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Chasing Immortality

Going in to the 2006 season, the biggest story by far was Barry Bonds’s march to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. The interest intensified when his alleged steroid use came to the forefront of the sports world again with the release of Game of Shadows. The chase has taken on a new dimension thanks to Albert Pujols’s fast start that has many people believing he could become the new single-season home run king. So, while Bonds is chasing Ruth, Pujols is chasing Bonds. These two sluggers have deservedly garnered attention in their chases of prolific records, but it is inevitable that Bonds will pass Ruth and the single-season home run record has been broken twice in the past decade. It is a travesty that these two players are gobbling up coverage that should be reserved for what may truly be 2006’s immortal achievement. 2006 should belong to the Kansas City Royals.

Now, I know there is a good chance you are sitting in your computer chair right now reading this and asking yourself, “Royals? The Kansas City Royals? C’mon, with all the great stories in baseball this year, you’re saying I should pay attention to the Royals? You’ve gotta be kidding!”

I am not kidding. Yes, the Royals are a bad team and yes, that usually means they are not worth watching. However, this team is not just bad. It is exceptionally bad, so bad it is impressive. You almost have to try to be as inept as the Kansas City Royals have been so far this year. As I write this blog the Royals are 10-35, easily the worst record in baseball, and they have not won in over two weeks. The “gold standard” for ineptitude is currently the 1962 Mets, who were a woeful 40-120. However, the Mets were an expansion team, so they will always have that crutch to lean on to defend how terrible they were. It really looked like the 2003 Tigers would “eclipse” the Mets, but they won their final two games to finish the year 43-119, tantalizingly close to immortality.

On a side note, The Tigers literally charged the field like they had just won the World Series when they won their final game and avoided 120 losses, but I do not understand why. To be honest, if I am going to be on a bad team, I want to do it right. I would want to be able to pull out the team picture from that year and tell my grandchildren, “Yup, that’s your granddaddy right there. I was on the worst team of all-time,” not, “Yup, that’s your granddaddy right there. Whoa Nellie, that was a tough year. We lost 119 games, but we weren’t the worst of all-time, just the second-worst of all-time.” It’s like losing at losing.

Anyway, as promising as things looked for the 2003 Tigers, the 2006 Royals have an even better opportunity to catch those infamous ’62 Mets. To start with, the statistics indicate this is the type of crappy team that just doesn’t come around very often. Right now the Royals are dead last in the majors in pitching and second-to-last in hitting, only to the Cubs. However, it can be argued that the Royals really are the worst hitting club since the Cubs must let the pitcher hit instead of using a designated hitter. For comparison, the 2003 Tigers were second-to-last in hitting and second-to-last in pitching. However, it could be argued that they really were the worst in the majors at both because the only team below them in hitting was the Dodgers, who had to have a pitcher hit instead of a DH, and the only team below them in pitching was the Rangers, who play in a much more hitter-friendly park than the Tigers staff did. Comparing the ’03 Tigers and ’06 Royals directly, the Tigers definitely had a worse offense but the Royals clearly have a worse pitching staff. By all statistical comparisons, the 2006 Royals are on the same level as the 2003 Tigers.

The Royals certainly look bad on paper, and they look just as bad on the field, if not worse. They have an innate ability to lose that could be described as precocious. This week, Kansas City became only the fourth team since 1970 to have 2 10-game losing streaks in the same season, and it is only the middle of May! Let me repeat that: Only 3 teams in the last 35 years have accomplished in an entire season what the Royals have already done. That is nothing short of special. If Kansas City can have 2 double-digit losing streaks in the first 45 games of the season, just imagine what’s possible in the final 117 games!

It’s not like the Royals are unlucky either, they truly are this horrible. Today is a perfect example. Kansas City scored 6 runs in the first inning, a miracle in itself considering the Royals’ pitiful offense was facing the surprisingly staunch Tigers’ staff. Now, all they had to do was try to hold on to the six-run lead for another eight innings. At the end of the seventh, Kansas City still led, though the score was now 8-5. After Bobby Keppel gave up a single to start the inning, Ambiorix Burgos was called out of the bullpen to preserve the lead and hopefully get the game to Kansas City’s best reliever, Elmer Dessens. Burgos got the first two batters he faced, but he couldn’t get the next four and he gave up three runs (though to be fair one run was charged to Keppel) and the game was put in Dessens’s hands, now with the score tied at eight apiece. Elmer got the first batter he faced, ending the inning with the hope of victory still alive.

Naturally, Kansas City did not score in the bottom of the eighth so the game went to the ninth still tied. Dessens got the first man he faced, but what followed was total carnage. Craig Monroe homered. Then Marcus Thames hit a home run, his second of the game. Next, Brandon Inge singled and then Curtis Granderson also singled, advancing Inge to third. Finally, Dessens was relieved, though his replacement Andy Sisco did not fare much better. He did get the first batter he faced to fly out to center and the ball was not even hit deep enough to score the runner on third. However, the next man up was Ivan Rodriguez and he hit a home run to clear the bases and essentially end any hope of a comeback. Adding insult to injury, Sisco walked the next batter but eventually finished the inning. When all was said and done, what had been an 8-5 lead for the Royals at the start of the eighth turned out to be a 13-8 loss.

As bad as things are for the Royals right now, they could easily get worse. To start with, their division features the best pitching team in baseball (Tigers), the best hitting team in baseball (Indians), and the defending world champions (White Sox). Don’t forget about the Twins either, who are heating up now that the offense is coming around and Johan Santana has regained his Cy Young-caliber form. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, Kansas City will face these 4 teams over 60 times this season and consequently may face a tougher schedule than anyone else in baseball. None of these teams are likely to show the Royals any mercy either because they will absolutely have to win every game they can to keep pace in what is shaping up to be an intense pennant race. Furthermore, the Royals’ two best position players to this point, Mark Grudzielanek and Esteban German, should be coveted by many teams at the trading deadline. Grudzielanek is quietly one of the finest second baseman in the game, a veteran with a relatively cheap contract, and also has post-season experience. In other words, he is what every contending team drools over at the trade deadline and it would be rather surprising if Kansas City held on to him. As for German, he is not nearly as accomplished as Grudzielanek, but is even cheaper and can play all over the diamond, and every contender can use a solid utility player coming off the bench. Also, if Mike Sweeney ever gets healthy, he would be a strong candidate to get traded as well. This would only make the offense even worse than it already is.

While everyone is gawking at Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, slip out of the main crowd and take a seat on the Kansas City Royal bandwagon. You won’t regret it. This team is going nowhere at a historic pace. Any statistician will tell you this team is destined for failure. Any scout will tell you this team is destined for failure. The Royals have already called one player’s-only meeting and after it got spanked 8-0. They have already tried everything to turn this season around and nothing has worked. Amazingly, despite being so pitiful, they actually have a couple players who should attract attention at the trading deadline, which means the team will likely be even worse heading into the final part of the season, when they face all those playoff-hungry division foes. We may never see a team this bad face such an uphill battle again in our lifetimes, so I believe we should cherish each and every whiff, wild pitch, dropped fly ball, and errant throw as the Royals lose game after game after game after game. This team looks destined to chase immortality.