Category Archives: Baseball

Even the Royals doctored the field

I came across this article earlier today about how, allegedly, the Giants groundscrew might’ve doctored the infield dirt a bit in hopes of slowing down the Royals’ running game. Wouldn’t you know it…I happened to write about legendary groundskeeper George Toma in the book, “100 Things Royals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.” The piece on Toma is a Q/A. So, although I’d like you to buy the book, here is an excerpt of that interview with Toma.

Royals 100 Cover

You eventually ended up here in Kansas City at Municipal Stadium. Even though the A’s, Chiefs and Royals love you and your fields, one player who wasn’t a fan of coming to Municipal was Mickey Mantle.

GT: Sometimes we would do things that we’ll call “groundskeeping by deceit.” Mickey Mantle didn’t care for (Municipal) because I kept centerfield hard and it was hard on his legs. One of my best buddies and a guy who serves as a coach for the Twins during spring training is Harmon Killebrew, who played with the Royals. I used to keep third base like concrete. The trainer would tell me, “you’re going to get my third baseman killed down there” because Harmon could hit that ball but he was a little slow. So we’d make it hard to make sure the ball would get through the infield. Groundskeeping by deceit.

Royals pitchers will say how they liked the way you could doctor the mound or a part of the infield a certain way when they were pitching.

GT: Guys like Steve Busby always wanted a little hole next to the rubber so he could push off. In the batter’s box, there used to be a special hole for George Brett and a special hole for Amos Otis and for Hal McRae. You could say we did a lot of cheating because we moved the batter’s box back about 10 inches. If we got caught, I’d blame it on my son, Chip. Everything went great until the Royals traded Buck Martinez to Milwaukee. The first time they came to town, manager George Bamberger came up to me and said, “George, I don’t want any of that stuff, moving that batter’s box.”

We could do a lot of things. At Municipal Stadium we had a Butternut clock on the left-field tower. It had two dots. … We would send Bobby Hoffman into the scoreboard before the game and then we’d get the other team’s signals. If those two dots were on, it was a fastball. If one dot was on, it was a breaking pitch. Or, they could look down the third-base line to (the mule) Charlie O’s pen. If the lantern was on, that was a fastball. If the lantern was off, it was a breaking pitch. All of that was just part of the game back then.

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A primer for Royals newbies

Royals 100 Cover

In case you’re curious (or even if you’re not), here’s the cover of that “100 Things Royals Fans…” book.

As the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles begin the 2014 American League Championship Series tonight in Baltimore, it seems like a good time to offer a primer, of sorts, to all Royals fans but particularly the bandwagoners, newbies and out-of-towners. After all, if you believe this ESPN Sports Nation poll, the only place in the country not pulling for the Royals are the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the District of Columbia. So, since I kinda wrote the book on things Royals fans should know, I figured now would be a good time for a quick guide so you can sound somewhat intelligent.

(Most of what you’re about to read is taken from that book on the right. If you want or need more info, I’d say buy the book. Not that it’ll completely help you, but at least you’ll have another book on your shelf.)

MR. K

The Royals weren’t the first Major League Baseball team in Kansas City.  That distinction belongs to the Philadelphia-Kansas City-Oakland A’s. After woeful seasons in Kansas City, though, thanks largely to a cheapskate owner Charlie Finley, the team bolted to Oakland. (Finley threatened/promised often to move the team, including to Peculiar, Mo.)

So, after the 1967 season, a group of local businessmen, plus Joe McGuff and Ernie Mehl, long-time sports writers and editors with “The Kansas City Star,” convinced Major League Baseball owners that Kansas City needed an expansion team. The only condition was that they had to secure an owner.

After much searching, that owner came in the gift of long-time Kansas Citian and pharmaceutical billionaire Ewing Kauffman. He was everything Finley wasn’t. And more. Conservative in his thinking and loved by his employees and others around him, Kauffman, who wasn’t a sports fan and didn’t understand the game of baseball, loved Kansas City and felt the city needed a major-league team. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say that with some encouragement from close friends and his wife, Kauffman decided to step up to the plate for the city.

KAUFFMAN STADIUM

The Royals spent their first four years at old Municipal Stadium, near downtown Kansas City. Municipal had been the home to several teams throughout its history, including the Negro Leagues’ Monarchs and the A’s…not to mention the Kansas City Chiefs. In ’73, the club moved to state-of-the-art Royals Stadium, which featured a monstrous (and now, iconic) scoreboard in center field, flanked by a water spectacular and (argh!) artificial turf. It was one of the few new single-use stadiums (read: non-cookie-cutter that could be found in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia to name a few) in baseball. The old girl, since renamed Kauffman Stadium, underwent a $250-million facelift prior to the 2009 season.

WE LOVE DON DENKINGER

If the Royals advance past the Orioles — and, perhaps, even if they don’t — you’ll likely hear the name Don Denkinger, who was the umpire at first base during Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. You will hear St. Louis fans curse Denkinger because they believe he lost the World Series for them with a questionable call late in that game.

In the bottom of the ninth, with the Royals trailing the game, 1-0, and the World Series, three games to two, pinch-hitter Jorge Orta led off the inning by grounding a ball toward first base. Cardinal first baseman Jack Clark fielded it cleanly and flipped to pitcher Todd Worrell, who was covering first. Although Worrell seemed to touch first before Orta on the bang-bang play, Denkinger called Orta safe. (There was no replay at the time.)

