‘It was the best of times . . . .it was the worst of times.’
The REAL Kansas GM
So begins one of Charles Dickens’ most beloved works of literature. But it could well describe what Kansas baseball fans are encountering this year in BARB: two clubs from different divisions, going in different directions, but forever linked by past rivalry and common geography.
One club, Scott Hatfield’s St. Francis Kansans, is enjoying a renaissance. One year after leading all of BARB in runs scored, the 2014 wild-card club has taken up right where they left off: leading the newly-formed Grapefruit Division in scoring, taking an early lead in wins with a 10-2 mark, and in general looking ready to compete for their fourth playoff berth in five seasons. The 2009 expansion club endured 164 losses in its first two seasons, but with more than 360 wins since 2010 is now well over .500 in its history. “We hope the best is yet to come,” Hatfield beamed.
Meanwhile, headed the other direction, the newly-rechristened Kansas City Rebels of Ronald Melkonian have set a league mark for futility: the 2012 expansion club has averaged 100 losses a year since entering the league, and their 2015 campaign began with the club giving up a BARB-high 62 runs while dropping the first 11 games of the year. “It’s the middle of the April, and they are nine games out,” marveled a rookie reporter tasked to cover the club’s nearly-empty stadium.
Hatfield had no sympathy for his in-state rival, who during 2014 conducted a ‘fire sale’ that lifted last year’s edition of the Casselton Horned Toads to a division title, relegating the Kansans to a wild-card spot and an eventual early playoff exit to the Yuma Firebirds. “That was a tough pill to swallow,” admitted Hatfield. “The GM in question wanted half my club for Justin Upton, and when I turned him down flat, he (in his words) ‘powered up’ my chief rival. And now, like a carpetbagger, he has once again abandoned his previous fans and set up in my territory. So, sympathy? Not a chance. But I’ll talk trade if it serves the franchise’s interests.”
MAJOR TURNOVER SINCE 2011 PLAYOFF RUN
“Anyway,” Hatfield said, “in retrospect that 2011 stretch-drive collapse was the best thing that happened to the Kansans. It was one of the more improbable moments in our league’s history, and certainly the best achievement of any club associated with that GM. He got a remarkable hot streak from OF Andre Ethier, and that taught me a lesson: don’t set your goals so low. Making the playoffs in our third year after expansion was our goal back then, but from that moment on we set our sights on building a stronger, deeper, more durable organization. By and large, we achieved that, but it wasn’t easy?”
As a mark of that, consider that only a handful of players on the 2011 Kansans are still BARB regulars: former cleanup man Jose Bautista now starts in RF for the Moabs, backup IF Todd Frazier is the starting 3B in Pottsylvania, and 2B Neil Walker has found regular duty in Casselton. RHP Joaquin Benoit is a setup man in Oakland. What happened to the rest?
Retired since then: C Jason Varitek, 1B Paul Konerko, IF Kevin Youkilis, OF Vernon Wells and Johnny Damon, and P Roy Oswalt, Brett Myers, Heath Bell.
Injured and possibly never to play in BARB again: P Bronson Arroyo, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Guerrier and DH Jesus Montero
Hanging on as a bench player in BARB: IF Alexei Ramirez, 1B Mark Reynolds, OF Chris Young, P Rafael Delgado
No longer on a BARB roster: U Kelly Johnson, P Ricky Nolasco, Scott Downs and Joe Saunders.
“When you get down to it,” admitted Hatfield, “while we were able to earn a berth in a so-so division, the 2011 edition of the Kansans was never that strong a club. We had to get younger, stronger and deeper across the board. That was the turning point for our club, and I think we’ve done that. We're deep behind the plate, off the bench and in the rotation. We finally have some starters that are comparable to the best in the league, and our offense is obviously clicking.”