2014: The Cookie Jar…


At the end of each year, nostalgia seems to run rampant.  News organizations, magazines, newspapers, blogs… All these publish their lists of best and worst. The terrific, the tragic, the memorable, the melancholy… It all gets laid out to be mulled over and mummified for posterity.

I will try my hand at it.

Here are a few thoughts about the Cookie Jar moments of 2014:

THE KANSAS CITY ROYALS!

Since I moved to Florida three years ago, I have had to keep up with my favorite baseball team through the internet. While this lacked the immediacy of listening on 810 WHB to the games and all the related discussion of the minutiae of every managerial decision, player move, and hang-nail injury; it did allow me to see the season from a larger perspective.

For me, the theme of the 2014 Kansas City Royals was:

They Just. Keep. Playing!

Optimism:

As a team, these guys showed an audacious tendency to keep grinding even when things looked bleak. They kept an optimistic attitude, with the belief that someone would come through right when they needed to. And they were right! It didn’t need to be a huge thing, but all the little things compounded to be big things. There seemed to be a level of expectancy in the dugout that, even when an opportunity was missed and a guy didn’t get the job done, somebody else would have his back and pick him up. It worked! Especially in the playoffs. Although they ended up just 90 feet short of scoring the tying run and forcing extra innings in game 7, which was disappointing, the attitude of the organization…top to bottom…is that these group of guys have graduated to a new level of expectancy which will propel them to the playoffs again.

When you look at winning sports teams, regardless of the sport, you find a core of individuals…leaders…that have an optimistic belief that they can and will win. Usually this begins with a head coach, in football, or a manager, in baseball; but you need these kinds of players, too. A handful of player-leaders that are optimistic in the way they work when the spotlight isn’t on, whether it is watching film, studying scouting reports, in the weight room, or in team meetings; pull the other members of the team along. Sometimes that also means confronting individual teammates that aren’t buying in to the concept.

Several years ago when I was a youth pastor in Delaware, I invited a former professional football player to speak at a fifth-quarter youth event after the high school football game. Since I was also an assistant coach with the team, he also spoke to the players before the game, and he told a story about when he was a rookie on the New York Giants when they won the Super Bowl under Bill Parcels. The player…sorry…I forget his name… was leading the league in kick-off returns heading into the Super Bowl, but was being replaced by another player in the game plan leading up to the final game. When he found out during a meeting early in the week that he wouldn’t be starting, he got up and walked out of the meeting in disgust. A veteran player noticed him leave, followed him into the hallway, and confronted him about his leaving the meeting. After patiently hearing what the rookie had to say about the unfairness of the coaching decision, the veteran got into his face and said:

“Listen kid, I have been in this game for a long time, and I have never won a championship! You are NOT going to ruin my chance. You are better than this! You play football because of love. Love of the game and love for your teammates. Love isn’t selfish, so get back in that meeting!”

Love is the definition of optimism. You could tell that the 2014 Royals loved each other and loved the game by the way they stayed together and kept playing to the final out.

Playful:

Salvador Perez is a big, little kid. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to his Instagram account: instagram.com/salvadorp13/

Salvie was relentless in taking videos of Larenzo Cain, Royals’ center-fielder. But Cain isn’t the only player splashed on Salvie’s page. His cell phone records the players being themselves. You see the playfulness of the team in unguarded moments. Like when he catches a player singing and/or dancing to the music in the locker room. You can hear Perez whisper to the video’s audience as he documents the player and the performance. Once they know they have been caught, the players turn red, and often chase after Perez in feigned anger. So much fun to watch! You can tell they enjoy each other.