“As a pinch-hitter, in my mind I just was going to try to get a good at-bat and see if I could get on base,” Orta told me 25 years later. “I wanted to help start a rally. When I hit that soft groundball, my instincts said to run as hard as I could. I hustled down the line and was called safe on the play. And I thought I was safe, yes.”

Right or wrong call, the Cardinals self-destructed after that. First, Jack Clark missed a popup in foul territory off the bat of Steve Balboni, who went on to single. Royals catcher Jim Sundberg then tried to sacrifice bunt, but the Cardinals threw out Orta at third. With runners at first and second and one out, a ball got past Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter, which moved Balboni and Sundberg up 90 feet.

Pinch-hitter Dane Iorg, who had been hitless in the Series, delivered a base hit that scored Balboni and Sundberg, on a headfirst slide, and sent the Series to a seventh game. The hit should’ve turned Iorg into a hero. Instead, with the controversy from earlier that inning, Iorg’s hit often remains forgotten in World Series lore.

Of course, any time there’s mention of 1985 or blown calls in baseball, Denkinger’s name comes up. And usually with a cuss word immediately before or after. There’s one thing to remember, though.

“We scored the winning run with one out,” says Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza. “We still had an out (left in the inning) if the play went differently at first (with Orta). The way things had been going for us that season, who’s to say that whoever was coming up next doesn’t hit a home run and we win anyhow? It was a magical season for us. … (The Cardinals) had every opportunity in the world to come back in Game 7, but we blew them away. … Hey, they had us down three games to one. If you can’t close it out at three games to one, don’t blame it on the umpire. Yeah, (the call) went our way … (But) you have to be able to close out a team when you have them down like that.”

YEAH, GAME 7

Improbable teams have won the World Series, but none has come back from such improbable odds as the 1985 Royals. Kansas City came back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit in the ALCS against Toronto and then did the same thing against the Cardinals. In Game 7, the Royals turned in one of the most lopsided wins you’ll ever see in World Series history, beating St. Louis 11-0. A young pitcher named Bret Saberhagen threw a five-hit, complete-game shutout en route to becoming the series MVP.

BEST OF TIMES, WORST OF TIMES

As fans during the 1970s and ’80s, we didn’t think we’d ever see bad baseball played by the Royals. Why would we? They won the American League West division in 1976, ’77, ’78, ’80, ’84 and ’85. (They also played in a three-game Western Division playoff against the A’s following the strike-split season of 1981.) They reached their first World Series in ’80, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, and then beat the Cardinals in ’85. Are you kidding me? They’ll be great FORRRR-E-VERRRR! Shows what little we knew. After beating St. Louis in 1985, as you’ve heard way too many times already during this postseason, they didn’t reach the playoffs again until this year. Along the way, they’ve had only seven seasons of better than .500 baseball and way too many years of ineptness with a few 100-loss seasons mixed in. So please pardon our excitement. I hope you can understand.

That said, although there are multiple players and managers who should be mentioned, here are three who have had their numbers (5, 10, 20) retired.

GEORGE BRETT

Simply put: he’s recognized as “Mr. Royal.” (If there were such a distinction.) He’s the only Royals player in the Baseball Hall of Fame (excluding guys in the HOF who played a season or two here, such as Harmon Killebrew). The career numbers remain staggering: 3,154 hits, 317 home runs, 665 doubles, 137 triples, 201 stolen bases and three American League batting titles (the first person to earn one in three decades). Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that many remember the player by a single number: 5. For 21 seasons, George Brett wowed Royals fans with his offensive numbers and his ability to come through in the clutch. Brett was the 1985 American League Championship Series MVP and eight-time Royals Player of the Year. By the way, Brett is the distinguished, tan guy in the suite that’s been shown countless times on TBS during the postseason.

FRANK WHITE

Frank White is one of the greatest success stories in Royals history. After growing up in Kansas City and attending Lincoln High School, which didn’t have a baseball team, White was working as a sheet-metal clerk when the Royals selected him from a tryout for their experimental Baseball Academy. The test paid off for the Royals. White played 18 seasons at second base in front of his hometown fans. During that time, he was an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner, a five-time All-Star, collected more than 2,000 hits, and, in 1985, became the second second baseman in major-league history to bat cleanup in the World Series. In 1980, he was the American League Championship Series MVP. His No. 20 was retired in 1995, nine years before the Royals honored him with a statue outside Kauffman Stadium. He should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Travesty that he’s not.

DICK HOWSER

Dick Howser is one of the greatest managers in Royals history, along with Whitey Herzog. Howser, who managed from 1981-87, is best known for leading the Royals past Herzog’s Cardinals in ’85. Three days after managing the American League club in the 1986 All-Star Game, on July 18, doctors diagnosed Howser with a malignant brain tumor. Less than a year later, on June 17, 1987, Howser lost the battle. He was 51. That same year, his number 10 became the first number the Royals retired. They’ve since retired numbers 5 and 20.

NED YOST

The Royals current manager is Ned Yost. He isn’t particularly loved by the fans or the media like Howser was. And we’d swear that he’s tried to screw up this team (we call that being “Yosted”) with the way he’s rested everyday players and used pitchers, but there’s no denying that he’s helping put this club in a position to win. Now, as long as “we” can avoid being Yosted against Baltimore.

DAYTON MOORE

Like Yost, fans have been ready to run general manager Dayton Moore out of town for a couple years. He took over a franchise that had a wretched farm system, asked for patience, took more criticism than George Bush and Barack Obama combined, and now can sit back with an “I told you so” grin if he wanted. He’s too kind to do that, though.

