How the Royals are grappling with their new bad-boy image

ByElizabeth Merrill ESPN logo
Thursday, April 30, 2015

ON A THURSDAYnight in Brawltown, Kansas City Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz retreated to the safety of the outfield grass. He's 60 -- too old for this crap. "Oh boy," Kuntz thought to himself after the benches cleared. "Here we go again." Down the field, Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez was mad as hell and determined to defend his brothers. He bit his lip, cocked his fist, and swung at Chicago White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Volquez whiffed, for which he was thankful later.

At their feet lay Mike Jirschele, who tried in vain to play peacekeeper. Six months ago, the third-base coach became famous when he didn't wave Alex Gordon home in that fateful ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, a 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants. Now he was sprawled out on the ground, just hoping his glasses wouldn't get broken.

Kuntz would later remind some of the old guys that it's best to step away or risk being snapped in half. Let the kids burn out their energy, he'd say.

The Royals are burning way too much of it right now. Their bench-clearing incident in Chicago on April 23 was their fifth of the season, which isn't even a month old. They have had nine ejections, and have taken issue with just about every team they've played.

After decades of irrelevance, the Royals finally have a reputation. It just isn't a very good one. When they arrived in Cleveland this week, Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer and a smattering of fans at Progressive Field donned boxing gloves in an apparent whimsical nod to the angriest team in baseball.

"If I were to watch what's happening from the outside, I wouldn't fault anybody for saying that right now this group of Royals is a team that's a bit chippy," Kansas City pitcher Jeremy Guthrie says. "Because you can't deny it, you know?"

They are loose cannons who can't control their emotions, their critics say. They are the nouveau riche, struggling through their transition to a higher class. There are unwritten codes in baseball about celebrating too much and wearing your hearts on your sleeves in April, and the Royals have violated many of them. They are no longer the cute small-market team that charmed the nation last fall. They're ugly and downright annoying.

But have the Royals really changed, or is everyone just reacting to them differently?

FOR ALMOST 30years, losing was the Kansas City's identity. Then everything changed so fast.

They made it to the wild-card game in the fall, fell behind 7-3 to the Oakland A's, and should have been out of it. But then the Royals rallied, stunned the A's in 12 innings, hopped on a plane to Anaheim and proceeded to sweep the Angels, then the Orioles. They had no business hanging with San Francisco but took the Giants to seven games.

So there was no gradual progression from perennial losers to World Series contenders, no initiation period. Oh, the Royals did have a solid season in 2013, their first winning campaign in 10 years. But it didn't result in the playoffs, so nobody noticed. Kansas City didn't clinch its playoff spot until the last days of the 2014 season, and then here they were, high-fiving and base-dancing, beating teams supposedly far superior to them.

It must've been a fluke. Analysts came out with their 2015 predictions. None of them picked Kansas City to win its division. But then the team rattled off seven wins to start the season, and has been one of baseball's hottest clubs over the first month.

Something else happened during last year's run. The Royals didn't just start to believe they could be winners; they believed could be the best team in baseball. And they weren't going to be pushed around anymore.

During the team's first road trip of the season, pitcher Yordano Ventura christened the new year by jawing with league MVP Mike Trout in Anaheim. Ventura has been at the center of most of these controversies, plunking Oakand's Brett Lawrie with a 99 mph fastball and shouting an expletive at the White Sox's Adam Eaton that sparked last week's bench-clearing brawl.

Some of their actions have been retaliatory; Lawrie had earlier gone spikes-high on a slide into Alcides Escobar, injuring the shortstop. Others are just puzzling.

Eaton, when pressed, admits he did say something to Ventura before the young pitcher shouted at him on April 23. But Eaton said he only did it because Ventura was acting so oddly combative after Eaton hit a comebacker toward the mound. "What the hell is your problem?" Eaton yelled to Ventura before the pitcher dropped what appeared to be an F-bomb.

Ventura does not look the part of a bully, standing 5-foot-11 and weighing all of 180 pounds. At just 23, he is now the Royals' ace after veteran James Shields left in the offseason for San Diego. Shields was the team leader, the one who helped teach them how to win.

Ventura is a maddening mystery. Last year he distinguished himself as much for being unflappable as for throwing hard. This is the same guy who took the mound in Game 6 of the World Series, just after his friend Oscar Taveras was killed in a car accident, with Kansas City facing elimination. Ventura wrote Taveras' initials on his cap and went out and threw seven shutout innings.

These days, everything seems to get to him.

"I don't think they're punks," Eaton says. "I don't believe that for a second. They're a bunch of young guys who are very, very good. I think they're trying to find their identity."

Some in Kansas City's clubhouse believe they've been targeted by teams trying to put them back in their place. They point to the 20 times they've been hit by pitches, to Lawrie's slide, to the increased volume of opponent chirping. Kansas City lost Alex Rios to a broken finger when he was hit with a 93 mph fastball by Minnesota's J.R. Graham earlier this month. Though that incident did not appear to be intentional, the injuries made them angry and protective. "We're not a group of guys that are looking to start any scuffles," first basemanEric Hosmersays. "We just want to go out and play baseball. We don't want to get disrespected out there, and we're going to stick up for each other."

