Kansas City Royals: 2015 World Series Champions

It doesn’t feel real.

I’ve both heard this phrase from others and said it myself dozens of times over the past two days since the Kansas City Royals wrapped up the 2015 World Series with another comeback over the New York Mets.  It feels like some form of suspended alternate reality. It’s barely computing.

Sure, I ran out to the garage and found my stash of leftover fireworks, but blowing those up almost felt like I was doing it because it was what I was supposed to do. I honestly have no idea how to react. I’ve been surprisingly calm about the entire thing, but perhaps a better word is “stunned” or “in disbelief.” It feels like a movie script. Or even a dream. Maybe it’s because I watched them celebrate on TV on the road rather than in person at The K that it feels so strange. But even after the parade yesterday, it hasn’t totally sunk in. It feels so odd. Unfamiliar.

And that parade! Holy smokes. Eight-hundred thousand of us all in one place. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I’m sure I never will again. I kept having to pause and look around me and realize where I even was. The last month has been another whirlwind, and to have it all culminate in the happiest mass of humanity/traffic the city has ever witnessed, again, just didn’t compute.

I expect it takes some time to really sink in. Maybe every major event that transpires between now and Spring Training will further convince me that it actually happened. Maybe for some of you the parade is what sealed the experience. It probably helped a bit for me, but I’m not totally there yet. Maybe it will sink in when Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer go on Jimmy Fallon tonight. Or when the whole team visits the White House and President Obama makes some wise crack about his embarrassing Chicago White Sox. Maybe it’ll sink in then. Or maybe on Opening Day when we raise the “2015 World Champions” flag in the presence of the team we beat to get it. Maybe that will be the moment I really can grasp what has happened here.

Or maybe it will never fully sink in. Maybe this is what it always feels like when something of this magnitude actually happens, when everything you’ve been working toward actually comes to fruition. Maybe championships just feel this way. I don’t know. I’ve never been here before.

I’m thinking back on all the comebacks and am realizing that I was emotional during ALDS Games 4 and 5, ALCS Game 6, WS Games 1 and 2 and 4. But once the Royals won Game 4 in New York and went up 3 games to 1, something in me clicked over from hopeful to expectant. I no longer hoped we would win the World Series, I knew we would. It was only a matter of when. When Hosmer took home to tie the game, I yelled. And when Christian Colon singled to drive in Escobar to take the lead, I yelled again. And when Lorenzo Cain doubled to make it 7-2, I yelled a third time. But none of those were on the level of pure elation I’d experienced in those other games.

Somehow I’d moved into another state of being where I was no longer hoping for something to happen, but instead was smacked with the reality that what I was hoping for was happening. I didn’t need to hope anymore because my hopes had been realized. As a Kansas Citian, this just isn’t something I really know how to comprehend.

I was a fetus in 1985 the last time the Royals won the World Series, so I have no memory of the ’85 World Series or the parade or George Brett or Willie Wilson or Frank White or any of those guys. I’ve since learned about them, and watched videos and read statistics, but I have no idea what it was like to watch that team play and feel caught up in the entire journey with them. To me, those guys are legends. And these guys who just won it all – this 2015 Kansas City Royals team – they’re just a group of normal dudes who love playing this game together.

But that’s the thing – these aren’t just normal dudes. We’ve all just witnessed greatness. George Brett said at the rally last night that this is the greatest Kansas City Royals team ever. What?! Could that be true?

I think it is true. The names Gordon and Cain and Perez and Moustakas and Hosmer and Escobar will be legendary. Many on that list will become Royals Hall of Famers someday. Some of them may have their numbers retired or even a statue created for them. We witnessed greatness. The stuff of legends.

And someday I hope I can walk through the Royals Hall of Fame with my kids or with my kids’ kids and tell them about Alex Gordon hitting a game tying solo shot with one out in the 9th. Or about Lorenzo Cain scoring from first base on a single. Or about Eric Hosmer sliding head first into home on a routine grounder to third base.

I’ll tell them about The Johnny Cueto Experience and about Alcides Escobar‘s hit streak. I’ll tell them about how Ben Zobrist was a doubles machine and how Salvador Perez’s World Series MVP could’ve gone to any one of a dozen guys on the roster – including a cyborg relief pitcher named Wade Davis who racked up the highest Wins Above Replacement of any pitcher this postseason. I’ll tell them about Killer Kelvin Herrera‘s 3 extra innings of work in the final game of the season, a feat that goes unnoticed due to our bullpen’s expected utter dominance.

I’ll tell them about the emotional adversity this team faced with the deaths of 3 different players’ parents – Mike Moustakas‘s mom, Chris Young‘s dad and Edison Volquez’s dad – and how the team rallied around each. And I’m sure I’ll tell them nothing but glowing tales about Ned Yost, the manager with the highest postseason winning percentage in all of baseball all-time.

Legends only grow over time, and there’s nothing this team can do to take away from what it’s already accomplished. Back to back American League Championships, and now a World Series. And who knows, maybe there’s even more to come? It’s only 2015, for crying out loud, and this team’s window supposedly doesn’t close for another two years. They have some work to do this offseason to make that happen, but I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s another post for another day.

For now, I know this…

Greatest team. Greatest fans. Greatest city. Unbelievable.

-apc.

Header photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images, accessed here

Royals-Mets World Series Primer & Prediction

They did it. The Kansas City Royals, for the second time in as many years, are American League Champs. They’re headed to the World Series. Again. Expectations were high – this team and this fanbase expected to be here. In fact, anything less than a World Series return was likely to be considered a disappointment after how last year ended. And they actually did it.