THE TRADE

The news in December 2012 shocked every baseball insider, along with every wanna-be seamhead. The Royals acquired James Shields, an All-Star front-end starting pitcher, Wade Davis, a solid pitcher, and reserve infielder Elliot Johnson (the “player to be named later”) from Tampa Bay in a monstrous deal that sent Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard to the Rays. To date, it’s the biggest trade in Dayton Moore’s tenure — and one of the most notable in franchise history.  Most “experts” felt Moore had been bamboozled. Or simply lost his mind.

It’s too early to tell the complete significance and label it as a good or bad deal, but without Shields and Davis, it’s doubtful the Royals would be playing Baltimore in the ALCS.

DENNY MATTHEWS

The radio “voice” of the Royals, Denny Matthews has been with the organization since its first game in 1969. (Mainly) younger fans today think Denny is dry and boring in this day of screamers and countless catch phrases. He was brought up in this business at a time when the idea was for the broadcaster to paint the picture and then let you as the listener envision it. He doesn’t feel a need to scream during a game. For (many) fans my age and older, Denny — and his longtime broadcast partner Fred White, who died last year — is the voice of summer. He’s been honored by the Hall of Fame with the Ford C. Frick Award. It was well deserved.

Now, as you prepare to watch the ALCS and listen to the TBS broadcasters go on and on about how it’s been more than a generation since the Royals have been in the postseason, you can try to impress your spouse, kids and buddies with at least a little wisdom about what this organization has been and why Royals fans have painted Kansas City blue during the past couple weeks.

 

 

 

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An ode to Elvis and George: In honor of Elvis’ disappearance

Of course it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything here. So long, in fact, that I completely forgot how to log in! With that out of the way, and a promise — or a threat — of more posts more regularly, including at least one new weekly “feature” beginning next week, I’m digging into the vault for a “Flashback Friday.” (Hey, maybe I have two new weekly ideas…) In honor of our celebration of “Elvis Day” today, here’s a column I wrote a few years ago about Elvis and Royals great George Brett.

Technically, based on the title, what you are about to read should be poetic and it should be sung. Well, since I’m not the best at writing poetry (only so much rhymes with “roses are red, violets are blue”) and you really don’t want me to sing (think William Hung on AMERICAN IDOL or Carl Lewis singing the national anthem), don’t get your hopes up about this being a true ode.

Twice a year in our household, since I am a huge Elvis Presley fan — OK, borderline nut — we celebrate “Elvis Day.” It’s a day that concludes with eating a meal from one of Elvis’ cookbooks, a rousing game of Elvisopoly, and, finally, one of his extraordinary movies (OK, you can stop laughing now). Today, we’re celebrating the anniversary of the day Elvis “disappeared.”

An oftentimes-neglected attribute of Elvis is his generosity. When I mentioned that to former Royals announcer Fred White one time, we made the comparison between Elvis and George Brett, one of White’s good friends.

Just start with the Hall of Fame. Ironically, Brett found out that he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 5, 1999, three days before Elvis’ 64th birthday. Maybe they are similar … in an odd sort of way.

George was drafted out of high school; Elvis cut his first record out of high school. George had batting titles in each of three decades; Elvis had gold records in each of three decades. George flirted with a .400 batting average in 1980; Elvis was spotted at a gas station off Georgia highway 400 in 1980.

Even though most people know Elvis only for his music and his movie roles — OK, to the general public maybe just his music, behind the scenes he was an extremely generous person. (Yes, for the sake of argument, I’m using past tense even though we celebrate the whole “disappearance” thing.) Presley’s benefactors and close friends, who, for the most part, were not famous people, usually were the only ones to see this side of him.   Brett is best known for his defensive play at first base — OK, maybe his hitting and his play at third. Away from the field, Brett was, and still is, an extremely generous person. Like Elvis, only his benefactors and close friends, who, for the most part, are not famous people, usually see this side of George.

White told me a great Brett story. About 90 minutes before a late-season game toward the twilight of Brett’s career, a young family spotted White walking into Royals Stadium. They asked Fred to help their young son meet George Brett. Fred told them that it likely wouldn’t happen, but he would try to mention it to George. To the family’s surprise, George went up to the lobby and talked to the boy for several minutes. From Fred’s account of the story, George and the boy had a fun and lively conversation. Obviously, George didn’t have to do that. But that’s George. Who knows, Brett may not remember the details of that incident, but I can guarantee that boy and his parents won’t forget those few minutes.   One thing I learned quickly about George is that he isn’t willing to talk much about his generosity. (Believe me, some former athletes are more than happy to share their stories of “generosity.”) The first time I interviewed Brett was when we worked on the Foreword for White and Denny Matthews’ book, PLAY BY PLAY. A couple of the funniest stories in the entire book come from the Foreword; one about ice hockey and the other about a black lab named Boo. Throughout the interview, I pulled several wonderful stories out of George regarding some of the ways he has helped people over the years. But, he wasn’t eager to tell those stories.   Even though George Brett can probably walk around in public easier than Elvis Presley can, they are quite similar. Well, maybe they are alike only in their generosity toward helping others. But, that should be good enough.

Now, where did I put those bananas and peanut butter…

 

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Memories of Christmases past

As we sat around the dinner table on Christmas afternoon — my parents, my wife and daughter, my brother and his wife, and an uncle — Dad thought we’d go around and have each person share a memorable Christmas present from the past. Coincidentally, I had put together a similar column earlier in the day for the Kansas City T-Bones’ website…you can read that here. So my answer was fairly fresh in my mind.

