The Royals are 88-63: Get your champagne ready…

The magic number is two. It could happen tonight.

Wouldn’t it be perfect if Johnny Cueto went out tonight and pitched lights out, clinching the Royals’ first ever AL Central division championship? Of course, we also need Minnesota to lose to Cleveland, but I was looking at the Indians’ lines against Twins’ starter Kyle Gibson, and check out these beauties…

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This is from ESPN’s stats page. Mike Aviles 4-6. Yan Gomes 5-9 with 2 HR. Michael Brantley (who, unfortunately, is injured) 4-11. Jason Kipnis is 2-6. Santana only has 1 hit but it was a 2-run HR. As a team they bat .344/.438/.557. No member of the Tribe who has faced Kyle Gibson is hitless against him. So, what I’m saying here is that I like our chances of clinching tonight.

The Johnny-Salvy Pairing

Throw in the fact that the Royals seem to have finally discovered the source of Cueto’s struggles and one could foresee the Royals popping corks in their home dugout about 8 hours from now.

This Johnny Cueto/Salvador Perez dynamic is really interesting to me. Andy McCullough wrote a fascinating piece following Cueto’s last start against Cleveland on how Salvy’s setup behind the plate wasn’t comfortable for his new ace. You can read that article here.

It makes sense. The 3-time All-Star catcher and soul of the team has his way of doing things. The new guy staff ace rental has his way. No one wants to butt heads. They both want to give the other the benefit of the doubt. But it wasn’t working. Finally, Cueto spoke up. We’ll see how things shake out over the next few starts.

Some folks – primarily on Twitter, so let’s not take it all too seriously – have suggested that Cueto pitch to the smaller, lower to the ground Drew Butera down the stretch. That, in the opinion of this fan blogger, would be pretty idiotic. Why would we ever want to get Cueto used to a catcher whose only purpose on the postseason roster will to be a backup catcher in case of injury? We don’t want Butera even touching a bat in a postseason game. No no no. You spend the next two weeks getting Cueto and Salvy on the same page so our best team takes the field in October. Come on, people.

Holland out. Wade in. Finally.

Ned Yost announced yesterday prior to the Royals 4-3 walks win over the Mariners that Greg Holland is out as the Royals closer and Wade Davis is in. Kelvin Herrera slides back an inning and takes over Wade’s 8th inning duties. Ryan Madson slides into the 7th to take over for Herrera. The 6th inning will be a mix/match situation, but I’m hoping Danny Duffy wants the job.

You have to wonder what took the Royals so long to make this move. It’s been very clear for more than a year that the best man in the Royals bullpen was Wade Davis. In fact, Davis has been so historically good that he may have the greatest two-year stretch by any reliever in the history of baseball. Why isn’t your best man pitching your most important inning? It could even be argued that Greg Holland wasn’t even the second best closer on the team. Herrera has been dominant as well. Yet there he was. He’s supposedly been dealing with elbow issues sin the All-Star break. His velocity is down. His control is miserable. He occasionally shows glimpses of his former self, but when a guy can’t command a fastball, he has no business being a closer.

With Holland being a free agent at year’s end, we’ve certainly seen the last of Greg Holland as a closer.

UPDATE: About two hours after this post the Royals announced that Holland has a significant UCL tear and will be shut down for the season. Supposedly he’s had the year since LAST AUGUST and has been pitching through pain. Crazy.

This Royals team isn’t messing around.

The last thing I’ll say here is that the Royals aren’t messing around this year. In the past, the Royals would’ve stuck with guys like Alcides Escobar leading off or Greg Holland closing or Danny Duffy getting more work in the rotation for the future. Not this year. This is 2015 and this – despite what the 2012 slogan maintained – is our time.

The Royals best 6 OBP guys are hitting 1 through 6 in the lineup. The Royals best bullpen arm is closing. Their second best is pitching the 8th. The Royals see that Kris Medlen is pitching much better than Danny Duffy and make the move early to prepare for the postseason. Even if that means Jeremy Guthrie has to get shelled a start or two, that’s okay, because Duffy needs to get used to the bullpen. The Royals aren’t afraid to bench their overpaid second baseman, Omar Infante (who is now going to be out a couple weeks with an oblique injury), or threaten to bench their underperforming and now bearded right fielder, Alex Rios, who has shockingly been our best hitter over the past month.

This team finally gets it. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say “finally” – I think Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have always gotten it, but they’re not playing for next year anymore. They’re finally playing for right now, and they’re making all the right moves to prepare us for the ALDS and hopefully beyond.

-apc.

Game 30: Progressive Field, Cleveland

“So, what team do you play for?”

