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tk13
10-02-2005, 02:38 AM
http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/baseball/mlb/kansas_city_royals/12794723.htm

Finish to start
Bell already looking forward to next season

By BOB DUTTON
The Kansas City Star


TORONTO — The routine, by now, is well-established and is unlikely to vary today on the season’s final day. Buddy Bell will arrive at the Rogers Centre, flip on the television in the somewhat Spartan visiting manager’s office and go about the day’s business.

This being Canada, it will be TSN instead of ESPN, and the low drone of hockey highlights will soon blur the background with white noise.

For those few who can hear it.

Because Bell’s door, in all likelihood, will be closed for much of the time leading up to the start of pregame workouts. When not closed, it is often cracked open, barely, in invitation to any player seeking a few minutes of time.

But the barrier is real. Intentionally so.

“You think I want to hear some of that (music) they’re playing out there?” Bell once allowed in explanation with just the hint of a wry smile. “Players need their space. The clubhouse belongs to them.”

So today, when the Royals play the last game of the worst season in franchise history, things will be just the same. Veterans still run the clubhouse.

“When you have as many rookies as we have,” team captain Mike Sweeney said, “there are things that need to be addressed. Often.

“There were many times before Buddy got here that we would take a stance and get backlashed for it. But with Buddy, it’s been great. He’s given us support to run the clubhouse. He lets the veterans police this clubhouse.”

The clubhouse chatter today will almost certainly focus on the offseason in differing degrees of anticipation and anxiety, depending on the player. Bell knows this without listening in. He shared 18 years of those conversations as a big-leaguer himself from 1972 to 1989 with five different teams.

“I’m glad for the players that they have some time off,” he said. “For me, it’s not going to be as much time because of the work we’ve got to do this winter. It’s going to seem like a long time because I’d like to get it going right now and start over.”

For Bell, today isn’t the end, but merely the end of the beginning.

That this weekend sortie to the Great White North, for the Royals, is far cooler than their last visit has little to do with October’s annual attack on the temperature.

It was here late on May 10, after a 3-1 loss to the Blue Jays, that former manager Tony Peña surrendered to the emotional pincer created by an 8-25 ballclub and mounting personal issues.

“I don’t really want to remember all that,” catcher John Buck said.

Peña’s resignation set off a whirlwind three weeks that resulted, on May 31, in hiring Bell away from his post as the bench coach for the Cleveland Indians.

The choice of Bell ignited an avalanche of criticism. Bell was widely characterized as a two-time loser who failed to reinvigorate struggling organizations in Detroit and Colorado.

Along the way, Bell gained a reputation for squabbling with upper management for its failure to spend sufficiently to aid his efforts to produce the desired turnaround.

“The media crucified him,” Royals general manager Allard Baird said. “The media does such a job of preparing the public for what’s going to happen, and I think they were prepared for us to hire Art Howe.

“When that didn’t happen, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh ….’ At that point, they didn’t care that we did all of this research into the rosters and free agents (the candidates) had. Or what was the direction of the clubs they took over.

“I can tell you this: He was the right fit.”

The criticism, oddly, produced one enormous benefit: It outraged the players, who saw their new skipper as unfairly condemned in advance. It accelerated a bond that might otherwise have required weeks or even months to form.

“When the media was skeptical about the hiring,” Sweeney said, “it did rally the troops. From the first minute that we met Buddy, when he addressed this team, he had the respect and admiration of his players.”

It also didn’t hurt that the Royals began Bell’s term by sweeping the New York Yankees in a three-game series at Kauffman Stadium. It was the club’s first sweep in 78 series dating to Aug. 26-28, 2003.

“Beating the Yankees once boosted our confidence,” pitcher Ryan Jensen said after winning the series finale. “Twice even helped more. The third time, what can you say?”

The sweep ignited an 11-4 burst in Bell’s first 15 games and sparked a euphoria that, of course, couldn’t last. The roster had too many Ryan Jensens to sustain the pace.

The Royals soon reverted to a form that would produce the worst record in franchise history. At times, it got depressingly ugly.

