Roaming the Seattle Kingdoms last Friday, a visitor arrived at the area around the visiting team's dugout and stumbled onto the set of Romper Room. Or so it seemed, as Kansas City Royals third baseman Gregg Jefferies frolicked on the turf some two hours before a Mariners-Royals game. See Gregg select a bat and "putt" baseballs into the on-deck circle. Sec Gregg "dunk" a teammate's glove onto the dugout roof. See Gregg boot a glove at centerfielder Brian McRae, who obligingly reaches for the sky, becoming a human goalpost. "Just wide!" shouts Jefferies as the glove sails left.
The Royals, like that muffed field goal, strayed off course in the season's opening week, lurching to an 0-6 start and playing like a bunch of guys who have only just met one another, which, in fact, they are. Indeed, no team in baseball has shuffled its starting lineup more thoroughly since last season. Says K.C. trainer Nick Swartz, "This spring you needed a press guide to know who the hell was who around here."
Now the 1992 Royals are trying to figure out what the hell is going on. "We can't seem to do anything right," said manager Hal McRae after Friday night's loss. "We're on a bad stretch right now, and the mistakes are magnified when you're coming out of the blocks, because you've been telling the fans all winter how good you're going to be."
The array of goofs included runners picked off base, runners caught in rundowns, batters missing hit-and-run signals, pitchers making costly balks and coaches committing sartorial transgressions. On April 8, during a game against the Athletics on a pleasant evening in Oakland, Kansas City pitching coach Guy Hansen trotted out to the mound in a knee-length parka. "Forgot I had the damn thing on," he said. "Took about 10 steps and felt like crawling into a hole." Hansen was later fined an undisclosed amount by a team tribunal.
Doing their best to appear unconcerned were the Royals' resident wise men. "We haven't given them the games." said designated hitter George Brett after last Wednesday's 13-inning, 4-3 loss to the A's. "I mean, it's not like we're Seattle, giving up 12 runs a night." Brett was right. Two nights and another loss later, the Royals held the Mariners to well under a dozen runs, losing 9-3.
Yet while Kansas City's play last week varied from poor to fair, Jefferies's mood ranged, for the most part, from ebullient to downright giddy. Last December the Royals sent ace pitcher Bret Saberhagen and late-blooming infielder Bill Pecota to the New York Mets for Jefferies, outfielder Kevin McReynolds and utilityman Keith Miller. For Jefferies, deemed by many New York observers the most unpopular player in the history of the Mets' clubhouse, the deal wasn't so much a trade as a deliverance.
In their polite, Midwestern way, Royals fans decried the deal. Their beloved Sabes had twice won the Cy Young Award, and as the MVP of the 1985 World Series, he was one of the few remaining links to the Royals' glory days.
Casting a colder eye on the situation was Kansas City general manager Herk Robinson. The franchise that had been to the playoffs in 1976, 77, '78, '80, '81, '84 and '85 was in a royal funk, coming off two consecutive sixth-place finishes. After free agent Danny Tartabull, who had 31 homers and 100 RBIs last year, signed with the New York Yankees in the offseason, Robinson prescribed major surgery. "Having lost Tartabull." Robinson says, "it was difficult to envision much of an improvement on sixth place." Even if Saberhagen won a third Cy Young.
Two days before pulling the trigger on the Saberhagen deal. Robinson signed first baseman Wally Joyner, who, after six seasons in Anaheim, opted to close down Wally World and leave the California Angels, whose front office. Joyner felt, did not appreciate him. Two obvious questions arise:
1) Will Joyner reopen Wally World in Royals Stadium? "Don't know," he says.
2) Would the three former Metropolitans contract a case of Frank Sinatra's "little-town blues"? Hardly. McReynolds, a native of Little Rock, Ark., returns each off-season to his native state, where he owns and operates a duck ranch. Miller, who had won the starting job at second base for the Mets last July, was initially stung by the trade. "I was looking forward to establishing myself in New York," says Miller. But when Hal McRae named Miller his starting leftfielder, the sting was soothed.
