Tag: Jim Thome

Charlie Manuel

Charlie Manuel inducted into the Phillies’ Wall of Fame


Prior to tonight’s game against the Mets, former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was inducted into the Wall of Fame, which is behind the batter’s eye at Citizens Bank Park. Manuel is the 36th Phillie to receive the honor, following starter Curt Schilling last year and catcher Mike Lieberthal in 2012.

The ceremony began with current inductees walking to a podium on a red carpet from the dugout, one at a time. They included Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa, Darren Daulton, and former Phillies manager Dallas Green. Green introduced Manuel with a brief speech, and Lieberthal presented Manuel with his Phillies Wall of Fame jersey. Roy Halladay made an appearance to present Manuel with a miniature Wall of Fame plaque to take home, and Jim Thome — Manuel’s favorite — unveiled the actual Wall of Fame plaque.

A brief video montage played at Citizens Bank Park before Manuel stepped to the podium to address the crowd. He was effusive in his praise of everyone he ever worked with, from his coaches to the training staff to his players. He said that he never intended to be a World Series-winning manager; he just wanted to teach and be able to show up at the ballpark to take batting practice. Lastly, he thanked the fans for not allowing the team to ever quit.

Manuel wrapped up his speech, saying “I’m going to shut up because I want to see the game.” Before departing, he yelled the four words for which is most famous: “This is for Philadelphia!” after the Phillies won the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The speech was typical Charlie: positive, charming, and funny.

Manuel managed the Phillies for nine years from 2005-13, leading them to five consecutive NL East titles from 2007-11. He was at the helm when the team ended its 13-year playoff drought in 2007, ultimately being swept out of the NLDS by the Rockies. After winning it all in 2008, the Phillies lost the World Series in six games to the Yankees in 2009, fell in six games to the Giants in the NLCS in 2010, and suffered a Game Five loss to the Cardinals in the 2011 NLDS. Manuel went 780-636 overall with the Phillies. He was fired after 120 games last season, when the team was 53-67. Former Phillies prospect Ryne Sandberg took the reins in his place.

Jim Thome signs one-day contract, officially retires as an Indian

jim thome indians

Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer reports that former 1B/DH Jim Thome has signed a one-day contract to officially retire as an Indian. It coincides with the organization’s unveiling of a Thome statue at Progressive Field.

Many former Indians showed up at Progressive Field to help honor Thome, including managers Charlie Manuel and Mike Hargrove, GM John Hart, and infielder Carlos Baerga. Manuel and Thome, as expected, were effusive in praise of each other:

Thome played parts of 22 seasons between 1991-2012. He retires with 612 career home runs, which ranks seventh all-time behind Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey, Jr. He wore the uniforms of the Indians, Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers, Twins, and Orioles.

Hall of Fame voting has been wonky as of late, so one hesitates in calling Thome a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he certainly is in a just society.

MLB announces All-Star celebrity softball game participants

sway mtv

Every year during the All-Star break there’s a “Legends and Celebrities Softball Game” and MLB just announced the participants for this year’s event at Target Field in Minnesota.

The list of “legends” is an impressive one: Rickey Henderson, Andre Dawson, Rollie Fingers, Mike Piazza, Jack Morris, Fred Lynn, Ozzie Smith, John Smoltz, and Jim Thome.

And then there’s a solid group of local star athletes from other Minnesota teams: Adrian Peterson, Kevin Love, Maya Moore, and Zach Parise.

But then here’s the complete list of “celebrities” signed up for the game: Andy Cohen, James Denton, Chris Distefano, Jennie Finch, Melanie Iglesias, Fat Joe, Charlie McDermott, Nelly, Dylan O’Brien, Rob Riggle, Sway, and Andrew Zimmern.

Woof. Not listed: Jon Hamm. What a travesty.

No runs, no hits, no action

Oakland Athletics v Texas Rangers

Baseball is often called a slow-moving game … but it does change fast. It barely seems like yesterday when people seemed convinced that all the long home runs and the shrinking strike zone and steroid-infused barrage of scoring was on the verge of ruining baseball. And now, nobody’s scoring runs and everybody’s striking out. The epidemics change. But there always seems to be an epidemic in baseball.

Friday night there were six shutouts in baseball. Six. In 1996, that was like a month’s worth. There have been 96 shutouts in baseball already this year and we’re barely a quarter way into the season. At this pace, there would be close to 400 shutouts in total. That would be a Major League record.

