Right-handed pitcher Gil Meche's decision to retire -- and leave an astonishing sum of money in the Royals' treasury -- cannot be discussed without mention of former manager Trey Hillman.
Meche, of course, was never the same after Hillman allowed him to run up shoulder-shredding pitch counts in consecutive starts in the middle of the meaningless 2009 season. Royals Authority blogger Craig Brown put Hillman's face on a wanted poster ("crimes against pitching") in the wake of the news that Meche was stepping away from the game, his baseball-throwing parts useless after 10 big-league seasons.
Hillman took a lot of abuse from fans while he was managing the team. But in some ways, he's like that girlfriend whose true awfulness is not fully revealed until she's been out of your life for three months or two years. One day you're walking down the aisle of a drugstore, and the relationship bobs to the surface, like an object that's come unattached from the seafloor. You stagger into the Tylenol.
It's not the cheating or the hurtful things she said that stab you. You've cheated. You've been cruel. What stops you is the fact that the relationship lasted as long as it did. "Being with you makes me unhappy" -- why were those words so hard to say?
Royals general manager Dayton Moore screwed up when he hired Hillman, who had never played or coached in the major leagues. But you could understand Moore's thinking. Hillman was different, having gone to manage (successfully) in Japan at age 40. The organization, which had grown accustomed to losing, needed different.
Hillman, alas, turned out to be a fool. In his first spring training, he dressed down his players on the field, a move that betrayed his narcissism and insecurity. Jose Guillen, a notoriously difficult player to handle, walked all over him. Hillman acted pissy around reporters and let hecklers get to him. He was uptight but not rigorous, self-conscious but not self-aware. His on-field decisions were often mystifying.
In short, he sucked.
Pitchers get hurt all the time. But Hillman's unwillingness to manage* Meche's workload was negligence, an offense calling for his firing. Moore was too vain to admit that the Hillman experiment had been a mistake, however; he couldn't find the courage to say, "Being with you makes me unhappy." Ultimately, team owner David Glass ordered an end to the relationship, 35 games into the 2010 season.
* The word is in your freaking job title!
Hillman has caught on with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's going to be a bench coach for Don Mattingly, the team's new manager. Hillman has attained the status of "baseball man," as empty a phrase as there is in sports.
As for Royals fans, the daze and anger they're feeling is not about Meche's inability to pitch. In truth, the Royals are in better shape today than they were on Monday. At best, Meche was going to help a bad team avoid losing 100 games before his contract expired. Even if the Royals put only a fraction of his $12 million salary to good use, the organization comes out ahead.
No, the pain comes from the idea that a team Kansas City supports with its passion and tax dollars was left in the trust of an incompetent for so long.