Sunday afternoon, ESPN.com columnists Rob Neyer and Jim Baker hooked up at Shea Stadium for game between the Royals (Rob's favorite team) and the Mets (Jim's). The following exchange opens as they sit in the mezzanine section out beyond third base, waiting for the game to begin.
Rob: You know, not only is Kansas City the Greeting Card Capital of the World, it's also the capital of people who write greeting cards for a living. That's why it seems like such a friendly city to visitors; everybody's trying out new happy or sympathetic sentiments.
Jim: What if New York were the greeting-card capital?
"It's your birthday? So ----ing what? It's not like everybody doesn't have one."
Jim: OK, so who's suffered more? Mets fans or Royals fans?
Rob: Royals fans. There was '76, '77 and '78 ...
Jim: But those were winning years!
Rob: Yeah, but they ended in heartbreak. Then they lost a World Series in 1980 they should have won, they wiped out in the postseason in 1981 and '84 (and blew a lead down the stretch in 1982). There was '85, of course, which made up for most of what had come before ... but the Royals haven't been to the postseason since!
Jim: What's worse, heartbreak at the end of the season or heartbreak at the end of (almost) every game?
Rob: You don't remember the daily heartbreakings. It's the big ones at the end of the year that stick with you. It's like losing your pinky finger in one clean hack vs. suffering an injury that leaves you with pain for the rest of your life. I'll never forget what it felt like when Chris Chambliss hit the ball over the right-field fence in '76, and I'll never forget what it felt like to watch the Royals cough up a late lead in Game 5 in '77.
Jim: You're right, but now that you're in that morass like the Mets were in before Davey Johnson took over, do you still feel that way? Would you trade this for a heartbreaking playoff loss right now?
Rob: Getting wiped out in the playoffs does sound pretty good right now. There's a difference, though. Back then, you knew it was only a matter of time before the Mets' natural advantage made them a contender. You look at every big market, and eventually their teams ride the financial advantage to success (with the arguable exception of the Cubs, but even they've been in the hunt a few times over the last couple of decades). The current Royals are much more hopeless than the Mets ever were.
Jim: I would say it's far more painful to suffer in a large market than a small one -- to fail with all of the resources available.
Rob: Perhaps, but I think that for a lot of people the opposite is true. If you're from someplace like Kansas City, a lot of your civic pride, and sometimes even your sense of self-worth, is wrapped up in the performance of your sports teams because that's all anybody else in the country knows about you. But if you live in Boston or New York, why should you care what anybody else thinks? You're in New York or Boston, the financial and educational capitals of the country.
All of the above took place before the game. Finally, a group of third-graders sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Jim: I love my country and I love kids, but that was the worst rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" I've ever heard. And everyone here went nuts for them. If this town were as tough as everyone says, they would have booed those kids off the field.
Rob: Well, I don't love my country and I hate kids, so you know what I think about it. I think the Mets should give us our money back for having to stand here and listen to that.
Jim: This is the rubber match in the series. What should we bet?
Rob: Now that they've cleaned up down Times Square, what's left in this town to want?
The game begins with rookie Alexis Gomez taking a strike from Jeff D'Amico.
Jim: I'll bet a called strike is the most common event to start a game.
Rob: Today's pitching matchup is hardly a contrast in styles. D'Amico and Shawn Sedlacek are both righties who throw 88-mph fastballs and 72-mph curveballs that break straight down, with occasional changeups just for a wrinkle. The only real difference is that D'Amico is pretty polished, and Sedlacek is just up from Wichita, making his second major-league start after skipping Triple-A.
After Gomez strikes out looking, Neifi Perez tries to bunt the ball toward third base while sprinting toward first base.
Jim: "Swing away! Be a man!"
Rob, how can you tolerate that?
Rob: Have you seen Neifi swing away? This is better, means a significantly lower chance of him popping up.
Perez eventually does swing away ... and pops up.
In the bottom of the first, with Mike Piazza at the plate and Timo Perez on first base, Perez takes off for second and continues to third as Piazza drives a ball to right field, where it's caught by Gomez. When Mike Sweeney caught Gomez's throw for the double play, Timo was still standing on third base.
Jim: You see there, Rob? That's the sort of baserunning that lost us the World Series two years ago.
Rob: Hey, do you know who doesn't get enough respect?
Mr. Met. He's got to be the oldest mascot in baseball, maybe in professional sports.
Jim: Unless the A's have a guy running around in a white-elephant suit.
In the top of the second, Sweeney pops a foul into the stands behind first base, where a fan with a glove makes the catch.
Rob: Why do people cheer for a guy who catches a foul pop with a glove? That's no big deal.
Jim: They're not cheering his skill, they're cheering his foresight.
Rob: Lately I've been reading a lot about pitching, and one of the things the old pitchers used to say is that you have to change the speeds on your pitches. That is, you might only have a fastball, curve, and changeup -- like Sal Maglie -- but if you throw your fastball and curve at three speeds apiece, suddenly you've got seven pitches. Now, we'll never know how effectively the old-timers actually did change speeds, but it doesn't seem like guys do that much today. You watch the radar readings on TV or on the board here at Shea, and it seems like the fastballs and curves are practically pegged at the same speeds, pitch after pitch.
Jim: There are three things that could be happening:
One, we can't trust the equipment.
Two, they only think they're varying the intensity of their deliveries.
And three, they know they aren't, but they're saying it anyway in an attempt to psych out the hitters. Like the supposed spitball pitchers who didn't throw many spitballs but acted like they did.
Rob: Number two makes most sense to me. I have to think that it's hard for a pitcher to know if he's throwing 86 or 89.
