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Muser key to development in K.C.

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April 12

They got walk-off home runs in three consecutive games this week, and two of them were hit by Brian Johnson and Rey Sanchez. What that tells the outside world is what the Kansas City Royals sensed inside their clubhouse since the middle of March -- that this long trounced-upon team is awakening.

Not that most teams in the American League didn't already know this. Suddenly, teams don't want to play the Royals. Not that Kansas City is going to take on Cleveland, but one general manager says, "They make slow teams look old. They run the bases -- first-to-third, first-to-home -- better than any team in the American League. Offensively, they seem to be on the attack all the time."

Joe Randa
Joe Randa and the Royals have had a lot to celebrate so far this season.

They haven't yet got enough pitching, although rookie Chad Durbin has presence and reliever Dan Reichert is a year from being a premium closer with his running fastball and Frisbee slider. But they have one of the game's best outfields in Jermaine Dye, rising superstar Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon. They have a future 40-home run batting champion in Mike Sweeney at first base and a rising star in second baseman Carlos Febles. The energy and aggressiveness is fun to watch. The provincial arrogance of some of the richer markets trashes anyone who plays for a Kansas City or Minnesota, but Joe Randa would be starting for a lot of clubs, like Boston.

The enthusiasm up and down that organization is refreshing. Sunday, George Brett was asked to go to Omaha to see if he could help Kevin Orie. It rained Monday, but Brett drove to Omaha just to work with Orie in the cage. When Brett helps set an organizational tone like that, there will be energy from top to bottom. "What makes it all come together," says assistant GM Allard Baird, who is a critical figure in the talent evaluation and development, "is Tony Muser. He has set a tone for this entire organization."

Muser is to the Kansas City Royals in 2000 what Tom Kelly was to the Minnesota Twins in 1986. When he interviewed for other managerial jobs, he was considered too hard, too serious. When he assumed the Royals job upon Bob Boone's dismissal, Muser bought into the notion that the Royals had to stop trying to play enough veterans in an attempt to finish .500, that they needed to strip down to the essentials -- which included a lot of very good young players -- and trusted the evaluations of Baird, Bob Hegman, Art Stewart and the organization's baseball people.

Muser has worked on every level, going to the Instructional League and winter ball to work with young players and make it clear that the entire organization is on the same page. During spring training, he brings minor leaguers to the major league fields to encourage the synergy; this spring, the minor-league people had some off-field problems with a talented young player, so Muser agreed to sit next to him during an exhibition game.

During the season, he makes several calls a week to minor-league players to let them know that the major league staff cares enough to watch.

Has he been tough on Beltran, Damon, Sweeney, Mark Quinn, et al? Absolutely, and it hasn't always been easy with the pitching he's had. But with Reichert, Jose Santiago and Ricky Bottalico, who hasn't yet found the consistent curveball that made him so good in Philadelphia, the bullpen shouldn't blow more than half their save opportunities, as happened last year.

A tough decade
The Royals' year-by-year record in the '90s:
Year W-L Pct. GB
1990 75-86 .466 27.5
1991 82-80 .506 13
1992 72-90 .444 24
1993 84-78 .519 10
1994 64-51 .557 4
1995 70-74 .486 30
1996 75-86 .466 24
1997 67-94 .416 19
1998 72-89 .447 16.5
1999 64-97 .398 32.5

There are two lessons to be taken away from the status Muser has carved for himself in Kansas City. The first is that, in most cases, what makes a great manager is his situation. Oh, maybe Dusty Baker and Felipe Alou would be great managers anywhere, because they understand the respect they earn is equal to the respect they give. The same may well be true of Jimy Williams, because his respect, teaching abilities and -- this is so important -- evaluation skills are a rare combination.

There were a lot of people who believed Joe Torre was a tremendous manager in St. Louis, but the team was owned by a beer salesman who hated baseball and treated the team and the best baseball town in America as if they were the Bridgeport Bluefish. Torre now is the perfect man for the Yankees, sets the perfect tone for an extraordinary group of players and is a key balance in the power structure George Steinbrenner utilizes.

Bobby Cox built the Braves organization, then knew enough to have John Schuerholz take it to the top for a decade, and while one might feel that Cox would not want to manage in a big media town, he has been a perfect blend with Schuerholz because he's never been afraid to play young players like Rafael Furcal despite the expectations to win every year. There are many who believe Phil Garner is a great manager, but hasn't had the situation to prove it, although the Tigers could be it if they could get lucky with some young pitching. The Padres organization knows what it has in Bruce Bochy, so do the Astros in Larry Dierker. Whether or not the Pirates manager knows it, most people in baseball feel Gene Lamont deserves that status in Pittsburgh.

The Royals, on the other hand, appreciate that they might not have these young players where they are were it not for Muser.

The second lesson here is that these Kansas Citys and Minnesotas are human. They get sick and tired of losing and being beaten down by constant reminders that they aren't supposed to win because they have $20-30 million payrolls. "Oakland won 87 games last year and was in the wild card hunt until the final two weeks," Muser said this spring. Twins GM Terry Ryan looks at it the same way. OK, the A's and Twins and Royals can't afford $15 million in deadbeat contracts like the Dodgers or Red Sox, but if they make the right evaluation decisions, sign their young players to the right long-term deals and add the correct pieces, then if they get $30-35 million budgets, they could compare favorably to teams like Astros, Giants and Reds, who are competing with $45 million payrolls.