The T-Bones column and the Christmas dinnertime discussion made me remember a column that I’ve done in the past, where I asked various sports personalities to share memories of their favorite Christmas presents*. This seemed like a good time to share those.

(*I’ve written a syndicated column, and did this type of piece each Christmas. Lord willing, I’ll try to remember to do it again in 2013. It all started, though, when I was co-hosting a radio show called Saturday Sidelines at WAKM in the Nashville, Tenn., market. Long-time Major League pitcher Bill Gullickson lived in the area, and I’d gotten to know him pretty well over the years. For a Saturday Sidelines special, Bill and his family allowed my co-host, Chuck Morris, and me into their home a few days before Christmas to record the show that was going to run on Christmas morning. All we did during that show was talk about Christmas memories and traditions. It ended up being one of our more popular episodes.)

The first of the personalities’ memories, which echoes my sentiments exactly, is from Fred White, long-time Royals radio announcer:

“I don’t have one special memory from Christmas … well, actually, one really big one. Every Christmas, period. Each one was special in our family growing up. They gave me years of great memories with family and friends.”

“When I was about 12 or 13, I got a TV for my bedroom. It was with that TV that I began to practice (broadcasting) games with the sound turned down. Our tradition was opening family presents Christmas Eve and then Santa came Christmas morning. I have many wonderful memories of snowy Christmas Eves in Green Bay.”

— Kevin Harlan, CBS Sports announcer and Kansas City resident

 

“When I was 4 years old, right after World War II broke out, our family moved into our first big house, which included indoor plumbing. That home felt like a mansion to me. Our first Christmas there, my brother and I each received one present, a toy machine gun. We had great times with those. Of course, times were different back then. But, the biggest thing about this time of year for me is family. I particularly learned that while I was playing and coaching. In the NFL, especially back then, we didn’t get much time to be with our families. When you’re not with family, you miss all the talking and laughing. Being together with family is important.”

— Tom Flores, former Chiefs player and (should-be Hall of Fame) coach for the Raiders

 

“I was either 8 or 9 years old, and my folks returned home to Lawrence from Kansas City, and placed a sack on the floor. It looked like hamburgers (which then were 6 for 25 cents, believe it or not). I bent down and opened the sack, and inside was the cutest puppy you have ever seen. I named him Scrappy, and he was my very best friend for the next 11 years. While I was in the service (during World War II), he was killed in a dog fight, but my folks wouldn’t tell me that until years later. I still remember him with great affection.”

— Max Falkenstien, legendary KU announcer for 60 years

 

“The gift that most changed my life was a drum set I received when I was 14, from my mom and dad. Then, on my 50th birthday, that feeling was recreated when I got another drum set from my wonderful wife, Lib. I had a recurring gift and recurring dream. It was one of those wonderful things that actually happened twice.

“I loved my John Callison glove, but then my old man traded Callison for Gene Freeze, which negated that deal. It didn’t negate the trade, unfortunately, but it just negated the gift.”

— Mike Veeck, the son of legendary baseball marketer Bill Veeck and the originator of “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park

 

Whether you got what you wanted or what you deserved, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas yesterday and have a joy-filled remaining 2012.

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Behind the Stats: Monday’s act of courage a lesson for all

*The following is an updated reprint. It appeared originally on Kansas City’s Metro Sports’ website in 2006.

It takes courage to do what’s right.

On Tuesday night, my wife and I tried explaining that to one of our kids. Avoiding peer pressure. Standing up for what you believe in. And so on. He seemed to understand. But, who could blame him if he didn’t?

That lesson’s tough for most of us. Sure, we know what we believe to be right or wrong, but we don’t always have the guts to act upon it.

That lesson gets reinforced for me whenever I think of former major-league outfielder Rick Monday because I can’t help but think of something he did on the field.

Really, we all owe Monday a hand-over-the-heart-salute of thanks for something he did more than 35 years ago today.

As any long-time baseball player will say, each ballpark has a unique feeling. Its own personality. One pitch into the bottom of the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium onApril 25, 1976, Monday, playing centerfield then for the Chicago Cubs, realized the stadium’s “breathing pattern got out of sync.” He heard a commotion from the left-field corner.

When Monday looked over, he saw two guys running toward left-center. One of them had something under his arm. They stopped and spread the item on the ground as if they were preparing a picnic. One of the two guys then took out a shiny can of a liquid and started squirting it onto the piece of cloth.

Monday immediately realized that the item on the ground was the American flag. The liquid doused onto the flag turned out to be lighter fluid.

“At that moment I was mad,” Monday told me by phone. He then did what he thought was the right thing to do. The only thing to do. He started running toward the two men to stop them. One of the guys lit a match, but the wind blew it out. Then, he lit a second one.

“I don’t know what I was thinking, if I was thinking about trying to bowl them over, or what,” Monday says. “I was close enough, though, that I remember thinking, ‘They can’t burn it if they don’t have it.’ So, I reached down and grabbed the flag.”

When you look at the photograph or the video that’s circulating on the Internet, you’ll notice that Monday’s timing was so perfect that the person with the second match proceeded to put the match to the ground, thinking the flag was still there.

Monday ran toward the Dodgers’ dugout, passing then-Dodger third-base coach Tommy Lasorda, who was shouting every obscenity known to man.

“I told Tommy, ‘What you were yelling would make a longshoreman blush,’” Monday, who eventually played for Lasorda inLos   Angeles, told me in 2006.

