Webb: Hosmer, Moose, Cain, Esky, et al, will always be Forever Royal

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The 2015 Kansas City Royals wiped out decades of frustration by defeating the New York Mets in five games for the title.

June 26, 2014. That day is one of a handful that stand out when I think about the Kansas City Royals of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar.

Two days earlier, I watched from the press box as the Royals struggled, as everybody does, against Clayton Kershaw. I was there to interview Davey Lopes, the first-base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers and a Washburn University alumnus, for The Ichabod magazine.

Though my interview was done an hour before the game began, I stayed for the experience and as a reminder of how fortunate I was to cover sports at newspapers for more than a decade. I remember being impressed that nearly 30,000 people attended a game at Kauffman Stadium in late June.

A couple of days later, I went straight from work to Dick’s Sporting Goods in Leawood to buy a basketball for my daughter, who mentioned earlier in the week that she wanted to learn how to play basketball.

Rushing to the checkout line, I did a double-take as a looked to my right. Is that? Wait … Dayton Moore? What in the world is he doing at a Dick’s Sporting Goods?

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A decade after inheriting a mess, Dayton Moore has built one of the classiest organizations in baseball.

After hesitating, I approached Moore as he neared the checkout line. “Excuse me, are you Dayton Moore?” Obviously, I knew the answer. He hesitated, almost as if he was afraid to be approached by somebody during a recent Royals slump. “Yes, yes I am.”

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will be surprised by what I said next. “I just wanted to tell you thanks for bringing winning baseball back to Kansas City. I know you’re a busy man, so I’m going to get out of your way.”

Moore reached out his hand to shake mine, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, “Thank you. I really appreciate that.” It was as if he needed to hear it.

After interviewing a number of athletes, coaches and sports executives during my career in newspapers, I knew the vast majority of them typically don’t want to hang around and chat. But as I started to walk away, Moore held firm his handshake and asked me what my name was.

We spoke for about five minutes. He stopped short of apologizing for the recent slump, though I could tell it bothered him. I wondered how many times in the past several years he had a conversation with fans that was far less complimentary.

The other thing I remember about that conversation is that after learning I was there to buy a basketball for my daughter, he brought his son over and introduced him. Same firm handshake and steady eye contact.

Since that point, I’ve been a huge Dayton Moore fan.

END OF THE DROUGHT

Three months later, as I walked the sideline at a high school football game in northeast Kansas, I tried to check the score of the Royals-White Sox game on my phone. The reception in Waverly wasn’t cooperating, but the public address announcer provided updates throughout the evening.

With each update, in the midst of a competitive game between two good teams, the crowd erupted. The loudest applause came at 9:51 p.m.: “Final score: Royals 3, White Sox 1.” For the first time in 29 years, Kansas City was in the playoffs.

The following Monday, I spent an hour at work trying to get into the portal for playoff tickets. When I finally did, I had two choices: Purchase tickets for the Wild-Card game or Game 3 of the American League Division Series.

Knowing my work schedule was hectic that week, I opted for the ALDS, even though there was no guarantee the Royals would be there. Three years later, I still kick myself for not picking the Wild-Card game.

As my wife and I settled in at home on Sept. 30 for the Wild-Card game against Oakland, I was as nervous as I’ve been in years. Nerves became anger when manager Ned Yost replaced James Shields with Yordano Ventura in the sixth inning of a game the Royals led 3-2.

By the end of the inning, my blood pressure was through the roof and face bright red as I screamed at the TV that Yost had to be fired as soon as the game ended.

My wife opted for bed not long after that, kissing my forehead and whispering, “I’m sorry, honey” in the seventh inning. I decided to stay up, though I changed the channel and followed the rest of the game on Twitter.

What unfolded in the eighth, ninth and 12th innings also rank among my favorite memories of The Core. I’ll never forget hitting the refresh button to see fellow Royals fans post updates full of exclamation points as Billy Butler ripped a single into right field to cut the lead to two and Hosmer scored on a wild pitch.

