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Old 07-16-2003, 10:28 AM  
Sure-Oz Sure-Oz is offline
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Believe it or not!

http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news?slu...nnsi&type=lgns

Believe it or not

John Donovan, SI.com

CHICAGO -- By this time, you have to believe in the Kansas City Royals. Maybe you don't believe in them with your whole heart. Maybe you still have some doubts. A nice dose of skepticism is not such a bad thing.

But by this time, if you don't believe in the Royals at least a little bit, if you don't think they're for real, you're liable to miss out on the best story of baseball's first half. And probably the best story of the year.

Heck, if the Royals can pull this thing off -- and just about every sign you care to look at says they can -- they may be the story of the century.

I mean, the Kansas City Royals winning the pennant? Going to the playoffs? The Royals?

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Believe it.

"I think the only guys who believed in it were the guys in the clubhouse, [manager] Tony Pena and [general manager] Allard Baird," says Mike Sweeney, the Royals' best bat (when he's healthy), the team leader (always) and one of the leading good guys in the game. "No one is going to give us respect until we're on top at the end of September."

That the Royals are actually on top of the American League Central at the All-Star break is amazing enough. It's astounding, really. This is a team that has a payroll of barely more than $40 million. Only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' payroll is smaller.

The Royals look at the money teams like the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland A's shell out -- they were the previous small-revenue darlings -- and they drool. They look at the Chicago White Sox, who also have a payroll over $50 million, and they just shake their heads. Oh, what the Royals could do with an extra $10 million or so.

Yet the Royals are doing just fine playing on the cheap. As baseball readies for its second half, the Royals are sitting on an impressive seven-game lead in the AL Central. Only the Atlanta Braves have a bigger cushion.

Seven games may not sound like a lot. But it is. It's a huge lead. It's darn near insurmountable. In fact, in the last 50 years, according to The Kansas City Star, 31 teams have had that big of a lead at the All-Star break and only two have NOT won their division. Those are pretty good odds.

You can point to a lot of reasons the Royals are where they are. No. 1, and maybe most important: Everybody else in their division stinks. The White Sox and Twins are terrible. They'll tell you so. Minnesota is just plain lost, and Chicago is on the verge of firing its manager.

But that's not being fair to the Royals. Sure, K.C. has taken advantage of the sad, sad Central, going 29-9 against the White Sox, Twins, Tigers and Indians. Sure, the Royals have a losing record against both of the other divisions in the AL.

And, OK, K.C. has a pitching staff that is a little shaky, and a lineup that features maybe two or three guys that you really have to watch.

But, dang it, the Royals believe. And you better believe that the rest of the division believes that they believe. Which has made believers of the rest of the division. Or something like that.

"They kind of remind me of us last year," Twins closer Eddie Guardado says. "I think where it all starts is the manager. He knows the game, he's played the game. He knows how to get out of the rut.

"But you can see they're playing together. It looks like they're having fun. In previous years, to me, it looked like they were going through the motions. This year, they're not letting up. And, always, when you're playing them you never doubt anybody."

Pena is the clear midseason favorite for the AL manager of the year. He has taken a team that lost 100 games last year, a team without an everyday player in the Top 10 in any offensive category or a pitcher in the Top 10 in any pitching category, and won.

OK. That's not quite right. All-Star closer Mike MacDougal is second in the league with 24 saves. He's the only Royals player who makes any leaderboard, anywhere.

What we're saying here is that this is not a team of stars. Not even close. Which might be one of the other reasons they are where they are.

"Everybody's competitive, everyone gets along well," says MacDougal, who has earned one of the coolest nicknames in the game -- Mac the Ninth. "It's a fun team to be on right now."

It all goes back to Pena. Somehow, starting with spring training, through a 9-0 start, through an 11-0 start at home, the manager has made these guys believe. And when they've slipped, when they've played badly, someone is always there to pick them up. Someone starts to hit for a short stretch. A pitcher turns in a good game after a couple of so-so ones. They knuckle down on defense.

And, always, Pena is there to encourage his young team.

"He's probably the most positive human being I've ever met," says Sweeney. Pena is evidently like that even after losses. Here, Sweeney assumes his best Pena imitation.

"'OK, boys, it's OK. We'll get them tomorrow. We can get them tomorrow.'

"No matter how hard things get, he always believes."

It's about time the rest of us start to believe, too, and stop holding the fact that the Royals play in the AL Central against them. The Twins, remember, won 94 games last season by beating up on the division. They were 50-25 in the AL Central.

Despite the fact that neither the Twins nor the White Sox show any kind of sign that they'll make a run at the Royals, the Royals still are looking to get better. They were in the running to trade for Jeromy Burnitz before the Mets dealt him to Los Angeles. There have been rumors that Texas slugger Juan Gonzalez could be traded to K.C.

But the fact is, even if the Royals stand pat, they can win this thing. They should win this thing. History says so.

"They have good pitching. They can throw. They got a good middle of the lineup. They're catching the ball in the middle of the infield. They're playing very aggressive," says Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "They're doing the things that we have to do to get back in it."

There is, as many point out, plenty of time left in the season (though this year it's not quite as much as usual, with the All-Star break coming so late). A lot can happen in the next couple of months. Everyone knows that.

For the Royals, though, that's all good. For the first time in a long, long time, the Royals are winning. They're having fun. They are, almost guaranteed, on their way to the postseason.

As hard as that may be to believe.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.

Comments? To e-mail Donovan, click here.
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