After the crowd of nearly 40,000 that Sunday afternoon began to boo the two guys for their despicable act and then cheer as security escorted the two off the field, the stadium grew quiet for a moment. Then, Monday’s proof that what he did was the right thing.

“Without any prompting at all, without the organ starting, without anything being put on the diamond vision,” remembers Monday, “one section of the stadium and then another and then another, began to sing ‘God Bless America.’ When those people reacted that way, it brought goose bumps, and it still does when I reflect upon it.”

Monday, whom the Kansas City A’s drafted with the first-ever selection in the Major League draft in 1965, the same year he started a six-year stint in the Marine Corps Reserves, had a solid 19-year big-league career. He played in nearly 2,000 games, compiling 1,619 hits and 775 RBIs.

After posting what turned out be career highs in home runs (32) and RBIs (77) with Chicago in 1976, the Cubs traded Monday to the Dodgers, where he played the next eight seasons as an outfielder for Lasorda, who took over as manager in ’77. In 1981, his solo homer with two outs in the top of the ninth againstMontreal, sent the Dodgers to the World Series.

Despite the numbers, Monday says that if fans mainly remember him for saving the flag, instead of a game-winning hit or a great catch or a long career, that’s just fine.

“It wouldn’t bother me if that’s what they remember,” said Monday, who receives letters every month from fans about that one moment, which the Baseball Hall of Fame voted as one of the 100 Classic Moments in the History of the Game. “It would bother me more if people asked, ‘Why didn’t you stop them?’”

Monday added that not only has he not had any communications with the two guys who tried to ignite the flag, but he’s never even wondered why they were attempting to do it. He says it’s not important. It was wrong, “regardless of the message.”

When it comes to that April day, Monday quickly points out that, even though he’s not a fan of the recognition he’s received, he’d do the same thing again.

“(The act) hasn’t changed me, but I have been embarrassed by the attention placed on me, because I didn’t do anything,” he says. “There isn’t anyone I know, fortunately, who wouldn’t have done the same thing. I am just honored to be able to maybe tell the story to someone who might stop for a moment and think about what’s right or wrong.

“And for someone to think that the reason we all have our rights and freedoms is that – to obviously greater extents than what I did in stopping two guys from burning a flag – somewhere along the line, someone has stopped to do the right thing.”

To contact Matt Fulks or for more information about his books, please visit MattFulks.com. Feel free to comment on Rick Monday’s act from April 25, 1976, below. We will make sure that Mr. Monday receives messages directed for him.

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Behind the Stats: Looking back at Lefebvre’s battle with depression

For those of you who are outside of the Kansas City area, please hang with me for a moment. On Tuesday, a popular Kansas City weather guy and TV personality, Don Harman, committed suicide. He was 41. Don Harman was one of the funniest guys you’d find on TV in Kansas City.  Unbeknownst to viewers and probably a lot of people around Don, however, he battled depression for years. This morning, I overheard two guys talking about Harman. One of them said how he couldn’t comprehend how a guy who seemingly had it all — a great job on TV, beloved by thousands and thousands of people, with a wife and a young daughter — could fight depression and, eventually, take his own life. Frankly, that’s impossible for a lot of people to process. That guy’s statement, though, reminded me of another young, seemingly happy media personality who had it all, but battled with depression: Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre.

Lefebvre suffered depression during much of the 2005 season. In his case, he was able to get help that worked. Before Opening Day, 2006, Ryan allowed me to share his story on Metro Sports’ website. For those of you who wonder how a guy can battle depression, or for those of you who might have your own demons, here is that column from March 2006.

BEHIND THE STATS: Lefebvre back on track after depression

It was a typical sun-filled Midwestern summer afternoon, August 7 of last year. The temperature hovered around 90 degrees. Perfect for baseball, but even better for some time on a lake.

Ryan Lefebvre had the best of both worlds. After his job of announcing that Sunday afternoon’s Royals game on radio, Lefebvre planned to go to hang out with some friends at his home on a Kansas City area lake for an afternoon of playing on the water and cooking out.

What a life. Being in his early 30s, single, calling games for a major-league team. Along with those came a nice income, a four-bedroom house, two expensive cars, not to mention a boat and a jet ski parked at his dock. Then there are the road trips, spent at incredible ballparks, the best hotels and exquisite restaurants. As if those things aren’t enough for a guy’s dream life, Lefebvre’s girlfriend at the time was a former Miss USA runner-up.

Only, as Lefebvre was hanging out that afternoon with his girlfriend and Dave Witty, the Royals’ Vice President of Communications and Marketing, and Witty’s family, he felt uneasy.

The feeling worsened. He was alone, jealous, empty, a hole in his stomach. He didn’t know this feeling. He knew it wasn’t alcohol or drug-induced. He was all too familiar with those nightmares before sobering up in January 1998. No, this was different. Much different.

After everyone left that night, Lefebvre had a breakdown. As a child would when he’s scared, Lefebvre went to his bedroom closet and hid, huddled in the corner, and cried uncontrollably for an hour.

As he went to bed that night, Lefebvre didn’t think he could sleep this one off. He was right. The next morning, he called his mom in New Mexico.

“She’s been through clinical depression twice, and she’s been through disappointments with me during my entire life,” said Lefebvre. “She knew something was different with this. She made me promise that I’d make an appointment (with a psychologist) that day.”

That afternoon, August 8, Lefebvre began a life-changing process.