“The Indians.”

“Here in Cleveland? I didn’t know they still had a team?”

“Yeah, we have uniforms and everything, it’s great.”

Is there a sports movie out there that better resonates with the culture of a franchise than Major League does for the Cleveland Indians?

Rookie of the Year is about the Cubs, sure, but it’s a kid playing baseball and that’s not realistic. Same with Little Big League with the Twins only it’s a kid manager instead. And The Sandlot is about a group of kids, only one of which makes it to the pros and it only shows one play of him stealing home for the Dodgers.

The Kevin Costner Trio – Bull Durham, For Love of the Game and Field of Dreams – don’t chronicle an MLB season either, each for different reasons. Bull Durham is about a minor league team; For Love of the Game centers on one specific game at the end of a season; and Field of Dreams focuses on the 1919 Chicago Black Sox and a corn field in Iowa.

Other films are terrific, but don’t have anything to do with an MLB franchise: A League of Their Own, The Natural, The Rookie, for example. All great films, but only The Rookie has anything to do with the MLB and Dennis Quaid only faces a single batter and throws three pitches.

There’s also Fever Pitch……moving on.

The only two that you might be able to argue are Moneyball and Angels in the Outfield. Both chronicle an entire season with an actual MLB team. Moneyball certainly resonates, but the fact that it is based entirely on a true story and came out well after the events took place makes it less compelling for fans. Angels in the Outfield is fantastic. Danny Glover and a young Joseph-Gordon Levitt headline the against-all-odds-bad-franchise-miraculously-turned-winners plot line. It’s close, but not quite.

And then there is Major League.

Again, the point I’m making is not that Major League is the best movie ever. What I’m saying is no other baseball movie resonates with a team more than the Cleveland Indians.

The 1989 flick features Tom Berenger as washed up catcher Jake Taylor, Charlie Sheen as California penal system product Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, and Wesley Snipes as speedster Willie Mays Hayes. The clubhouse of misfits is predicted by every major newspaper to finished dead last. Naturally, they beat the Yankees in the last game of the season to finish in first.

The reason it resonates? Obviously there are many.

First, the city of Cleveland is very prominent. The movie is actually shot at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland – the “Mistake by the Lake” as they call it. By contrast, Angels in the Outfield wasn’t even shot in California, but at Camden Yards in Baltimore instead.

The Indians go form being nobodys to the talk of the cities. The movie continually cuts to the people of Cleveland themselves left to comment on the team. The construction workers comment, “Who are these f—ing guys?” and the grounds crew workers comment, “They’re sh—y,” and the face-painted Wahoos in the bleachers are continually called back as a way to remind us why baseball exists at all: it’s for the fans. Major League does a great job incorporating the fans and the city into the script.

Secondly, it’s not true, but it also isn’t inaccurate.

The whole “terrible for over four decades” piece is spot on. The last World Series victory for the Indians was in 1948 – 41 years before the movie came out. They still haven’t won it all since then either giving the Tribe the second longest draught behind the Chicago Cubs.

The whole “our ballpark is crumbling” piece is also spot on. Municipal Stadium was the worst. It was built in the 1930s as a multipurpose prototype. It held over 70,000 fans and was rarely, if ever, full. Even high traffic games of 30,000+ were half empty. It was billed to be Cleveland’s version of Yankee Stadium. Turned out to be cold and breezy right next to Lake Erie. It also had an asbestos roof.

It was so bad that during the 30s and 40s – back when the Indians were still competitive – they would play their weekday games over at tiny League Park, despite it being a much older venue (1891), and would only play at Municipal on weekends.

Tribe fans never knew a time of winning at Municipal Stadium. It was a venue synonymous with losing.

The city of Cleveland recently renovated the old League Park site that had been just sitting there since it closed in 1946. League Park hosted players such as Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Cy Young. Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run there. The only unassisted triple play in World Series history was turned there.

The dimensions were awkward because the neighbors wouldn’t sell their property: 505 ft to straight away centerfield and 290 ft to right. To eliminate the number of home runs, they installed a 40 foot wall with a 20 foot chain link fence on top. A sixty foot wall. Crazy.

Some pics…
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The whole “going from worst to first” piece isn’t far fetched either. Because by 1995 they were playing in the World Series. They went again in 1997. They won the division 5 of 6 years between 1995 and 2000. Young players like Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle and old veterans like Edsie Murray, Omar Visquel and Dennis Martinez in those days, and – wait, vets and rooks? That sounds just like Major League! Shoot, Kenny Lofton and Willie Mays Hayes might as well have been the same guy. It was like the movie came true.