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Salvador Perez’s 12th-inning single during the 2014 Wild-Card game ignited the Royals run in 2014-15.

I didn’t see Jarrod Dyson’s stolen base in the ninth inning, not live anyway. I switched it back to that channel after reading what happened on Twitter. I didn’t see Hosmer’s triple live. I did catch Christian Colon’s single and stolen base, but missed Salvador Perez’s game-winner. What I did see was the entire dugout pouring on the field in a sea of blue when I switched channels for the 100th time that night.

In the meantime, I woke up my wife twice, first when Nori Aoki tied the game, and again on Salvy’s hit.

A couple of days later, I woke her up again with a loud scream on Hosmer’s blast in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the ALDS. I had a 5K the next morning, got about three hours of sleep and ran my personal best, partly because the adrenaline from the previous night served as fuel.

FROM OUT OF NOWHERE IN 2014

The rest of that postseason is a blur. My wife and I attended Game 3 of the ALDS. I’m always going to remember jumping for joy on Alex Gordon’s two-out, three-run double in the first inning. “I’ve never seen you like this!” she said. “You’re just like a kid again!”

This team often made me feel like a kid again, when I’d hit rocks in the driveway, complete with personal play-by-play of walk-off homers in the World Series.

Other memories of the 2014 postseason:

  • Calling Gordon’s go-ahead home run in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Twitter (1 out of 100 ain’t bad).
  • Cain’s circus catches in the ALDS and ALCS.
  • Moose’s homers and incredible catch in ALCS Game 3, which I attended thanks to a friend.
  • Escobar’s double in the ninth inning of ALCS Game 2.
  • Following ALCS Game 4 on my phone during a grad school class and tearing up when the Royals won.
  • Ventura carving up the Giants in Game 1 and Game 6 of the World Series.

Above all, I’m going to remember the enormous pride I felt in this team, even as they lost Game 7 to the San Francisco Giants.

FINALLY, THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

The Royals were so good during the regular season in 2015 that I don’t count any regular season games among favorite memories, though Johnny Cueto’s first start at the K, a shutout, was electric.

The lasting memory of the ALDS against Houston will always be the eighth inning of Game 4. I’d just returned to my desk from a workout during lunch with the Royals trailing 6-2. As had become superstition, I wasn’t watching or listening to the game. I resorted to refreshing mlb.com and Twitter for updates.

I didn’t get too excited until Hosmer’s single made it 6-4 and had to contain myself when I saw the 6-6 on mlb.com after refreshing the page. Two days later, the iconic moment was Kendrys Morales’ three-run blast in the eighth to put the Astros away.

My wife and I went to Game 1 of the ALCS, a night we’ll remember because of Edinson Volquez’s gutty performance. The next day, I spent most of my afternoon yelling at the TV as the Royals rallied for five runs in the seventh inning.

Game 6 on Oct. 23 brought a range of emotions, from being absolutely furious at Yost for allowing Ryan Madson to pitch to Jose Bautista to pure joy on Cain’s mad dash from first to home on Hosmer’s clutch single and Wade Davis’s ice-cold comeback from second and third and nobody out in the ninth.

Four days later, I woke my wife up again when Gordon homered off Jeurys Familia in the ninth inning to tie the game, and once again when Hosmer won it with a sacrifice fly in the 14th.

What I’m always going to remember about this team is the way they ALWAYS came back. In Game 4, they jumped all over Daniel Murphy’s error, scored three runs and took a 3-1 lead in the series.

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No play exemplified the 2015 Royals more than Eric Hosmer’s dash to the play to tie Game 5 in the ninth.

The next night, after being dominated by Matt Harvey, they did what they do, obliterating another deficit with enviable resolve and Hosmer’s brazen sprint home. Three innings later, Colon, who barely played, broke New York’s heart with the go-ahead single. Escobar and Cain put the Mets away with a run-scoring double and three-run double.

And, of course, perhaps the best memory: Davis striking out Wilmer Flores to win it all as my wife and I hugged and celebrated. I’m always going to remember my dad calling me after every out in the bottom of the 12th inning. We shared the World Series when I was 9 in 1985 and again when I was 39 in 2015.