Most shutouts in a season:

2014: 376 (pace)

1915: 359

1972: 357

1914: 357

1968: 339

Now, obviously, there are many more teams now than there were in 1915 or 1972, so it’s not a fair comparison — it’s like comparing a running back’s 1,500 yard season in a 16-game schedule to, say, Jim Brown’s 1958 season, when he rushed for 1,527 yards in only 12 games. Still, shutouts are up even from last year, and last year teams threw 331 shutouts, the most in the four decades.

Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto has gone 10 consecutive starts now — going back to last season — where he has pitched at least seven innings and given up five hits or less, two runs or less. That’s the longest such streak in the last 100 years. Texas’ Martin Perez has already had a 29-inning scoreless streak; St. Lous’ Adam Wainwright had a 24-inning one. It’s early but there are 11 starters — ELEVEN– averaging 10-plus strikeouts per nine innings. Last year there were two. There have never been more than five.

On the other side, the Kansas City Royals are on pace to hit 65 homers this year … that would be the fewest for any team in almost 30 years (going back to the 1986 Cardinals). Perhaps even more shocking, the Texas Rangers — who have hit more home runs since 2000 than any team except the Yankees — are barely on pace to hit 100 homers this year. You have undoubtedly heard all of the strikeout talk — hitters are striking out more than ever before and, consequentially, hitting for a lower batting average than any season in 40 years.

Of course, it’s easy to get irrationally swayed by the first 40 games of a season. The hot weather has not yet arrived, and hot weather tends to bring offense. Also, let’s be honest, pitchers seem to be breaking down at an alarming rate; by the end of the year I might be pitching for the Braves. Offense would pick up then.

This week, I had someone in baseball offer an elegant theory about what’s happening in baseball. His theory goes something like this:

1. Pitchers are overthrowing like crazy because 100 mph fastballs are the way to the big leagues and stardom.

2. Hitters are striking out like crazy because they’re facing more 100 mph pitches than ever.

3. Pitchers are breaking down because arms — except the most freakish of arms — cannot sustain the tension of throwing 100 mph.*

This seems too simple to me, too pat, and it goes off premises that might not even be true (are pitchers breaking down more than ever or are we just recognizing and treating pitching injuries in a different way)? But it’s pretty clear that something is happening in baseball. And, to be honest, it is something that I don’t think is good for the game.

Well, wait: I’m not  bothered by the lack of scoring. Baseball goes in cycles — as mentioned, it was only a few years ago that people griped that there was too much scoring in baseball. Offense will come back around again, and pitching will come around after that, and offense will come around after that. The seasons turn.

I’m also not too bothered by the rash of strikeouts. Again: I think the game will adjust and self-correct. Strikeouts kept going up and up as hitters started swinging more and more for doubles and home runs — the strikeout spike strike began in 1994, exactly when offense took off.

Take a look:

1970: 5.75 Ks per game

1974: 5.01 Ks per game

1978: 4.77 Ks per game

1982: 5.04 Ks per game

1986: 5.87 Ks per game

1990: 5.67 Ks per game

1994: 6.18 Ks per game

1998: 6.56 Ks per game

2002: 6.47 Ks per game

2006: 6.52 Ks per game

2010: 7.06 Ks per game

2014: 7.85 Ks per game

See that? For 30 years or so, from 1963 to 1993, the strikeout rate stayed about the same — always less than six per game. But with the explosion in offense came a new way of hitting. Batters realized that a strike out wasn’t usually a more costly out than anything else, sometimes it was even a LESS costly out. Batters struck out 150 times a season and 200 times a season and it just didn’t matter because if you hit a lot of home runs and walked a lot you are still a very valuable hitter. Jim Thome and Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn and Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez and even Alex Rodriguez became the standard-bearers of a whole different philosophy of hitting.

As long as that was an effective way to score runs, batters would keep swinging for fences rather than contact. But we’re seeing more and more that it isn’t working. Home runs are down, walks are down, and without those two outcomes you are left with a lot of strikeouts and not a lot of offense. I think baseball will adjust and making contact will make a comeback in the game.

