The other day I was standing in my bathroom, wondering who the old man was looking at me in the mirror, when I came to the realization that the Yellowstone series is nothing more than Sons of Anarchy on horses. For some reason I get most of my ideas in the shower. My lovely wife, who is a big baseball fan, has me on a Yellowstone diet, two or three episodes every night and it’s disrupting my life.
I loved Sons of Anarchy and noticed that Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan played Chief of Police David Hale in the series. Then the light went off. You have the embattled patriarch (Clay Morrow, John Dutton III), the smart mouth female lead (Gemma, Beth), the heir apparent who isn’t afraid to shoot people (Jax, Kayce), the loyal muscle (Opie, Rip), the wise wingman (Chibs, Lloyd), the pretty young wife (Tara, Monica), the law officer who looks the other way (Wayne, Donnie), a large supporting cast (motorcycle gang, bunkhouse cowboys) and lots of shooting and killing. Good for Sheridan to develop out the idea and make some serious bank. I’ve long been a Kevin Costner fan, a bromance that my wife and children delight in teasing me about. After all, I’m one of only 15 people or so in the world who will publicly state that I actually liked the movie Waterworld.
There’s nothing new under the sun.
That quote comes from Ecclesiastes 1, verse 9 of the NIV bible. The entire chapter is quite profound, but verse 9 will suffice for now:
What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.
What’s the new “nothing new” in baseball and specifically for our Royals? What is the identity of this team? What is the identity of this organization? In his last years at the helm, Dayton Moore tried to make it about pitching, but so far that has flamed out.
In an earlier era of baseball, say from 1940 to 1975, most teams’ identity was tied up in starting pitching, specifically guys who could throw complete games. Many pitchers felt that being relegated to the bullpen was embarrassing. Some of the numbers were astounding. Warren Spahn threw 382 complete games and he only ranks 21st on the all-time list of complete games. Gaylord Perry completed 303 games. Fergie Jenkins threw 267 completes. Bob Gibson, one of the all-time greats threw 255 and would get testy if a manager even suggested that he come out. One time his catcher, Tim McCarver, trotted out to the mound to have a discussion. Gibson quickly cut him off, telling him to “get your *** back behind the plate. The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it”.
The early Royals knew that in order to be competitive they needed to do something the other teams were not doing. General Manager Cedric Tallis helped those early teams develop an identity.
When Jackson County built Royals Stadium, Tallis and Ewing Kauffman understood that the team’s best chance to win would be to assemble a team that played solid defense and could put the ball in play and use their speed to take advantage of the artificial turf field. And it worked. The defense was solid up the middle with Freddie Patek, Cookie Rojas, Frank White, Amos Otis and John Mayberry at first. Otis, Mayberry and George Brett provided most of the offensive fireworks while Patek, Otis, Brett, White and guys like Al Cowens provided ample speed on the bases. They drafted, developed and traded for just enough pitching to get into the playoffs. They couldn’t get past the Yankees, which eventually cost Whitey Herzog his managerial job.
Whitey then moved east 250 miles and rebuilt the Cardinals with that identity. By 1982, the Cards were World Series champs using that formula. They had hitting-speed-defense guys like Keith Hernandez, Tommy Herr, Ozzie and Lonnie Smith, Willie McGee, Darrell Porter and Gene Tenace. That team had enough pitching to win with Andujar, Forsch, Sutter and Littell. Gene Tenace is a guy I’ll have to do a rabbit hole story on. Drafted by the Kansas City A’s, played in and won four World Series, had a career worth 47 WAR and his first name is Fury. His nickname was Steamboat. Yeah, we got to take a closer look at this guy.
Anyway, Whitey was a smart guy. He assembled a team to take advantage of the fast turf at Busch Stadium and won. The press loved it and nicknamed it Whiteyball. They had an identity and stuck with it. By the time the two teams met in the 1985 World Series, the Cards were still sticking with that identity. The Royals were on the tail end of theirs but had just enough left to win. Looking back at the Cardinals lineup, it’s a bit of a miracle the ’85 Royals were able to win that series. Had Vince Coleman been paying attention and not gotten rolled up in a rain tarp, St. Louis very well might have triumphed. The Cardinals lineup, one through nine, was probably better than the Royals but they conveniently forgot how to hit, and the Royals young pitchers pulled them through.
Over the next two decades, baseball started changing again. The older turf parks like Three Rivers, the Astrodome, Busch, Fulton County and Veterans were torn down and smaller parks that favored the hitters started to pop up. Players discovered the benefits of weightlifting (and steroids). Home runs became the new “nothing new”. Lineups started to resemble modern day Murderers Row. The Royals, with their spacious stadium and humid summer air, could not or would not compete. Coupled with front office inertia, they got left behind.
They hired Dayton Moore away from Atlanta to right the ship. It took him awhile, but by 2013, the Royals had stumbled onto a new identity. Assemble a high-octane bullpen and play out of this world defense. That was their identity. I say they stumbled onto it because of a couple of failures that turned to gold. Number one pick Alex Gordon had flopped as a third baseman. The team sent him to Omaha to learn how to play left field and it worked. Gordon developed into one of the all-time great defenders in left.
In a desperate move to push the Royals into contention, Moore traded a handful of top prospects to Tampa for James Shields, Wade Davis and Elliott Johnson. Shields did what he was brought in to do, provide veteran leadership, show the young guys how to win and eat innings. The team tried to turn Wade Davis into a starter, giving him 24 starts. That experiment failed miserably which left the team no choice but to send Davis to the pen along with another failed starter, Luke Hochevar. Suddenly, with the emergence of Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera, plus Davis and Hochevar, the Royals came together. If the team had the lead in the sixth inning, the game was over.
By 2014, the team had perfected this approach. With Sal Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and Gordon, the Royals had a team of plus-plus defenders. They could hit a little too. The bullpen, with Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland was all but unhittable. They rode this identity to the World Series.
They took it to another level in 2015 by adding a few pieces, guys like Kendrys Morales, Ryan Madson, Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. Hochever returned from injury to pitch in 49 games. They won the World Series with that identity. Everyone loved it. Keep the line moving. The law firm of HDH. Those years were fun. Those years were Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra out on the town fun.
The Royals had an identity. From the All-Star break in 2013 to the final out of the 2015 World Series, they were arguably the best team in baseball.
It didn’t take long for other teams to copy what the Royals had done. High octane bullpens are the thing now. Every great team has one.
What will the next “nothing new” be? We all know the Royals can’t go toe to toe with the big money teams. The Yankees, Dodgers and their ilk, don’t have to worry about building an identity. They can buy their way into contention. Smaller market teams like Kansas City, Oakland and Milwaukee have to think outside the box and look for an inefficiency to exploit. Right now it looks to me like the Royals are struggling to find an identity. Kauffman Stadium is one of the most beautiful ballparks in the country, but it no longer offers the team a competitive advantage. The Red Sox can load up on batters who can take advantage of Fenway’s short left and right field walls. Colorado can load up on batters that can put the ball in play in Coors Field’s massive outfield. San Diego can load up on quality pitchers who keep the ball in Petco Park’s spacious outfield. The Royals? What do we have to work with?
If you can build a team suited for your stadium and can win 65% of your home games and split the 81 road games, you win 92 and you’re in the playoffs. You get into the expanded playoffs, and anything can happen.
I’m not sure I believe the adage of nothing new under the sun. I believe that, despite what the bible says, you can invent something new. After all, how many baseball writers do you know who can blend Sons of Anarchy, Yellowstone, the bible and a tip of the cap to Waterworld all in the same piece? Now we’ll see if the Royals can develop an identity, cousin.