A BASEBALL TOWN AGAIN

Perhaps the most telling moment with this group didn’t involve The Core. I’m never going to forget waking up on a cold January morning, grabbing my phone and seeing that Ventura died in a car accident.

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RIP, Ace.

As I gathered my thoughts and tried to make sense of it, I tried to keep it together. I walked down the stairs to tell my wife, and as I started to speak, began to sob. I cried for hours that day, as if I’d lost a member of the family.

And that’s what I’m going to remember most about these guys. They’re family. They grew up with us. They’ve had some lows. But, my goodness, have they had some highs.

There will be never be another team like this. They Royals will win another World Series in my lifetime, maybe several, but none will be as special as the one in 2015. This group made Kansas City a baseball town again. Forever Royal. Thank you, fellas.

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Webb: A story about ‘Tommy’ would have packed a punch

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Tommy Morrison, right, won the world heavyweight title at age 24 in 1993 by winning a decision against George Foreman. Three years later, he was diagnosed with HIV. He died in 2013 at age 44.

Every now and again, I’ll see a game on TV or read a story in a newspaper that reminds me how fortunate I was to work in sports journalism for more than a decade. That was the case Wednesday night as my wife and I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Tommy Morrison, “Tommy.”

In the middle of my career in newspapers, I worked at the Topeka Capital-Journal, the paper I grew up reading and dreamed of writing a column for someday. After three years of working on the sports copy desk, that dream came true when Mark Nusbaum, the publisher, gave several of us a great opportunity.

Nusbaum, now the president of Times-Union Media, took a bit of risk, developing a team to work on a project those of us at the paper referred to as Page 2. It entailed edgy copy every day on the second page of the news and sports sections. We rarely used canned content, often scrambling on the day of breaking news to develop alternative story forms.

I was in charge of the sports page, working with longtime sports writer Rick Dean, who supplied a column five days a week. I was lucky enough to have a column on Saturdays, checking an item off the bucket list.

In hindsight, there are many things I’d do differently. Namely, I wouldn’t hesitate, fully embracing the directive the publisher gave us. A few times, I held off running a story that I’d have no problem writing now. It’s easy to overcome fear after seven years away from newspapers.

Watching the inspiring, yet sad tale of Morrison, who rose to world champion in his early 20s and died at age 44, was another reminder of a story I should have written.

One of the wonderful things about the Page 2 project was that Nusbaum and longtime editor Pete Goering gave the staff the freedom to cover just about anything we wanted to, as long as it had local ties. One week, I’d travel with Kansas State beat reporter Tim Bisel, now the sports editor, to Columbia, Missouri, for a football game, the next I’d climb in a van with a group of high school football officials for a behind-the-scenes story.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I covered during my 14 months on the Page 2 project was local boxing. Though none of the pugilists I covered were considered world class, a couple of them had moments in the spotlight.

Most of the boxers had nicknames you might find on a video game like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, including Donny “The Savage” McCrary, whose 15 minutes was a short run on ESPN’s “The Contender,” hosted by Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard.

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Damon Reed

The most “famous” of the pugilists was Damon Reed, a Topekan who understood and mastered the hype game while making a career out of hammering nobodies into submission before home crowds. Reed has done well enough that he’s squared off against the likes of Hasim Rahman, James Toney and current heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.

Note that I said “has done.” Now 45, Reed fought as recently as June 2016.

Reed became the go-to for boxing news as I dove into covering the sport. Partly because he was always good for a quote, and partly because he had the wild dream of fighting Morrison, despite the fact that Morrison was diagnosed with HIV more than a decade earlier.

“Hell yes, I’d fight him,” Reed said, adding that the payday would be worth the risk. “But if he started bleeding, I’d have to kick him in the balls and get disqualified.”

Reed always had a way with words.

He mentioned several times that he’d spoke with Morrison’s handlers about the fight. Naturally, I saw a great story, both in Reed’s involvement and in Morrison’s potential return to boxing despite having HIV.