But there is something about the way baseball is being played now that is bothersome. It’s kind of hard to put into words but, generally speaking, I think baseball has lost its rhythm. Runs are way down … but games are taking longer to play than ever before. The point here is not to be the latest to yammer about how long baseball games take to play — a brisk, beautifully played three hour game is one of life’s great pleasures — but instead to yammer about how baseball seems have lost its cadence. The game is supposed to be leisurely, but these days it’s positively stagnant.

There are numbers that show this; according to Fangraphs “Pace” — which generally measures the number of seconds it takes for a pitcher to make a pitch — it took pitches 21.8 seconds per pitch in 2007. That is way, way too long. But this year the pace is a full second higher. Relievers tend to take longer than starters. High-level situations tend to take longer than low leverage situation. Hitters take forever between pitches — Troy Tulowitzki seems to be singlehandedly trying to make the game unwatchable: Pitchers facing Tulowitzki are averaging 27.6 seconds per pitch, a full five seconds above average. The game is  grinding to a halt.

But you don’t need numbers to see this. You can see if in every single game. Baseball — with batters constantly stepping out of the box, with pitchers taking sabaticals between pitches, with managers and pitching coaches calling every bleeping pitch and five relievers every game preparing for each pitch like it’s their Bar Mitzvah … is just a lot less fun to watch. When offense was dominating the game, the slow pace a little bit easer to take. Lots of runs were being scored. Every batter was dangerous. There was tension filling the empty spaces. Now, though, with pitching on top, the empty spaces are just that … empty spaces. Nothing used to make me happier than sitting in front of the television at night and just switching from game to game or, even better, settling in for a random Brewers-Padres or A’s-Blue Jays game.

Now? I find myself switching to the Golf Channel to get action. It’s come to that.

There’s always an interesting tug-of-war going on in professional sports. On the one hand, you have the interest of the team. They need to win. They need to win to keep fan interest high. They need to win to satisfy their bosses. They need to win for job security, for monetary reasons, for sense of themselves. And so, in general, they play the game to win and not for any other reason.

And then you have the interst of the fans. They need an interesting game. They need a game that feels fair and feels exciting and provides enough enjoyment and fun to make all the money and time and trouble spent seem worthwhile.

Those two interests often clash. Not always. Fans can enjoy watching their own team win ugly. But often the teams efforts to win creates a much less enjoyable game. In hockey a few years ago, teams — particularly the New Jersey Devils — began to use the neutral zone trap to limit scoring. It was very effective. It also made hockey almost unwatchable. From what I understand the NHL made some subtle changes (they called penalties like interference more often) and not-subtle changes (they lifted the ban on the two-line pass) to make the game more fun for the fans. And it is more fun now.

Pat Riley began a similar trend in the NBA when he got his New York Knicks to play a bruising, ponderous style. It sort of worked — the Knicks won 50-plus games ever year under Riley — but it was impossibly boring basketball for everyone but Knicks fans. And scoring went way down and down and down in the NBA. Again the league stepped in with a few small rules changes and by calling the game bit more tightly which took away some of the advantages of that grueling style.

I’m not saying baseball needs to change rules to make the games move at a better pace. In fact, I know they don’t. There’s one on the books already that would do the job. In fact, there are two.

Major League Baseball Rule 8.04

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call Ball. The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

The intent of the rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shal insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and the pitcher take his position on the rummber promptly. Obvious delay by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire. Get that? TWELVE seconds.

And, the other rule:

Major League Baseball Rule 6:02

The batter shall take his position in the batters box promptly when it is his time at bat. (b) The batter shall not leave his position in the batters box after the pitcher comes to the Set Position or srarts his windup.

(1) The batters shall keep at least one foot in the batters box throughout the batters time at bat, unless of the following exceptions applies:

(i) The batter swings at a pitch;

(ii) The batter is forced out of the batters box by a pitch;

(iii) A member of either team requests and is granted Time;

(iv) A defensive player attempts a play on a runner at any base;

(v) The batter feints a bunt

(vi) A wild pitch or passed ball occurs

(vii) The pitchers leaves the dirt area of the pitching mound after receiving the ball; or

(viii) The catcher leaves the catcher’s box to give defensive signals.

If the batter intentionally leaves the batters box and delays play, and none of the exceptions listed in Rule 6.02 applies the umpire shall award a strike without the pitcher having to deliver a pitch. The umpire shall award additional strikes without the pitcher having to deliver the pitch if the batter remains outside the batters box and further delays play.

