Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Summer Days

...summer nights are gone.
(From "Summer Days," Love and Theft)

The Royals released Jimmy Gobble today. And as I type this, I'm watching the Royals' spring training game against the Mariners and Mike Sweeney.

It's hard to believe the magical, bittersweet 2003 season was six years ago. These two players had such a big role in the most enjoyable year I've had as a sports fan*, the juxtaposition has made me nostalgic.

*If I may indulge in a Pozterisk, 2003 featured the KU basketball team going to a second straight Final Four, the KU football team going to a bowl game for the first time in 11 years (we'll just ignore The Philip Rivers Show in the Tangerine Bowl, the Chiefs going 13-3 and winning the AFC West (we'll just ignore the playoff loss). With the Royals starting off 16-3 and staying in contention all summer, it was an all-around great sports year.

It's funny how fast things can change. The only current Royal who played for KC in 2003 is David DeJesus, who only played in 12 games (10 plate appearances) as a September call-up. And in 2003, it looked like Mike Sweeney would be a Royals star for years to come.

If you don't know, the Royals signed Sweeney to a unique contract extension after the 2001 season. If KC could finish with a winning record in 2002 or 2003, a clause would kick in to make him a Royal at $11 million per year through 2007. The idea was to give Sweeney an assurance that the Royals would try to build a winning team around him and to keep KC's best hitter under team control at a price below market value for what he had done in say, 2000 (.333/.407/.523, 29 HR, 144 RBI in 159 games). At the time, it seemed like a great deal for the Royals and their fans. Johnny Damon didn't want to stay in KC, Carlos Beltran was making it clear he didn't want to stay, Jermaine Dye didn't seem excited about staying, but here was Sweeney making a statement that he was willing to stay.

Well, it's funny how things turn out. The Royals of course posted a winning record in 2003, but Sweeney got hurt that year. And the next year. And then the team went in the crapper, losing 310 games from 2004-2006. As the highest-paid Royal, and as a player who couldn't stay healthy, Sweeney became the fall guy for many fans. I never understood this notion, as even with "2000 Mike Sweeney" in the lineup, the Royals still would have stunk out loud. And most of the people bashing him and the Royals for that contract extension were creating a little revisionist history. No one knew or could have known that Sweeney would have so many injuries, or that the Royals would refuse to spend any extra money to take some of the pressure off Sweeney.

When Sweeney's contract was up, the Royals showed little interest in bringing him back. It was the right move, as he struggled with injuries again last year, plus the Royals already had a surplus of 1B/Dh types who needed a shot at playing time. But as a player who helped make the Royals just a little respectable and as a class act off the field, Sweeney will always have a special place in my heart.

As for Gobble, I don't want to get too wrapped up in the past. He was terrible last year, especially against right-handers. Even though he was effective against lefties, I'm not sure the Royals have the luxury or even the need to carry a left-handed specialist. But Gobble will always have my appreciation for the way he stepped into the rotation in 2003 and helped the Royals stay in the race.

You have to remember, the 2003 Royals had a good offense, but a patchwork pitching staff. On a team that won 83 games, only one pitcher amassed 10 wins. That was Darrell May, whose obscurity should tell you a lot about the Royals that season. This was a team that pulled Jose Lima off an independent minor league team and threw him in the rotation (it worked out, somewhat, as he went 8-3 despite an unsightly 4.93 ERA). May had 32 starts, but no one else even reached 20.

When Lima had a groin strain at the end of July, the Royals called up Gobble and started him against Tampa Bay, a team which always seemed to play well against the Royals. With a one-game lead over the White Sox on August 3, the Royals turned their hopes over to a skinny rookie lefty.

In one of the more memorable (to me, anyways) moments of that whole crazy season, Gobble proceeded to shut out the Devil Rays for 6 innings. I was on vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota, frantically trying to get a radio signal from one of the few Royals radio network stations
in the area. What I heard was amazing. Gobble worked out of trouble in the third inning and again in the fifth, and made the only two runs KC was able to muster stand up.

Gobble made eight starts the rest of the season, with mixed results. But he did have four straight solid starts to finish the year. Of course, it wasn't enough as the Twins and White Sox both overtook the Royals. But for one day, Gobble was a Royal hero.

I don't know if 2009 will become only the second Royals pennant race of my adult life. I hope so, but I do have some doubts. If it does, though, I look forward to finding out who might play that one-time Royal hero role, as well as who might be leading the charge.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

I look forward to seeing a leader emerge too! I will kind of miss Gobble - he could be very good at times (when used correctly!)