THERE'S A NEWLYpopular T-shirt in Kansas City that embraces the Royals' bad-boy image. The shirt says "Straight Outta Kauffman," a play on NWA's 1988 rap hit about Compton. It's almost comical.

Here are your badasses, straight out of America's heartland: Catcher Salvador Perez is big and imposing and plants bro-love kisses on outfielder Lorenzo Cain's cheek nearly every day, just to annoy him. Gordonloads up on broccoli, barely speaks and lives in the drab landscape of Nebraska in the offseason because it's home. When he dove four rows into the left-field bleachers Sunday to snag a foul ball, plowing over a White Sox fan, Gordon returned to the spot an inning later with a baseball for the guy's 9-year-old son. "My bad," Gordon said to Jesus Guerrero, the Chicago fan.

Hosmer has befriended a 29-year-old diehard Royals fan who was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma that spread to his lungs, liver and spine. Tim Grimes partied with Hosmer and the team in downtown Kansas City after the Royals swept Anaheim in the ALDS this past fall. In the middle of the champagne-spraying celebration at McFadden's bar, Hosmer handed Grimes a bottle of bubbly. "You're a part of this as much as we are," Hosmer told Grimes.

So no, the Royals don't really fit the role as ballpark bullies. But right now, they have four players who are either appealing or sitting out suspensions.

In the days since Chicago, the Royals have held a few team meetings. The message is clear: cool it with the fighting. Team leaders pulled Ventura aside and expressed a concern that the chippiness might eventually get someone hurt. Ventura, for his part, was contrite in postgame interviews after the Chicago incident. He knows he has to control his emotions.

Kuntz, an old ballplayer with a full head of blond hair, chalks the month up to inexperience, youthful energy and too much emotion. He says some of the players just aren't used to verbal intimidation because they never received it when the Royals consistently lost. Back then, they weren't worth being harassed. "When these guys come after you, that's a compliment," Kuntz says, "because you're good. You're good now. You proved it by going to the World Series."

Nearly every night in April has had an October feel to it: the cheesy celebrations, the tension, the packed crowds in Kansas City. The season is long, and the Royals know they have to save their energy. But they can't. They're still buzzing from this crazy six-month high.

It's a unique shared experience between men who have been together for years, climbing through the farm system. Hosmer played in the instructional league withMike Moustakaswhen they were teenagers. They've known Perez since he was 16 and have played with outfielder Jarrod Dyson and relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera forever. They bonded over the monotony of long bus rides and uncertain futures playing out in small towns where there was nothing to do but hang out and drink and talk.

Hosmer and Moustakas used to spend their nights playing video games in the hotel when they were too young to get into the bars. When Moustakas got married last year, Hosmer was in his wedding.

Ask almost anyone, from the journeymen to the youngsters, and they'll say that this is the most fun they've ever had on a team. It's like a college atmosphere. Nobody wants to go home.

It was the same way last year, the weird handshakes, the raucous dugout after an extra-base hit, the postgame dousing with a bucket of Gatorade. They never stopped to wonder whether it grated on other teams.

"We get excited for one another," Dyson says. "Sometimes, we probably go above and beyond with it, but we don't do anything to try to get back at another team or piss another team off. We do it because we love one another. We feel like we have the perfect bunch. We want to stay together for a long time."

It wasn't always this carefree. For years, the team struggled to show much emotion. Then in 2013, veteran Miguel Tejada was added to the roster. Tejada wasn't around for long -- he was suspended in August of that year after testing positive for amphetamines -- but he gave the team some sage advice before he left Kansas City. Celebrate the good moments, he told them. Have fun being together and playing baseball.

"I think they've got something going over there," Eaton says. "I think they're kind of like the [1990]Cincinnati Reds, the Nasty Boys."

IT IS TUESDAY afternoon, hours before the Royals will play Cleveland, and Cain is singing in the clubhouse as he spins around in a chair. The day before, Moustakas saw a YouTube video of the Indianapolis Colts after they won a playoff game. One of the Colts' players was so psyched he let out a loud Ric Flair-sounding "Woooo!" Moustakas thought it was cool and showed the clip to Perez. They both started mimicking the chant.

Twenty-four hours later, they're still shouting it in the clubhouse. Dyson pops in some music. "Forever Young" pulses through the room.

Moustakas is puzzled by the notion that teams might be put off by the way the Royals play. Who wouldn't want to have fun? Who wouldn't want to be in this clubhouse if they could? "Nothing's really changed," Moustakas says. "Last year we still played emotional baseball. It's just that nobody saw us play emotional baseball."

Perez starts shadowboxing with Volquez and laughs so hard he almost topples over. But there will be no fights in Cleveland.

On Wednesday night, Ventura takes the mound for the first time since Chicago. In the fifth inning, Escobar is drilled in the head with a 96 mph pitch. Indians pitcher Danny Salazar is visibly shaken -- it appears to have been an accident. Ventura does not retaliate. The Royals lose 7-5, dropping a half-game behind Detroit for first place in the American League Central.

They leave Cleveland quietly. It's only April. It's way too early to fight.

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