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Sunday, August 21, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Larry Stone

Can't spell wreck without KC

Seattle Times baseball reporter

The Colorado Rockies gave it a good, long run. The Reds made a brief but spirited stab, and so, shockingly, did the Yankees. At one point, Lou Piniella's Devil Rays seemed a lock. The Pirates, as always, were never far out of contention. The Mariners even worked their way into the debate.

But now it can be said, with utter confidence, that the worst team of the 2005 season is indubitably the Kansas City Royals. Let's be honest: They just wanted it more badly. When the going gets tough, the wretched self-destruct.

Misery loves company — and so does Missouri — but the feckless, reckless Royals have emerged with uniquely impeccable credentials of incompetence. They are that rare combination of ownership indifference, front-office bungling and on-field buffoonery that only comes along once a generation.

The Royals were on display in full-frontal futility at Safeco Field last week, losing all three games to the Mariners, a team they somehow managed to make look imposing. It was depressing and comical all at once — and that was just Mike MacDougal's toss 20 feet over the head of his catcher on Wednesday.

The Royals left town with 18 consecutive defeats. They made it 19 Friday with a loss against Oakland but finally ended the streak by beating the A's last night.

Kansas City's next series is against the World Series champion Red Sox, followed by a series against the $200 million Yankees.

Then the schedule really gets tough.

But this isn't to make light of the Royals. OK, it IS to make light of the Royals, who are making it way too easy.

When they left Seattle, the Royals had been outscored 144-64 during their streak. Nine of the 18 losses had come against Seattle, Tampa Bay and Detroit, the three worst American League teams not affiliated with George Brett.

The Royals had given up 10 or more runs seven times, including the game universally agreed to be the lowest point in franchise history: a 13-7 loss to Cleveland in which the Indians scored 11 runs in the top of the ninth.

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Canvassing the Royals' clubhouse last week, I tried to get the pulse of the team in the midst of all this suffering.

Jose Lima, always a live wire, shook his head and said, "Sometimes I wish I could understand baseball. I've played a long time, but it's still hard to understand. We cannot get a break. It's been like this all year. I know you can say, 'Oh, you guys have a young team,' but I don't believe in that. We're grown-up men. Things are not going our way."

Mike Sweeney, the team's token star who is, as always, rumored to be on the trade block, was typically upbeat.

"The guys that are strong character guys are going to learn a lot. Some guys, after this year, might not ever have a chance to play in the big leagues again. It definitely makes men out of us. I know scripture always says tough times and trials build character. There's a lot of character being built here."

A lot of players talked about all the good that will eventually come out of this streak. Chip Ambres, a rookie who dropped what would have been the third out of the dreadful Cleveland loss — a routine fly ball — said:

"This is nothing more than a building process right now. We'll be able to look back on this and say, 'We had a 17-game losing streak, but look where we are now.' "

Oops, Ambres spoke too soon. They went out that night and gave up a first-inning grand slam to Adrian Beltre and lost again.

One has to feel particularly bad for Royals manager Buddy Bell, a good baseball man who is going through personal and professional anguish. Bell missed the first two games of the Seattle series to attend the funeral of his nephew, Lance Cpl. Tim Bell Jr., killed in Iraq. He returned just in time to witness defeat No. 18.

"We've got to give ourselves a chance," Bell muttered several times as he met with the media briefly after the game.

When it was gently put forward to him that the Royals were rapidly approaching the AL-record losing streak of 21 (1988 Orioles) and the modern-day major-league record of 23 (1961 Phillies), Bell grimaced.

"There's a lot of history I care about, but right now, I'm just concerned about how we play and how we move forward," he said.

Royals general manager Allard Baird keeps insisting the team must stick to its plan, but then, so did General Custer. I'm not completely sure I've got it straight, but the plan seems to be to rush their (purportedly) talented young players to the majors, let them learn under fire, and reap the benefits of the residual growth in years to come.

Maybe it will work. If so, 2005 will be fondly remembered as "the laughingstock year."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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