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Royals Run Afoul Of Unwritten Rules

Frank Morris
Chris Stone, AKA KC Super Fan, says the Royals and the fans are tired of being messed with.

This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in April 2015.    

Remember last year, when the Kansas City Royals were the underdog darlings of baseball? The team’s winning again this season, but it’s been a bit ugly.

Opposing pitchers have hit Royals players 20 times, including a nasty one Alcides Escobar caught in the head Wednesday night. The Royals have hit six in return. Umpires have already ejected Royals players nine times, the most in baseball, and two recent series culminated in bench-clearing brawls. The numbers reflect a fundamental issue: The Royals keep running afoul of baseball's unwritten rules.

If you’re not that into baseball, you may be wondering why Royals players get hit with pitches on average about once a game. The great Joe Posnanski, a columnist for NBC Sports and former Kansas City Star writer, has an answer.

“I think they’re being tested, honestly,” says Posnanski. “Some of it is not intentionally trying to hit the players, but I think they’re pitching inside on the Royals to try to challenge them,” he says.

Posnanski notes that most people thought it was a fluke last year when the Royals took the American League championship. But now the Royals are a real threat, not just other teams, these guys are challenging some of the mores of baseball.

“There’s an unwritten code in baseball,” says Posnanski. “These unwritten rules, certain ways you’re supposed to act in a game.”

Those rules played out in high drama recently when Oakland’s Brett Lawrie injured the Royals' short stop.  Next game, Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura nailed Lawrie’s elbow with a 99 mile an hour fast ball.

“The Royals simply were not going to allow what Brett Lawrie did go unpunished.  And that’s where the Royals are now. I mean Royals are in position now, where they want a clear message to everybody — don’t tread on us,” Posnanski says.

When it’s time to send a message in baseball, the guy to do it is almost always the pitcher.

“The pitcher's role is kind of like the sheriff in town,” says Al Fitzmorris, who pitched for the Royals from 1969 through 1976.  He says retaliation is part of the job.

“All you’re trying to do is send a message. You hurt one of our guys, we’re going to hurt one of your guys,” says Fitzmorris. “And we’re not talking about breaking a bone. But, if it happens, that wasn’t the intent, but we’re going to play the next day, that’s part of baseball.”

It’s supposed to be a restrained, calibrated response, but some Royals players get emotional. Kelvin Herrera, for instance. He threw a blazing fast ball behind Lawrie at about shoulder level. Then Herrera pointed at his own head, as if to say “that’s where it’s going to hit you next time.”  

Jason Turbow, who wrote Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing and the Bench-Clearing Brawls: The unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime, says Herrera’s conduct was tantamount to war crime, but that he says it’s the type of play the Royals are suddenly known for.

“They’ve exhibited kind of this unique recklessness, or at least the perception of unique recklessness, part cocky swagger, and part I don’t give a damn about the opponent at all,” says Turbow.

Turbow says the Royals are jacking with baseball’s ancient decorum.

“It’s not that violence is abhorred,” he says, “it’s that there’s a certain way to go about it. And the way the Royals have gone about it so far, or at least a couple of very visible members of the Royals, it’s dragging it down into the gutter, and I think that’s what’s drawing such a strong reaction.”

But rough play is as old as baseball.

“I think the unwritten rules are changing,” says Jeff Logan.

Logan runs the Kansas City Baseball Historical Society and auctions baseball memorabilia. His storeroom and office in Lenexa is heaped with old caps, balls and uniforms. But it takes the man about three seconds to come up with an artifact from a much rowdier time.

“Yeah, right here, here is one of the toughest players the Royals ever had,” says Logan, beaming as he holds up the No. 11 jersey.

“And here is a game-used jersey, Hal McRae. They change the rules because of Hal McRae. They have the Hal McRae rule,” says Logan.

McRae was famous for body slamming second basemen to break up double plays. You can’t do that anymore.

None of the modern day Royals are in danger of having their names enshrined in the baseball ball rule book, but Logan says they’ve got to chill out just a little.

“The Royals know that the fighting can’t continue. And we’ve already fought Oakland and Chicago, though Detroit’s coming this weekend,” laughs Logan. “So we’ll know if the fighting’s over this weekend.”

“Logan says the modern Royals aren’t really offending baseball with aggressive play, so much as they are with unchecked enthusiasm.

“The Royals are cocky, and they do a lot of different antics on the field,” says Logan. “Coming out of the dugout and jumping around … I don’t see that as a big deal.”

Neither does Joe Posnanski.

“As far as being a team that plays in the edge, and plays with enthusiasm, and kind of ticks people off, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” says Posnanski. “If they can keep winning, that’s pretty good motivation during a very long season.”

Meantime the Royals hope that what they lose in affection, the can gain in respect.  

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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