As for Jefferies, it would not have been surprising to see him step off the plane on his first posttrade visit to Kansas City and kiss the tarmac. After a smashing debut in New York in 1988, things had gone irreparably bad for him. "It was vital that Gregg get out," says Miller. "Vital."
Promoted to the majors in August 1988, less than a month after his 21st birthday, Jefferies. Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Decade, was handed a spot in the Mets' starting lineup. He promptly tore up the National League, batting .321 in 29 games. Against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the league championship series, he hit .333. But even during those six halcyon weeks—which would prove to be his happiest in New York—he had his troubles. Knighted by some in the media as the player who had led the Mets to the playoffs, Jefferies was resented by teammates who had been with New York the entire season.
However, the Mets' front office, happily in possession of its prodigy, decided that infield spark plug Wally Backman—who was enormously popular in the clubhouse and with the fans—was expendable. That wasn't Jefferies's fault, of course, just as it wasn't his fault that he received too much credit for New York's success in 1988 or that he was nicknamed the Phenom.
He did, nonetheless, do little things that grated on his teammates. Critics charged that he played a timid second base, doing a subpar job of turning the double play and of taking throws from the catcher because, it seemed, he was afraid of getting hurt. Occasionally petulant and self-absorbed, Jefferies insisted that his bats be kept separate from those of his teammates. He rubbed his bats down with alcohol, so he could see where the ball hit them. He'd heard that's what Ty Cobb, his idol, had done. Toward the end of his first full season with the Mets, in '89, his teammates, to get his goat, were known to smash his precious bats into splinters.
On the last play of the last home game of the '89 season, Jefferies grounded out, after which he and Philadelphia Phillie pitcher Roger McDowell—a former Mets teammate—exchanged words and then fell on each other. Both benches cleared. Afterward, Phillie manager Nick Leyva said, "There were 30 of our guys rooting for Roger and 20 of theirs rooting for him too."
The Jefferies situation reached its pathetic nadir last May. Frustrated by criticism in the tabloids from anonymous teammates, Jefferies wrote a nine-paragraph open letter to the fans, which was read on a local radio station. "I believe it is only fair and right that the fans of New York know my side of the story," he wrote. "...admittedly, a few of my teammates don't regard me as a friend. It would be great to be friends with everyone, but my main concern is to play good baseball and to help the Mets win." The letter went on to say that when his teammates struggled, "I don't run to the media to belittle them...."
"My best always" is how he signed off. Between the lines, one could hear the unasked question of a puzzled young man whose only wish was that people like him: Why is everybody always picking on me?
With that as Jefferies's history, the Royals have taken steps to smooth his transition to Kansas City. Robinson goes out of his way to avoid heaping pressure on him. "We don't see Gregg as a prodigy, a savior," says Robinson. "We see him as one of 25 players. He has been welcomed with open arms."
"There was a lot of talk about what kind of guy Gregg was," says Royals catcher Mike Macfarlane. "It was a concern. But he's fit in great."
That is the company line in the K.C clubhouse. Gregg likes everybody, and everybody likes Gregg, who described his prevailing emotion at joining the Royals as "pure relief." The difference between the Royals' and the Mets' clubhouses? "Here," says Jefferies, "the guys just want to talk about baseball." Or about golf, which Jefferies has taken up and plays with his new teammates. When the Mets went on golf outings, they did not include him.
At week's end Jefferies was batting only .192. But he will get his hits—no one doubts that. Even as Jefferies suffered through an 0-for-16 drought in spring training, manager McRae kept the faith, and he likened Jefferies's bat to a force of nature. "When Gregg Jefferies stops hitting," said McRae, "there is no more baseball."
Jefferies in the field is a much less certain proposition. Again, that isn't entirely his fault. During the Phenom's unhappy stay in New York, the Mets repeatedly changed his position. "Moving back and forth [from second base to third], I never had a chance to get used to one spot," he says. "I stayed at third base the entire spring. It was great."
