Blast from past: Dayton Moore

I wrote this in 2006 shortly after Dayton Moore took the job as Royals GM. I was reminded of it by somebody and reread it … I found it fascinating how much Dayton Moore has held true to his core beliefs through many years when it looked like it wouldn’t work. The manager stuff he talks about here just reiterate his feelings about Ned Yost.

The Royals didn’t win the division but I do wonder if he sent that bouquet of flowers to the ESPN guy. I’ll have to ask him when I get to KC.

* * *

Dayton Moore thinks often about the Plaza in the heart of Kansas City. It comforts him. He thinks about the shops and the restaurants and the people who walk around at all hours. He thinks about free parking. He thinks about the fountain with four equestrian figures on the corner of 47th and J.C. Nichols. Those four horses represent four great rivers around the world.

But that's not why the Plaza comforts Royals general manager Dayton Moore.

"Why?" you ask.

"It's something personal," he says.

* * *

Kansas City Royals moment: Spring training, 1999. Royals executives gather around a pitcher named Mike Piechnik. He throws the ball just 75 mph, though it undeniably does dance. He also throws the ball underhanded. He is a Canadian softball pitcher. He has never played baseball before.

"It's a balk," Royals assistant general manager Allard Baird shouts as they watch Piechnik throw. The others discuss this. A balk? Someone looks for a rulebook.

Baird walks away while shaking his head. "It's a balk," he mutters.

* * *

Dayton Moore had it good. He was not yet 40 years old, and he was the No. 2 man for the Atlanta Braves, a team that had reached the playoffs 14 straight years. He was destined to be the Braves next general manager. Everybody knew that.

He did not have to wait for Atlanta. He was a hot property. The Braves, sparked by nine rookies (Dayton's kids!) had won another division championship. The magazine Baseball America called Moore the top general-manager prospect in the game. The Boston Red Sox called him when GM Theo Epstein snuck out of Fenway Park. Arizona also called. Cincinnati, too.

So why was he considering a job with the Kansas City Royals?

Maybe he was being sentimental. Moore grew up a Royals fan. He remembered hot summer evenings in Coldwater, Kan. He sat in the living room with his grandmother, Wynona Marley. She loved the Royals. They kept score together. And together they rushed outside to get the morning paper, and they scoured the Royals box score because the day could not begin until they saw the batting line:

Brett 4 3 3 2.

Maybe it was childhood romance preying on Moore's mind. George Brett was gone. The Royals had become hopeless. Baseball may be a big game, but it's a small world, and Moore had been there on nights when baseball guys played the "What's the worst job in baseball?" fantasy game. The Royals GM job was always a high draft pick.

Still. There was something beyond nostalgia going on. A friend had called and said, "Dayton, unless someone like you takes the Royals job, they have no chance in the world."

Moore had ended the conversation right there because he cannot absorb compliments. They make him feel ill at ease. "Who am I?" he asked. He tried to forget it. But in the middle of the night, his friends words seared through him. The Royals did need someone. Dayton Moore sat awake in his comfortable home and his comfortable life, and his mind whirred with ideas for turning around the Royals. And, much to his surprise, by morning Moore realized that he was going to take the job.

* * *

Royals moment: Last game of the season, 2002. The Royals have 99 losses. They have never lost 100 games in a season -- not even in their first year. Before the game, a couple of veteran players beg out of the game. They say they are hurting.

Manager Tony Pena sends out a lineup that includes the unmemorable Kit Pellow, Luis Ordaz and Dusty Wathan. Rookie relievers Ryan Bukvich and Jeremy Hill pitch. The Royals lose 7-3. They lose the 100th game.

"One hundred losses, ninety-nine losses," Pena says. "What's the difference?"

* * *

First thing, Dayton Moore asked his Royals executives to wear jackets and ties on game day. "The Royals," he announced, "are going to be a professional organization."

That was his buzzword. Professional. The first few weeks in Kansas City, he found himself snapping at people. Things weren't professional. Why wasn't this done? That? Why were the scouting reports so thin? Why were there no scouts watching other major-league teams? He looked at the major-league team and saw aging veterans clogging the base paths. He looked in the minors and saw no pitching. More than anything, he saw baseball people -- good baseball people -- who were not sure.

"We're going to expect positive things," he barked. Doubt was outlawed. Excuses were banned. "If there's someone who does not believe 100 percent that we are going to win a championship," he said, "then they will not work for the Kansas City Royals." One day, he saw an ESPN announcer make a mocking comment about the Royals. Moore made a note to send that guy a bouquet when the Royals won the division. He meant "When."

"If," he said, "is not a word we use around here."

Moore hardly recognized himself. "I don't think I was rude," he would say. "But close enough." He could not keep up with his feelings. Moore had never intended to become a general manager. He grew up obsessed with playing baseball. He was an all-out, gut-busting ballplayer at Garden City Community College, then at George Mason. Until the very last minute -- until he went undrafted for the final time -- he still expected to play in the big leagues. Reality slapped him. He became a coach at George Mason. He loved it. The Atlanta Braves asked him to scout. He loved it.

Then the Braves asked him to come to Atlanta and work in the office. It was a spectacular break, one young scouts dream about. He said no. The phone rang an hour later -- it was Roy Clark, the Braves director of scouting.