I’ve watched this approximately 9 million times over the past three days. I can’t get enough Yordano. His accent. His laugh. The way he rolls his head around like a Muppet. The way his mouth opens wide like a Muppet. The way he looks almost exactly like a Muppet. There’s a very strong possibility I’ll be dressing up as Probably Drunk AL Champ Yordano Ventura for Halloween this weekend. And of course, someone has already remixed it.

Yordano has every right to be that amped about the circumstances. Conquering the Toronto Blue Jays has been the Royals’ top priority since around early August. It was so evident that the Jays were the Royals biggest American League threat that the Royals advance scouting department dedicated two scouts solely on figuring out the Blue Jays tendencies and weaknesses. And boy, were they successful. (If you really want to get excited about the minutiae within the Royals ALCS victory, I highly recommend giving this SI piece by Tom Verducci a read if you haven’t already. Seriously. Click over. I’ll wait.)

So many great moments from Game 6 to talk about. Back in Game 2, David Price shut the Royals down for the first 6 innings, but then in the 7th the Royals shredded him for 5 runs. On Friday night, Ben Zobrist picked up right where he left off hitting a solo home run in the first inning. Mike Moustakas added another solo home run in the 2nd thanks to this kid.

Click to watch the video.

With the exception of one pitch to Jose Bautista, Yordano was locked in on Friday night. On that one pitch, Salvador Perez set up low and away – the spot where Royals pitchers had been pitching the Toronto slugger the entire series – but this pitch tailed up and out over the plate. Bautista feasts on mistakes, and he hit the ball a mile. The Royals would get the run back in the 7th when Alex Rios – of course it was Rios – singled in Moustakas from second base. But before he made it to second base, Moose was on first base, and this happened…

Chris Colabello clearly believes he has the ball. Moose is like, “uh, ball’s over here, bro.”

After his RBI single, Rios did something even more incredible: he stole a base off David Price. Alex Rios was the first and only person all season long to successfully steal on Price. What! Again, for more on the awesomeness on this moment, go back up and read that article I linked before if you didn’t the first time. It is without question the best baseball article I’ve read in months.

Anyway. The score was 3-1 going into the 8th, and Wade Davis, the Greatest Relief Pitcher in Baseball and suspected android, was warm in the bullpen. Ned Yost decided to go with Ryan Madson instead against the top of the order – Ben Revere, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. I…wasn’t happy. I’ll let my Twitter feed tell the story from here…

Then Madson gave up a monster 2-run HR to Bautista.

And if that wasn’t enough, Madson walked Encarnacion too. Only then did Yost decide to go to The Greatest Relief Pitcher in Baseball, Wade Davis.

And then the rain came, and I went through at least three of the five stages of grief.

But by the time I sat back down in my wet Kauffman Stadium seat, I had somehow managed to not only accept what had happened, but was able to healthily move on reminding myself that the Royals were still going to win this game.

Wouldn’t you know the Royals did rally. Because they always do. Because this team never quits. Their rally consisted of an 8-pitch walk by Lorenzo Cain and a single by Eric Hosmer. That’s it. That’s all it took to take back the lead after the rain delay.

Actually, that’s not all it took. It took a the speed of Lorenzo Cain, the study and send of Mike Jirschele, the instinctual toss back into second base by Jose Bautista and the hard turn and retreat back to first by Eric Hosmer. You want another look into the details of that moment? Check out this article by Joe Posnanski. People are already calling it Cain’s Mad Dash, an homage to Enos Slaughter‘s run of the same name in the 1946 World Series.

Except Cain’s is even more impressive for two reasons: 1. He wasn’t running with the pitch and 2. The hit was a single, not a double. Here’s this from Inside Edge…

And then Wade Davis, over an hour since he’d gotten the 23rd and 24th outs of the game, went back out for he 9th inning and dramatically – with two on and no outs! – got outs 25, 26 and 27 to seal the AL Championship for the Royals. What a freak. Wade Davis has yet to prove to me he is actually human.

Okay, I’ve already given the ALCS too many words here. Moving on.

Time to look forward. To the World Series. To the New York Mets

Offense

A lot has been written about the Mets power starting pitching vs the Royals high contact offensive approac, but, as is usually the case in overworked narratives, I don’t think primary storyline is what will ultimately decide this World Series. I have a feeling this series will come down to whether to not the Royals starters can silence the hot bats of Daniel Murphy and Curtis Granderson.

One thing to note when you look at the Mets stats: they are not even close to the same team as they were to start the season. During the first half of the season, the team hit .233/.298/.363. That improved to .257/.328/.443 over the second half. Why the change? A complete lineup overhaul. They got David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud (it’s pronounced “dar-no,” impress your friends) back from injuries in August. They added Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline. They called up Michael Conforto from Triple A. It’s not the same team.

If we focus on just the second half of the season, the Mets sit right around the middle of MLB in terms of batting average, but very near the top in on base percentage and slugging. The offense is led by Curtis Granderson (who has quietly had a fantastic postseason hitting .303 and stealing 4 bags), Lucas Duda (who was quiet for a while but is still a scary HR threat) and Yoenis Cespedes (who is, in the opinion of this blogger, one of the top 5 all around ballplayers in baseball right now). But the postseason hero has been Daniel Murphy, who inexplicably went from hitting 14 HRs during the regular season to being a postseason juggernaut. He has hit home runs in 6 consecutive postseason games and 7 in the 2015 postseason overall. Carlos Beltran and Reggie Jackson eat your heart out. The guy is on a tear, and if he cannot be cooled off, then we can go ahead and chalk this series up as a win for the Mets.