But those American League pennants and division championships weren’t played at Municipal. In 1994, the Indians had left their massive and disappointing home for Jacobs Field, and they won right away.

Jacobs, aka “The Jake,” can even be seen as a Major League reference to Jake Taylor. (These days, it’s Progressive Field, aka “The Prog.”)

It’s like the movie was playing out in front of Cleveland’s very eyes. Just at a new and improved ballpark.

The Prog is alright, I guess. There are a couple unique features I liked: the left field wall is 19 feet tall so the ball plays differently out there than normal. For example, yesterday, Alex Gordon picked one up off the wall and gunned down Roberto Perez trying to sloooowly leg out a double. I liked the “Indians” script on top of the video board in left field, and I liked the smaller dimensions of the park. It’s only 320 and 323 to the left and right field corners.

But while the playing surface felt small, the ballpark did not. It didn’t feel as intimate as other parks. I’m not sure there was a foul ball to the upper deck the whole night (there probably were a couple, but not nearly as many as usual). I also wasn’t crazy about the video board itself or the asymmetrical overhang on only the third base line. Made for odd angles from my perspective behind the plate.

Progressive Field is clearly one of the oldest ballparks of the retro renaissance of ballpark design. It feels like the early 1990s…instead of the 1890s which is how “retro” is supposed to feel. It wasn’t bad. Just alight.

As a whole, the city of Cleveland has had some pretty crummy luck as a fan base. The Browns were so bad they packed up and moved to Baltimore (before being reestablished a few years later). They had their hearts ripped out by LeBron James and the Cavaliers a few years back. He’s “coming home” now, but who knows if he can actually bring them a championship. He is the Chosen One, afterall, right? The fans deserve a winner.

The Indians in their late-90s prime came close but never delivered. Tribe fans are a very passionate bunch. They cheer as loud as any group I’ve been around. They also seem close as a community – as a Royals fan, i understand this one; after enduring so much pain together, you can’t help but be close by the end.

They’re also loyal. Two examples of this: first, super-fan John Adams has been sitting out in the outfield bleachers since 1973 banging his drum for the team. Never missed a home game.

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There’s also this dude who’s been showing up dressed as a chicken this year because apparently there was a chicken in the bullpen earlier this year and the Indians won their next bundle of games. Ten, I think. I don’t really get it, he was so jacked up and he was talking so fast I couldn’t even understand him. Something about the lucky chicken being the only hope Cleveland has at this point.

That pic, by the way, was taken and tweeted by Joel Goldberg of Fox Sports Kansas City before last night’s game. That my dad with his hand raised. No idea who that other girl is.

I was there rooting for the opponent, so I was pretty annoyed by the group at times. As I left, I realized had they been playing any other AL team, I would’ve joined right in with their heckling. But they were talking about my boys! Don’t you taunt Hosmer! Get off Gordon’s back! And please please please stop chanting U-S-A when Aoki comes to the plate. (That was about the only thing they ever did that I was 100% not okay with.)

Interestingly, they dish t have anything bad to say about Lorenzo Cain. They probably recognize that he’s THE ABSOLUTE GREATEST.

Game Notes

Super frustrating night for the Royals. Jason Vargas was super bad. So bad that he may be last on the Royals playoff depth chart at this point. It’s between he and Guthrie.

Vargas had very little control, and for a guy who throws an upper 80s fastball, control is pretty dang important. He gave up 4 runs on 4 hits and 3 walks. He threw one pitch into the 5th inning and that one hit Michael Bourn who scored after Brandon Finnegan relieved Vargas.

Indians starter, Trevor Bauer, wasn’t much better, but he got luckier, honestly. The Royals hit him hard for the four innings he pitched, but couldn’t catch a timely break. The Royals outhit the Indians 10-7, but the Indians outscored the Royals 6-4.

The Indians, however. Got a very timely hit off Vargas in the first when Yan Gomes launched one over the centerfield wall in the first inning.

Salvador Perez continues to swing at everything thrown his way. He struck out twice with runners on first and second. Thanks Sal. Infuriating.

Moose hit two opposite field line drives with runners on base. Both were directly at the left fielder. The ball didn’t bounce the Royals way from the beginning.

This is not how I anticipated the Tour ending. In my mind, this game was going to be the grand finale. It was supposed to end with the Royals clenching a playoff spot or moving into first place. Detroit was supposed to lose on Tuesday and the Royals were supposed to finish the sweep on Wednesday. Instead, it will happen today if Seattle loses and KC wins.