Then there are Ned Yost’s press conferences. Yost frequently uses humor to explain either the decision making process, or to answer a pointed question which seems tailored to get either a pointed reply, or for the reporter to be the straight-man to Yost’s comic. When asked if he felt any pressure preceding Game 7 of the World Series, Yost responded: “Pressure? I don’t think there is any pressure…Isn’t this a fun series? This is why you play the game.” He went on to describe the amazing play of his own players, as well as the excellent performances of the San Francisco Giants players. Yost had been on teams before that had reached the series, as a position coach, so he had a little perspective of just how precious the moments were. His aim as manager was to win, yet he wanted his players to enjoy the experience. It seems to me, that good performance and enjoying the magnitude of the event are related. Joy walks arm in arm with performing to the best of one’s ability, because you love what you are doing. Yost’s attitude and those of the players connect playfulness with another important quality:

Humble Confidence:

Two players that especially exhibited this quality were Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. These were the players that had lived through the bad years of Royals baseball. They had been there when the Royals were habitually penciled in at the bottom of the division…during Spring Training! Gordon learned humility by being the first player drafted as a third baseman in college for the University of Nebraska. Gordon spent his early years with Royals by being moved back and forth between third base and the outfield. Although known as a potentially great hitter, he struggled at the plate to fulfill the potential. Through the years of struggle, Gordon has become a 4-time Gold Glove recipient in left field. He also has become an above-average hitter, with power to all fields. Gordon’s humility and confidence were formed in the fire of struggle.

Billy Butler has been known for his bat rather than his fielding. Butler spent much of his career as a sub-par first baseman, with a consistent bat and decent power numbers. When Eric Hosmer, an excellent fielder at first base, was called up from the minors and installed at first, Butler had to learn how to be a designated hitter. Butler was honest about his preference to play in the field, rather then being relegated to DH, and his hitting seemed to suffer without the regular activity of playing in the field. But he kept working, and adapted. Butler’s numbers fell off in 2014, but he continued to hit intelligently and contribute in the clutch. He seemed to especially be elated when he got a hit late in the game, when he knew he would be replaced by either the mercurial Terrance Gore, or Jerrod Dyson. Both players are base stealing phenoms, and place tremendous pressure on the other team. Butler isn’t known for his speed, and yet was so inspired by the exploits of Dyson and Gore, that he stole second on his own in a playoff game. That is humble confidence.

Gratitude:

A tip of the cap… this is the symbol of these Royals. I’m not sure when it began, but throughout the playoffs, Royals’ pitchers would tip their cap to a defensive play that got them out of a jam. Sometimes it came after a pitch that was a mistake and the opposing team’s hitter made solid contact. Other times, the pitch was good, but the hitter was better and the ball flew through the air looking for a hole in the defense upon which to fall. However, a flash of Royal blue would suddenly appear, and the ball would fall harmlessly into a well-worn mit. Damage dodged… Upon replay, it was fun to watch the pitcher’s response. The smack of the bat, and the head on the mound would snap around, with eyes wide in apprehension. Only to get larger in hope that his teammate, streaking towards the ball in flight would get there before it either hit the ground or escaped over the wall. Once the play was made, you saw the mouth open in a scream of “YES!”, the fist raised in triumph, and then the baseball signal of gratitude: the tip of the hat. In the field, the defensive player, with a look of confidence in his eyes, might smile slightly, and return the salute.

This public gesture became a point of connection for the team, I think. They knew they could count on each other to not only perform, but to lift each other up through their effort and selfless play. It also became a point of connection for the fans. As the regular season ran down, and it became apparent the Royals would fall short of the division title, the fans continued to flash signs which said: “We Believe!” They packed Kaufman stadium supplying boundless energy and noise, off which the players fed. The players realized how hungry the city was for a winning baseball team, and they played with a hunger of their own, which matched that of the fans. The two, fans and team, were a sort of larger team, too. And after every game, won or lost, hundreds of fans stayed around, hoping to further communicate their gratitude for this magical group of men. Eventually, players, manager, and coaches, would trudge up the stairs from the locker room, wave to the cheering fans, tip their hats, and clap their hands for the fans, in appreciation for their support and patience.