This team isn’t the Blue Jays or the Astros, but they’re closer to those guys than they are the Royals in terms of offensive philosophy. As Eno Sarris points out over at Fangraphs, the Mets either walk, strikeout or homer at a rate significantly higher than KC – although everyone does those three things at a significantly higher rate than KC. The Mets are patient. The Royals are still a high contact team. They feast on fastballs, which is why they were thrown the least amount of them by the end of the season. They’re free swingers, but not for much power. They take the ball all over the field, and force the defenders to make plays.

Both teams have threats up and down the lineup. The Mets are more of a slugging team, but have the ability to do the small ball things that the Blue Jays and Astros couldn’t. They’re just a better all around team. I don’t really see anything that says one team is the better overall offensive team here. Different philosophies, but both are strong.

And the fun part – almost no one has faced each other, so who knows how this will go? Although it seems the Mets are rolling the dice and starting Kelly Johnson as DH in Game 1 since he’s 4-14 lifetime vs Volquez…all 4 of which came prior to 2010. Seems relevant in 2015. 

Edge: Push

Defense

Guess what?! The Royals still have the best defense in baseball.

Like the Blue Jays, overall this Mets lineup is pretty average defensively, but they are blessed with a phenomenal centerfielder. Juan Lagares is a Gold Glover, but he hasn’t started every game this postseason due to his lack of offense. With Kauffman Stadium’s large outfield, I’d be shocked if he didn’t get the start over Michael Cuddyer, who has played some lefty irks this postseason, and who may have some pop in his bat but is not on the same level as Lagares defensively.

Unlike the Blue Jays, their shortstop is a weakness. When the Mets lost Ruben Tejada to a fractured leg on Chase Utley‘s takeout slide in the NLDS, Wilmer Flores stepped in as his replacement. Flores can hold his own offensively compared to Tejada, but the drop defensively – especially against a high contact team like KC – is significant. He just doesn’t have range. Neither do David Wright or Daniel Murphy, for that matter. I’ll be looking for a lot “seeing-eye” grounders to get through the middle and left side of the infield.

Edge: Royals

Starting Pitching

Game 1: Matt Harvey vs Edinson Volquez

Remember back in September when everyone was freaking out about Matt Harvey’s innings count? The dude was basically supposed to only throw 180 innings this season coming off his Tommy John surgery. Going into Game 1, he’s thrown 202 inning between the regular season and postseason combined. So if his arm flys off, it’s not some Halloween stunt. 

Not that he has shown any sign of slowing down: Harvey went 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA during the regular season. His postseason ERA is 2.84, so he’s kept pace. He’s given up 4 earned runs on 11 hits in 12.2 innings this postseason against the Dodgers and Cubbies. Not exactly unhittable, honestly. He throws 54.4% fastballs around 96-97 mph, and mixes in a slider, curve, change and sinker as well.

It should be noted that Volquez’s fastball is up about 4 mph this postseason. That may not sound like much, but when the difference is from 92 to 96 mph, well, it is. It also means that while the media is touting the Mets “power starting pitching,” the Royals can actually match their speed in each game. Amazingly, Volquez’s postseason gameplan has not been to rely on his changeup at all, but to double down on his fastball.

People like to throw around the fact that Edinson Volquez’s career postseason ERA is 6.56. Just shush them. It’s all in the past. This postseason he has been much better, and even better than his line suggests, honestly. If Ned had just pulled him after 5 innings in his last start he’d be sitting on 2.16 ERA. Instead, Yost left him in too long and his ERA this postseason is 4.32. I guess poor managing shouldn’t let him off the hook, but the fact remains that Ed has been much better than his postseason stats suggest.

Of the three Mets righties, Harvey throws the most straight four-seam fastballs, and it’s his most valuable pitch. But the Royals hit fastballs. And righties. So unless Harvey can really brandish his secondary pitches, he could be in for a long night.

One wrinkle here though – and this goes for all four Mets starters – the Royals biggest advantage is in the bullpen. KC will have to decide whether to be aggressive on fastballs, or work the count a bit and get Harvey’s pitch count up to get to the pen. I think Harvey, with his high innings count, is the most likely to be yanked early in these first three games.

I have a good feeling about this first one. Volquez has been solid, and Ned never makes the same mistake twice. If both these starters go 5 innings, the Royals bullpen will hold down the fort.

Game 2: Jacob deGrom vs Johnny Cueto

Was it literally just last week when I wrote “How much more confident are we seeing Johnny Cueto’s name in the rotation now after his performance on Wednesday?” Yuck. What a stinker he threw in Toronto last week. Kris Medlen came in and pitched lights out in relief, but the damage was done. Cueto seemed to give an excuse for each of the 8 runs he allowed over just 2 innings – the mound is higher, there’s a man stealing signs in centerfield, the umpire was squeezing him, etc., etc. Can it, Johnny. If you’re not lights out early, you won’t last in the World Series. Again, Ned doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Cueto will have an extremely short leash this Wednesday. Danny Duffy ought to plan on getting warm in a hurry.

And he better be solid because you can bet that Jacob deGrom will be. It’s hard to look at this staff and say that one guy is the “ace” because honestly they have three, but this guy is it. With an ERA even better than Harvey’s at 2.54, deGrom is the real deal. His hair is disgusting, but his game is not.