Thus began several months of research, calling sources such as Pete Susens with Bob Arum’s Top Rank boxing and a former attorney disowned by Morrison and his fiancée. Talking with Susens was like what I always imagined talking to a Joe Pesci character would be. Talking to the attorney was intriguing because he claimed to have Morrison’s HIV test results. The latter was relevant because Morrison denied he had HIV right up to his death in 2013.

After weeks of attempting to track down Morrison, I finally got an interview in the summer of 2007. It might have been the most enjoyable 60 minutes of my life as an interviewer. Conducted over the phone, Morrison defiantly denied that he ever had HIV, that he was completely healthy and planned on winning the world title game.

His fiancée echoed much of what Morrison said, and added that they were having unprotected sex. By the time I hung up the phone, I thought with a little more work, I might have a feature series. A few days later, I got a package from Morrison’s former attorney. It contained what he claimed were Morrison’s latest HIV test results.

Now I knew I had a good story. Unfortunately, I also had a job offer to move to Virginia a few days later. Instead of taking all that research and information to my next gig, I left it in Topeka. Those notes are long gone. Ten years later, Morrison, sadly, also is gone.

All those memories came back as we watched “Tommy.” Those memories also brought sadness. I remember that phone call with Morrison for its energy and passion. Though clearly in denial, he was funny and bright. Above all, he was hopeful.

There are plenty of personalities in boxing, but there won’t be another Tommy. I wish I’d told his story when I had the chance. It had knockout potential.

Webb: Saying goodbye to my second mom

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My last exchange with Sharon Moon was classic Sharon: A little bit a wicked humor, and a little bit of kindness.

Responding to a Facebook post about the original version of the movie “It” and how the collection of clown figurines she kept in her home scared the hell out of me as a 13-year-old, Sharon jokingly questioned my toughness, then apologized for the display strategically positioned where friends of her son Steve crashed during a sleep-over.

I had no idea that was going to be the last time I interacted with the mother of my best friend. Though I knew she had stage four lung cancer, we all thought she would live several more months. Sadly, she passed about a week after that exchange at age 61.

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Sharon passed away at the age of 61 on Sunday. Survivors include her son Steve and daughters Stacie and Stephanie.

Sharon was like a second mother from the eighth grade on. Steve and I connected almost immediately after my family moved from Lebanon, Missouri, to Burlingame in 1989, and we essentially have been brothers for nearly 30 years now.

As we were growing up, people often called us by each other’s names. Many of our friends in high school referred to our daily comedy routine as the “Steve and Ernie Show.” We found after years of friendship that our lives often mirrored one another (they still do in many ways).

As seniors in high school, we both had car accidents after falling asleep at the wheel. Several years later, we met our first wives in the same month. A few years later, we got married a month apart.

Sharon, of course, was there for all of that. I remember that I never went to her for advice … but she always offered it. Typically, it was in the form of, “Why don’t you think about what you’re doing before you jump into something and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing?”

I’m always going to remember that emphasized hell in her deep Texas twang. It always came with a distinguished cackle. Sharon had a great laugh.

I didn’t know much about Sharon beyond the Mom. She was born in Fort Worth in 1955, married Jimmy Peterson (the father of children Steve, Stephanie and Stacie) and divorced in the early 1980s.

Sharon went to Odessa Permian, which always fascinated me because I’d read “Friday Night Lights” several times. She married Thomas Moon in 1984, and the family moved to Burlingame a few years later.

As fortune would have it, the Webb family moved in 1989 to Burlingame. At the time, that was a miserable experience for a 13-year-old who was comfortable in southwest Missouri. Today, I thank God for that move largely because I ended up meeting Sharon’s son.

Most folks didn’t know a lot about Sharon. Like most, she worked, came home and took care of her family. Before long, that family included me. I probably spent more time at her home than mine. Partly because they had air conditioning, partly because Steve and I were inseparable and partly because Sharon and Jimmy almost always made sure their son had the latest in video games.

