As Rany Jazayerli wrote last week, Kansas City has been home to some of the best sportswriters on the planet. And I would add that they're some of the most generous. The staff of the Kansas City Star has been berry, berry good to BYB over the past couple of weeks. Last week, I posted my interview with the KC Star's national baseball writer, Sam Mellinger. I also traded e-mails with columnist Joe Posnanski, and today's off-day provides an excellent opportunity to share that Q&A with you.
Posnanski has been with the KC Star since 1996 and twice been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the best sports columnist in America. He is the author of The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, which is now available in paperback. And somehow, he also finds time to compose what could possibly be the longest posts on the internet, or at least the sports blogosphere, for his must-read blog.
Joe took my questions via e-mail shortly before spending a few days in Detroit to cover both the Kansas men's basketball team at the NCAA basketball tournament Midwest Regional at Ford Field and the Royals' Opening Day at Comerica Park. This isn't an April Fool's joke; he really did this.
BYB: After the Royals hired Trey Hillman as manager, you wrote a series of columns about baseball in Japan. Is there any radically different philosophy we can expect Hillman to bring to Kansas City, or is baseball really just baseball, making such curiosity overblown?
Well, I have to admit that I’m curious. Baseball really is quite different in Japan – it isn’t just the small ball they play (though they DO play small ball. If a leadoff hitter gets on base in any inning, including the first, you can expect a bunt almost without exception – you also see a LOT more hit and run). The teams there seem to rely even more on homefield advantage (the crowds are insane; at least what I saw). They use pitchers differently (pitch counts are not nearly as prominent). And managerial strategy definitely seems to be a more significant thing. And defense is really valued. And lots of other stuff.
I don’t know how any of this will affect Trey in Kansas City, but I have to believe that after five years in Japan (and two Japan Series appearances) that some of Japanese baseball has become a part of him. As spring training went on, it became apparent that Trey plans on having the best fundamental baseball team possible. And I’m curious to see how he responds, especially when the Royals (as they inevitably will) go into a major scoring slump. I would bet we’ll see some unconventional things – more hit and run, some aggressive baserunning, maybe some early bunts. We might see him stick with pitchers a little longer. But Trey’s also a very smart guy who fully understands that Major League Baseball is different from Japan, so … like I say, I’m as curious as anyone.
BYB: You've written about how Zack Greinke has pitched well in so many roles, but have the Royals messed with this kid too much by jerking him between the starting rotation and the bullpen? Do you think the team decided to keep him as a starter throughout this season, no matter what?
Well, he’s also pitched lousy in all those roles so it’s hard to say. More than the changing roles, I think, the Royals probably hurt Zack by putting him in a position where he was expected to the best pitcher on a very bad team when he was only 20 years old. He’s obviously a fragile young man, and I think it’s clear now that while he was physically (and perhaps even mentally) ready to pitch in the Big Leagues at 20, he was nowhere near emotionally ready. That’s a tough thing to judge, and I don’t blame the Royals – it’s not their job to babysit. And yet, I think making him go all the way through an absolutely abysmal 2005 season probably did a whole lot of harm.
I have understood what the Royals were doing with the switching role – he was a full-time starter first and was quite effective his rookie year. Then his second year, he was terrible, the team was terrible, everybody’s confidence was shaken. Then he had his emotional issues and had to leave the team for a while. There really isn’t a blueprint at that point. They put him in the bullpen to help him regain his confidence, and he did pretty well. Then he seemed to have recovered they put him back in the rotation, and he fell apart again. They put him BACK in the bullpen, again for confidence reasons, and again he started to put things back together. They put him BACK in the rotation late last season, and he pitched really well down the stretch.
Obviously, they can’t play Dr. Phil forever. At some point, they need to determine if Zack can be a good starter in the big leagues. But if it becomes clear that he cannot, then he has a LOT of value as a power reliever, and in my opinion, the Royals should not let go of that. In other words, with Zack, I would never get married to any preconceived notions. I would love to see him spend a full year as a starter – would love to see him establish himself that way, because he could have a great future – but if he’s 1-5 with a 5.73 ERA in early May, I’m not sure the Royals would be doing him or anyone else any good by keeping him in the rotation.
