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Inside Baseball | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Pena's Job Seems Beyond Belief

September 07, 2003|Ross Newhan

No matter how September plays out, the Kansas City Royals have already clinched the title of Surprise Team of the Year, although Manager Tony Pena was distributing his "BELIEVE" credo and T-shirts as far back as March and now says, "I'm sure we're a nice surprise to a lot of people, but not to me."

Well, OK, the Royals did lose 100 games last year and finished 32 1/2 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central, but who can argue with the man who is a cinch to win the AL Manager of the Year award in his first full season at a major league helm?

As General Manager Allard Baird noted, Pena has "created the culture" in which the Royals, still on what the GM called "the ground floor of a rebuilding mode," have "never once" used rebuilding as an excuse for not winning and "never once" made an issue of payroll, adversity or so many roster changes that a team seamstress has been needed to keep up with the names on the backs of the uniform jerseys.

"I can't sit here and say we planned on being where we now are, but the confidence and momentum began to snowball in spring training," Baird said, "and Tony was the one guy who never had a doubt."

The Royals are right behind the Twins and Chicago White Sox despite having started the season with baseball's second-lowest payroll ($40.8 million), using the disabled list 17 times (they still have five starting pitchers and outfielder Michael Tucker on it), employing bargain rack acquisitions from several of baseball's last resorts such as the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League (Jose Lima) and Oaxaca Warriors of the Mexican League (right fielder Aaron Guiel) and using a club-record 52 players overall, including 28 pitchers, 14 of them starters.

"What this club has done so far should be an inspiration to everyone," Pena said. "With all of the adversity we've had, I'm very proud of the players, but just because we're rebuilding and have had so many injuries is no excuse for us not to go out expecting to win.

"There's no doubt in my mind we're going to do it."

Part of his conviction that the Royals will win the division, he says with a smile while sitting behind a desk in the visiting manager's office at Edison Field, stems from a belief that his team's perseverance has now caught the attention of the man upstairs -- and he wasn't referring to Baird or owner David Glass, the former Wal-Mart chief executive.

A little divine help amid the Royal pain of all the injuries never hurts, of course.

Neither does a seven-hit shutout of the type recent acquisition Brian Anderson delivered against the Angels on Friday night.

The riddled Royals have used 11 starting pitchers in the last month alone and are now operating without two -- Runelvys Hernandez and Miguel Asencio -- who were in their opening-day rotation, a third (Kyle Snyder) who joined it in May, and two others (the resurgent Lima and former Angel millionaire Kevin Appier) acquired along the way.

In addition to that mound of woes, the improbable Royals generated a 9-0 and 15-3 start in April with their best player, Carlos Beltran, on the disabled list and survived a 45-game stretch in midseason without their leading run producer, Mike Sweeney, who was sidelined by a herniated disk that now restricts him to the designated hitter role out of concern it could rupture if he returned to first base.

"It was bittersweet," Sweeney said of his long absence. "It was bitter I couldn't be on the field but sweet watching the way the guys played.

"I know we've been a surprise to a lot of people, but not in our eyes. We believed from day one. Tony convinced us we could defy the odds."

Pena replaced Tony Muser in May 2002. The Royals began the rebuilding process by infiltrating young players into what became a 100-loss season to shorten the learning curve, said Baird, and Pena spent much of the winter calling players, reviewing mistakes, areas on which they needed to work.

Still, no one could have predicted a September division race in a season of 52 players.

"Tony was an All-Star and Gold Glove catcher who played in the postseason but didn't just take his money and ride off into the sunset when he was no longer the guy," Baird said. "He was willing to step back into a backup role and I think that helped prepare him to know how every player, from one to 25, feels. He's embraced every player we've given him, and in our market, with our payroll limitations, we have to have a manager willing to use all 25 in pressure situations."

The Royals are focused on these final games, but the long-term impact of this season is more difficult to read. The payroll issues that prompted the Royals to trade Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, among others, are never far from the surface.

In response to the Royals' fast start, owner Glass scrapped a season-opening mandate to reduce the payroll to $37 million. It stayed at $40.8 million and subsequently grew a bit, but the Royals are facing a major turnover.

Only Sweeney and infielder Desi Relaford have multi-year contracts, and Baird concedes that "as of right now" he has exhausted multi-year negotiations with Beltran.

That means the Royals are almost certain to trade one of baseball's best players during the off-season (the Angels have already been knocking on the door) before being forced to pay him $10 million-plus next year, and he then leaves as a free agent.

The rebuilding Royals could be stuck on the ground floor.

"Wherever we finish, I better find a way to continue going forward. That's the gig," Baird said.

"I don't know where we'll be payroll-wise, but I don't think we can take two steps back. Fans have a right to become impatient in professional sports."

Added Sweeney, suggesting that the wallet, at some point, has to augment creativity:

"I know Mr. Glass did well with Wal-Mart, and I'm praying he puts his heart and soul into this like he did with Wal-Mart."

Well, you have to believe.

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