Bell saw his club challenge baseball’s all-time record for consecutive losses before Mike Wood halted the skid at 19 games on Aug. 20 by outpitching former Cy Young winner Barry Zito in a 2-1 victory in Oakland.

Through it all, Bell held firm, insisting that all rebuilding teams endure terrible lows, that it was merely an anomaly that the mounting skid didn’t include an odd victory or two.

That’s not to suggest Bell watched idly as mistakes mounted. This is a baseball lifer who earlier in the year wrote a book titled Smart Baseball.

That closed door before pregame drills often signals one-on-one counseling is under way. Players say such sessions are typically marked by straight talk sprinkled with earthy encouragements.

One recent example: Bell summoned Emil Brown, whose defensive lapses have resulted in 12 errors — by far the most among all big-league outfielders. Bell had a simple message: Brown was too talented to keep making a muck of things.

“I told him that I was going to be in his (backside),” Bell admitted. “It’s up to him whether he wants me in his (backside) all of the time or just once in a while.”

When Bell first arrived, he adopted the standard approach for any new manager coming from outside an organization in the middle of a season: He watched.

“I don’t know the rotation yet,” he said at his introductory news conference. “I don’t know the roles in the bullpen yet. I don’t know the lineup yet. I’m looking forward to getting with the coaches as well to give me some direction.”

Somewhere along the line of 111 games, that distance receded. The Royals slowly became his team.

Every team begins to mirror the personality of its manager, and the Royals are no different. High on the list is a no-excuses policy.

“Around me,” Bell agreed, “there are absolutely no excuses.”

That was never clearer than Aug. 27 at Yankee Stadium, when the Royals let a four-run lead slip away — literally — in the ninth inning. Jeremy Affeldt opened the door by throwing away a potential double-play grounder by slipping on the rosin bag as he threw to second base.

Affeldt was, at the time, amid an extended string of poor outings and, as he entered the dugout after being removed from the game, began grumbling at the rotten luck of slipping on the rosin bag.

Bell exploded, rising to full height — like an aroused bear — and, pointedly, ordered Affeldt to pipe down and relocate.

Affeldt caught the blast, but everyone got the message.

“Everyone went home from New York,” Sweeney said, “knowing that when he says no excuses, he means it.”

Bell has, after four months, formed certain conclusions as the season draws to a close. The most important is this: He likes the foundation of young players who comprise the heart of organization’s rebuilding plan.

“I believe we can do this quicker than other teams because of our young pitching,” he said. “You start with Zack (Greinke) and (Mike) Wood and (J.P.) Howell and (Runelvys) Hernandez. And our bullpen is pretty solid.

“You give us a couple of additions…”

Bell cites the offseason addition of one or two impact arms as critical. He also hopes the club can add proven run-production bats. But he views these additions as supplements.

“Me, personally,” he said, “I hope we don’t overhaul what we have here. Because we have some guys here who are going to be here when things get better. Guys like (Mark) Teahen, (Angel) Berroa and (John) Buck.

“And (David) DeJesus. It’s easy to forget about him because it seems he hasn’t played in forever. Next year, (Mike) Sweeney is going to be here. (Matt) Stairs is going to be back. Brownie has had a really good year.

“Now, we need to add a bat, but we’ve got to be careful about what we do this winter: Don’t try to go too fast.”

Bell is well aware, without consulting the club’s marketing personnel, that selling patience to any fans, but particularly Royals fans, is a tall order.

“I’m impatient, too,” he said. “All baseball people are impatient — owners, general managers, players and the fans. We want it now. I just hope we put it in perspective and realize it’s still going to take some time to sustain success.”

Right now, on the season’s final day, what’s hardest for Bell is his impatience that spring training is more than four months away.

“I’m ready for the season to end,” he said, “because I’m ready for it to start again. I think this team, if we started now … I don’t think we’d be a contending team, but I think we would be a lot better.

“The guys who come back will be guys who understand the situation, who understand the system and who understand what we went through this year — so we don’t go through it again.”