K.C. royalty: blue-collar, not blue blood

April 14, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Royals gave themselves a nickname. Imagine that. A major-league team bringing youthful energy to a little boy's game, calling itself "The Blue Wave."

"I'm the one who made it up," Mike Sweeney said proudly after the Royals yesterday completed their first three-game sweep of the Orioles in Kansas City since August 1988.

"In spring training, there were close to 70 guys in camp. When we ran our drills and did sprints, it looked like a big, blue wave. When we started scoring some runs, the players started saying, `Hey, here comes the blue wave.'

"It's nothing flashy. It's a reflection of the team. A bunch of blue-collar, hard-working guys trying to work together."

It's too easy, isn't it? The anti-Orioles swept the Orioles. The $23 million payroll swept the $80 million payroll. The young and the restless swept the grumpy old men.

Yes, too easy. The Royals aren't this good. The Orioles aren't this bad. And much as Kansas City is warming to its small-market heroes, the Royals averaged crowds of only 20,482 during their electrifying 6-1 homestand.

Still, which team would you rather watch?

The Orange Fade, or the Blue Wave?

The warehouse bean counters can snicker at the Royals' low attendance totals, but that mind-set is half the problem. The Orioles outdraw and outspend the Royals. But they don't outhustle or outsmart them.

Oh, the Orioles are trying as hard as their aging bodies will allow, and they rallied from a 5-0 deficit yesterday before losing, 6-5. But they can win more games than the Royals this season and still be in worse position, so limited is their upside.

The body language of the two teams yesterday was revealing. For the fourth straight day, the Royals stormed the field in glee, reacting to a walk-off victory as if they had won the World Series. The Orioles sniped all afternoon at plate umpire John Hirschbeck, and played with their trademark scowls.

It was only one day, but the Royals are building toward a better future, and their players and fans can sense it. The Oakland A's and Cincinnati Reds proved last season that small-market clubs can compete. And Royals manager Tony Muser spoke passionately yesterday of his team's mission.

"We have a firm philosophy: There are no stars on this club," said Muser, an Oriole from 1975 to '77. "We don't make excuses. We work hard together. We pull for each other. That's our approach. We go out every day, and be as consistent in that mind-set as we can."

This is Muser's second season, and his stock phrase is that the Royals are youthful, but no longer young. The front office made moves it could afford this winter, trading for reliever Jerry Spradlin, signing free-agent reliever Ricky Bottalico, locking up outfielder Jermaine Dye. But basically, this is the same Kansas City team.

Muser talked about the disruption of constant roster turnover, the way it distances fans from players, managers from players, even players from each other.

"Chemistry and morale changes from year to year," Muser said. "Managers and coaches get stuck moving from place to place. Nobody ever is around long enough to have a good, old-fashioned fight, a good, old-fashioned makeup, a good, old-fashioned dinner together. That's how players become close.

"This is a close team. They like each other. They care about each other. They know they've got something to prove."

Maybe that sounds corny. Maybe the whole thing will disintegrate once the pitching falters. But at least the organization stands for something. What do the Orioles stand for, besides spending money?

For the moment, they can still trot out their antique All-Stars and create an illusion of contention. But if commissioner Bud Selig succeeds in redistributing Internet revenues to level the game's economic playing field, they could lose their one competitive advantage.

Owner Peter Angelos handcuffed the team by approving a series of ill-advised, long-term contracts, but his farm system didn't leave him much choice.

Just once, why can't the Orioles draft a player out of Puerto Rico like Carlos Beltran? Sign a player out of the Dominican like Carlos Febles? Develop a 10th-round draft pick like Mike Sweeney?

"Share the wealth" -- that's what Royals fans demanded last season when they staged a protest over baseball's lack of revenue-sharing during a visit by the New York Yankees.

Suggested protest at Camden Yards the next time the Royals visit: Share your prospects.

"Young people make mistakes," Muser said. "You see them make mistakes all the time. But when you go to them the next day and teach and see improvement, it makes you feel good.

"The bottom line is wins and losses. You have to win. There's a lot of pressure. But when you see the improvement, and the improvement carries over to wins, you feel pretty good. That's what this team feels."

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