KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The only way Luke Hochevar was getting a cheer Friday afternoon was if he hobbled off the pitcher's mound, which he did. A line drive hit him flush on the inside of his left ankle. The cacophony of ball meeting bone echoed well into the stands at Kauffman Stadium. "It dropped me like I got shot," Hochevar said, and so as he peeled himself off the ground and limped toward the dugout with assistance, the crowd turned Midwest polite and clapped.
Three innings earlier, more than 40,000 people aching for something out of the Kansas City Royals – even a .500 season, please – watched Hochevar play DUI checkpoint to their buzz. Over the first 32 pitches in the 2012 home opener, he allowed seven runs on eight hits. Sure, this city long ago grew accustomed to mound dregs. There was Jimmy Gobble's 10-run relief appearance and Brian Bannister's 10-run start, and nobody ever will forget Vin Mazzaro allowing 14 runs in one game last season. But this? In the home opener? God, this was so Royals.
Naturally, they booed. Only these were different boos, more legitimate anger than rote resignation. Because for the first time in a long time – since the strike maybe, or even longer, back to after the franchise's only championship in 1985 – there are actual expectations here, and they're not just from Pollyanna wearing rose-colored glasses while sipping on Kool-Aid in a fool's paradise. These Royals are supposed to be all right.
So for the Cleveland Indians to play batting practice after the Royals lost their last game with back-to-back hit-by-pitches, the first time that had happened in the major leagues in 46 years – that's more than 100,000 games – well, the anger was palpable. And even though the Royals ultimately bowed 8-3 – "It just got away from us quick," manager Ned Yost said, channeling Ron Burgundy after Brick killed a guy – it was fine because this was just one of 162.
More than anything was the feeling that pervaded the clubhouse that no longer is this a city content with losing. Emboldened by good management (GM Dayton Moore and lieutenants JJ Picollo, Dean Taylor, Mike Arbuckle and Lonnie Goldberg), great drafts, savvy contracts and an ownership group finally willing to support all of it, the Royals, against all bets, are one of the franchises doing it right.
And yet in this baseball landscape, where $200-million contracts are the new de rigueur and local TV rules the roost, the Royals are more impoverished relative to the leviathans than they've ever been. Which stands to create a messy outcome if expectations fail to match reality on account of the sport's economic puppeteering.
"We want to give them something," first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "We have the guys in here to do it. There's plenty of time left here. We can take this team where it needs to be."
Hosmer stood in front of his locker. Ten feet to his left, Mike Moustakas planted himself. And they talked, for five minutes, then 10, then longer. Hosmer is 22, Moustakas 23. They were taken in back-to-back drafts, ascended the minor leagues together, play across the diamond from each other and are positioned as two of the franchise's tentpoles. As they stood there, inside the youngest clubhouse in the major leagues by far, there was a sense from teammates and employees and onlookers that Kansas City, which loses these kinds of players, can savor them for a while, knowing it was their first home opener.
On the street, they'll call out for Moose, and he'll acknowledge them because ignoring people doesn't play here, and "that's pretty freaking cool to me."
"It'll be a lot cooler," Moustakas said, "when we're winning championships and they're screaming our name."
Hey now. The Royals' last winning record came in a fluky 2003 season, and since the strike they're 1,161-1,577, and damn, Moose, it's one thing to talk over .500 and another to maybe dream wild card, but championships and rings and ticker-tape parades and beating the Yankees and Red Sox and Phillies and everyone else who spends more on catering than the Royals do on payroll?
"It's not that bold," Moustakas said. "Why else are we here?"
He's right, you know. For so long, the Royals weren't about dreaming. Their talent curation in Latin America was dormant. They wouldn't spend more than $1,000 on signing bonuses for draft picks after the early rounds. They pocketed seven-figure profits. They developed players, then sold them in trades to the highest bidder. Their free agent spending made drunken sailors look like Warren Buffett. If not for the incompetence of the Pirates and Orioles, they'd have been baseball's Clippers.
Now look at them. During spring training, owner David Glass met with Moore and Yost. He told them he expected the Royals to go undefeated this season. They told him that wasn't possible.
"Well," Glass said, "come as close as you can."
The best they can do now is 158-4. The upper deck was half-empty by the end of the fourth loss Friday, enough people wanting to beat the traffic that really doesn't exist here, even at a packed ballpark. Those who stuck around watched the splendor of the fountains in center field, the ones that will be on display this summer at the All-Star Game, and they could take heart in knowing Hochevar fought back from that debacle of a first inning with three scoreless frames, and that Alex Gordon no longer seems to be slumping, and that even if they can't catch the Detroit Tigers, which they can't, maybe they'll crack .500, maybe they won't, but they shouldn't be embarrassing.
And for this city, its baseball soul blackened by the degradation of their treasure into a joke, that's as good a start as any.
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