NOT JUST A WOMAN’S ILLNESS

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 6 million men are treated for depression each year. The number of women treated? A little more than 12 million.

In today’s world, or really at any other time in history, men are taught to be tough. It isn’t cool to talk about feelings. Heck, it isn’t even hip to think about feelings.

Hollywood and Madison Avenue both reinforce that idea more than ever today. They show a world that Lefebvre was living with the cash, cars, chicks and celebrity. Crying and depression and all that other womanly stuff is taboo for today’s “real” man.

“Even though I had everything I thought I wanted, I was miserable,” said Lefebvre, who still takes medication for major depressive disorder. “I had everything but at the same time I had nothing. My purpose had been fulfilled, but I was empty.”

The result often becomes suicide. In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that depressed men are four times more likely to commit suicide than depressed women.

Despite his personal hell, Lefebvre says he never seriously considered killing himself, although at one point late in the season, he realized that was an option. It came on Oct. 1, the day before the season finale in Toronto.

Lefebvre suffered another breakdown.

“Short of planning my own suicide, it occurred to me that if worst came to absolute worst, there was a way out,” he says. “For a man of faith, I realized that it wasn’t about quitting on life, it was about being in a better place with God. It wasn’t as dramatic as people would assume; it was more peaceful. But it also crossed my mind how much it would hurt people, namely my family and friends, if I were to do that.”

LIVING UP TO AN IMAGE

On the surface, Ryan Lefebvre’s childhood in southern California sounds blissful. He lived in Manhattan Beach with his parents. During his early childhood, his mom, Jeane, was a model. His dad, Jim, was a baseball player.

Indeed, Jim Lefebvre was a solid major-league infielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers during 1965-72, where he played in two World Series. After doing some acting, including television roles on “Gilligan’s Island” and “Batman,” Jim Lefebvre went on to manage Seattle, the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee. He’s also coached with the Dodgers, San Francisco and Oakland.

Most recently, he managed China in the World Baseball Classic.

But Ryan’s relationship with his dad throughout the years has been OK at best. Ryan’s parents separated when he was 18 months old and divorced when he was 6 years old. He grew up with his mom, whom he considers a close friend.

“There’s a certain image attached to my father being a major leaguer and to my mom being a former model,” Lefebvre said. “As they went their separate ways after the divorce, I thought I needed to get their attention through an image that was either taught to me, or others believed I should portray. Regardless, I wasn’t living my own life.”

Take baseball. Lefebvre enjoyed playing through his years at the University of Minnesota and then a season in the Cleveland organization, but he was playing because of his parents. Truth be told, it wasn’t making him happy. All the while, beginning early in his high school years and continuing until his late 20s, Lefebvre turned to alcohol and drugs.

“I think most people drink or do drugs because it makes them think they’re portraying the image that everyone wants,” he said. “But the problems don’t actually go away.”

Even after Lefebvre sobered in 1998, shortly before his final season with the Minnesota Twins and his first with the Royals, his burden grew. He likens it to carrying a backpack of rocks representing life’s good and bad experiences, and expectations. The rocks, much like life’s burdens, are dead weight.

“Sometimes the burden becomes too much and you can’t carry anymore,” he said. “I think it’s an interesting analogy because putting the rocks in your backpack puts them in a place that you can’t see them, but no one else can, either.”

Ryan’s mom carried many of his rocks on a daily basis during his bout with depression. He still hasn’t told his dad.

“I wanted to sit down with him alone during spring training and talk to him about it, but we couldn’t work out our schedules,” said Lefebvre. “I’m trying to plan a trip for him to come to my house in late April so we can sit down and talk about it.”

THE LONG SEASON

As the Royals continued working toward their club-record 106 losses in 2005, Lefebvre did his best to make it through each day, thanks to a team of people led by his mom and his psychologist, Dale Williamson.

On a perfect day, he could escape his thoughts for 30 minutes or so. Unfortunately, there weren’t many of those.

Although going to the ballpark everyday opened up the possibility of questions from others about Lefebvre’s abnormally somber demeanor, that sure beat the “living hell” that he faced with being alone at home or in a hotel room, trapped with his thoughts.

Those times never were easy. Like September 16, in Cleveland, when Lefebvre was going to wait until everyone had left for the stadium, and then call in sick before checking himself into a hospital. His mom convinced him otherwise.

Even life outside of hotel rooms wasn’t easy. Three weeks before the Cleveland incident, Lefebvre suffered a public panic attack while out for a night with Mike Sweeney and John Buck in New York.

“I don’t think anybody had any idea how deeply troubled I was,” said Lefebvre, who talked with his mom at least twice a day from Aug. 7 until the end of the season. She often reminded him that fighting depression was “one day at a time, one step at a time and one foot in front of the other.”

Unlike his previous 11 years announcing in the big leagues, Lefebvre doesn’t remember much about the games on the field in 2005. Looking back, he recalls the early part of the season. Then, as June rolls around, details are fuzzy. July and into August become more blurry.

“From then on, I remember hardly anything from the field,” he admits. “But I remember vivid details of some of my worst days at home and on the road. Like most people, I’ve lost my personal problems in my work. But with this, I simultaneously called the games and focused on my problems at the same time.”

And he remained to himself, embarrassed and unwilling to talk about his depression. In fact, only a handful of people knew of Lefebvre’s torment. He didn’t even tell his radio partner, Denny Matthews, or their producer/engineer, Don Free. Not until their last day in Arizona for spring training.

