Thursday, October 16, 2014

Royal pain

(Published May 28, 2006):
Put yourself in Denny Matthews' place.
The "Voice of the Royals" was there in 1969, the beginning. He was there when the outfield fountains first splashed. When Brett reached for .400 and legions of fans, Nebraskans included, calculated his average on their game programs.
Matthews saw Saberhagen win 23 games in one year. He watched Bo snap ash over his knee and smash cowhide deep into the summer night. He called Game 6 in '85.
On Thursday afternoon, Matthews sounded like Bob Uecker in "Major League, " a man in need of a drink.
The Royals, losers of 12 straight at the time, had scored six runs in the first inning against the league's best team. By the eighth, Detroit had tied it.
Then came the ninth. One Tiger home run, then another. 10-8. Matthews' voice never deviated from monotone. Had a driver been nodding off on I-80, neither home run call would've woke him.
Pudge Rodriguez stepped in with two on, two out. Crack. Another bomb into the fountains. The ball had barely splashed when Matthews paused for station identification. What else can you say?
"How they sit there and not be critical I have no idea, " says Pete Theoharis, a 35-year-old teacher and Royals fan in Hastings.
At some point, Theoharis expects Matthews' teeth to let go of his tongue. He expects to hear, "What in God's name is Angel Berroa doing?"
Put yourself in Theoharis' place. He's one of the remaining Nebraskans who religiously cheers the boys in blue, who are on pace to lose a major league record 124 games.
Twenty years ago, the Cornhusker State was practically a baseball colony of Kansas City. Now Theoharis hears people chuckle at the Royal mess, at desperate souls like him and Jason Jorgensen and Paul Fey, who cling to memories of 1985.
How bad are the Royals? Consider the following:
Kansas City is on a comfortable pace for three straight seasons with at least 100 losses. No non-expansion franchise since the 1952-54 Pirates has matched that.
Kansas City has suffered two losing streaks in excess of 10 games during the first 50 games of the season. Only three teams since 1920 have ever done the same.
The Royals' opening day starters the past three seasons -- Brian Anderson, Jose Lima, Scott Elarton -- won two combined games in April and May of their respective seasons. That's six months of pitching and two wins. Arizona's Brandon Webb has eight wins in April and May of this year alone.
Since Opening Day 2004, the Royals have won 125 games. Since Opening Day 2005, the cross-state Cardinals, whom the Royals beat in the '85 World Series, have won 132.
Since 2004, the Royals have seven losing streaks of at least eight games, including a club-record 19-game streak a year ago. Since 1989, the Atlanta Braves have none.
This 26-month debacle is a far cry from the period of 1975 to the '94 strike, when only two franchises won more than Kansas City: the Yankees and Red Sox.
That span of success drew Nebraskans en masse to the Royals. They were star-studded. They were classy. And just a few hours away, they made Kansas City the perfect vacation spot: Worlds of Fun roller coasters during the day, relaxing Royals Stadium at night.
George Brett retired in 1993 and things were never the same. The baseball strike tarnished 1994 and the following seasons. Meanwhile, small-market economics, egregious front-office errors and an attitude befitting of the Cowardly Lion doomed a once-proud organization. The Royals stopped winning and you stopped seeing Royals shirts on the streets of Hastings and Lexington and Omaha.
"There's not many of us left, " says Theoharis, a social studies teacher and coach at Hastings High.
Theoharis was born in Kansas City. He moved to Hastings when he was 9. He used to listen to games in his bedroom and keep a scorebook. When the Royals played at California or Seattle, he'd fall asleep to Matthews' play-by-play.
Theoharis played baseball at Hastings College. He wore No. 5, just like his hero. After graduation, he got a PR internship with the Royals. He was there in '94 and '95, just after Brett had retired. Brett even played on the company softball team with him.
When he moved to Minnesota, Theoharis still listened to games. When the clouds were just right in Winona, Minn., he could pick up the AM signal out of Des Moines from his car.