That 6:02 rule is long and dreary — I only included part of it — but the point is clear. Batters are supposed to stay in the box. Pitchers are supposed to pitch quickly. That is in the rulebook because baseball people could see, long ago, that players will have a natural tendency to slow down the game. The pitcher wants the hitter to wait. The hitter wants the pitcher to wait. The pitcher wants to deeply consider what the next pitch should be. The hitter wants to get himself into a zen state of mind. If they could play baseball by post, they would.

But it’s a spectator sport, and so they put in these rules to make sure that the players did not ruin the rhythm of baseball. And then, they ignored the rules and let the players ruin the rhythm of baseball.

By rules already on the books, each pitch should probably be delivered 10 seconds faster. Games, by rule, should be taking 45 or 50 less minutes without losing one bit of action. I have a weird theory that probably doesn’t make any sense to anyone else that some of the arm problems of pitchers relates to the painfully slow pace of play. Pitchers load up for every pitch like it is 2-and-2 to Harvey Kuenn with a perfect game on the line. I think throwing 100 pitches today, with all that delay time between and with each pitch analyzed and scrutinized and disected, is a whole lot different from 1975, when pitchers would just bleeping get the ball and pitch it.

Then again, that theory might just be me wanting to believe that if they sped up the baseball so that flowed again every single problem would disappear — in and out of baseball. I know that’s not true. But I do believe that a brisker game would be so much more fun to watch. The lack of runs doesn’t bother me. I’ll take a 2-1 baseball game any day — but not if it’s a three and a half hour 2-1 baseball game where I spend most of the evening watching major league baseball players do absolutely nothing.

The Royals: A history of (no) power


You probably know this, but the Kansas City Royals single season home run record is 36, and Steve Balboni set it almost 30 years ago. It’s always fun to list off the team-by-team home run single season home run leaders. Find your team!

Giants, 73 (Barry Bonds 2001)
Cardinals, 70 (Mark McGwire 1998)

Cubs, 66 (Sammy Sosa 1998)
Yankees, 61 (Roger Maris 1961)

Phillies, 58 (Ryan Howard 2006)
Athletics 58 (Jimmie Foxx 1932)
Tigers, 58 (Hank Greenberg 1938)
Diamondbacks, 57 (Luis Gonzalez 2001)
Rangers, 57 (Alex Rodriguez 2002)
Mariners, 56 (Ken Griffey 1998)
Blue Jays, 54 (Jose Bautista 2010)
Pirates, 54 (Ralph Kiner 1949)
Red Sox, 54 (David Ortiz 2006)
Orioles, 53 (Chris Davis 2013)
Indians, 52 (Jim Thome 2002)
Reds, 52 (George Foster 1977)
Braves, 51 (Andruw Jones 2005)
Brewers, 50 (Prince Fielder 2007)
Padres, 50 (Greg Vaughn 1998)

Dodgers, 49 (Shawn Green 2001)
Rockies, 49 (Larry Walker 1997, Todd Helton 2001)
Twins, 49 (Harmon Killebrew 1964, 1969)
White Sox, 49 (Albert Belle 1998)
Angels, 48 (Troy Glaus 2000)
Astros, 47 (Jeff Bagwell 2000)
Nationals/Les Expos, 46 (Alfonso Soriano 2006)
Rays, 46 (Carlos Pena 2007)
Marlins, 42 (Gary Sheffield 1996)
Mets, 41 (Carlos Beltran 2006, Todd Hundley 1996)

Royals, 36 (Steve Balboni, 1985)

OK before going any further let’s break all this up into a couple of fun categories. For instance, I found this breakdown pretty interesting.

Team’s season home run record holders:
In the Hall of Fame: 4
Out of the Hall of Fame: 26

Now, admittedly this is slanted because so many of the team home run records were set recently — more than two-thirds of them have been set in the last 20 years. So the Hall of Fame cases of most players have not even been heard yet. Ken Griffey will certainly be elected his first year on the ballot so that would make five of 30. Jeff Bagwell will go in sooner or later, I think Jim Thome will get elected at some point, maybe Barry Bonds will too. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz all have varying degrees of steroid stain which is why they are not coasting into the Hall even with traditional Hall of Fame numbers. It’s still unclear how we will look at steroids users in, say, 10 or 20 years.

Still, facts are facts and right now about one tenth of all the team home run leaders are in the Hall — just seems kind of odd.