Again, fastball/sinker guy – 45.7% FB, 15.5% sinker – with a slider, change and curve mixed in. His changeup is his second best pitch in terms of value, but he throws all his pitches well. It’s weird, these guys (deGrom, Harvey, Syndergaard) all start to blend together after you stare at their numbers for a while. It’s bonkers. Their skills are so eerily similar. It’s like they were drafted the same year (they were) and groomed in the same system.

This entire game depends on Cueto, but even if he’s locked in, there’s no guaranteeing he can out pitch deGrom, who is now 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA. If there’s one guy who can dismantle the Royals like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named again, it’s deGrom. And his hair is equally gross…have I mentioned that yet?

Game 3: Yordano Ventura vs Noah Syndergaard

Let’s throw fire. Lots of it.

This game is almost certainly going to set some sort of record for most 97+ mph pitches in one game. Syndergaard throws his fastball around 98 mph. He touches 100 mph regularly. He also has a very good low-80s curveball about 20% of the time to keep hitters off balance.

Dude sounds exactly like Yordano Ventura. Except he looks like Thor.

Ventura relies less on his fastball now than he did last year – his curveball is not only his best pitch, but one of the most valuable pitches in all of baseball. Syndergaard is a rookie, and his fastball is his greatest strength, so it’ll be interesting to see if his numbers shift in his second year like Yordano’s have. But who cares about 2016?! This is 2015, and Yordano has proven he can handle the biggest stage for two years straight now.

My best guess – the Mets pitchers will work hard to establish their secondary pitches and keep the Royals from zoning in on their heat. Syndergaard is the most likely to struggle with this transition. I have a feeling the Royals not only slap around his fastball, but also take a couple hanging breakers to #DongTown at Citi Field.

Game 4: Chris Young vs Steven Matz

Buncha weirdo stuff here after those first three matchups.

Steven Matz, another rookie, is the lone lefty in the Mets rotation. He’s your prototypical three-pitch guy – fastball 68%, curveball 19%, changeup 11%. He changes speeds very well dropping from 94 mph on his fastball to 77 on his curve. Since he’s a late call up, there’s not much on him in terms of numbers, but in the postseason he’s done a fine job albeit in short starts. In fact, it’s very likely we see multiple innings of Bartolo Colon in this game as well. One can only hope the stars align and we get to watch Chris Young get a plate appearance against Colon. That would be fun.

Oddly, I have no qualms about Chris Young anymore. I don’t feel like our season hinges on his performance, and he always seems to impress me. He just goes out and does his job as a very tall right handed pitcher.

I should also add: expect to see Danny Duffy in this series if any of our starters gets into trouble. With the Roayls throwing 4 right handed starters, you can bet the Mets will counter with a lefty-heavy lineup. Which means if any of our starters gets into trouble, countering with a lefty of our own makes a lot of sense.

I like our chances in Games 1, 3 and 4, but Game 2 certainly feels like a loss on paper. But pretty much across the board, the Mets starters appear slightly better. It’s like they’ve got a RHP machine that just keeps churning out power arms. But who knows. You can’t predict baseball, man, but the Mets clearly have the better rotation, and it doesn’t really matter if your’e better elsewhere, pitching wins championships.

Edge: Mets

Bullpen

Here’s something new: Kelvin Herrera is suddenly throwing a slider.

During the regular season, Herrera threw breaking balls around 5% of the time. In the postseason, that number has risen to 25%. I mean, who does that?! Who just starts throwing a new pitch in the most stressful and intense games of the year? During the regular season, he relied almost entirely on blowing guys away with his 100 mph fastballs. And when that didn’t work, when they’d fouled off enough pitches, he’d get them lunging goofily at his changeup. But now he’s throwing a breaking ball a quarter of the time.

Wade Davis is just so good. Like, Mariano Rivera good. He gets the ball and there is no doubt in my mind the game is over. Ryan Madson has now blown two games this postseason – Game 4 vs Houston and Game 6 vs Toronto – but the Royals have won them both. Danny Duffy has been great out of the bullpen when he hasn’t been expected to pitch to righty power bats.

At this point, all of the Mets’ trusted bullpen arms are attached to one man: Jeurys Familia. The perfect formula for the Mets is to get their strong starters to go deep into the game – preferably 7 or 8 innings – and then bring in Familia for the final 3-6 outs. His season ERA was 1.84. As far as closers go, he’s very very good. The other two arms we’ll certainly see this series are those of Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed acquired this year from Oakland and Houston, respectively. They’ve struggled this postseason, Clippard especially.

Edge: Royals

Baserunning

The Royals steal more bases because they’re the faster overall team. Whether or not one team steals more bases than the other might not be what matters here. The reality is that both of these teams are smart, and they make you pay on the base paths with their intelligent baserunning. If an outfielder doesn’t hustle, they’ll go first to third (or home). If there’s a double play possibility, they’ll hit and run. If there’s a chance to advance a base, both of these teams are going to take advantage. The Mets have 8 stolen bases this postseason (half by Granderson). But it’s their mind – not their speed – that’s gotten them here.

But cmon. This is getting tiresome. The Royals are the better baserunners. They’re equally smart as the Mets, but they also have the threat of Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson off the bench at any moment. If the Royals need a bag, they can – and will – take it. With the quality of New York’s starting pitching, it’s likely these games will be lower scoring and we’ll see what speed do in the World Series.

Note: It’s possible that Cheslor Cuthbert or Raul Mondesi end up on the team instead of Terrance Gore. I’d be disappointed if that happened, but you can’t argue the need for infield versatility over an outfielder who can’t hit in an NL ballpark.

