Last summer, nobody imagined the Kansas City Royals morphing into the baseball version of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” teams that won NBA championships with a distinct indifference toward acquiring friends and gaining admirers.
The 2014 Royals were storybook underdogs whose magic ride didn’t expire until the final out of the seventh game of the World Series. A team that brought a 29-year playoff drought into October ended October with the tying run on third base and most of America in its corner. Even though casual fans knew little about the Royals, rooting for them was as easy as Sunday morning.
Six months later, they have managed to become more grating than the Lorde song inspired by a National Geographic photo of George Brett.
Kansas City began its defense of the American League championship with a season-opening series against the Chicago White Sox. The teams combined to throw at each other six times in three games.
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Then the Royals went on the road to face the Los Angeles Angels, whose star outfielder, Mike Trout, found himself in a home plate confrontation with starting pitcher Yordano Ventura in the series finale. Despite having been staked to a six-run lead, Ventura was angry — about something.
Trout had nearly decapitated Ventura with a line drive single through the box, but no batter — not even Trout — is capable of precisely knowing where a ball thrown 96 mph is going to go once it connects with a bat.
There is no love lost between the Royals and Angels, victims of a four-game Kansas City sweep in the 2014 playoffs. Nor is there any love lost between the Royals and Oakland A’s, whose fiery third baseman, Brett Lawrie, injured Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar on an aggressive slide during last weekend’s series opener in Kansas City.
The benches emptied, and while no punches were exchanged, tensions escalated. Ventura was ejected for throwing at Lawrie the following night, and five more Royals — including manager Ned Yost — got the boot last Sunday, when the benches emptied again.
How long can players keep their composure upon leaving the bench? Not very. Four days after averting a brawl with the A’s, the Royals participated in a nasty confrontation with the White Sox. Ventura, who was appealing the suspension he received in Kansas City, was among the four Royals ejected in Chicago, bringing the team’s season total to nine.
Ventura will appeal his most recent suspension, and why not? He knows the drill. The second-year ace has made four starts, gotten kicked out of two — and almost got kicked out of another.
Yost insists the Royals are not to blame for the feuds they’ve already engaged in against, let’s see, the Angels, A’s and White Sox.
“We haven’t started any of this,” he said Friday, conveniently forgetting about the incident Ventura started with Trout, and the incident Ventura started with the White Sox’s Adam Eaton the previous night.
Eaton hit a comebacker after Ventura delivered a quick pitch — well within the new rules enforcing a more brisk pace of play — and as Eaton was on his way to first base, Ventura pronounced two words easily discerned by novice lip readers.
A pitcher approaching a hitter on the baseline and shouting a profanity at him, it seems to me, qualifies as any definition of “starting something.”
In Yost’s defense, Lawrie’s war-painted face and obnoxious chest-pounding make him a target for a fastball to the ribs on any occasion. His take-out slide of Escobar demanded attention and, yes, retribution.
And heaven only knows what White Sox starter Chris Sale was thinking after his seventh-inning ejection Thursday night, when he reportedly went to the visitors’ clubhouse during the eighth inning — that’s right, the game was still going on — in a misbegotten attempt to take the fight into Round 2.
But, still, nine ejections for the Royals in 16 games? And they’re not responsible for anything?
“Teams are trying to get in our heads a little more, and I think we can go about it differently,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said in Chicago. “I think we can control our emotions better because at the end of the day, that’s not who we are. We’re not trying to go out there and pick fights. We’re not starting it by any means. We’re just trying to play baseball and go about things and play the game that we all love playing.”
Kansas City’s surprising roll to the 2014 World Series wasn’t a fluke. Opponents realize who these guys are and saw what they did, and yet the Royals still have won 12 of their first 16 games.
Get used to them. If their feisty attitude makes you pine for those days when Kansas City was an anonymous occupant of big league standings showing 30 teams, take a place in line. It starts at the corner of Yordano and Ventura, and it’s 29 blocks long.