"We don't have the margin for error to be wrong," says Baird. For instance, the Royals have to be right on their evaluation of young outfielder Dee Brown when they decide at the end of this season whether or not to trade Johnny Damon -- a free agent after the 2001 season -- and insert Brown into left field. They have to be right about the players to whom they give those long-term contracts. And it won't be easy. Beltran, like Damon, is represented by Scott Boras, and Boras isn't afraid to take a Beltran to arbitration every year to take his salaries through the sky, as opposed to accepting long-term security.

But at this point, the Royals believe success can happen, and that Bud Selig will find a better means of levelling the green fields and that sharing Internet revenues will make it possible for Kansas City to stack its evaluation skills up against the raw revenues of the Dodgers, Yankees or Red Sox.

That's what Ryan believes in Minnesota, as well. "The A's and Royals have shown that if you start winning, a lot can happen," he says. "I keep getting asked about (Brad) Radke. I keep saying I want to sign him (and could, if Radke's agent would back off the demand of giving Radke the right to walk after the first year). We need him if we're going to start winning, and if we start winning a little, I think he'll feel better about our situation. He's not the only free agent pitcher at the end of the year. There's (Mike) Mussina, (Darren) Dreifort, (Chan Ho) Park, (Mike) Hampton ... " Add Rick Reed, Kevin Tapani, David Cone, Andy Ashby, Kevin Appier and others. "We're all in different situations," says Ryan, "and in ours, we need to start winning again for the good of the franchise and the fans. Look what's happening in Kansas City."

All of a sudden, everyone is looking at the Royals.

Around the majors

  • Many picked the Orioles to finish last -- hard to believe when we see the team Tampa Bay puts on the field. The relatively soft April schedule allows the O's a chance to get off to a good start and keep the vultures away, and there are some encouraging factors: they started 6-2 without their three top starters -- Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson, Scott Erickson -- winning a game. Mussina has pitched very well, Ponson relaxed more in his Tuesday start and pitched well and Erickson will be back in a couple of weeks. Delino DeShields is off to a tremendous start in every phase of the game, which bodes well for one of the game's most decent and complex persons. And Buddy Groom has been a pleasant surprise to everyone but Syd Thrift, who signed him. Groom had always been mediocre against left-handed batters (.262 lifetime), but has made some changes in his approach, is ticking 90-92 mph and retired the first lefties he faced this season without a ball hit out of the infield.

  • Tampa Bay? Owner Vince Naimoli thought home run hitters would sell tickets, but he's left with a team that strikes out in bunches and has only three average defenders (John Flaherty, Gerald Williams, David Martinez). There are several reports that after making pitching coach Ricky Williams a scapecoat that Naimoli wants to fire manager Larry Rothschild, despite the progress made by young pitchers Ryan Rupe, Dan Wheeler and Esteban Yan. The pitching is killed by the fact that they can't get $14 million worth of starts in Juan Guzman and Wilson Alvarez to the mound and because instead of getting speed and athleticism on defense, they assembled a softball team. "What's going to really hit home is when Naimoli realizes most of his 'sluggers' are untradeable," says one AL GM.

  • As good as the A's may be, their defense is a problem and center field is a big problem that may force them to rush Terrence Long to the big leagues.

  • The Red Sox are one of the teams that believes that the U.S. talent market is thinning and that the draft has created a false economic structure in which cost exceeds value, so they have cut back so much on signing U.S. players out of the draft (they didn't sign anyone from the fourth through ninth rounds last season) that only 51 of the 109 players on the Opening Day rosters of their top four farm clubs were signed by Boston out of the draft. Still, there are no absolutes. They signed Sang Lee for nearly twice as much as it would have cost to sign the best hitter in college baseball, Georgia Tech sophomore switch-hitter Mark Teixeira, who would have signed out of high school in 1998 for $1.8M if Teixeira's father did not feel he was personally insulted by the Red Sox. ... Boston is one of several contenders sifting for pitching. The Sox offered Michael Coleman to Colorado for Manny Aybar, but the Rockies needed pitching and took left-handed reliever Gabe White from Cincinnati, where he'd fallen from Jack McKeon's favor.

  • Ryan: "If we keep Radke, we're not too far from having a pretty good starting staff." Eric Milton is one of the league's best left-handers since coming up with a cut fastball in the middle of last season, Joe Mays is a lot better than he looked when he allowed the umpire to unravel him Tuesday in Boston (where he'd likely be the No. 3 starter), Rule 5 find Johan Santana is another lefty with a prime arm and currently at Double-A New Britain, right-hander Matt Kinney is healthy, hit 96 Monday in Norwich and isn't far from being up in the Twins rotation. "He's throwing the ball over the plate and seems to be on his way," says Ryan, who got Kinney from the Red Sox for Greg Swindell on July 31, 1998, then saw him miss most of last season after an elbow operation.

  • From colleague Jerry Crasnick of the Bloomberg News Bureau, watching Kirk Bullinger pitch for the Phillies: "The Bullingers (Kirk, Jim) are just like the Madduxes, only they're both like Mike." ... And from Jay Leno: "They drew 15,000 for an Elian Gonzalez rally in Miami. The Marlins average 7,500 a game. If they'd sign Gonzalez, they'd double their attendance." OK, but Luis Castillo can flat-out play and is on his way to 100 walks and 100 runs on a young, second-division team. ... Camden Yards changed the baseball business. But Pac Bell may accomplish something nearly as remarkable -- namely, make San Fransisco a baseball town after 38 seasons of people growing up thinking that the miserable Stick was major league baseball. When you see Camden, Pac Bell and what's being built in San Diego -- as well as the palaces in Detroit, Houston and other cities -- then look back at what Jerry Reinsdorf wrought with his blackmail in Chicago, it is a reminder that before you build, you'd better have a vision, care about customers and love the game enough to appreciate that its arena had better be a museum. Comiskey had none of that.

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