Back in the fold
by Jon Worley
Denny Matthews got his Hall of Fame award today. The longtime broadcaster for the Kansas City Royals (he's been on the air with the team since its first game in 1969) won't technically be a member of the hall, but he'll always be in there as a winner of the Ford C. Frick Award. That's pretty good from where I stand.
I've been a Royals fan since 1975, though I didn't really start following the games until 1976. Lucky for me, that was the year the Royals became one of the dominant teams in baseball. From 1976 to 1985, the Royals were in the playoffs seven times, making the World Series in 1980 and 1985 and, in that last year, finally winning it all.
The Royals have not made the playoffs since, though they came close in 1987 and in 1989. In 1994, they were four back when the strike came. Who knows how that season might have played out.
You can believe that if you like. Royals fans know. We would have lost.
Since 1994, it's safe to say that Royals have been one of the worst--if not the worst--team in baseball. The only winning season since then was 2003, a freakish event that few with the team now can explain. More than 20 pitchers started games for the team that year, and it was pretty obvious even in early July that the team didn't have the arms to make it to October. Still, 83-79 is a respectable record. It was a crazy year, but a good one.
Since then, though, the losses have come at a rate of 100 or more a season. Every year has been a rebuilding season, except that nothing seems to get built. And then, about a year ago, Dayton Moore took over as general manager.
And while Moore has made a few good trades and signed some quality free agents, I don't think his wheeling and dealing and drafting is the real story. As soon as he arrived, there seemed to be a sense that the team wasn't going to accept losing any more. But, of course, they did. Last year's team may have swept Detroit (in Detroit!) to close the season, but it still lost 100 games. And then this spring, a dreadful start left the team at 11-26 on May 12. Attendance at Kauffman Stadium was in the teens...on a good night. The season was over.
It's still over, but at least it's fun. Since May 12, the Royals have gone 36-31. Today they clinched a winning record for July, which gives the team consecutive winning months for the first time since 2003. And with their current record of 47-57, the Royals would have to finish the season 15-43 to lose 100 this year. That's not gonna happen.
Back on June 20, I plunked down the $15 necessary to listen to the Royals radio broadcasts (and any other MLB game, in fact) on my computer. The Royals were in St. Louis that night, somewhere in the middle of the 11th inning of a game that would go 14. The ESPN Gametracker was on the fritz. So I put my money down and listened to the end of the game on the radio. The Royals lost. But I've been listening regularly ever since.
It's fun to follow a young team as it learns how to win. And it's fun to listen to a guy like Matthews, who knows the game well and doesn't pull punches. You drop the ball, you drop ball. If a pitcher comes out of the bullpen and serves up a batting practice toss that ends up in the seats, that's how it gets told. Matthews has seen more than his share of losing seasons. This one likely will end up as a loser--it's hard to make up 10 games in two months, especially with a young team--but right now the team is still a winner. And it sounds like Matthews is having fun calling games.
He's not the only one. From 1974 to 1998, Matthews worked with Fred White in the booth. White was forced out for some reason or another, but he came back to work for the team in 2001, and he calls games now and again when Matthews is doing TV or taking some time off to prep his speech at the Hall of Fame. It's been cool to hear White on the radio again as well. And he's getting excited, too. The past couple games he's made the comment that the Royals are a team that people don't want to play. That hasn't been true in, well, at least 13 years. And you know, something, he just might be right.
I know I wouldn't be as excited about this year if I couldn't hear the games. Following games online, reading stories and parsing stats is fine, but you don't get a sense of how the games are actually played. You don't get to know the players. And you don't really care about the wins and losses.
I could've bought the TV package for $40--and gotten the radio broadcasts as part of the bargain. But while I love watching games in the stadium, I grew up listening to the Royals on the radio. There's something comforting and comfortable about having the game playing in the background. My grandpa often fell asleep in his chair listening to the games. He knew that if something important happened, Matthews and White would quicken their cadences and speak with just a bit more urgency. He'd stir to catch up on an important insurance run or a sparkling defensive play by Frank White that turned a sure hit into a double play. And then he'd nod off again.
My bedtime is a little later than the end of most games, but I like working or reading or whatever with the game on in the background. It's nice being connected to the team again. And, in truth, if you can't get excited about a season like this one, where a collection of young players is learning how to win, game by game, then you really aren't a baseball fan. The glory years are great, but I still wish I'd known enough about the game to really enjoy 1975, when the Royals fell seven games short of their first division crown. Older fans talk about that year with real affection. 2007 won't be that season...but it does feel like the year that the Royals became winners again.
Matthews got his Hall call at the right time, after all. I hope he stays around long enough to enjoy the pennant races to come.
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