The years 2009 and 2010 were possibly the lowest points of the Kansas City Royals. Yes, they had been worse before. Kansas City lost a stunning 403 games between 2004 and 2007. But the Royals were in the pits, on the brink of replacing their General Manager and entire front office. Fans were resigned to the fact that the Royals were bad.
Of course, the Royals did replace their entire front office. Dayton Moore was installed as GM in midseason 2006, and he immediately made moves to clean up the godforsaken mess that was the Royals. Everything was looking up; Moore had a plan and was sticking to it. In 2007, the Royals were seven games better than the 2002/2004-2006 teams, and future stars Alex Gordon and Billy Butler debuted. In 2008, the Royals improved by another six games, posting their second-highest win total since 1996.
The reason why 2009 and 2010 were worse was because the Royals had hope--and it was dashed. You see, in 2009, the Royals were looking at a group of young, exciting players. The aforementioned Gordon and Butler were there, ready to take a step forward. Mike Aviles had put up a stellar 2008 season, winning a few Rookie of the Year votes and seeming like the kind of late-blooming prospect the Royals just didn't develop. Starters Gil Meche and Zack Greinke were an excellent duo in 2008, and looked to improve and anchor the rotation. Mark Teahen was only a year removed from a couple of really nice seasons. Moore finally nabbed some free agents, as Moore valued Mike Jacobs' 32 homers hit the previous year, and underrated outfielder Coco Crisp looked to be a nice compliment to David DeJesus.
But 2009 was a disaster.
Yes, 2009 Greinke was otherworldly and won the Royals' first Cy Young since David Cone in 1994. Yes, DeJesus was very good again, and Butler took a step forward. But everything else fell apart. Jacobs was a disaster in every facet of the game, Meche's arm exploded, Crisp, Gordon and Aviles were injured and/or ineffective for huge chunks of the season, Teahen proved that he wasn't any good after all, and Hochevar turned in one of the worst starting seasons by ERA in Royals history. Let us not speak of Yuniesky Betancourt, Sidney Ponson, or Willie Bloomquist.
And that's what made 2009-2010 worse than anything else. Moore was making progress, and then everything fell apart, just like usual. After four full seasons on the job, Moore's teams averaged 93 losses a year, with the 2010 team somehow worse than the 2007 one.
Sports run on hope. Yes, athletic dudes do various incredible things with balls, but hope is why we keep coming back. No teams but one win the championship every year. Ultimately, 97% of MLB fans turn of their sets in November thinking, "Well, maybe next year." Those are not good odds. Sports do not run on actualities, because the cold truth is that every team but one fails at the final goal.
No; sports run on hope. Hope is eternal, and does not care that the odds are against you. In fact, that just makes it all the sweeter when you do win. Every spring training, almost every team and their fans have a path to the championship in their minds. That the unthinkable might happen to us is what keeps us coming back.
But there is nothing worse in sports than when hope is violently dashed against the rocks of reality. Some teams experience that more than others because life is unfair. The Royals were that team. In 2009, it had been 24 years since the team made the playoffs, and Kansas City had experienced only one winning season since the 1994 strike. So when the Royals spun their tires in 2009, and then in 2010, the hope that Moore would bring the team out of the promised land was dying. It would be another decade in the wilderness at least before we could quench our thirst, we thought.
Joakim Soria debuted for the Royals in 2007 as a Rule 5 pick. Baseball contains many, many weird idiosyncrasies and odd rules, and the Rule 5 draft is one of them. Any minor leaguer not on a team's 40 man roster that has played for a certain period of time can be drafted by another team in the Rule 5 draft, and that player kept by the drafting team--but only if that player stayed on the big league roster all year. In Soria's case, he was plucked from the San Diego Padres.
Rule 5 picks don't usually succeed. Teams structure their 40 man rosters to protect the players they don't want to risk losing at all, and so the ones left aren't the best by default. And even so, players drafted in the Rule 5 must stay on the roster of the drafting team for the full year or else that forfeits their rights to the player.
Soria was one of the rare that did. In 2007, Soria led the team in saves with 17, posting an ERA just under 2.50 in 62 games. In 2008, Soria grabbed 42 saves, at the time the fourth-best total in Royals history, twirling an ERA of 1.60. In 2009, Soria saved 30 games in a turd of a season, again with a tiny ERA of 2.21. In 2010, the year after the turd of a season that was a turd of a season in its own right, Soria again grabbed the third-best save total in a single Royals season, this time beating his previous best by one. His ERA? 1.78.
Having one of baseball's best closers on one of baseball's worst teams is like giving a Steinway concert grand piano to a four year-old; that kid needs and wants all sorts of things, maybe even a piano, but the child is wholly incapable of putting it to good use. So it was with Soria. Saving meaningless games is by extension meaningless. One of Moore's failings as a GM has been an inability or unwillingness to offer relievers, who often have a short shelf-life, for more important and longer-term assets. Soria had Tommy John surgery in 2011 after saving 160 games for the Royals. Greg Holland had Tommy John surgery in 2015 after saving 145 games for the Royals. Wade Davis was on the disabled list twice this year, and is having his worst season as a Kansas City reliever. Moore will treat his next closer just the same. His pattern is clear.
But at least Holland and Davis were saving playoff games, even World Series games. Soria was saving games that were followed with 10-game losing streaks in 90+ loss seasons. Useless, right?
Perhaps, from a purely utilitarian baseball calculus. But from a human perspective? No way.
We watch baseball because of hope, yes, but also to see greatness. We can watch our cousin Eddie drunkenly swing and miss at lobs in the local softball league. We can't always witness a large man swing a huge bat to smash a baseball 400 feet, or to seen an artist spin a slider in ways that shouldn't be physically possible. And so, when surrounded by such sorrow and terribleness, Soria was a beacon of light. I watched games wishing it was close, that Soria would walk to the mound and make batters look very foolish.
This year, Soria has been a dumpster fire. He has coughed up so many leads and has been dreadful in high-leverage situations. It's painful to see Soria be this way, and many loathe when he steps up to the plate. All too often, it has meant losing. I can't disagree.
But in 2016, the Royals are back-to-back winners of the American League pennant, and winners of last year's World Series, the 3% that won the championship. I write about that in every article I've written this year because it's part of the fabric of this current Royals team. This team won't make the playoffs. To be clear, it's not because of Soria. Soria has been a part of it, sure, but it isn't Soria's fault that Eric Hosmer hits 60% ground balls and hasn't became a slugger, or that Alex Gordon has been a shell of his former self, or that Mike Moustakas only played a month, or that Lorenzo Cain has been injured too, or that Wade Davis has been injured too, or that Kris Medlen has been injured too, or that Chris Young turned into a (very tall) pumpkin.
But, you know what? Let's say that Soria does cost the Royals their season. They play their way into a tiebreaker for the second Wild Card spot and Soria yields a walkoff in the 11th inning.
You can't win the World Series every year. The terrible years--the ones that featured Sidney Ponson, opening day starter, or Yuniesky Betancourt, starting shortstop--Soria has already made his mark there. He made those games worth watching. Every pitch was an exquisite taste of what it meant to be good at baseball.
Because of that, I'll always love Soria. Always, always. Anything else he can provide is gravy. Soria is, to me, Forever Royal.