What's wrong with the Kansas City Royals? Can this be the same team that ran away with last year's American League West title, swept the New York Yankees in three straight playoff games, and battled the Philadelphia Phillies through an exciting six-game World Series?
Well, most of the names are the same, but the numbers are certainly different -- especially those that stand for hits and runs. And therein, says Manager Jim Frey, lies the answer to why this multitalented team has been wallowing in and around last place all spring.
"Over the last five or six years this has been a real good offensive club, but so far this season we just haven't hit the way we're capable of," Frey said. "Last year we averaged more than five runs a game for a big part of the season. This year it's been three."
The figures do indeed tell the story. World Series hero Willie Aikens has picked up where he left off last fall, hitting .319 with six homers, but the other regulars are all off form. Amos Otis and Hal McRae are hitting .200 and . 234, respectively, with three homers between them. And Willie Wilson, who triggered the offense last year with a league-leading 230 hits, a .326 average, and 79 stolen bases, is hitting .288 and has been successful is only two of his seven attempted steals.
Then there is George Brett, whose .296 batting average isn't bad, but is still far below last year's .390 figure. And an incident after he hurt an ankle last week indicated the degree of frustration both he and the team are feeling. When a photographer tried to take his picture as he left the clubhouse, George hit the man with one of his crutches -- an outburst for which he apologized the next day.
Even the usually ultra-supportive Kansas City fans have been out of character at times.They went so far as to boo their beloved, Royals at one game last week, and some of them showed up with bags over their heads, a la last fall's gag by New Orleans fans when their football Saints lost 14 straight games.
But when Frey was asked if he thought adverse fan reaction had any bearing on his teams problems, as other clubs have sometimes claimed, he emphasized that the Royals were losing on the field -- not anywhere else.
"When a team is not going well, people come up with all sorts of reasons," he said. "You start out blaming the weather; then it's the umpires; then the schedule; then bad breaks, bad hops, bloops, missed pitches, whatever.When you get down to blaming the fans, I think you're running out of excuses!
"Anyway, if we're not going to give credit to all those things when we win, maybe we shouldn't blame them when we go bad."
Along with a lack of offense, the pitching has been a cause for concern. Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura have been the only consistent starters, while Dan Quisenberry, last year's relief ace with 12 wins and 33 saves, has struggled most of the spring.
The defense hasn't been sharp, either, with the cathing a particular problem following the departure of Darrell Porter via free agency. In the first 27 games, with former utility man John Wathan behind the plate most of the time, opposing runners stole 22 bases while being thrown out only four times.
Then, too, there are the intangibles.
"When you get beat in close games a lot, you can always look back to two or three situations where a key hit or play would have won it," Frey told me in the visitors' dugout at Boston's Fenway Park over the weekend.
That's one of the problems," he continued. "Three or four guys walk into the clubhouse blaming themselves -- thinking they could have done it. Then the first thing you know, the team's confidence and morale get lower. Right now what we need is to bust out and win a few and be able to relax."
The Royals did just that on Saturday and Sunday, beating the Red Sox in a couple of pressure-packed games, 7-6 and 5-4.Quisenberry, who was 0-2 with a 5. 56 earned-run average and just one save coming into Boston, nailed down both victories -- but even before those appearances, Frey had professed not to be worried about his relief ace.
"It's not unusual for a pitcher to run into streaks like that," he said. "It's just that when a starter does it, he can sometimes recover, but when a relief pitcher goes sour, it gets magnified because he's in there in the late innings with the game on the line."
Dan's been looking more like himself lately," he added. "All he needs is to get a couple of saves and get his confidence back."
Frey also shrugged off the catching woes.
"Up to now you can't deny the fact that clubs have run on us," he said. "But we said in training camp that it might take Wathan three or four weeks to start feeling comfortable back there and to get in a groove. Before this year, John was a utility player -- a guy who came to the park each day thinking he might be playing first base, or right field, or occasionally catching.
"He worked very hard all spring on his cathing, his throwing, his release, and his quickness. In the last few games he's looked much better, and had more confidence. I think from now on he'll do a good job."
The two victories in Boston only raised the Royals' record to 9-18, leaving them tied for last place as they headed into New York for their first meeting with the Yankees since last fall's playoff sweep. After a three-game series they go home, where they will play the vast majority of their games for the next six weeks. Theoretically, that should help, since the Royals over the years have been especially tough to beat on their own field. But even that advantage has dissolved this spring in a 3-10 home record, which is perhaps the most truly unbelievable statistics of all.
"It's hard to put your finger on what's gone wrong," Frey said of the way his speedy charges have failed to take their usual advantage of the artificial turf and the spacious dimensions of Royals Stadium. "We have the speed to capitalize on these things, but so far we just haven't done it this year."
One thing that makes Kansas City's poor start more ominous than it might otherwise be is the corresponding fast getaway of Oakland, which astounded the entire baseball world by winning 20 of its first 23 games. But lately the A's have been having some troubles of their own.
"Oakland has come back to earth," Frey said, noting that Billy Martin's team has actually been well under .500 for two weeks.
"I thought there was a chance that would happen, and I was hoping we could get a streak going at the same time. We haven't been able to do that yet, but I'm still optimistic. If we can start playing the way we're capable of, and do all the things we can do, I still think we can be in the race."