Jefferies sparkled defensively in the Royals' first series of the season. Twice he robbed the Oakland A's Rickey Henderson by making backhand stabs of hard grounders down the line. Professing to be unsurprised by Jefferies's virtuoso performance in the field was an old Mets teammate, A's pitcher Ron Darling. "Gregg can play, and he could play in New York," Darling said. "He got a bad shake over there. New York was a little too much for him. Now he'll be able to relax."
McReynolds was always able to relax, even in New York, and that was his biggest problem there. Or rather, it was New York's biggest problem with him. Just once, the fans wanted to see him spike his helmet or break his bat over his knee or assault a watercooler after he struck out. But that isn't McReynolds. His emotional range is, well, narrow. Two years ago baseball broadcaster Jack Buck, who was with CBS at the time, offered $1,000 to any cameraman who could capture McReynolds smiling. (One did, and Buck paid up.)
McReynolds's excitability quotient was on display early in spring training of 1988. While changing into his uniform, McReynolds felt something slimy in one of his pant legs. As his teammates waited in barely contained anticipation. McReynolds reached into his trousers and pulled out a dead fish. Witnesses say it was a good-sized specimen, 12 inches maybe. McReynolds walked across the clubhouse, dropped the fish into a waste-basket, finished donning his uniform and walked out—never once opening his mouth or changing his expression.
That Vulcan stoicism, widely interpreted as a lack of passion for the game, made him the New York tabloids' favorite Arkansas target until Bill Clinton began stumping the Empire State. "They wanted me to be somebody else," says McReynolds, who, like Jefferies, does not exactly wax nostalgic for New York. "They don't know what's going on inside of me. I was trying my hardest."
Miller, a hustling, scrappy, perpetually dirt-caked player, was as popular with the Mets as Jefferies was despised. Already, he is among the most popular Royals. "He's a catalyst on this team," says Joyner. "He picks you up when you're struggling. He makes you enjoy the game."
When last we heard from Wally, he was dissolving into tears at a December press conference, in which he announced he was leaving the Angels. An uneasiness had long existed between Joyner and Angels executive vice-president Jackie Autry, the wife of owner Gene Autry; Jackie reportedly questioned Joyner's level of commitment. The Angels did finally meet Joyner's contract demands, but not, as he points out, "until the last minute." The karma was not good. Joyner decided to go to Kansas City for a fresh start.
He got misty-eyed again after being introduced at a Royals banquet in January. The warm ovation had moved Joyner, or so it was thought at the time. But by Sunday night, after K.C. dropped to 0-6, the worst start in club history, the thought occurred: Maybe Wally knew something.
The early weeks of spring training were characterized by confusion. Once-promising third baseman Kevin Seitzer was released. (He later signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.) Outfielder Kirk Gibson was told to get used to the idea of being a backup. After grousing that he was being treated like "dog meat," Gibson was shipped to the Pittsburgh Pirates for left-handed pitcher Neal Heaton.
As the regular season approached, Hal McRae allowed as how the Royals could use another week of spring training. Last Friday night, after Kansas City's fourth consecutive loss, it was clear that he was right. McRae sat slumped in a folding chair in the locker room and said, "This is getting real old."
Might the moment be ripe for an old-fashioned, closed-door, motivational outburst? "I've been through this before," said McRae. "I'm not ready to flip the food table—not yet, anyway. Maybe next week."
As baseball's opening week came to a close, it was safe to draw one conclusion: Despite the acquisition of the talented Joyner and despite the good spirits of Jefferies and the other former Mets, before the month is out there will be food on the Royals' clubhouse floor.
McReynolds, unfazed by K.C.'s shaky start, unleashed one of his rare $1,000 smiles.
In a surprise, Jefferies played heads-up defense at third base but was puny at the plate.
In the Royals reshuffling, Joyner brought his muscle from the West Coast, while Miller brought his hustle from the East Coast.
[See caption above.]
Jefferies's escape from New York came as "pure relief."