Every baseball card was sorted into the twenty teams that made up the National and American leagues in 1966. Rubber bands bound teammates together, preventing them from mingling with other teams. Few things upset me more as an 11-year-old than moving Orlando Cepeda from the Giants' stack to the Cardinals' stack after he was traded from San Francisco to St. Louis.
It made no sense that players occasionally changed teams -- especially my team's players. If only baseball players came attached to the home team with rubber bands. The recent trade of Johnny Damon to the Oakland A's kindled memories of Cepeda and that shoebox.
"Unabated joy and glee," is how Jim Rose, a sports talk show host at Kansas City's KMBZ 980, described his emotions upon hearing Damon had been traded for Tampa Bay's 36-year-old closer, Roberto Hernandez. The trade was a rare three-team deal that saw the Royals also acquire two prospects from Oakland: A.J. Hinch, a 26-year-old catching prospect, and Angel Berroa, a 20-year-old shortstop. "This is one of the best trades this organization has ever made," crowed Rose.
Rose was far from the only member of the Kansas City media to celebrate Damon's departure. "This is pretty good if you're a Royals fan. This is Christmas in January," is how WHB 810 baseball guru Steven St. John reacted. "This could be one of the best trades Allard Baird ever made when he looks back on his career," added St. John. The Star's Joe Posnanski proclaimed the deal "a great trade for Kansas City."
Rose, St. John and Posnanski see the trade through the eyes of hardened baseball analysts who understand the economic plight of small-market clubs such as the Royals. They know the Royals wouldn't spend the $12 million a year that Damon likely will garner when he becomes a free agent after this season, so they're happy the Royals could exchange Damon's final season for rights to multiple players.
But what about the Royals fan who has to stand on his tiptoes to reach the top drawer of his mom's broken-down dresser? What about the kids who don't understand revenue sharing, salary caps and arbitration? What does the Royals' decision to trade Johnny Damon mean to these forgotten fans?
"It stinks!" says a distraught Ryan Revoir, a fourth-grader at Tomahawk Elementary in Overland Park. "(Damon) was a fan favorite," he adds, sounding far older in baseball years than his 10-year-old frame suggests. "I think they're gonna lose a bunch of their fans because of it."
David Dupont, a classmate of Ryan's, also gives the Damon trade a thumbs down. "When the Royals play the A's, I'll still root for the Royals -- until Johnny gets up," explains a chagrined David.
Chris Nugent, a sturdily built 11-year-old fifth-grader at Mission Trail Elementary in Leawood, grips the handle of an aluminum bat and lines pitch after pitch back at the netting inside the indoor batting cage at Mac-N-Seitz Baseball in Lenexa. Outside, the January snow surrounds the parking lot in chest-high piles, but the sounds of summer ricochet all around Chris.
"All of my friends are really mad because they didn't want him to leave. They don't like it at all," Chris says later, sitting on the concrete step outside the batting cage. He picks at a blister that sprang from his right thumb after his last trip through the cage. "I didn't want him to leave, because he was good in front of the batting order."
Alyssa Passmore, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Harmony Middle School in Overland Park, stands in a circle with her friends, warming up for their soccer match. She eagerly volunteers to leave the pregame circle to discuss the Damon trade. "It's all right," Alyssa smiles as she explains about missing the passing drills. "I'm the goalie."
Alyssa is not happy about the trade of one of her favorite players. "I don't think it's very good," she says. "He was the Royals' best player!" Asked how she found out about the trade, Alyssa explains that her brother informed her of it at school that day. "He was mad!" adds Alyssa.
Thomas Stanton stands in line at the water fountain between periods of his soccer match. He waits patiently for his turn to drink. The 13-year-old says he read about the Damon trade in the morning paper. "It's pretty stupid," says Thomas. "He's one of our best hitters." The nine boys in line for a drink nod their heads in agreement. Not one recognizes Roberto Hernandez's name.
At least one of the young Royals fans is as confused as he is upset about losing Damon to Oakland. "Yeah, I saw it on the news," complains a 9-year-old third-grader at Cottonwood Point Elementary in Overland Park whose name is mercifully withheld. "He got traded for some player on the Rams."
The good news for the Royals is that Johnny Damon is very well known among the youth of Kansas City. The bad news is that he's gone and will leave the Royals with a Hernandez-sized hole in their marketing plan. Mike Sweeney, the Royals' hard-hitting first baseman and all-around good guy, is already being prepped as the next Johnny Damon. But how soon before Sweeney's salary becomes more than David Glass' Royals can afford and he too is traded away for a 36-year-old solution?
Hernandez's heater may be just what Tony Muser's bullpen needs so that Royals' fans will have something to cheer about in August and September. Many baseball experts believe it is. The Royals sure hope so because they may have just gambled their future fanbase on it.