Sometimes things just don’t go the way you think they will. To probably over-spiritualize it, you have one plan but God has another. Life isn’t a movie like Major League…even though this Royals season and this crazy Ballpark Tour have at certain points.

More on the Royals later. For now, it’s time to wrap this post – and this series up.

What a thrill it has been. I can now say that I’ve been to all thirty ballparks in the same season.

Now it’s time to get to writing the first draft of my book. I’m going to be taking all 30 teams and writing a chapter on each. Some chapters will focus on my experience at the game, others will focus on the team’s history, others will focus on what’s it’s like to be a fan of each team. I’m going to utilize this series as the notes/framework for the final product. So if you want a sneak peak, go back and read through all of the posts!

Okay. Signing off for now. More to come soon.

Thirty ballparks down. Zero to go.

Up Next: The Royals make the playoffs.

-apc.

The Florida-Lake Erie Tour

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It’s the grand finale.  The home stretch. It’s the final countdown.

This six-game stretch marks the final six games of Ballpark Tour 2014. I can’t believe this crazy experience is almost over. This has been one of the most insane experiences of my life, and I’m really excited to take these posts, stories and experiences and compile them into a book to share with you all!

First up are the two Florida teams – the Rays and Marlins – on Wednesday and Thursday night.

Then the following Sunday, I’m flying up to Pittsburgh, renting a car and circumventing Lake Erie over the next four days. Pirates, Blue Jays, Tigers and Indians. Here are the projected matchups…

  • 9/17 – New York Yankees @ Tampa Bay (McCarthy vs Karns/Cobb)
  • 9/18 – Washington @ Miami (Fister vs Hand)
  • 9/21 – Milwaukee @ Pittsburgh (Peralta vs Worley)
  • 9/22 – Seattle @ Toronto (Paxton vs Happ)
  • 9/23 – Chicago White Sox @ Detroit (??? vs Price)
  • 9/24 – Kansas City @ Cleveland (Guthrie vs Salazar)

September baseball is awesome, and it’s going to be so cool to be in these ballparks in the midst of some intense playoff races. The Florida games aren’t nearly as thrilling as the games up north – The Yankees are a fringe Wild Card team, but barring a giant push they’re basically out of it, and the Rays (my preseason pick to win the division) are toast. I was most excited to get to see Giancarlo Stanton in Miami, but he got hit in the face with a fastball on Friday night in Milwaukee and is done for the season. He was a legitimate MVP candidate on a team that had a lot of hope moving into next year. Hopefully it doesn’t effect him long term – absolutely devastating to see happen.

But the Lake Erie games – oh man. While the Cardinals seem to have the NL Central all locked up, the Pirates and Brewers are both in the hunt for Wild Card spots so that Pittsburgh game will be intense – the Peralta/Worley matchup is a good one too. Toronto is a fringe Wild Card team too but they’ve been on a tear lately. They’re playing Seattle who is right in the thick of the race along with the Royals, Tigers and Athletics. (As a Royals fan, it should be real easy to root for the Jays to beat the M’s.)

Less easy to do: root for the Tigers in any capacity. This might be the first time I blatantly root against the home team when my favorite teams aren’t the visitors. Who knows? Maybe the Royals will sweep the Tigers over the weekend and completely change the narrative. Anything can happen in a week in this game.

Kind of a strange pitcher carousel happening: during the offseason the Tigers traded Doug Fister to the Nationals whom I’ll see pitch against the Marlins on Thursday. The Nationals traded Nate Karns to the Rays during the offseason, who I’ll see Wednesday (although they may throw Cobb instead). Then this season at the trade deadline the Tigers traded for David Price from the Rays, and I’ll see him pitch on Tuesday in Detroit.

To recap: Fister DET to DC; Karns DC to TB; Price TB to DET.

I end my tour in Cleveland, where I get to see my Royals one more time! I’m hoping the Royals will adjust the pitching rotation which would make Vargas start instead of Guthrie, but regardless, this is going to be a blast. In a perfect world, the Royals would clench a playoff spot while we’re in Cleveland and we can celebrate there. I’ll be the one hoisting Lorenzo Cain up on my shoulders after he steals home to win the game. Probably dreaming. It’s looking like it’ll come down to the final series in Chicago instead. Phooey.

Then I drive the two hours back to Pittsburgh and fly back to KC. Tour over.

Keep an eye out for post game blogs next weekend. It’s going to be near impossible to balance the Tour with the Royals season. Thankfuily, it all collides for Game 30 in Cleveland. Oh man it’s going to be nuts.

Thanks for following along everyone. Stay tuned for writing updates over the offseason! Aaaahhhh!!

-apc.

Photo cred: Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail.