KANSAS CITY -- Sometimes good things go bad. Nobody wants it to happen. Everybody tries to make it work. But sometimes good things go bad anyway. And you look back and realize that this is price of the years ... and being human.
* * *
Frank White sits on a stage in the basement of a Kansas City library. The huge room overflows with people. There must be 500 people squeezing in here. An overflow crowd sits upstairs, maybe another 100 or so, and they can watch Frank White talk on a large television. Another 100 or 150 loiter the hallway between. They cannot see White. They can hear him, though. They are listening to their childhood.
"I'm not bitter," Frank White says.
* * *
The day before the event, the Kansas City Royals released a statement.
“Frank White holds a special place in Royals history and with our fans -- evidenced by his statue at Kauffman Stadium, his retired jersey and the many years he was employed by the franchise.
“Following his retirement as a player, the Royals arranged for him to hold a number of positions with the team. While Frank’s role evolved over time based on his own requests as well as the needs of the organization, we were disappointed when he made the decision to leave his position as a community ambassador.
“We continue to respect what Frank has done for our city and the role he played in Royals history, and he always will be a part of the Royals tradition.”
* * *
One man in the hallway wanders up from behind and taps me on the shoulder. He asks if I am the sportswriter. I nod.
"Write this," he says. "Frank White is the greatest baseball player ever to play in Kansas City. You hear me? The greatest to ever play here.”
I nod again.
“And write this,” he says. “The Royals are a disgrace.”
* * *
Frank White grew up in the neighborhood around Municipal Stadium on 22nd and Brooklyn in the heart of Kansas City. This was before the Royals existed. The local team was the Kansas City Athletics back then. Satchel Paige pitched here. Mickey Mantle hit here. Catfish Hunter pitched here. Reggie Jackson hit here. In Frank White’s childhood, the Kansas City A’s were routinely the worst team in the American League. Still, he could hear the crowds cheering at night.
He did not imagine himself playing baseball for a living. His aspirations hovered much lower; they didn’t even play baseball at Lincoln High School. But there was a park in the neighborhood, and kids would play ball, and White was faster and more athletic than most of the guys. Anyway, he got a job at a metal plating company in town.
And then he heard that the Kansas City Royals, the new team in town, were having tryouts for something they called the Royals Baseball Academy.
* * *
“I write in the book, ‘Never say never!’” Frank White is telling the crowd in the basement of the library, and they cheer him. He says he learned this in baseball, from an old warhorse of a baseball man named Tony Muser. Ol’ Muse used to say: “Never say never. Never say always. What’s most important is to be right at that particular time.”
He does not stress that in the book, his autobiography, he also wrote; “They” -- meaning the Kansas City Royals -- “broke my heart.”
He also wrote this: “You’ll never see me in that stadium again.”
* * *
The Royals Baseball Academy was the idea of team owner Ewing Kauffman. He was not a baseball man. He barely followed the sport before buying the team. He made his fortune in pharmaceuticals; he began by selling them out of his basement. He didn’t know baseball. But he knew how to sell. And he knew innovation. He could not believe that baseball teams were still trying to develop talent the same way they had 50 years before.
And so he came up with the concept: The Royals would find raw athletes, pure talents, young men with limited baseball experience. They held tryouts all over the country. They would teach these young men how to play the game in a dusty academy in Nowhere, Florida. Frank White was one of those young men.
The days were beautiful drudgery -- hour after hour after hour of fielding ground balls, going to classes (both baseball and academic), perfecting the bunt, listening to long lectures about hitting the ball to the right side and getting the sure out and the sacred duty to hit the cut-off man and cover first base and back up the catcher.
White hated it. And loved it. He showed a genius for defense. There were also rattlesnakes in the Florida outfield. He improved rapidly. He made $48 a month. At one point, he was working on the construction crew building a new stadium, one that would eventually be named for Ewing Kauffman. White considered quitting the crazy baseball dream and staying in construction where the money was steady. Ewing Kauffman and others told him to hang in there.
* * *
In 2001, the Kansas City Royals played the Cleveland Indians in May. Frank White was coaching the Royals by then. The pitchers were each team’s best prospect, both former first-round picks. Both had dazzling stuff, at least at times. Frank White sat on the bench and looked out, and something troubled him.
The Royals hot prospect was a righty named Dan Reichert.
The Indians hot prospect was a lefty named C.C. Sabathia.
The Indians won 5-1.