BYB: I was a big fan of the Royals' powder blue road uniforms, and am thrilled they're coming back. (I don't know what it is about that color; the Chargers look cool in it, yet the Cardinals and Blue Jays didn't. Go figure.) What's your feeling on the powder blue revival and how excited are the people of Kansas City about it?
I think everyone is pretty excited because the old Royals were GOOD in those powder blues. To me it’s like the thoroughbred name "Secretariat." That’s such a great name. Is it great because of the word Secretariat is so cool, or is it great because Secretariat was a great horse? People love the powder blues here because that’s what George Brett and Frank White and Hal McRae and Bret Saberhagen and all the rest wore. There probably wouldn’t be as much excitement in Cleveland if they brought back the 1976 red uniforms.
BYB: Can the Royals finish third in the AL Central? Could they be a nuisance to the Detroit Tigers throughout the season? And is my use of the word "nuisance" kind of arrogant?
I think they COULD finish third … but so could Chicago and so could Minnesota. Those two have fallen off quite a bit, in my opinion, and it’s a two team race. What I do like is that I think Kansas City has a clear direction while the Sox and Twins, in my view, are sort of searching right now.
As for being a nuisance, well, that’s the Royals' job. They were absolutely terrible in 2006 and still they took the Tigers out in the final weekend two years ago to give the Twins the division title. It’s too soon to say anything about the Royals starting pitching, but I really do like Gil Meche, Brian Bannister and the potential of Zack Greinke as a 1-2-3, and if those guys pitch well, then I don’t think the Royals will be a fun team for anyone to play. If they DON’T pitch well, then yeah, it’s back to 2006.
BYB: In your book The Soul of Baseball, you wrote about a conversation you and Buck O'Neil had over an adult fan catching a ball that an outfielder had thrown into the stands, and whether or not he should've given the ball to the kid sitting behind him. I believe you referred to the man as a "jerk." Joe, I've never caught a baseball at a ballgame before and am pretty sure I'd flatten a kid 1/3 my age to get one, if I had the chance. And I'd be doing it for myself, not my son at home. This makes me a jerk, doesn't it? Even if I do stuff like contribute to public radio and recycle?
Well, there are two things. 1) This wasn’t exactly like catching a ball at a ballgame. There was no batted ball in play here. This was a case of an outfielder tossing the ball into the stands and some guy taking it away from a kid and then keeping it himself. I’m pretty certain that Jason Lane, who was the outfielder, was hoping to get the ball to the kid. So, that certainly adds to the jerky quotient here.
2) I’m not fit to judge your situation – maybe the ball you’re running over the kid to catch Miggy Cabrera’s 50th homer of the season or something. I’d say this though: If that happens, if you run over some kid to get the ball, it might not be a bad idea to give a little extra cash to Big Brothers or a homeless shelter. You know, just for the karma.
BYB: Now that blogging has taken over your life, wrapping its seductive tendrils around your consciousness, can you ever see yourself giving it up? Or is it just too much fun and you have too much to say?
I’m actually thinking about giving it up right now. I’m always thinking about giving it up. I have so many things I HAVE to do, kids stuff, gymnastics classes, zoo visits, bedtime readings, and also things I SHOULD do, books to write, columns to finish, scripts to begin, and I’m writing instead about the sounds of ABBA or trying to figure out why scouts don’t like Joe Mauer as much as I do. That said, I’m not sure I can give it up. I even started a second political blog (though I’m not writing as much for that one). They call people like me addicts for a reason.
Thanks to Joe for taking time out of a particularly hectic schedule right now to answer my little queries. You can find The Soul of Baseball (which really is a fantastic book) at virtually any bookstore near you, online or otherwise. And his daily musings are always available (until he decides to give it up - don't do it, Joe!) at joeposnanski.com. (Just make sure you're sitting in a comfortable chair, as those posts are curiously long.)