Its been a bizarre twenty four hours on planet Royal. Since Tuesday morning we've witnessed the trade deadline, the Bell resignation announcement and now, the postponement of Thursday's game with the Twins. Because of the utterly stunning bridge collapse in Minnesota, tonight's game with the Twins was one of the odder baseball games I've ever followed. As Royals fans we're used to irrelevant games, but tonight's in-an-alternative-universe-it-was-thrilling 5-3 Royal victory is in a class by itself. Not surprisingly, we barely had anyone commenting during the game thread.
Adding to the irrelevance of tonight's game was the certain fatigue we're all feeling following the annual trade deadline drama, a holiday of sorts which produces a kind of madness that induces 400+ comment debates about the relative merits of Hiram Kyle Davies. Davies is, I'm sure, a delightful young man, but at this stage he's the John Freeman to Mac Suzuki's Wordsworth. Of course, this site owes its very existence to our evidently insatiable need to ponder baseball minutiae, but that doesn't mean we should do so without self-awareness.
Which brings us, obliquely, to the curious timing behind Bell's announcement that this season will be his final tour of duty with the Royals. Bell's non-urgent resignation seems odd alongside the trade deadline hyperactivity and, totally accidentally, the horror of the random chaos which unfolded just outside the Metrodome shortly before tonight's game. For his motivation, Bell gave what has become our society's de facto answer: he wants to spend time with his family, although in this case, he seems sincere. Why make the announcement now? According to the man himself it was a matter of honesty, a need to set the record straight with his players about his intentions, lest he appear, retroactively, a hypocrite. Again, fair enough.
Still, the speculation will be that Moore played some role in this decision, either as a backroom initiator or as a passive non-beggar for Buddy's return. Buddy was someone else's hire, and, to tell the truth, a fairly uninspired, is not nonsensical one at that. Presiding over a wildly varied collection of parts, Bell is over 70 games below .500 as the manager of the Royals.
As I thought about Bell tonight, it occurred to me that Buddy Bell was the first baseball player I hated seeing in the lineup. Growing up in Graham, Texas, my first baseball love was the late-80s Texas Rangers. In 1989 the Rangers brought in Buddy Bell for what would become his final season. In my memory he was ancient, but looking back his stats he was "only" 37. Nevertheless, he had absolutely nothing left, hitting .183/.247/.232 in 89 plate appearances. That doesn't sound like much, but from the end of April through Jun 17th Bobby Valentine played Buddy just about every day at third base. The Rangers went 17-5 in April that year, and spent most of May and June as a relevant team in the old AL West. Still, their worst month of the season was a 10-17 May. During that month Buddy played in 19 games and hit .152/.235/.196, which was absolutely killer.
In my young mind, it was criminally stupid that the Rangers were wasting good at bats with Buddy Bell. At bats that could more properly be utilized with some combination of Steve Buechele, Jeff Kunkel, Scott Coolbaugh (Mike's brother) and Mike Stanley. In hindsight this is both inaccurate and embarrassing: the best of the bunch, Buechele, was actually finding his way into the lineup in a myriad of ways, and while Mike Stanley had his moments (187 career HRs and a lifetime .458 SLG while being nominally capable of catching) it wasn't as if George Brett was losing playing time.
As such, looking back on it, this was the baseball wiseguy blogger equivalent of thinking back to those female cartoon characters you found pretty as a kid. Watching Robin Hood in college I was stunned to realize that not only was Maid Marian an anthropomorphic fox, she also looked identical to Robin himself. You can put this memory in that category.
Nevertheless, its strangely fitting because Buddy's slow march to oblivion in 1989 was the exact scenario he repeatedly reenacted as a manager. Just in his brief time with us, Buddy has managed to be the last Major League skipper to give Terrence Long, Doug Mientkiewicz and Jason LaRue, to name a few, regular playing time. Worse still, while Buddy Bell was actually a helluva player at one point, the Royals have consistently chased the past's not-even-glory with the Elartons and Berroas of the world. In 2005, Terrence Long went to plate 485 times for absolutely no reason.
Still, theres something to be said for all managers having a weak spot for players like themselves, but its possible that in Buddy's case, the inverse is also true. Quietly, he's turned into an able manager of the pitching staff, a staff thats been one of the best in the American League for the last three months. Buddy's rarely left his weaker starters (especially Perez) in the game for too long and has diligently protected the workloads of Bannister and Gil Meche. Under Buddy's watch the Royals have enjoyed two adequate seasons of relief work from Jimmy Gobble, while inching closer to developing a 1970s style stopper/long-man in Zack Greinke. While Moore certainly deserves some credit, the Royals have gone from having one of the worst pitching staffs of all-time (no hyperbole) to having a team ERA right in the middle of the pack in the AL. As mentioned above, in June and July, the Royals were one of the best run prevention teams in the AL.
The bottom line is that the Royals have been playing good baseball with Bell as their manager. In a sport without plays or the ability to funnel at-bats to the same player over and over again, the manager is never more than a marginal part of the team's performance. Nevertheless, the Royals followed a 15-12 June with a 13-12 July. Even during the miraculous 2003 season, the Royals only managed to post three winning months, so don't take consecutive successes too lightly.
So while Buddy's tortured us with way too much LaRue and perhaps too much Ross Gload, he's also stayed patient with Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen, while finding ways to get Esteban German into the lineup as regularly as possible (although, admittedly, this took awhile). By most accounts his players like working with him and his reputation as a "good baseball man" remained intact even as he repeatedly lost in Detroit, Colorado and Kansas City. Moreover, as Rany Jazayerli pointed out in this year's BP, Bell's handling of last year's Greinke situation was both gentle and compassionate.
I don't think a good case can be made that Bell would have been the right man to lead this team as its talent matures and the real, honest to God, goal becomes winning now (or, winning then, as it were). Nevertheless, while I would have been positively thrilled to hear that Bell was leaving for the first 200 games of his tenure, I must admit I feel a touch of sadness now. Retirement is a kind of death rehearsal in our capitalist culture, even for the most anonymous of jobs, and there's certainly something chilly about the fact that Bell's diagnosis is the spur here. Moreover, we don't know -- and likely won't know for a very long time -- who Buddy's successor will be. Do you trust Alex Gordon's pre-arbitration years to Terry Pendleton anymore than you did Buddy? What about Joe Girardi?
The central fact remains the same as it was the day Dayton Moore was hired: it is not guaranteed that baseball in Kansas City can survive another decade of losing. If the Alex Gordon/Billy Butler era turns out like the Johnny Damon/Jermaine Dye or Mike Sweeney/Carlos Beltran era's it is not certain that the Royals can recover. The Royals have the smallest population base to work with in the game, and thats not going to change.
The next three years is the franchise's most critical period since the mid-70s. Under the pax Seliga there is no rest until all possible public monies are exhausted. Should a better stadium deal appear in Portland or Charlotte or wherever, the Royals, with their non-super-deluxe renovated K will not be immune to relocation. Even if the Royals stay in KC and stay the Royals, this might be their last chance to actually build a cost-effective contender.
Lets hope the next man is the right man for the job.
For now, its a final summer with Buddy, weirdly a pleasure trip, chance for appreciation and a dirge.
Related: Unpacking the Bell Hire (posted on May 31, 2005)