The question pounding in Frank White’s mind was this: “How come our No. 1 draft pick pitches like THIS and their No. 1 draft pick pitches like THAT?”
* * *
There was a comprehensive way the Kansas City Royals played baseball when Frank White was called to the big leagues in the mid-1970s. They broke up double plays hard. They crashed into catchers at the plate. They constantly looked to take the extra base. They caught everything. They played every day. Such things were non-negotiable. Heaven help the ballplayer caught in the training room. He would never hear the end of it.
The vocal leader was Hal McRae. Perhaps the best description of McRae comes from a furious playoff series against the Yankees. Before one game, he and the Yankees’ Cliff Johnson got into a ferocious argument, and Johnson challenged McRae to settle matters under the stands. “Cliff,” McRae said plainly, “I don’t fight extra men.”
Amos Otis led in his own way. He who would sporadically put up a “No Interviews” sign and alternate between sourness because he was getting too much attention and sullenness because he was getting too little. But he played the game with a precision that awed his teammates. He dissected pitchers’ motions so thoroughly that he would often steal bases standing up. He rarely missed cut-off men and never gave away at-bats by trying to do too much.
John Mayberry led in his own way, too. He was a big bear of a man who would hit long home runs and would never allow young players to pick up the check. “You be sure to buy rookies dinner when you can afford it,” he would say. He also would needle players until they were so angry they spit fire. Everyone would remember the bus trip where Mayberry’s words cut deep into McRae until finally Hal couldn’t take it. “You will probably kill me,” he said as he stood up. “But here I come.” And he attacked.
This was the time Frank White joined in 1973, the team he played with for the next 18 years. It was the cliché, team as family, complete with fights and squabbles and conversation and love and fury and celebration, and always -- ALWAYS -- a hard line on playing to win. A wasted at-bat, a botched play, a break in concentration, there was no place for that in Kansas City. If you lost, you moved on, you had to move on, but with a small piece of yourself missing.
And if anyone out there, anyone, threw at you or slid in spikes-high, you never had 24 better friends. That’s what Kansas City baseball meant to Frank White. Seven times they would reach the playoffs, back when this really meant something. Twice they reached the World Series. Once -- only once -- they won it all. Playing for the Kansas City Royals would convince Frank White that he, like the team, was a winner.
* * *
A year-by-year look at the Royals lineup changes since 2003, the last year that they contended for anything:
2004: Raul Ibanez left for more money. Carlos Beltran was traded mid-season. Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa regressed. The Royals continued a nasty trend of picking up Aging Recognizable Names (ARNs) in the desperate hope that they might (1) recapture their youth, and (2) provide leadership. This year’s ARNs included two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez, who played 33 games before a day-to-day injury took him out for the rest of the season. Other ARNs: Tony Graffanino, Matt Stairs and Benito Santiago.
2005: A year for youth! The Royals played youngsters Mark Teahen, Ruben Gotay and David DeJesus. They lost 100 games.
2006: Youth is wasted on the young! The Royals went back to the ARNs. They tapped the Scrabble board to get Doug Mientkiewicz and Mark Grudzielanek, along with affable former star Reggie Sanders. They lost 100 games.
2007: Back to youth! Sure, the Royals added ARNs Ross Gload and Jason LaRue, and they signed pitcher Gil Meche for a boatload of money. But mostly they built their team around phenom Alex Gordon, who did not get his average over .200 until the middle of June. But Meche pitched well, as did two young pitchers -- Rule V pickup Joakim Soria and sabermetric wonder Brian Bannister -- and the Royals managed to break their three-year streak of 100-loss seasons.
2008: The Royals signed Jose Guillen to the biggest contract in team history. They got Miguel Olivo. But another youngster, Billy Butler, debuted, and former No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar became a regular starter, and 24-year-old pitcher Zack Greinke seemed to be stable and focused for the first time. The Royals lost only 87 games, their best record in five years.
2009: Back to the ARNs! The Royals went out and got Coco Crisp, Mike Jacobs and, perhaps most bizarrely, Yuniesky Betancourt. The farm system was totally barren. They lost 97 games.
2010: More ARNs! The Royals got Rick Ankiel ... and Scott Podsednik ... and Willie Bloomquist ... and Jason Kendall ... it’s as if something snapped and the Royals were determined to sign every castoff in the big leagues. They lost 95 games.
2011: Youth again! The Royals did add a couple more veteran castoffs -- Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera -- but at least they were somewhat young. And they dipped into their suddenly stocked collection of talented young players: Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar and Johnny Giavatello. They improved a bit and lost 91.
