But when Grimsley walked Frank Thomas -- the first batter he faced -- on four pitches, it all came flooding back. This was the villain who had wanted to go out on strike last year, the creep who had tipped his cap at a livid crowd that was calling for his head. Now he was threatening to squander starter Runelvys Hernandez's six shutout innings.
If he blew the team's two-run lead, Grimsley could have lost more than the game. Not only might he become a scapegoat for the immediate future, but countless casual followers might give up on the season, muttering "same old Royals" on their way out the gate. The man known as the Grim Reaper held the team's fate in his hands. The sold-out stadium shook with hostile noise, a thick mix of hearty boos and profane jeers.
Grimsley was once among the team's best-liked players. In 2001, he'd posted the best ERA (3.02) of any Royal since David Cone in 1994, and he ranked third in the league in appearances, solidifying his reputation as a tough guy who would play through injury. He'd struggled through the first half of 2002 -- but so had the rest of the Royals.
As talk of a baseball strike grew serious after last season's All-Star break, though, Grimsley drew increasingly negative attention as the players' union representative. His vocal defense of veteran role players, whom he argued would be squeezed out by the proposed salary cap, didn't sit well with fans who believed that owners were spending baseball into oblivion and greedy players were forcing their hands.
The combustible situation exploded last July, when Grimsley first appeared on Between the Lines, the Kevin Kietzman-hosted midafternoon sports-talk show on WHB 810. Grimsley argued that current players owed their improved working conditions (as well as their bloated salaries) to past union interventions. Kietzman countered that the players' demands would spell the end of baseball in small markets such as Kansas City.
Their sparring crescendoed dramatically when Kietzman claimed that thirty-year-old rookie Aaron Guiel (currently with the Royals' AAA team in Omaha) couldn't possibly be in favor of a strike that would likely snuff his career. Grimsley passed the phone to Guiel, who said, "I've got to see the big picture and educate myself about the issues.... I'm willing to trust [Grimsley].... It's our job to stick together."
Another exchange exemplified the widening gap between the sides. "Salaries aren't going to go backward," Kietzman said. "When do you say we've got it good enough?" Grimsley chuckled in response, more startled than amused. "You think that's funny?" Kietzman retorted. "It's not that simple," Grimsley said.
Later, Between the Lines began airing a snippet-heavy remix of Billy Joel's "Allentown," with samples of Grimsley's incendiary comments spliced in mocking proximity to a steelworker's laments. A few weeks later, Grimsley called the show unsolicited. Kietzman stayed with the call for 45 minutes without commercials.
"I was driving him as crazy as he was driving me," Kietzman tells the Pitch. "He wanted to say his side. At the beginning, it was a little shaky, but the more he talked about it, the better he defended his point of view."