THE BISHOP’S FRIENDSHIP

As with former alcoholics and drug addicts, most people who have suffered through depression say that recovery is a long and arduous process. Usually, it’s the rest of the person’s life.

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m cured,” Lefebvre agrees.

Lefebvre’s road to recovery, however, gained momentum in early November 2005, when he traveled to Florida for a wedding. As he strolled down the beach one day, watching families build sand castles along the Gulf of Mexico shore, he realized he felt better. He had an “even keel.” He was thinking more rationally.

Lefebvre decided to spend the rest of the offseason doing things he wanted to do. Things that would help him in recovery. He volunteered at John Knox Village and Lee’s Summit Hospital. He hosted a weekly bible study for high school students at his house. He got back to playing weekly pick-up hockey games with a few friends, including Matthews.

And, he planned vacations. One to Jamaica, where he’d visit Gordon Bennett, one of his former principals who’s now a bishop in the Catholic Church; and then his first trip to Europe, specifically Rome.

“Meeting with Bishop Bennett was almost my own ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’” Lefebvre said, referring to the best-selling book. “During our discussions I asked him what common characteristics he saw in a good man. One that stuck like glue was the difference between a tough man and a brave man.

“He showed me that tough gets you nowhere. Or, you can be brave and be the type of man to say, ‘this is what happened to me.’”

Lefebvre’s also sharing his story with others. It started as a self-realization of how far he’d come. It’s transformed, though, into helping other men.

Said Lefebvre: “When I began sharing this with people, it was incredible how many men would come up to me and say, ‘I haven’t really told anyone about this…,’ and then they’d tell me their story about depression.

“There are too many men in this world who are more frightened by the cure than they are the disease. They settle into not being happy and feeling like they can deal with it. But there’s no better feeling than chiseling away all those layers of grime that collects around our hearts, and getting back to who God designed you to be.”

Lefebvre’s biggest project, however, is still a work in progress. He wants to touch a bigger audience through a book, which is near completion.

“I accept what happened to me, and I’m not ashamed of it now,” he said. “Maybe a man who’s ashamed to go to therapy and share his emotions with a doctor, can read a story or listen to my experience and draw strength from it. That’s all I wanted and needed to hear during the whole thing. When you’re going through this, you want to feel like you’re not losing your mind, that you’re normal and you’re going to be OK.

“I know how that felt, and I want to provide that for someone else.”

EVERY DAY IS OPENING DAY

The 2006 season marks Ryan Lefebvre’s 12th opening day as a major-league announcer. He enters this one, however, with a little more optimism, a little more zeal.

“I’m excited about this season because, regardless of how the team does on the field, I’m going to just go out and enjoy it,” he said.

After all, it was just six months ago when Lefebvre felt he’d be the one guy who ended up in an institution.

“Going through this was horrible; there’s no other way to describe it,” he said. “But, with all the things I’ve discovered, had I not gone through this I wouldn’t feel as good as I do now. This was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but at the same time it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.

“I’ve never felt better in my life. I’ve never experienced the joy that I have now.”

If you’d like to contact Ryan Lefebvre, you can post comments below or send them through www.MattFulks.com. Although we can’t guarantee personal responses, we’ll make sure Ryan gets copies of all comments and emails.

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Behind the Stats: Today I’m thankful for…

Read nearly every newspaper around the country today — most of which you can find online, which is a slight reason newspapers are in their current dire state, but I digress — and you’ll read a column such as this. Our list of things for which we’re thankful.

In many ways, as some writers have said, this is a crutch column. Lists seem to be like that to some old-school writers. At the same time, though, writing of list of things for which I’m thankful almost seems that it’s not done nearly enough. Kind of like honoring veterans one day a year.

Of course, most of these are sports related and specific to the Kansas City area, except for the number of things in the list. As I wrote a few weeks ago, several of us celebrated recently the life of friend and former Lipscomb University pitcher Scott Shannon, who lost a battle with cancer 20 years ago this month. His number at Lipscomb was 23.

That said, in no particular order, this year I’m especially thankful for….

1. Christ. It seems so blasé these days to list religion first, especially with the firestorm under which Tim Tebow is planted. But, when you read through Tony Dungy’s book, “Quiet Strength,” or you spend a few minutes with someone like Dayton Moore, Kevin Seitzer or ex-Kansas State tight end Paul Coffman, you’re reminded that leading off with this should never seem trite.

2. Family, especially my wife and our three kids. Of course my parents and my in-laws fall in that category, too.

3. Friends. When you’re an extreme introvert, it’s nice to have a few people around you who can put up with your quirkiness.

4. Our service men and women, along with police officers and firefighters. I’m a big chicken. So I’m in complete awe when I think about these people who choose to defend our freedoms or keep us safe on a daily basis.

5. Frank White. My blood always boils this time of year with all of the discussions about the Baseball Hall of Fame and which of the current candidates deserve or don’t deserve to get in. The pointless debates don’t include Royals Hall of Famer Frank White. And, by this time they shouldn’t because he should be in already. But he’s not, which is a travesty. During his era, he was one of the game’s best all-around defensive players. He remains one of the best second basemen of all-time. Besides his play on the field, I do value Frank’s friendship.

6. The Royals and the Chiefs and the optimism that we have at the beginning of each season, and the fact that when one season hits the tank we can start looking forward to the other. By the way, pitchers and catchers report in 70-some-odd days, depending on when you’re reading this. Although, if we were going to look forward to pitchers and catchers reporting when the Chiefs season tanked, we could’ve said, “pitchers and catchers report in six months.”