2012: The Royals, other than a strange relapse in re-signing Yuniesky Betancourt, seemed to stay with the program of young players. Unfortunately, those young players did not develop quite as quickly as hoped, and the starting pitching was astonishingly bad, and the Royals lost 90 games. They promised to spend money and improve for 2013. This quest began with the signing of ARN Ervin Santana and the re-signing of ARN Jeremy Guthrie.
* * *
Frank White is still trim, great shape, and several times a day people will say to him: “You look like you could still put on the old uniform, Frank!” He likes this. He also likes that wherever he goes in Kansas City, he will run into someone who will have a story about watching him play for the Royals in the old days. Kansas City is not that big a place. And Frank White has lived an ever-present Kansas City life.
They booed him at first, you know. Frank loves mentioning that. He was the hometown kid, but they booed him anyway because he replaced Cookie Rojas and everybody loved Cookie. Also White didn’t hit in the early years.
But, right away, he was a wonder in the field. Royals Stadium, as it was called then, was covered in artificial turf -- perhaps the fastest and bounciest turf in baseball. Balls skimmed off that turf at speeds that made infielders shake. Frank White simply invented a new way to play second base on that turf. He played deep and allowed his strong arm to make up the space. He moved left and right so quickly that he seemed to chase down ground balls from behind. He was probably the best who ever lived at catching pop-ups behind first base. Big John Mayberry, instead of yelling “I got it!” when balls in the air were behind him, would instead boom: “Frank! Frank!”
White’s grace, though, was what people would remember most. That is something extra. There have been many breathtaking defenders who looked plain. Rey Sanchez was like that. He was not beautiful to watch. He simply made every play look routine. The ball stuck to his glove, and he never made dramatic efforts for balls that he knew he could not reach, and his arm was always just good enough to get the runner by a step. He never won a Gold Glove. He didn’t look like a virtuoso. He just was one.
Frank White, though, jumped and leaped and dived. He had this beautiful, light-footed way of moving, like a dancer, and so when the ball was hit his way there was a jolt of anticipation throughout the stadium. He threw from all angles -- overhand, sidearm, underhand, whatever the situation demanded. He contorted his body any number of ways to complete dazzling double plays. No one who saw Frank White play could doubt that they were watching a master. And this was something that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.
And, everyone figured, one way or another, Frank White would always be a Royal.
* * *
The Kansas City Royals have not won the World Series since 1985. They also have not made the playoffs since 1985. And, depending on your definition of contention -- say it means actually having a chance to reach the postseason in the last week of the season -- they have not really contended since 1985, either.
So that year has a powerful meaning for Kansas City baseball fans. Many -- most, probably -- are just plain sick of hearing about 1985. This is the way time winds. At first, everyone still remembers 1985. Heck, it just happened. But soon, the kids have to be told about it. Soon after those kids are in middle school, then high school, and before long they are in college, they have graduated. And they don’t remember 1985.
And suddenly you look around and nobody under 30 or 35 has any recollection of the Royals actually winning anything. What they DO recollect is being told about 1985 their whole lives ... and told about it ... and told about it ... until they are sick of listening, sick of celebrating something they cannot remember, sick of the Royals never giving them their own memories to cherish.
Even those who do remember, well, 1985 begins to take on unhappy meanings. The fans and players from that time find themselves increasingly angrier that the franchise has broken so far away from the spirit and success of those early Royals teams, increasingly angrier to see their team become what they see as a directionless mess with an absentee owner and a boatload of excuses.
Meanwhile, the current Royals, and perhaps some of their fans, grow sick of being judged by a 30-year-ago standard, when the game was very different, when you could keep a team together, when you could pencil in George Brett third in the lineup every year, when Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Milwaukee and Cincinnati and Baltimore and Oakland and other mid-sized towns ruled the land.
So you can see where the contentiousness might come in.
* * *
The breaking point for Frank White probably came on Sept. 29, 2002. There would be a lot of breaking points, before and after, but that was the big one. White was a Kansas City legend. He’d had his number retired. He coached first base for a while. He was almost certainly the second most popular Royal in the city, behind only George Brett -- including active Royals players. That, in itself, was telling.
But something was shifting. White had been shuffled into the front office after manager Tony Muser was fired. He didn’t like that. He felt like his opinion wasn’t valued. He felt like the team was going in the wrong direction. He had a dream of being a big league manager, and he thought this took him off track. Frank, even as a player, was never one to keep his feelings to himself. He also, to be blunt about it, was someone who saw disrespect in places where others might not.