It happened in the community, too…

  • Eric Hosmer and a few of his teammates, went to a bar after a game one evening, and bought the entire house a drink to say “Thank you” for their support.
  • After the American Championship win, several Royals players went to The Power and Light District in downtown KC, where the games were being telecast on a giant screen, watched by hundreds of fans. They each took the mike and voiced their gratitude for the support of these fans, which either couldn’t get a ticket because they were sold out, or couldn’t afford a ticket.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs organization took out ads and posted on their website congratulations as well as encouragement to keep the streak going.
  • Royals players even showed up at a Chiefs home game at Arrowhead stadium which is right across the parking lot from Kaufman, dressed in red and gold Chiefs jerseys. The national media picked up on it, and interviewed James Shields with his teammates gathered around him.
  • A fan in Nebraska emailed several Royals’ team staff and players, explaining how badly he wanted to attend a playoff game, but he couldn’t afford the tickets. A role player responded to the fan’s request, by giving him two free tickets.
  • A South Korean fan watched the regular season games on the internet and became part of a growing Royals Twitter community. He took his vacation in August to attend a weekend series in Kansas City. The media in KC followed him around, and became tour guides in the city. The story became a city and internet sensation, so when the Royals made the playoffs, Royals fans everywhere asked Sung Woo Lee if he would be able to attend one of the playoff games, and he responded “Only if my bosses will let me off work…” So the Royals interceded with his company, paid for him to fly to KC, and gave him a ticket to the game. On Lee’s original trip, Billy Butler invited him for barbecue at local Zarda barbecue. (I prefer Gates, myself!)

During the playoff run, there was an understanding that something special was happening. A new storybook was being opened. With each pitch, a feeling of anticipation grew within the team, the city, the nation, and even the world. It quickly became a feel-good sensation, with even players and managers from other teams enjoying the run.

Gratitude changes people…

Hustle:

During the Royals heyday of the 1970’s and 1980’s, one of the hallmarks of their winning formula was hustle. George Brett, Hal McCrae, Willie Wilson, Frank White, even Bo Jackson played with an aggressive style that put the opposing team on notice that the Royals were unwilling to offer a gimme on any play. They slid hard into second base trying to break up a double play, they hustled to first base on a routine grounder, they rounded first base quickly and often stretched a single into a double, or a double into a triple. They stole bases, their pitchers threw high and inside. When an opposing team came to Kansas City, they knew they were in for a fight.

While these Royals don’t have the same blue-collar, street fighter demeanor of those Royals; they certainly have the same aggressiveness on the field and in the base paths. Gordon crashing into walls to make a catch, Cain flying above the fence to pull a potential home run back into the park, Moustakas diving into the stands after a foul ball, Hosmer diving to tag first base to get the out, or Perez firing the ball to first or third while still kneeling behind the plate to pick off an inattentive runner.

Then there is the aggressive base running by Gore, Dyson, Escobar, or any of the speedier players. Being aggressive on the base paths puts pressure on the pitcher, catcher, and the rest of the defense. The opposing team knows it must be perfect, and this knowledge in itself often creates defensive mistakes. The Royals were superb when on base. Even the softest hit ball could produce a run. A wild pitch might even score a guy from second!

Royals’ pitchers were at their best when they were pitching aggressively. The starters knew they could go hard for 6 innings, and then turn it over to the “Lights Out Three” as I like to call them: Herrera, Davis, and Holland.

Finally…

Probably my favorite Royals’ story of 2014 happened after the Series was over. Royals’ young starting phenom pitcher, Yordano Ventura was driving through a small bedroom community of Kansas City when he saw a softball complex with the lights on. Pulling into the parking lot, Ventura got out of his car and walked over to a field where a co-ed softball game was being played. Ventura walked up to the fence and said, “Can I play?” The players and small crowd that had gathered to watch the game, crowded around the 23 year-old, smiling young man and the game was put on hold temporarily. After brief conversations filled with “thank you’s” and “way to go’s”, the game was resumed….with Yordano Ventura, World Series star…

…in Centerfield…

Put him in, Coach!

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