complex for half the price.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to everything I look for in a new ballpark – good views from everywhere, wide concourses, an open design that allows you to walk all the way around the stadium and watch the game from multiple venues, a variety of high-quality menu items, amenities for the children and non-baseball fans who must inevitably attend games without distracting from the stadium’s central purpose – the new Kauffman Stadium does not appear to suffer any fatal, or even sickening, flaws.

The product in the middle of that stadium is a different story. We can talk about the product that I saw on Sunday at a later date.