On Sept. 29, the Royals were playing their last game of a dismal season. They had lost 99 games. Another loss would make it 100 -- the first time the Royals ever lost 100 games in a season. For people in the organization, this was just the shuffling of meaningless numbers. “What’s the difference?” Royals GM Allard Baird would ask. His feeling was: Last place is last place is last place, no matter the accounting.
To Frank White -- and to other Royals players of the past -- it did mean something. White was proud that the Royals had never lost 100 games. It was just a little something to cling to in troubled times, a little point of pride that stood for something.
That day, the Royals sent out a half-team. A minor leaguer named Kit Pellow hit cleanup. Dusty Wathan -- son of Royals hero John Wathan -- made his only big league start. The Royals lost 7-3 to a Cleveland team not trying especially hard to win. And Frank White felt like something had snapped, and it could never quite be the same.
After that, White worked in the front office. He did not like it. He made it clear that he would like to be considered for Royals manager, and backed up his ambition by going to Double-A Wichita and managing in the minor leagues for three years. The Royals instead hired veteran manager Buddy Bell -- a good baseball man who in 24 years of playing and managing had never reached the postseason. When that did not work out, they hired Trey Hillman, who was managing in Japan. It was a pretty clear statement. White went to work full-time in Royals promotion. When Hillman didn’t work out, the Royals hired Ned Yost, who has managed the Milwaukee Brewers for six years to an overall losing record.
Somewhere in there, a Frank White statue was built and placed outside the stadium.
* * *
In time, White was hired to work as the Royals’ full-time television announcer. This was when the popular and wonderful longtime broadcaster, Paul Splittorff, got sick and could no longer speak as clearly.
White was, based on subjective measures, very popular on television. People would talk all the time about how much they liked listening to him. He was not a natural broadcaster, but he worked at it. His specialty was breaking down replays to explain what had happened -- why the second baseman couldn’t complete the double play, why the outfielder had taken a poor route to the ball, what was so great about that shortstop chasing down the pop fly in foul ground. Mostly, he was Frank White.
But here is where that 1985 thing began to flare up. Some of the people with the Royals felt that White was unfairly critical -- not just on the broadcast, but at the stadium when talking with people from other teams.
“I like Frank,” someone closely involved with the Royals told me. “Everybody likes Frank. But he has become really negative about the team. It’s not just our imagination. People around the league say it. We make mistakes. But we’re trying. And Frank just doesn’t realize how much it hurts us to have him saying negative things. We are trying to build something, and Frank can do a lot of damage with his negativity.”
Meanwhile, White felt certain that he wasn’t being negative... he felt like few people loved the Royals as much as he did. But, let’s be honest, he couldn’t help but see that the Royals were still going very much in the wrong direction and had learned little from the great successes of the Royals in the 1970s and 1980s. White split from the Royals marketing department -- each side gives a very different view of how that happened.
And not long after, White was also let go from his broadcasting job. That, officially, was done by Fox Sports. But everyone knew that the Royals had been involved in the decision.
And now, Frank White -- who grew up in Kansas City, who was a Royals player his whole career, who coached the team, who managed in their minor leagues, promoted the team throughout the Midwest, who broadcast for the team when they needed him most -- works for an Independent League team called the Kansas City T-Bones.
And Rex Hudler, who played for six teams but never the Royals, who has spawned at least five fake Twitter accounts, who sparked 54 different people in 2012 to email me unprovoked with heated complaints (so I can only guess how many the Royals have received) is broadcasting Kansas City baseball.
“I would love for there to be a way for the Royals and Frank to get back together,” one Royals insider says. “But I’m not sure how it can happen.”
“The one thing I cannot believe,” Frank White says, “is that after all those years those guys never got to know me. Nobody wants the Royals to succeed more than I do.”
* * *
These are good people on both sides. They all care about the Royals. They have different views about how to make the Royals winners again, but they all want it to happen.
So why does it have to come to this? Why is Frank White working for a team named after steaks while The Kansas City Star has a story about how bitter he remains? Why are the Kansas City Royals, who remain stymied in their increasingly desperate effort to succeed again and win back the town, going on without their hometown hero and one of the most popular players the team has ever had?
“Time moves on,” one Royals executive tells me. The older you get the more you find: Those three words mean many different things.