He'd sit in the garage, staring at nothing, hoping someone, anyone, would take Brett's place. No one ever did. Every time Kansas City farmed a phenom like Jermaine Dye or Johnny Damon or Carlos Beltran -- that was the starting outfield in 1999-2000 -- the Royals traded him to organizations with deeper pockets.
Theoharis, now back in Hastings, doesn't remember the last time he missed catching at least a few innings on the radio or TV.
When he sees a Cubs shirt or a Yankees hat or a Red Sox sweatshirt, "I get ill."
The Royals are the local team; that's who Nebraskans should cheer, he says. That's why he's devoted one wall in his basement to Brett and other Royals memorabilia. That's why he's "brainwashed" his son.
"If he wisens up and gets sick of losing, he might change."
In years past, he would've thrown something across the room when Matthews went to station identification after a homer. Now he takes a deep breath. He knows how Cubs fans feel.
"I wait for something bad to happen."
Put yourself in Jason Jorgensen's place.
The 31-year-old sports director at KRVN 880 in Lexington grew up in Minden listening to the Royals on KRVN, which has carried the Royals since the early '70s.
KRVN didn't carry the Royals last year. Fred White, who was Matthews' partner on the radio for 25 years, came to Lexington, where people used to meet in the summer and caravan to Royals games. He convinced KRVN to give Kansas City another chance.
"How was anybody supposed to know?" says Jorgensen.
On paper, the Royals looked better than the teams that lost a combined 210 games in 2004-05. They added veterans. They drafted Alex Gordon.
"At this point, I hope they keep him in Double-A so he's not subjected to this, " Jorgensen says.
Jorgensen coached Little League last summer. He absorbed the laughs from kids who don't know George Brett from George Costanza.
"It's easy to support a team that's winning, " Jorgensen told them. "Support a team that's 20 to 25 games under .500 -- in May."
Put yourself in Paul Fey's place.
Fey, a Kansas native and K-State graduate, follows the Royals from Omaha. He has one hope during this already excruciatingly long summer.
"Here's the thing: I don't want them to become the worst team ever, so they have to win 30 more games, " says the 37-year-old UNMC professor, eyeing the Mets' 40-120 record in 1962.
Fey was a senior in high school during the World Series. He watched a highlight DVD the other day.
"It is a long time ago."
Maybe a few years from now will be different, Fey says. You know, three years ago the Tigers almost set a major league record with 119 losses. Now they're the best team in baseball.
By 2009, Gordon should be at Brett's position. A new GM -- or even better, a new owner -- may shuffle the deck and spend some money. Maybe the pitching will be better, says the Hastings teacher.
And just like that, Theoharis relapses. He remembers Zack Greinke.
The kid was once tabbed as the best pitching prospect since Bret Saberhagen and David Cone and Kevin Appier.
In February, he left the Royals during spring training to seek psychological counseling. Ain't that the Royals' luck, Theoharis says. "I might be joining him pretty soon."
If Hollywood producers should decide to remake "Major League, " the stars of the movie would be the Kansas City Royals.
Their audition tape is a blooper reel.
Earlier this season infielder Esteban German was in center field and tried to catch a fly ball with his face. His excuse: He forgot his sunglasses. Catcher John Buck was charged with a passed ball on a pitchout.
The Royals' best player, Mike Sweeney, gets injured as often as the Royals lose. He's on the DL with a bulging disk in his upper back. Before that he was hitting .176.
Closer Mike MacDougal is on the DL with a shoulder strain. His replacements have blown 12 of 17 save opportunities.
The comedy of errors extends to the top of the organization. Owner David Glass reportedly has offered Atlanta assistant Dayton Moore the job as general manager. But Glass has yet to fire the current GM.
The biggest joke might be who is selected as the Royals' All-Star representative. Mark Grudzielanek is the only starter hitting above .300. Mike Wood is the only winning pitcher.
No word on callups from the California Penal League.