Edge: Royals

Prediction

Ugh. This is a good Mets team. They play smart and they don’t beat themselves. Their starting pitching is better than our starters pretty much top to bottom, but the Royals are probably a little better in every other aspect of the game. I think the Royals ability to make contact against deGrom/Harvey/Syndergaard will be enough to score a few runs each game. The question is whether or not our starters can keep the Mets’ bats at bay.

It’s funny, when you make these predictions, really what you’re doing is picking the team you think is going to win, and the number of games shows your confidence level. In the ALDS, I took the Royals in 5. In the ALCS, I took the Royals in 7. I would say I was more confident in both of those series than I am in the World Series.

The Royals better win Game 1, because I don’t feel confident at all about Game 2. I’m most confident about Games 3 and 4, Which means we’d have to win 2 of 3 down the stretch to take the crown.

I think we can do it.

Royals in 7.

-apc.

Image: MLB on Twitter: @MLB, accessed here.

Game 17: Yankee Stadium

I posted in my book update that three ballparks along my tour were too meaty to do justice in a postgame blog. And while I didn’t have time to write about them then, it takes no time at all to upload a photo post from each of them. This is the first of those three. The other two are Fenway Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Commencing photos now.

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Still feels weird to look at myself wearing a Yankees cap. Stay tuned for more on my Yankee Stadium experience when the book comes out next year.

-apc.

Game 25: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, FL

“Oh, you should’ve been here last night.”

At least 4 people told me that during my time at Tropicana Field last night. Why? Well, for starters, they won on Tuesday night, 6-1. It was the second straight win against the Yankees, and since more than half of the fans in attendance were Yankees fans, a series win is a very satisfying thing.

It was also another stop on the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour. The Rays presented him with a kayak with pinstripes, apparently. Personally, I’d rather get the BBQ sauce set that the Royals gave Paul Konerko last night instead, but maybe #2 does more kayaking than the average person. Multiple times over the weekend the typical DER-ek JE-ter *clap, clap, clapclapclap* chant spread throughout The Trop.

So the Yankees fans kept telling me I’d missed the ceremony. Rays fans kept telling me that I’d missed a butt-kicking. I kept jokingly responding with, “a pox upon me for a clumsy lout,” as if I was going to adjust my itinerary to see Derek Jeter get honored. Again.

Tempers flared that night as well when Derek Jeter got hit in the hand in the 8th inning. Both dugouts were warned. Yankees manager, Joe Girardi went off and got tossed. Then the Yankees retaliated and hit Kevin Kiermeier in the next half inning and the dugouts emptied. There wasn’t a brawl, but a lot of jawing at one another while coaches restrained angry players.

But that was Tuesday. Last night was Wednesday. Let’s talk about Wednesday in St. Petersburg.

The Trop isn’t a miserable place, but it also isn’t great. The main entrance and concourse feels like a shopping mall, and you can’t see any of the game through the concourse. The grandstand is one giant bowl and the vendors don’t provide any visibility into that bowl unless you get back to the seats. There are TVs everywhere though, so that’s nice.

The seats are bright blue, which is kinda refreshing and cool, but about 1/5 of them are covered with tarps because the Rays hardly ever come anywhere close to selling out. Unless the Yankees are in town, which they were yesterday, it’s typically a pretty desolate place to see a game.

The worst part about the Trop: the outfield grass. The AstroTurf in Tampa Bay is uuuuuuugly. It’s splotchy and black and streaky in places. It looks greasy and wet in large swaths across the outfield. While most clubs have gorgeously maintained lawns, the Rays basically have an ugly stained carpet. The warning tracks are fake too.

The infield dirt, however, is real, thank goodness.

There’s a giant aquarium tank in the center field stands too. You can touch the rays with your own hands – two fingers, along the wings, according to the tank attendant. They’re rubbery. I didn’t like it.

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Despite this being just the Rays 17th season as a franchise, Tropicana Field is 25 years old. St. Petersburg spent a decade trying to lure a baseball team to come to Florida, and the giant white dome was one of the major moves they made in hopes of landing a team.

The experience bringing the Rays to Tampa Bay was quite the roller coaster ride.

In July 1988, there was a vote that nearly passed to move the Chicago White Sox to St. Petersburg. They had been in talks with the Twins, Mariners, A’s and even the Tigers as their ballparks were growing older to move them to Florida. Talks with the Twins progressed somewhat too, but obviously didn’t work out. In 1993, they tried to land an expansion team, but the Marlins were awarded to South Florida and Rockies to Colorado instead.

At one point – and this is just crazy to think about – the San Francisco Giants even signed paperwork to make the move from crumbling Candlestick Park to play at The Trop. Thankfully, Major League Baseball blocked the move. Can you imagine a world where the Giants play in Florida?*

* – Probably exactly what people were saying when the Giants and Dodgers moved west in the first place.

Finally, the roller coaster of possible suitors ended in 1998 when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became a thing.

Originally, they wanted to be the Stingrays, but there was another team in Hawaii already called that and Vince Naimoli – the penny-pinching paranoid micromanaging former owner of the Devil Rays – didn’t want to pay the measly $35k it cost to purchase naming rights. So they went with the Devil Rays instead.

A story just to get an idea of the kind of guy Naimoli was: he created a strict No Outside Food rule as to force patrons to purchase everything inside the park. Naimoli enforced this rule extremely well: he would roam the stands himself and if he found someone with outside food, he would ask what gate they had entered through and immediately fire whatever employee was assigned to that gate, no questions asked. Once, a bus of senior citizens came to the ballpark and a woman in a wheelchair was found with a granola bar in her purse. When she was asked to throw it away, she explained that she was a diabetic and needed it to stabilize her blood sugar level. When they wouldn’t budge without her ditching the granola bar, she opted to wait in the bus for 4 hours until after the game was over. That’s the sort of penny-pinching we’re talking about.