Jim: Right. It's not like you've got a dial on your arm that allows you to set your speed.
After five innings, Sedlacek had pitched well but trailed 2-0 and stepped up to lead off the top of the sixth.
Rob: Why in the hell is Pena letting Sedlacek hit? He looked shaky in his last inning and he's not going to last much longer anyway.
Jim: There's probably nobody better in the dugout to hit or in the bullpen to pitch.
Sedlacek strikes out and Gomez pops to shortstop, but Neifi Perez singles and Carlos Beltran doubles to put Royals on second and third, Mike Sweeney due up next.
Jim: I'd walk him.
Rob: As good as D'Amico's control is, it might not be the worst move in the world.
D'Amico works carefully for a couple of pitches, then goes ahead and issues the intentional pass.
Jim: See? I say it here, it comes out there. Just like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. And by coincidence, I'm sweating like him, too.
Randa foils the strategy with a two-run single on the next pitch.
Jim: This is why I'm paid $1,000 a day (plus expenses) as a baseball consultant.
After another RBI single and a walk, Bobby Valentine summons Mark Guthrie from the bullpen to face left-handed-hitting Brent Mayne.
Rob: Pena screws up again. Mayne couldn't hit Guthrie with a tennis racket. You've got A.J. Hinch on the bench and he's got some power; why not use him?
Mayne's bat explodes as he drops a swinging bunt toward Alfonzo at third base, and Alfonzo fumbles the ball while trying to make a bare-hand pickup. Alfonzo's charged with a tough error.
Rob: This is why I'm paid $2,000 a day (plus expenses) as a baseball consultant.
Now the bases are loaded ... for Sedlacek.
Rob: Now you have to pinch-hit for Sedlacek. The Royals have a two-run lead, but that's not going to hold up for another four innings. They've got a chance to punch a hole in this game, and they have to take it.
Sedlacek strikes out for the second time in the inning, leaving the score 4-2. Timo Perez leads off the bottom of the sixth with a double, and Piazza grounds out to third, Timo moving up a base when Neifi Perez forgets to cover third. With Mo Vaughn up, the Royals go to an extreme infield shift, Neifi playing on the right side of second base and third baseman Joe Randa taking station in Neifi's normal spot.
Jim: Why doesn't Timo take his lead halfway home and steal? Randa's way too far to do anything about it.
Rob: This comes up sometimes, but usually the third baseman doesn't shift so far with a runner on third. Maybe Timo's afraid of getting hit by a line drive from 45 feet away?
Jim: He has to have confidence that Vaughn is going pull the ball. The Royals obviously do, or else they wouldn't have the shift on.
Sedlacek does hold the Mets in the sixth, thanks to Raul Ibanez, who pulls Alfonzo's would-be three-run homer back to the field.
Pena finally pulls Sedlacek, and Cory Bailey coughs up a two-run homer to John Valentin in the bottom of the seventh, cutting the Royals' lead to a single run. And in the bottom of the eighth, Roger Cedeno ripped a two-run single against Jason Grimsley to give the Mets a 5-4 lead, thus blowing Sedlacek's chance for his first major-league victory.
Rob: Shawn Sedlacek, welcome to the Kansas City Royals.
He's now started two games, pitched 11.2 innings and posted a 2.31 ERA, and he's got exactly diddly-squat to show for it, thanks to the Royals' typical sparkling relief work and run support. You know, pitching for the Royals is like a form of hazing. You're in the majors, but you can't really enjoy it because every five days something bad happens to you. Theoretically, if you could hang around for four or five years you could join a real team, but that hasn't actually happened since Kevin Appier lucked out and got traded to Oakland.
Jim: Right. Dan Reichert's saying to Sedlacek, "Hey, nobody ever saved games for me when I was a starter." That's why hazing never dies. It's self-perpetuating; guys figure, "Hey, if I had to go through it, so does the new guy."
Rob: It used to seem so easy for the Royals to develop pitchers. Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson, Bud Black, Charlie Leibrandt ... those guys all became good (or great) major-league pitchers within the space of a few years, and not long after they came up with Kevin Appier and David Cone (though of course they traded Cone before he did anything for them).
Jim: The same can be said for the Mets with Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Ron Darling. But here's the thing: how much should we expect from any promising young pitcher? How many careers pan out to our fulfill expectations? If a pitcher wins 180 games, that's a successful career, isn't it? Even 110 or 120 wins is a lot. How many of these pitchers had decent careers in hindsight, even though they seemed like they weren't fulfilling their destinies at the time?
Rob: Well, they all had decent careers, and most of them had very good careers, at least. Gooden and Saberhagen both had Hall of Fame talent, but a lot of pitchers have Hall of Fame talent. I think the point here is that just because a team has a bunch of good young pitchers doesn't mean they're going to win a bunch of pennants (and I just remembered, the early-1970s Mets are another example).
Of course, this isn't particularly relevant to either the current Mets or the current Royals, as neither team has anything like an impressive group of young pitchers with good track records in the majors.
Jim: What they do have in common is this: both teams won World Series thanks to strokes of great fortune. And neither has won a World Series since. But those strokes both came in the sixth game. Let us never forget that both the Cardinals in 1985 and the Red Sox in 1986 had the opportunity to come back out and win Game 7.
Rob: I only wish the Royals had the opportunity to beat the Mets today, but that's not going to happen because they've got the bottom of the order coming up against Armando Benitez.
Benitez allowed a one-out single in the ninth to Brent Mayne, then struck out Aaron Guiel and Michael Tucker -- now THERE are a couple of fine pinch-hitters -- to end the game.
Coming tomorrow ... Rob's report on his trips to New York-Penn League games in Brooklyn and Staten Island.