Meche is a marked man

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

They were both on a mission this week, the two men who bet their careers on each other.

Gil Meche, owner of perhaps the most ridiculed contract handed out in a ridiculous offseason, was driving around southern Louisiana in search of one last bit of gluttony before he started training for the most important season of his baseball life.

"I'm about to go get some Popeye's," Meche said.

Dayton Moore, the Kansas City Royals general manager who gave Meche the five-year, $55 million deal, indulged in something equally enjoyable, and without the saturated fat: Convincing Royals fans who gathered at the team's caravan stops in southeastern Kansas why on earth a pitcher whose career earned-run average is 4.65 deserved such a deal.

As much as Moore wanted to talk about Meche's fastball and curveball and how he's just 28 years old, none of those things resonate anymore, not with a Royals fan base that watched them lose at least 100 games for the fourth time in five seasons. So Thursday, and all along the rest of the trip, he'll opt instead for something that hasn't been heard for a long time: Gil Meche really wanted to be a Royal.

"Gil knew that he would be second-guessed for this decision," Moore said. "At the end of the day, he believed in what he believed, and he believed the Kansas City Royals are going to win."

Belief and hope and optimism are dodo birds to Royals fans, though Moore has done a remarkable job in six months of resurrecting their concepts. In order to poach Moore from Atlanta, where he helped oversee the Braves' continued dominance in the National League East, Royals owner David Glass agreed to loosen the purse strings he'd yanked like he was playing tug of war. The Royals would spend money on the draft (in 2003, they limited bonuses from the fifth round and on to $1,000), expand their Latin American operations (Moore plucked scout Rene Francisco from the Braves) and – more important to their credibility than success – spend in the free-agent market.

And while the Meche deal wasn't an Alfonso Soriano or Barry Zito whopper, the Royals seemed likelier candidates to cry poverty in an inflated market than spend, let alone spend $55 million on one player.

They would stake $11 million a year on a pitcher who, in 2004, was sent to Triple-A because, as his manager in Seattle, Bob Melvin, said: "It's apparent Gil needs to go down and work on his game a little bit." Moore, who started as a scout, would risk his reputation on Meche. The Royals, still operating on a tight budget, would offer more than 15 percent of their payroll to him.

Still, however many questions floated around the Royals, the most incisive – and, too, the most reasonable – was actually directed at Meche, with emphasis on the first and last words.

Why the Royals?

"I think my dad actually asked me the same question face to face for the first time last night," Meche said. "I had to make a decision. And, you know, a lot of it came down to comfort.

"I know it looks like the money, but the first conversation I had with my agents (Greg Landry and Casey Close) was that if I felt comfortable with a team, I would go there. It wasn't about the money. I know a lot of athletes say that, but it's the honest truth. I really feel like we're going to win in Kansas City. It might not be this year. It might not be next. But it will happen."

Once the season ended, Meche tried to gauge the free-agent market with Landry and Close. He had won 11 games, posted a 4.48 ERA and set career bests with 186 2/3 innings and 156 strikeouts (as well as 84 walks). With such a thin crop of starting pitchers, that meant more than a dozen teams wanted him.

Among them were the Royals, who seemed more a patsy to drive the price than real contenders. Yet Meche liked what Landry told him about Moore, and when they spoke, Moore told Meche that he needed an Opening Day starter.

"That's what some of the teams tried to sell me on: That I wouldn't be a No. 1 guy and wouldn't have to live up to much," Meche said. "I like being one. Go ahead. Think I'm overpaid. Think what you want. I know what I can do, and the Royals believe it."

"He knew it doesn't matter what I think," Moore said. "It's ultimately what Gil Meche thinks. He's in control of his destiny. And he believes that."

Talks progressed, Meche whittled his list and three teams were left: Kansas City, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Chicago Cubs. It was Dec. 7, the last day of the winter meetings, and Meche was ready to sign. At the beginning of the offseason, he figured he'd get a three-year deal. Now it looked like he was guaranteed four, at $11 million apiece. Nitty-gritty discussions with the three teams were imminent when Moore called.

He recalled his own interview in May. Glass, who built Wal-Mart into the world's largest company, talked about the risks he'd taken as a businessman, all in the name of winning.

"I was comfortable in Atlanta, and it would've been easy to stay there," Moore said. "But here, we have the chance to do something special. And the conversations with Gil let me show him that."

Two hours later, Meche was a Royal. He liked David DeJesus, their young center fielder, and Mark Teahen, who will move to right field. He knew about Alex Gordon, the best prospect in baseball who should supplant Teahen at third base, and Billy Butler, a born DH ready to replace Mike Sweeney next year, and pitcher Luke Hochevar, the No. 1 pick in the draft last year whom Meche would love to mentor. The Royals had offered an extra year as the cherry. Meche said he would have gone there even without the fifth season, though when Landry told him the exact dollar figure, he yelped.

And not because the $55 million deal seems cursed, its victims including Darren Dreifort, the mother of all big-money pitching busts, and Sweeney, who hasn't played in a full season since he signed four years ago. No, Meche was excited, because for his entire professional career he had worn No. 55, and now he'd be wearing it against the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium, opposing Curt Schilling, or, should he be so lucky, Daisuke Matsuzaka in his major-league debut.

The number is Meche's scarlet letter. It will identify him and define him until he does so himself. Because right now, Gil Meche is nothing more than a betting man whose bet hinges on himself. If one goes right, the other likely will follow.

"I believe," he said, and in Kansas City, that's as good a way to start as any.

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