There was lots if immediate backlash to the name. The public hated it and they hated the color scheme/logo even more. Naimoli held a public vote between the Devil Rays and Manta Rays. When the voting opened, Manta Rays was winning in a landslide. Slowly and mysteriously, the gap narrowed, and about the time it was almost 50-50, the polls closed and Devil Rays was declared the winner, which was fortunate for Naimoli because all that money spent on “Devil Rays” gear would’ve gone to waste.

Vince Naimoli just didn’t get it. He made his millions by buying failing businesses, slashing all extraneous positions and expenses, and resurrecting it by doing things as extreme as forcing employees to reuse Post-It notes.

As the owner of a baseball franchise, this didn’t translate. The Devil Rays’ didn’t even have a company email account during the majority of his tenure. Everyone had to email from their personal AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail address because Naimoli was too cheap to pony up and pay for company email. And the worst part was that everyone was so afraid they’d get fired, no one stood up to his antics. They lived in fear.

The quality of ownership was reflected on the field. The Devil Rays were absolutely dreadful.

While the process of getting a team was a roller coaster, the Devil Rays first decade of existence was anything but. It was more of a flat line. Between 1998 and 2007, the Devil Rays finished dead last in the AL East every year but once, and that year they finished second to last. They lost 90+ games all ten years and 100+ three years.

They were an absolute embarrassment and the laughing stock of Major League Baseball.

So, in 2007, they exorcized the “Devil.”

No, I’m not calling Naimoli the devil. Chill out, you guys. I’m talking about the name change. They dropped the “Devil” and simply became the Rays. And while the team still embraced the sea creature as it’s namesake, it was also an allusion to the other meaning for the word: a ray of sunshine.

Brighter, sunnier days were coming. And soon.

It was time for a change. There was a new philosophy of Rays Baseball. One that centered around defensive analytics and being comfortable going against the grain of baseball tradition. In the same way that the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball thinking redefined how to win in baseball, the Rays needed to do the same. Otherwise, they’d always stay behind the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.

And while I wasn’t calling Naimoli the devil, he did decide to step out of his role as owner. There was a new ownership, new GM, new marketing, new color scheme, new logo…and a new manager who was the perfect match for this new era of baseball at The Trop.

Joe Maddon was hired by the Tampa Bay Rays and he is NOT your traditional manager. He isn’t afraid to push against orthodoxy and do things managers aren’t supposed to do. For example, he doesn’t like to utilize a traditional closer. Instead, he will bring in his best reliever at the most crucial point. If the bases are loaded with 1 out in the 7th, he won’t hesitate to pitch the guy who usually throws the 9th.

He breaks unwritten rules. One time in a game against the Rangers, Maddon intentionally walked Josh Hamilton to pitch to Marlon Byrd with the bases loaded. He didn’t care that it let in a run, the score was 7-2 at the time, he just believed that they were more likely to get Byrd out than Hamilton. Unlike the Naimoli era, ther is no fear in Tampa these days.

In 2007, the new leadership didn’t do much. Why? Because they didn’t feel it was important to win immediately. They could’ve worked hard to put the best team they could out on the field. Instead, they decided to take their time, flip some assets, and play for the future.

“Trust the process,” became their motto.

Royals fans are now familiar with this phrase – their own period of ineptitude, Dayton Moore started utilizing it as well. And now, 8 years later, they have fruits to show for their patience.

But for the Rays, it was much quicker. As in immediately. In 2008 – very next year – the Rays won the American League Championship and advanced to their first World Series. Worst to first.

Granted, spending a decade in the basement had produced a solid crop of young draft talent that was ready to emerge in the majors, but this was a different team – a different franchise and fanbase – than it had been.

The fans are a mixed group. On the one hand, there’s a youthful party vibe to Tropicana Field as might be expected for a young franchise. However, with the large number of retired individuals living in the Tampa area, there seems to be a segment of elderly fans too, but the majority are a raucous bunch.

One of the moves the new management made was to make it fun to come to The Trop. This meant summer concert series and goofy promotions. The most popular was Cowbell Night where fans received cowbells as an homage to the SNL, Blue Oyster Cult skit with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken. The cowbells stuck and are now around at every home game.

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I was sitting out in right field for most of the night, and there, right in front of me, was Wil Myers. Myers was traded to the Rays two years ago along with Jake Odorizzi in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis. It was a hotly contested move at the time, and one that seems to have actually paid off for the Royals and the Rays…assuming the Royals don’t blow it down the stretch.

Myers is smooth and casual and makes the game look easy. He made a leaping catch up against the wall last night that most players can’t make.

“Oh, to be young,” says Ichiro, probably. The Yankees right fielder spends literally every spare moment in the field bending and squatting and stretching out to make sure he is as loose as can be. At his age, he can’t walk out and play like he could when he was Myers age.

There was at least a buzz around the place – something that exists only depending on the opponent and/or promotion. Sadly, most of the buzz supported the rival Yanks.

Anyway, all that to say, it was an…okay experience. Not sure what the theme is here yet. Probably something about leadership and communication and fear. I have some ideas but I’ll have to flesh them out a bit before I write any of it down.

For now, some game notes.

Game Notes:

The game was a good one. Both starters pitched well to start the game. Alex Cobb, who nearly threw a no hitter against these same Yankees in his last start against them, retired the Yankees in order the first time through the lineup. He worked around a lead off single to start the fourth, and had 0 runs on 1 hit through 4 innings.

