SURPRISE, Az. -- The overwhelming feeling is that we have been here before, exactly here. Royals general manager Dayton Moore and I are standing by a field in Surprise, Ariz., and we are watching a bunch of young Royals running the bases, and we are talking about how nobody thinks
SURPRISE, Az. -- The overwhelming feeling is that we have been here before, exactly here. Royals general manager Dayton Moore and I are standing by a field in Surprise, Ariz., and we are watching a bunch of young Royals running the bases, and we are talking about how nobody thinks the Royals stand a chance.
We first had this talk more than a decade ago in 2007, when the Royals were coming off their fourth 100-loss season in five years and Moore had just come in to try and change everything. We had this conversation the next year, and the next, and the next, time after time I would ask him about the hopelessness, and he would talk about doing things the right way and bringing in good character guys and building a family and, yes, following the process (this became something of a negative catchphrase in Kansas City for a while).
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"I tell players all the time," Moore is saying now, "I tell them, 'Look, your number one responsibility is to grow the game. You have an opportunity to play the game because somebody did it so well and made it look like so much fun that you thought, 'Yes! I want to be a ballplayer.'
"That's your responsibility now, to play this game so that someone watching thinks, 'You played this game with passion, you did it through injury, you did it with innocence, you did it with urgency.' You made it look so fun that some boy or little girl says, 'Boy, I'd like to do this someday.' That's your calling. The rest will work itself out."
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The thing that has always struck me about Moore is that he has never wavered from this sort of high-minded talk. It gets mocked, sometimes even by me. He goes on about family but gets asked about the Royals' advanced-metrics department. He talks about building the game but gets asked about the stage of the Royals' farm system. He talks about character -- "First thing I tell all our players is, 'All we want is for you to be a good son, a good husband, a good father … the baseball will work itself out'" -- but he gets asked about how much money the team is willing to spend.
Moore isn't naive about it; he dutifully answers those questions. But this idea of baseball being bigger than baseball, this is what he really wants to talk about … and it always has been. He has believed from his first day on the job with the Royals that if he could hire great people, acquire talented players who love the game deeply, create an atmosphere where everyone looks forward to coming to the ballpark and appreciates just how lucky they are, that the team unquestionably would win a championship.
People -- again, including me -- had their doubts.
But that team absolutely did win a championship exactly as Moore planned.
And now, as everyone knows, the Royals are back at the beginning again, or close to it. The only everyday players left over from the 2015 World Series championship team are left fielder Alex Gordon, shortstop Alcides Escobar and catcher Salvador Perez, and of those three, only Perez is coming off a decent season. The remarkable bullpen of that championship team is scattered across baseball; only Kelvin Herrera remains, and no one is sure for how long. The rotation, other than Danny Duffy (who did not make a postseason start in 2014 or '15), is entirely new.
And more, the future doesn't look all that bright -- at least at first glance. They do not have a single player among MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects. They have a lineup made up of longtime Minor Leaguers like 29-year-old Whit Merrifield, 32-year-old Paulo Orlando and 25-year-old Cheslor Cuthbert. Their rotation relies on 30-somethings Jason Hammel, Ian Kennedy and Nathan Karns.
This is what a team tends to look like the morning after an amazing party.
But Moore sounds the same -- if anything, he sounds more committed to those core principles that seem to have so much to do with integrity and empathy and family, and so little to do with getting on base and commanding the fastball and hitters getting a better launch angle.
"You ask if this year is different," he says. "It isn't. It really isn't. The purpose doesn't change. You hold true to the things you believe in and the things you've learned. … I want to do our part to grow this great game. I know that sounds corny and like it doesn't have much to do with the team we have on the field and the challenges of rebuilding. But, I really mean this, it has everything to do with it. If we play the game for the right reasons and we do it together, we'll compete. We'll win. That formula doesn't change."
I can't help but point out that nobody is thinking the Royals can win anytime soon, but he says that has always been true -- and he's right, most experts thought that the 2014 team would battle for last place, and they won the American League pennant. Most people thought it was a fluke, and the '15 team won the World Series.
True, but then I point out that those Royals had some big prospects -- Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas -- that this team lacks. He then says, "Nobody had [five-time All-Star] Salvador Perez on their Top 100 list. Nobody had Lorenzo Cain on their Top 100 list. Nobody had Greg Holland or Kelvin Herrera on their Top 100 list.
"As an organization, you should know your players better than anyone else. We believe in our young players. We have faith in our future. I know this may sound strange, but I have never felt more confident in what we are doing."
This optimism and sense of direction, well, Moore has had that ever since he began. He is now the third-longest tenured GM in baseball behind the Yankees' Brian Cashman and the Rangers' Jon Daniels, and Moore and manager Ned Yost have the longest-running working relationship in the game. And what has separated Moore, I think, is that his devotion to what might now be called the Royal Way has never wavered.
He has been criticized for being too old-fashioned and not being as cutting edge as other organizations -- especially with advanced stats. He doesn't buy it ("I love the advanced stats, I find it all fascinating") but is fine if people want to keep saying it.
He has been knocked for being too focused on intangibles -- like character, leadership, chemistry -- and not focused enough on very tangible things like on-base percentage or next-generation scouting reports. Again, he doesn't think it's true, he thinks his organization has its eye on the ball, but he's OK with the reputation.
Mostly, he has been overlooked -- as have numerous others with the Royals -- because to many across America the whole 2014-15 thing felt like a dream, a bit fluky, an odd moment in the game just before the Cubs and Astros and Yankees found their groove. Moore doesn't mind this at all.
That is because Moore knows that the Royal Way works. He knew it before Kansas City won. He knows it now. We do talk about individual players -- about his admiration for the way Merrifield endured through the Minor Leagues, about his sense that Jorge Bonifacio has a chance to be a special player, about the belief he has in the future of Raul Mondesi -- but mostly our talk sounds an awful lot like it has for more than a decade. Same principles. Same belief that it will lead to another World Series championship.
"People want to talk stats," Moore says. "And that's great, stats are a wonderful part of baseball. People want to talk win totals. And we all know how important it is to win. But those are results. Those are not why we love this game. We love this game because it's a privilege to be a part of this game, because it's an honor to play with the greatest players in the world and compete against the greatest players in the world, because it's an honor to play for the fans. That's what we talk about every day.
"Yes, you need talent. But that's obvious. We know where we are, but I'll tell you, our players have a lot of talent. Every team has talent. What I've learned is that if your most talented players, the people you are counting on most, are the first ones there, the last ones to leave, if they care the most, compete the best and are the best teammates and connect with the fans, your team always has a chance. That's what we are working toward every day."
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.