"Hello," Moore answered.

"You're an idiot," Clark said.

"Why am I an idiot? I like what I m doing. That makes me an idiot?"

"No," Clark said. "You have a chance to work with some of the best people who have ever run a baseball team and you said no. That makes you an idiot."

He went to Atlanta. Immediately, people realized Moore had the gift. He was smart, aggressive, organized and he had terrific baseball instincts. People also liked working with him. He took charge of the Atlanta international scouting department, and in time he was the head of Atlanta's scouting and player development. He built a reputation. Still, he did not think of becoming a general manager.

"I know it sounds strange," he would say. "But I was happy."

Moore expected to be one of those mysterious baseball people who dedicate their lives to the game and only get their names in the paper on the day they retire.

Then, teams started calling. The Royals job came open. "I m not complaining," he said. "I signed up for this. I m excited about this." But in those early days his patience cracked easily. He could not sleep. Moore walked the Plaza at night. That made him feel better.

* * *

Royals moment: September 2005. The Royals have already lost 19 games in a row. Pe a quit after a game.

A pop-up skies high in a meaningless Tuesday night game. Left fielder Terrence Long and center fielder Chip Ambres settle under it, look at each other and jog toward the dugout. The ball plops behind them.

"Someone needs to put this team out of its misery," a former Royals player says.

* * *

Dayton Moore is as old fashioned as those pillow mitts fielders wore in the 1930s. That's something people miss about him. He looks cutting edge in his crisp suits. He tries new things -- complicated statistics, computer analysis, new approaches. He carries a Blackberry.

But at his core, Moore still believes baseball comes down to character. It's just what he believed when he was a kid who, on rainy days, set up bases in his garage and cracked tennis balls off the walls and lawnmowers.

"I would not hire someone unless I believed in his character," he said. "I would not draft or sign anyone unless I believed in his character. I learned that lesson a long time ago. We will have a team Kansas City can be proud of, I promise you that."

If you ask Dayton Moore what his No. 1 quality for a baseball employee is, he will say: "Someone who doesn't sugarcoat things." He wants honesty. He wants accountability. He wants people who love their work and give all they have. This might explain the close relationship he has built with manager Buddy Bell. Many people felt sure Bell would be fired shortly after Moore arrived. But Moore expects five things from his manager:

1. Communicate with the front office.
2. Earn the players respect.
3. Keep players focused for 162 games.
4. Keep players motivated for 162 games.
5. Keep politics out of the clubhouse.

"You ll notice there's nothing in there about strategy," he said. "I think manager strategy is the most overrated aspect of the game. It's up to the players to produce. People are going to blame Buddy Bell because Ambiorix Burgos blows a game in the ninth? Come on. Blame us for rushing Burgos. Blame us for not giving Buddy better options. Blame Burgos himself for not getting the job done. But that's the not the manager.

"Sure, I like Buddy. He has the respect of his players. They play hard. As long as that happens, I don't second-guess the manager. It's a dictatorship in the clubhouse, and the manager is the dictator. That's Buddy's clubhouse. I was taught a long time ago: Hire good people and let them do their jobs."

This is Moore's reputation. In Atlanta, people loved working for him because he did not look over anybody's shoulder. Gene Watson was a scout for Atlanta, and he was in Venezuela. He saw a young pitcher throwing 93 mph with good sink. It was late at night, and he calledMoore at home and gave an enthusiastic scouting report.

Moore said just two words: "Sign him."

Watson recently left the Florida Marlins to come work for Moore and the Royals.

"He's one of those incredible people who you know will be successful," Watson said. "We're going to win in Kansas City. And I just want to be a part of it."

* * *

Royals moment: May 2006. Center fielder Kerry Robinson races back to the wall on a long fly ball in Chicago. He leaps at the fence. He climbs the wall.

The baseball bounces 10 feet in front of him on the warning track.

"Every time it seems like we hit bottom, we go lower," a Royals executive says.

* * *

Some good things did happen after Moore arrived. Mark Teahen emerged for three months as a terrific young hitter. David DeJesus stayed healthy. Pitcher Luke Hudson had some success. Moore traded for a promising first baseman, Ryan Shealy. The Royals signed pitcher Luke Hochevar -- a Scott Boras client. Alex Gordon was chosen as the minor-league player of the year.

The team also played marginally better. This last week, they battle to avoid 100 losses, which is fairly remarkable after the awful start.

"I do feel more at home in the job," he said. Of course, he still finds it odd that he's the general manager of his hometown team. He does sometimes think back to when he was 19 and he still believed he would be a major-league player. He stood outside the fence at Royals Stadium and watched game seven of the 1985 World Series.

“I'm not a comfortable guy," he said. "When things are going badly, I'm uncomfortable. When things are going well, I m even more uncomfortable. But I know: This is where I want to be. This is where I’m supposed to be. We're going to get it done.”

When things begin to overwhelm him, Moore thinks about the Plaza. It grounds him. It inspires him. It reminds him why he came to Kansas City.

"The Plaza?" you ask. "Why?"

"Haven't you figured it out?" he asks back. He shrugs. "On my first day in town, my wife and I were driving through the Plaza. There were people walking everywhere. Kids. Adults. It was great.

"And I turned to Marianne, and I said, This is where we're going to have the parade. "