In the bottom half, the Rays got on the board first when Evan Longoria – the most prized of those many early draft picks through the years – hit a solo HR to center field. 1-0 Rays.

Brandon McCarthy started for the Yankees, and he needs to thank his defense for the win last night. In the first inning, Ben Zobrist led off with a single, and then David DeJesus scorched a grounder up the middle that looked destined for the outfield “grass.” Instead, it ended up in second baseman Brendan Ryan’s glove as he dove up the middle. If that ball finds green, it would be 1st & 3rd, nobody out. Instead, it got Zobrist with a 4-6 fielder’s choice. DeJesus got thrown out trying to steal second soon after, and McCarthy, somehow, only faced three batters in the first.

After Longo’s bomb, the wheels started coming off for Alex Cobb. Slowly in the 5th, and then entirely in the 6th.

The 5th started with Cobb hitting Chris Young with a pitch, who scored on a Chase Headley double. Headley then score himself when Ryan doubled two batters later and the Yankees took the lead, 2-1.

Then in the 6th, Cobb gave up a single to Jeter and three walks. Amazingly, the Yankees only plated one run as Jeter tagged up and scored on Myers dazzling play in right field. The Rays got 1 back when DeJesus led off with a triple in the bottom of the 6th, but that was it. Yankees took the final game i the series 3-2 and avoided the sweep.

Twenty-five down. Five to go.

Up next: Miami Marlins.

-apc.

Game 15: Citi Field, Queens, New York

Every history of the Mets begins with westward expansion.

In 1957, there were 3 MLB clubs in New York: the Yankees, Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Then in 1958, only the Yankees were left as the Giants and Dodgers left for California.

Giants and Dodgers fans were without a team for 4 years, and the New York Metropolitans were supposed to be the answer when they began in 1962.

In 1962, the Dodgers won 102 games in LA but finished second in the NL to the Giants who won 103 games. The Yankees took the AL with 97 games and won the World Series over the Giants in 7 games.

The Mets, in their inaugural year, lost a miserable 120 games.

40-120.

There’s never been a worse record since.

What made it even worse: they were playing in the New York Polo Grounds, the recently abandoned home of the Giants. The team that left went to the World Series against the cross town rival Yankees. The replacement Mets put up the worst record since the 1935 Boston Braves, and the 3rd worst record ever recorded.

I can only imagine how much of an eye roll the 1962 Mets were. This team was supposed to replace two powerhouse ball clubs. Instead…what an embarrassment.

They moved from Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan to Queens in 1965, and still piddled around in the bottom of the standings until 1969 when somehow, by some stroke of luck, they actually managed to win it all. The Miracle Mets had won their first World Series championship.

They won their only other ring in 1986. The Mets roster that year was extremely impressive: Daryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, Mookie Wilson, Gary Carter, George Foster, Lenny Dykstra, and Dwight Gooden holding down the pitching staff.

But it still took one of the biggest blunders in baseball history for them to win it all.

That was in Shea Stadium, where the Mets played until 2008. Today they play at Citi Field, which is basically a giant homage to Ebbets Field where the Brooklyn Dodgers used to play. Here’s a look at the entryway rotunda at both Citi and Ebbets Field…

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At Citi, they even call it the “Jackie Robinson Rotunda.” The interior is packed with Jackie and Branch Rickey quotes and video clips. It’s cool, but somewhat awkward since the Dodgers still exist.

In fact, the Mets colors – blue and orange – are a blending of the Dodgers and Giants colors.

Karlie and I were at the game last night together and she made the comment that the Mets feel “generic”. Their mascot is a man with a baseball for a head – same as Cincinnati. Their colors are copied from past teams. Their ballpark is copied too. They share a city – their team name is the “Metropolitans” which was supposed to unite both former fan bases into one. They serve “Brooklyn Lager” and don’t even have a hot dog named after their mascot. C’mon guys. Find an identity.

They just don’t seem to have much that is uniquely theirs.

In fact, the Queens fan base isn’t even uniquely theirs…at all. In a map released recently by Facebook and featured in the NY Times, it was discovered that the “Yankees are the preferred team everywhere in New York City.” Even the area surrounding the ballpark has more Yankees fans than Mets fans.

The fan reclamation movement of the 1960s seems to have failed. Even Jay-Z, a Brooklyn boy, is a huge Yankees fan.

The last time the Mets made the World Series was 2000, and they had to play the Yankees. The Subway Series (which I learned yesterday is technically the 7 train between Manhattan and Flushing) was won by the Yankees and they celebrated on field at Shea Stadium in front of probably more Yankees than Mets fans. Sigh.

It almost starts making you feel sorry for the Mets. So much baggage with their franchise. Feeling the pressure of two historic franchises that came before them, yet playing in the shadow of their big brother in the Bronx. It’s not a successful setup. It’s like they were born into a broken family system.

Family systems are so interesting to me. We inherit the system we are born into – the emotional strains, abuse and disease histories, dysfunction, abandonment, birth order, emotional distancing, employment history, marital conflict, etc. – and none of it is in our control at birth. Life is a complex web of overlapping human relationships that all impact one another. The key to healthily navigating broken family systems is managing to differentiate yourself from the emotional system.

Every single one of us is born into a different system and our task is to learn to navigate it healthily.

Discovering your own identity is crucial to navigating life emotionally healthy. And the Mets don’t seem to have their own identity.

Murray Bowen was the pioneer behind Family Systems Theory. I encourage everyone to go check it out more in depth.

