- Elizabeth Merrill
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This time of year, Mark Grudzielanek wouldn't be able to walk down the street. He'd hear shouts of "Grudzie!" and "We love you!" and would have to stop. Ah, Chicago. The memories still warm Grudzielanek's heart.
But today, it is just past lunch hour on the Plaza, and the only warmth Grudzielanek is getting is from a grande java in a paper cup. He's sinking in a comfy chair at Starbucks, reading the paper as businessmen and shoppers and women with perfectly manicured poodles hurry by. Forty minutes pass, and none of them stop for Grudzie. Maybe they're just shy.
Maybe it's because he's now in Kansas City, a block or so from George Brett's restaurant but miles from the words "Royals" and "playoffs" being mentioned together without a collective chortle.
"I got it here the other day," Grudzielanek says. "I went to a movie and a guy said, 'Grudzie, is that you?'"
The better question might be, "Grudzie, what are you doing here?" Two years removed from a playoff run with the Cardinals, three seasons after his glory days with the Cubs, Grudzielanek can't walk three feet without hitting a Chiefs T-shirt. He's hitting nearly .300 on a Kansas City team that is going nowhere for the 22nd straight season. Each day is a lesson in patience and relative anonymity.
The Royals hit a milestone last week -- they beat the Twins, which meant they won't lose 100 games for the first time in four years. Grudzielanek is 37, he's stayed in baseball because of the playoff itch, and he recently picked up the mutual option to return to the Royals next season.
And what is he doing here again?
"I want to try to win," Grudzielanek says. "My time is way too valuable and I miss my family so much. I'm at the point right now where I need to win and I want to win. I've made enough money, and all that stuff is fine and dandy. I'm happy with everything, but I'd love to be a piece of this puzzle here.
"To have somebody want you around and to feel like you're valuable to them, in business or whatever you do, that's an awesome feeling for anybody."
They joke in the Royals' clubhouse that the 2008 season might as well be called "Grudz and the Kids." With captain Mike Sweeney's status up in the air -- and a roster full of baby faces -- Grudzielanek might be one of the last veterans on next year's club.
He knows what it's like to be in a pennant race, to taste the World Series before a foul-ball controversy takes it away. He has the losing bit down too, long before he came to Kansas City. He can tell them about when he was a rookie in Montreal in 1995, and the underachieving Expos went 66-78 and got booed. He can laugh about how he thought they'd make the playoffs. He was too young to know any better.
In late 2005, when Grudzielanek signed with the Royals, he spent the entire offseason preparing himself to lose. When things got too bad, and the bungles became too much, he'd call his wife Danielle, who played softball at UCLA and recently gave birth to their second son. He vented; she understood.
Before the 2007 season, Grudzielanek told reporters if they lost 100 again, he'd retire.
"Our team's too good," he'd say. "That's ridiculous."
Then the Royals got off to another dismal start.
"I was starting to think, 'What's going on here? Does everybody expect us to flop and to lose?' I didn't come here for that, that's for damn sure," he said.
Grudzielanek is almost animated now, in a crowded coffee shop on a perfect fall afternoon. Still, no one looks over. And that's all right.
He grew up in Milwaukee, and got his start making $700 a month, living with four other guys in one room in Jamestown, N.Y., scraping to get by. If Grudzielanek had to do that now, in today's top-heavy draft and contract-rich environment, he probably wouldn't be playing baseball.
"Maybe I would've taught," he says. "I used to do construction in the offseason. Who knows? I would've branched out."
The biggest thing that bothers him today about baseball is the gigantic contracts for 18-year-olds who have never played. He says it messes with their heads, and doesn't allow them to mature enough in the minor leagues.
And now, it's Grudzielanek's job to teach members of that millionaire boys club how to be a professional ballplayer.
"Obviously, he's going to be a role model for each and every person in here," Royals pitcher Brandon Duckworth says. "He's been around, he knows those battles. He's been in playoff chases, and knows how to get there.
"He's a very loyal guy from what I can tell. You just know when he makes a decision, he's going to stick with that decision."
Though he was considered a role player at many of his stops, Grudzielanek is one of the Royals' leading hitters and won a Gold Glove last season at second base. Amid whispers that a playoff contender might snatch him away this summer, last month Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore locked up Grudzielanek for 2008 with a deal believed to match his current $4 million salary.
Moore, who came to Kansas City last summer, undoubtedly has coached the veterans on how a cause becomes personal. The GM grew up in southern Kansas, idolizing Brett, and became a big baseball exec coveted by the Braves and wooed by the Red Sox.
His detour to Kansas City would be considered somewhat unorthodox.
"When it's personal to you, emotionally, you're involved only for the purpose of getting it right," Moore says. "You're not worried about your own place in the organization, you're not worried about the politics. We don't have the greatest resources. We've got to make every decision count.
"It's personal. In today's game, that's the way organizations like ours, in these types of markets, get things turned around."
Conservative estimates map the Royals as being playoff contenders in three or four years, when Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are seasoned and first-round draft pick Mike Moustakas is in the lineup.
That timetable doesn't exactly bode well for a guy with two knee surgeries and impending crows feet. As his coffee gets cold, Grudzielanek says he's counting on it happening faster. He says Moore has a big offseason ahead of him, filled with tough decisions on a tighter budget.
This time, Grudzie isn't preparing himself to lose.
"This team can win, and in this city, it would be great," he says. "It would be a lot of fun.
"Somebody's got to stick around. Somebody's got to say, 'Hey, we've got an opportunity here. This is going to get better here real soon and real quick.'"
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So Mark Grudzielanek actually likes it in Kansas City, and as ESPN.com senior writer Elizabeth Merrill explains, "Grudzie" is full of faith the Royals can win.