Here’s another fun one, here are the years when the team home run records were set:

1932: 1
1938: 1
1949: 1
1961: 1
1964: 1
1977: 1
1985: 1
1996: 1
1998: 5
2000: 2
2001: 4
2002: 2
2005: 1
2006: 4
2007: 2
2010: 1
2013: 1

As you can see, only seven team home run records survive from pre-1996. Six of the seven are impressive home run seasons set by impressive players. Jimmie Foxx smashed 58 in 1932 and Hank Greenberg smashed 58 in 1938. Ralph Kiner’s 54 homer season from 1949 is still Pittsburgh’s record. Of course, Roger Maris’ 61 in 1961 remains the Yankees record. Harmon Killebrew twice hit 49 homers in the 1960s, when pitching reigned. And the Reds’ record is George Foster’s rather jolting 52-homer season of 1977 — it is the only 50-plus homer season in the 1970s or 1980s. You can see why those records have lasted.

And then there is … the Balboni record, which at this point has to be considered one of the eight wonders of the baseball world. Steve Balboni, you probably know, was a minor-league power legend in the Yankees organization; he hit 32 homers in 83 games for Class AAA Columbus in 1982 and 27 more in 84 games in 1983. The Yankees still did not take him seriously as a prospect. Nobody really did. He was big and slow, he struck out a bazillion times back when that was a deal-breaker for most general managers and he couldn’t really play a position. He looked to be in the line of such minor league royalty at Jack Baker and Joe Lis and Jim Fuller and Adrian Garrett and Bill McNulty and other legendary minor league sluggers who you probably have never heard of.

The Yankees traded him to the Royals for Duane Dewey and Mike Armstrong. Well, the Royals desperately needed power. They always have. The year the Royals got him, they gave him 500 or so plate appearances and Balboni did what Balboni does. He struck out 139 times, he hit .244, he played first base to a near draw and he mashed 28 home runs. The Royals were so excited about those home runs (Frank White was second on the team with 17) that in 1985, they gave Balboni more plate appearances. In return, he gave them more Balboni: A .243 batting average, a .307 on-base percentage, a league-leading 166 strikeouts, pretty ghastly defense at first base. But he mashed those 36 home runs, a team record. And the Royals won their only World Series.

Balboni’s record could have been broken a couple of times through the years, most prominently in 1995 by Gary Gaetti. If you don’t remember Gaetti playing with the Royals, you are not alone. Gaetti had a fine career in Minnesota, then they signed him to a big and rather disastrous big-money deal in California. I know, the Angels making a dubious big-money signing … I’m shocked too. The Angels paid more than $5 million to dump Gaetti in 1993. when he was hitting .180, and the Royals scooped him up, endured a couple of mediocre seasons and then watched him have one last glorious season when he hit 35 home runs in 1995 (just after the Royals moved in the fences … most on that in a minute). That season was shortened by the strike … if it had not, a 36-year-old Gary Gaetti would be the Royals home run record holder. I’m not sure that would be a lot better aesthetically.

How astonishing is it that the Royals home run record is 36? Well there are countless ways to look at it. Here’s one: The New York Yankees have had FORTY ONE players hit 37 or more home runs in a season. The Chicago Cubs have had 27. Jim Lemon, Tony Batista, Gus Zernial and Phil Nevin have all hit 37 homers in a season. Rafael Palmeiro did it TEN TIMES. David Kingman did it three.

So, I think it’s fair to say that the Kansas City Royals home run record is one of the more astonishing in sports. From 1998 to 2007 — the Selig Power Hour Decade — 157 players hit 37-plus home runs. More than 15 per season. Obviously no Royals player was even on that list. But even more remarkably, in that absurd stretch when baseballs were flying out like planes in Atlanta, the Royals had TWO PLAYERS who hit even THIRTY homers: Dean Palmer hit 34 in 1998 and Jermaine Dye hit 33 in 2000.

Yes, that’s right. The Royals have not had a 30-home run hitter since 2000.

You should know: The lack of power began as a point of pride or Kansas City Royals baseball. A little history: In 1969, the Royals entered as an expansion team, and at first they played in Municipal Stadium, a classic old neighborhood stadium where you parked your car at your own risk. The stadium itself was fairly nondescript; Municipal was not really a hitters or pitchers park. At different times, Kansas City Athletics crackpot owner Charlie Finley had tried to make it a home run park but he was never too successful. In the Royals first year first year, a veteran former catcher named Ed Kirkpatrick led the team with 14 home runs.