I’m excited to look into this connection more as I write this chapter of the book. We talk about this stuff all the time in our seminary classes and ministry spheres.

Probably more to talk about, but for now, I’m going to move on to some game notes. I’m halfway to Philly right now and need to start researching where I’m going to watch the USA/Germany match. Moving on.

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Game Notes:

I’ve reached the halfway point on the tour: Game 15 of 30. But I’ve now only seen the home team win 1/3 of the time.

I saw the Royals and Cardinals win their home openers. I saw Atlanta win the first stop on my Smorgasbord Tour in early April. And I saw both Oakland and the Giants win while I was in the Bay Area.

After last night, I can add the Mets to the ever expanding list of teams I’ve watched lose this year: Reds, Rangers, Astros, D-Backs, Padres, Dodgers, Mariners, Rockies, Angels, and Mets.

Tuesday night, the Mets pounded the A’s 10-1. New York had won 3 straight. But then I came to town and had to wreck their mojo.

Last night’s game marked the third time I’ve seen Oakland win this season, and my wife, who has been with me for all three matchups, is basically an A’s fan at this point. Yoenis Cespedes is her boy.

The Mets’ Zach Wheeler was coming off the best start of his career shutting out Miami last week, but he didn’t have it last night. A Brandon Moss HR made it 2-0 after 1, and a string of walks and singles scored another before Cespedes doubled with the bases loaded to make it 6-0 after 2.

And that was Wheelers night. They pinch hit for him in the bottom half of the second: 2 IP, 6 H, 6 ER.

The A’s would add two more before the Mets could do anything offensively. Coco Crisp hit a solo HR and the Mets conceded another run on a double play. 8-0 after 6.

Then the Mets started to mount a comeback: Lucas Duda hit a 3 run shot in the 7th that made it 8-3 and caused the “big apple” beyond the CF wall to spring to life. Every Mets HR causes the apple to rise up from behind the wall. It’s a pretty stupid stadium gimmick.

We saw it again in the 8th when Chris Young homered and made it 8-5. But that’s all the runs Oakland would allow. Sean Doolittle, the A’s closer and a terrific follow on Twitter, struck out the side in the 9th to end it.

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Fifteen down. Fifteen to go.

Up Next: Philadelphia Phillies.

-apc.

East Coast Tour

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First of all, I need to apologize for the blog silence over the past couple weeks. I spent a week in Colorado running a youth ministry trip and the wheels came off for a bit there. It’s amazing how difficult it is to write when you aren’t doing it on a daily basis. Gotta get back into the routine though, because this upcoming week is going to demand a ton of it.

Because I leave tomorrow afternoon for the east coast.

Eight days. Six ballparks.

And when I get home I’ll be 2/3 of the way through the tour before the All Star Break.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be in Queens to see the Mets. Then on Thursday, a quick train ride to Philly will have me there in time for the USA/Germany match and a trip to Citizens Bank Park for the Phillies game. Then it’s back to NYC for a Red Sox/Yankees rivalry matchup on Friday night.

I’ll follow the Red Sox back to Boston, switch caps, and head to Fenway on Monday evening. Finally, Tuesday morning I fly south for games in D.C. and Baltimore on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

Then I’ll fly home and spend the next 48 hours sleeping, watching Independence Day, and tweeting about how Jeff Goldblum is the greatest actor not named Tom Hanks.

Here’s a look at the pitching match ups currently lined up for this week…

  • 6/25 – Oakland @ New York Mets (Mills vs Wheeler)
  • 6/26 – Miami @ Philadelphia (Koehler vs Hamels)
  • 6/27 – Boston @ New York Yankees (??? vs Nuno)
  • 6/30 – Chicago Cubs @ Boston (Arrieta vs Peavy)
  • 7/1 – Colorado @ Washington (Friedrich vs Strasburg)
  • 7/2 – Texas @ Baltimore (Martinez vs Norris)

Immediate takeaway: I wish I’d bought tickets to Saturday’s game in the Bronx instead of Friday: Lester vs Tanaka. Not that it will matter. Yankee Stadium will take my breath away regardless. The legacy of this team is wild. The theme going into Friday night: Empire, and it’s retiring Captain, Derek Jeter.

Same with Fenway. I loved seeing this game fall into place on the schedule. The two “cursed” teams in baseball, the Cubs and Red Sox, in an interleague battle. Of course, Boston’s curse has been well lifted while the Cubs are well on their way to 106 years without a World Series title. The theme of blessings/curses is going to be really fun to write about.

Finally, I can’t wait to see Stephen Strasburg pitch. In 2009, when he was a pitching prodigy coming out of San Diego State, my buddies and I were on the prowl for every box of Bowman baseball cards we could find. His rookie card was the most coveted baseball card since Ken Griffey Jr.’s in 1989. His injuries (and being shut down in the playoffs two years ago) have wrecked his potential coming into the league. When he’s on, there’s no one better. Can’t wait to finally see him in person.

Lastly, Camden Yards in Baltimore is a ballpark that I am extremely excited to visit. Man that place is majestic with the B&O building in right field. It set the standard for ballpark creations for the future. I’ve got a tour lined up for that one already (along with NYY and BOS, obviously).

It’s fun to see spiritual themes already unfolding as I get ready to depart. Here comes another adventure in pursuit of discovering the Story the God is telling in the game of baseball across the United States! Can’t wait to share these experiences with you all!

I’ll be listening to a lot of Jay-Z and The Roots to prepare. Maybe with some Ryan Adams in the mix. See you tomorrow, New York.

-apc.

Photo Cred: Flickr: leecullivan