“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
This is one of the most famous lines from the film, “The Dark Knight,” spoken by Harvey Dent, portrayed by Aaron Eckhardt. For the Kansas City Royals, the latter has become true.
In 2014, Kansas City took baseball fans on an epic ride, breaking a 29-year playoff drought. From the come-from-behind, extra-inning American League Wild Card game win to rattling off seven consecutive victories to sweep the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Baltimore Orioles, it was a memorable postseason that ended with the tying run 90 feet away in a Game 7 of the World Series at home.
Perhaps the scenario that made the Royals villains began during this past off-season. Starting pitching rotation ace James Shields was allowed to walk, as was designated hitter Billy Butler. Those spots were filled by Edinson Vólquez and Kendrys Morales, journeyman players who a small-market team could afford. Most prognosticators forecasted a return to mediocrity for the franchise in 2015. Kansas City was supposed to fade back into the shadows, allowing the Detroit Tigers or a believed to be improved Chicago White Sox team to take the AL Central division crown.
Then the Royals didn’t follow the script. They scored runs, lots of them, and the starting pitching held up. The bullpen and the defense were as reliable as ever, and Kansas City piled up win after win. If that was the Royals’ only “transgression,” that probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal. Kansas City seemed to take umbrage with the script, and expressed their sentiments during games.
Assign blame for the on-field brawls with the White Sox, Angels, Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays however you like. There’s plenty to go around. The common denominator in all those situations, however, is the Royals. Perhaps its frustration on the part of these other AL teams over a franchise which for the better part of three decades was a whipping boy for the rest of the AL becoming a legitimate contender. Perhaps it was a proverbial chip on the shoulder, a feeling in the Kansas City clubhouse of “us against the world.” Perhaps anger at not being taken seriously, the perception of the team as a one-year fluke in the style of the 2003 Florida Marlins that boiled over. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, the Royals have been involved in more scuffles this season with other teams than several other Major League Baseball teams combined.
In the midst of these brawls, Kansas City’s front office behaved like it had resources to burn. They shipped out quality prospects like Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea to acquire Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, two of the biggest names on the non-waiver trade rumor mill. That’s not standard operating procedure for small-market teams with limited resources who try to put together enough young talent over the course of years to have a small window of contention before that talent gets too expensive.
As The Joker, portrayed by the late Heath Ledger said in the same film, “nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying!”
Kansas City has had its own plan. Going from underdog hero to villain has worked well for the 2015 Royals, as they sit with the highest winning percentage in the AL and the biggest divisional lead in baseball going into play on Sunday, Aug. 23. The truth is that Kansas City never wanted to be the underdog hero, because the underdog is an underdog for a reason. That description implies a pattern of losing.
The Royals would much rather be the team which the new underdog heroes are gunning for. They want to be the hunted. They believe that they can take it. They want to the dark knights.