The next year, the Royals had their first legitimate power hitter — Bob Oliver — and he hit 27 home runs. That was the team record until 1975. Just as a side note, you probably know this, but Bob Oliver is the father of the longtime, longtime, longtime reliever Darren Oliver. I find this staggering because Darren Oliver pitched in the big leagues for roughly 439 years; I sort of expected his father to be Methuselah. *

*I should note — I am seven years older than Darren Oliver which means that, yes it’s just about time to send off for that AARP card and head to the 3 p.m. dinner buffet.

In 1973, the Royals moved into brand new and revolutionary Royals Stadium — and unlike Municipal this was a ballpark with its own bold and brash personality. Royals Stadium was kind of spacey, kind of high-tech, it had fountains in the outfield and far-off fences and springy artificial turf that would make baseballs bounce like super balls and conducted heat so that on summer days the turf felt roughly like the surface of the sun. These quirks actually helped shape those terrific Royals in the early years. They built fast teams that ran the bases aggressively and chased down EVERYTHING in the outfield. They were contenders on that turf for the next dozen years.*

*One of the great ironies of Royals baseball is that all these years of turf their groundskeeper was the legendary George Toma, who has prepared every Super Bowl field and is known as the King of Grass. George worked that turf but, sheesh, it’s a bit like having Picasso as your house painter.

Home runs were not part of the winning formula at Royals Stadium. The Royals DID have one a true power hitter, my friend John Mayberry, who mashed 34 home runs in 1975. In another ballpark, Mayberry almost certainly would have hit 40-plus … of the 34 he hit, 23 were on the road. Two years later, after he recovered from an injury, he hit 23 homers, 17 on the road. People just didn’t hit home runs in Kansas City.

It didn’t matter though, not for the Royals. Everyone else could try for home runs. The Royals had their own style. They played fast, played loose, they stole bases, they hit doubles and triples, they slapped bouncers over the infielders hit and sent grounders that skidded and luged between defenders all the way to the wall. They drove power teams like the Red Sox and Orioles nuts. From 1976 to 1985, the Royals won the American League West seven times (counting the strike season), won two pennants, won a World Series. They never finished Top 5 in the American League in home runs and were usually not even in the Top 10.

Royals from 1976-1985:

1976: 65 homers (11th)
1977: 146 homers (6th)
1978: 98 homers (11th)
1979: 116 homers (11th)
1980: 115 homers (9th)
1981: 61 homers (10th)
1982: 132 homers (10th)
1983: 109 homers (12th)
1984: 117 homers (12th)
1985: 154 homers (8th)

The Royals led the league in triples six times during that stretch, and more than once led the league in doubles, stolen bases, hits and batting average. That Royals fit the stadium where they played, and they won, and it was beautiful. Pitching. Defense. Speed. Who the heck needed power? Kansas City grew used to a style of play.

In 1986, though, things took a bad turn for the Royals on many different fronts. Great teams get old, and even smart baseball people almost never see it coming. It happened to the Royals in 1986. Hal McRae turned 40. George Brett and Frank White entered the decline phase of their careers which was pretty easily predicted, but Willie Wilson and Lonnie Smith, who were younger, entered their decline phase too.

To give you an idea of the freefall: The Royals stole 185 bases in 1980 when they went to the World Series. In 1986, they stole 97 bases and finished 10 games below .500. Stolen bases were not the reason they won or lost, but that drop does give a hint about a vibrant team becoming stale. The Royals could not play Royals baseball anymore. So, they started to focus on power. And they were lousy at it. In late 1986, they traded for Danny Tartabull who is actually the only Kansas City Royals player to hit 30-plus homers more than once (!). They also drafted Bo Jackson, who is his own story.

But Royals Stadium was still a canyon, and the Royals never finished better than 10th in home runs in the league from 1986 to 1994. So the power thing wasn’t working either.

Then, middle of the 1990s, the Royals had a bright idea. I kid, of course. The Royals did not have bright ideas in the 1990s. They did not have an owner, they did not have a direction, they just had a few well-intentioned people with Charlie Brown clouds over their heads and a knack for doing things that SOUNDED reasonably logical in the moment but were, in fact, New Coke level fiascos. In 1995, the Royals made the decision to replace the turf with grass. OK. Sounds reasonable. The park would look prettier. They also decided to move in the fences about 10 feet and lower them from 12 feet to 9 feet. OK. Sounds reasonable. The Royals could hit a few more home runs.