7. Denny Matthews and Fred White. No offense to Ryan Lefebvre or Bob Davis whatsoever, but for me it’s always been natural to say the names Denny and Fred together. In various combinations, they’ve been great together for the past 38 years. They’re also great individuals and friends.

8. Max Falkenstien. In a way I could put Max with Denny and Fred. Like Denny and Fred, Falkenstien was one of my heroes growing up. He certainly is missed during the KU broadcasts.

9. The T-Bones. The baseball team, not the steak. (Although I’m thankful for the steak, too.) I’ve written about the T-Bones and General Manager Chris Browne in previous columns and articles, so it shouldn’t be a big shock that I think they’re a wonderful and important part of the Kansas City sports landscape. However, in a moment of weakness this past season, they did something so unthinkable that I had to add them to this year’s list. Desperate during the season, they asked me to fill in as their public address announcer when the legendary Dan Roberts had to miss a game. My start in this media business actually can be traced to doing PA work, so it’s not a complete stretch to think that I could do it. To think, though, that a professional baseball team would ask me does seem far-fetched. But, it went well enough, evidently, that they asked me in August to work PA for the Willie Wilson Baseball Classic. Who knows, maybe they’ll be in a bind again next season.

10. Jim Chappell and Chappell’s Restaurant and Sports Museum. Jim likely will argue that he should be higher on the list, and he may be right. But, you’ll be able to read more about Chappell’s in this space in a full-length column tomorrow. Suffice to say for now that Chappell’s is the best sports museum in the Midwest. Hands down. And the food is excellent, too. They must be doing something right since they’re celebrating their 25th anniversary this week.

11. The Border War. The rivalry between KU and MU (listed alphabetically, by the way) is one of the best, most heated, most hated and most overlooked in all of college sports. And, at least for the time being, is likely about to come to an end, because of both schools. Although Saturday’s football game promises to be exciting for about two possessions, it looks like both men’s basketball games this season could be classics.

12. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.  As a long-time Kansas Citian, I sometimes take for granted this city’s role in black baseball. We have a chance to be reminded of that with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

13. Steve Renko. I have so many reasons to be thankful for Renk, the Kansas City area native, who spent only one season, 1983, with the Royals. Besides the fact that he was one of my “Behind the Stats” radio sidekicks for nearly two years, he’s also a constant source of encouragement, information and opinions. Not to mention, he’s taken time to work with one of my sons who wants to be a pitcher. Most of those times, though, I think he’s working as much with me as a father of a kid who wants to pitch.

14. The Jazz Museum. As a huge fan of jazz, particularly the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Count Basie, it’s awesome to have the Jazz Museum next to the NLBM. It’s pretty easy to do both in the morning and still have time to grab lunch down the road at Arthur Bryant’s before driving past 22nd and Brooklyn, the site of where the Blues, Monarchs, Athletics, Chiefs and Royals all played.

15. Kansas Citybarbecue. Too many to have a favorite.

16. Pineapple and Canadian bacon. The person who first decided to try that odd combination on a pizza is a genius. Plain and simple.

17. Ken Morrow. Whether you’re a hockey fan or not, we’re lucky to have Morrow in the Kansas City area. The current Director of Pro Scouting for the New York Islanders and a winner of multiple Stanley Cups, Morrow is a great ambassador for amateur hockey in the Kansas City area. Besides — and as important as the rest — he was an important part of the 1980 U.S. hockey team that beat the Soviet Union during the Olympics.

18. The running/biking trails around the area. Yes, there are other cities with better or more extensive trails, but if you’ve lived in or visited cities without trails as nice as here you know how lucky we are. Now if we only had leaders who understood the importance of light rail.

19. Cedric Tallis, the Royals’ first general manager in 1969. Although he orchestrated one of the worst trades in baseball history, Lindy McDaniel from the Yankees in exchange for Rookie of the Year Lou Piniella, he’s also responsible for building the Royals into winners relatively soon into their existence with trades that brought Piniella, Buck Martinez, Amos Otis, Cookie Rojas and Fred Patek to Kansas City. Tallis deserves to be in the Royals Hall of Fame.

20. Taco Via. OK, this one might seem a little odd, unless you grew up on the Kansas side of the state line. If you grew up on the Missouri side, you might not know about the Via’s nachos, sanchos, taco burgers, enchiladas and sauce so good that you could drink it faster than a QT Quart. What you may not realize is that the restaurant moved about 500 yards from its location at 95th and Antioch in Overland Park – and the new location opened this week.

21. Municipal Auditorium. What a great, historic place to watch a basketball game. To think, more NCAA men’s championship basketball games have been played there than any other venue in the country.

22. LIVESTRONG Park. I’m not a big soccer fan. Those who know me might even take the word “big” out of that first sentence. But, what an incredible stadium in Kansas City,Kan.! Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you need to see the stadium at least once. It’s also cool to think about that stadium being within an Alex Gordon throw from the Kansas Speedway and CommunityAmerica Ballpark.

23. The NAIA. This isn’t a knock on the NCAA, but the NAIA “gets it.” They understand the importance of pushing the idea of character, not only to their institutions but also to local high schools, grade schools and amateur sports leagues. President/CEO Jim Carr and his staff should be commended for the work they do. Not to mention, the sports teams at NAIA schools are extremely competitive and fun to watch.

For more information on Matt Fulks’ books, or to suggest a “Behind the Stats” topic, visit Matt at www.mattfulks.com.

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