The grass decision did make the ballpark much prettier though it made the place much more conventional; and the Royals would find they did not have a prayer in a conventional war.

More, moving in of the fences turned out to be an unequivocal disaster. They apparently did not consider that moving in the fences would also make it easier for OTHER TEAMS to hit more home runs. In fact, as it turned out, moving in the fences would ONLY make it easier for other teams to hit more home runs.

Here’s a fun timeline: In 1993, the Royals allowed only 105 home runs — fewest in the American League.

In 1995, the Royals moved in the fences. They promptly allowed 37 more home runs than they had in 1993. Meanwhile they actually hit five fewer home runs than in 1993, this even with Gary Gaetti’s near record season. Turn back! Abandon ship!

No. Not the Royals. In 1996, they allowed 26 more home runs than they had in 1995.

In 1997: Ten more. In 1998: 10 more. In 1999: six more. You keeping track here? In 2000, the Royals had their season of magical curveball hanging They allowed 37 more home runs on top of all that for a grand total of 239 home runs. Only one team in baseball history, 1996 Detroit Tigers, has ever allowed more.

Meanwhile, their own home runs, as you already guessed, barely went up at all. The Royals tried to pick up home run hitters — they had Dean Palmer there for a year, Chili Davis was around, they brought in Jeff King for a while. And they had a long series of prospective power hitters work through their system — Mike Sweeney was, by far, the most successful of these though he never quite developed into even a 30-home run guy.

Others not as successful included:
– Craig Paquette (“Ball explodes off his bat!” manager Bob Boone gushed).
– Mark Quinn (who hit two home runs in his major league debut and then walked so rarely they once set off fireworks when he did get a free pass).
– Joe Vitiello (who once hit a 550-plus foot home run in spring training).
– Kit Pellow (who hit more than 300 career minor league homers and four in the big leagues).
– Bob Hamelin (the Hammer, who slugged .599 as a rookie and won the Rookie of the Year award then hit .235 and slugged .420 the rest of his career)
– Dee Brown (a former football player, who flashed great power in the minors but hit just 14 total in the big leagues)
– Many more!

After 2004, the Royals finally figured out that the short fence idea wasn’t working — hey, it only took about 10 years — and now Kauffman Stadium is back to having the biggest outfield and being perhaps the toughest home run park in the American League. And what chance do they have now of breaking Balboni’s record? The home run prospects kept on flaming out. Chris Lubanski was a 6-foot-3 outfielder who had unlimited power — our good pal, scout Art Stewart, told us we would “remember this day” when Lubanski signed and came up to take some batting practice — but he barely made it to Class AAA. The Royals drafted Brett Eibner — oh were they excited about getting Brett Eibner — a five-tool force from Arkansas. Power. Power. Power. He’s in minor league purgatory. It’s too early to make that same call about local hero Bubba Starling — one of the greatest Kansas City high school athletes ever — but at last check he was hitting about .150 in Class A ball so he’s looking pretty shaky.

Even the Royals’ relative success stories just have not become power hitters. Billy Butler was supposed to develop into a poor man’s Miguel Cabrera kind of slugger: He’s a good hitter. But he topped out at 29 home runs even that power seems gone now. Alex Gordon was supposed to develop into a slugger. Never happened.

Eric Hosmer, the Royals talked about him having light-tower power. Great phrase. He’s established himself as the everyday first baseman and he hit .300 last year. But seventeen games so far this year, he has as many home runs as I have. Third baseman Mike Moustakas hit something like 5,000 home runs his senior year of high school. He does lead the Royals in home runs this year. He has hit two.

The Royals have six home runs all year. At this point, they’re just hoping to break Balboni’s record as a team.

And you have to wonder: Why can’t the Royals catch a break on this home run thing? Other teams catch breaks. Why couldn’t the Royals have drafted Ryan Howard in the fifth round or selected Edwin Encarnacion off waivers or stuck with Jose Bautista (they are one of many teams to have Baustista) or lucked into a Chris Davis or Carlos Pena season? Why?

The answer, I guess, is that there is no answer. They are the Royals. The Balboni abides. In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay. But the Steve Balboni record of 36 home runs is here to stay.