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Steve and I at my wedding in 2013. Of course, he was one of my groomsmen.

About a year after my family moved from the back roads into town, Steve and his family moved literally across the street. Like I said, our lives often mirror one another.

One of my lasting memories of Sharon came in 1990 when I made the mistake of ridiculing her son over a baby photo that hung on the wall. Sharon, who barely topped 5-foot, strolled up to me with a menacing smile and telling laugh: “Ernie, that’s my son.”

Needless to say, I never made fun of that photo again.

Into our mid-20s, Steve and I hung out often. Even when I worked in Independence, Kansas, at my first job in newspapers, I drove up every other weekend. Steve and I would meet at the duplex he shared with his mother and drive to Aldersgate, where his mom worked as a medication aide. I insisted on stopping by to see her because she always made me laugh.

Once we were done visiting, Steve and I hit the town for a night of drinking at Bullfrogs, returned home mostly drunk and woke up around noon. Before I left for home, of course, I’d chat with Sharon for a while.

There are plenty of ways to measure a person’s life, but none more telling than somebody’s children. Steve, as he always has been, is one of the finest people I’ve ever met. Her daughters have done quite well and have a combined eight kids. All told, Sharon had 11 grandchildren. She also is survived by her husband Thomas.

Sharon lived a life that most people didn’t know much about. If they knew about the children she raised, though, they’d envy it.

Note: A funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the Burlingame Federate Church. Visitation is from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Carey Funeral Home, where the family will greet friends and relatives from 6 to 8 p.m.

Webb: Bearcats continue to wipe out decades of misery

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Burlingame’s defense held Southern Coffey County to 32 yards, including none through the air, in Friday’s 57-0 win.

Walking up to Southern Coffey County’s football field Friday night brought back memories of the last time I watched a game in LeRoy. That was 13 years ago, and the Titans were the LeRoy Bluejays. They also were a perennial playoff team.

Burlingame was not. In fact, that chilly November night was the first playoff game the Bearcats had played in 13 years. To get there, Burlingame needed a miracle a week after being destroyed at Goessel. That miracle came in the form of Hartford, which upset Goessel to nudge Burlingame into the playoffs.

Back in those days, Burlingame, which finished the season 5-5 after a 48-34 loss to LeRoy, was just thrilled to be there. Fast-forward another 13 years, and the Bearcats have not only dug out of a two-decade hole, but also emerged as a consistent state championship contender.

Despite playing without all-state quarterback Dalton Sporing, who plans to return later this month from a torn ACL suffered in basketball, Burlingame looked like something they hadn’t for years: a bully.

In this case, there’s nothing wrong with that. For years, the Bearcats were on the receiving end of beating after beating, routinely losing to the likes of Madison, Lebo, Waverly and just about everybody else by 50 points.

This year’s senior class was starting kindergarten at the time of many of those beat-downs. They started playing football and basketball together not long after, and it became apparent that the blowout losses would be a distant memory by the time they arrived in high school.

Friday’s game resembled many of the losses Burlingame endured throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Clearly the bigger, faster and more experienced group, the Bearcats smothered and battered Southern Coffey County in a 57-0 rout that ended at halftime.

Filling in for Sporing, junior Montana Giffin answered any questions about the quarterback position immediately, connecting with Jake Thompson on a beautiful over-the-shoulder throw for a 46-yard touchdown two minutes into the game.

Anchored by all-state defensive lineman Tristan Lee, the defense stuffed the Titans on their first play from scrimmage and buried SCC for a 5-yard loss on second down before forcing a punt, which Colton Noonan returned 44 yards for a 14-0 lead.

Five Bearcats scored in the first quarter as Burlingame rolled to a 38-0 lead. It was 51-0 midway through the second quarter after the school’s first successful PAT kick in at least a decade. Noonan’s 1-yard touchdown in the closing seconds wrapped up a first half marred only by Burlingame’s struggles on two-point conversions (1 of 8).

The Bearcats moved up to No. 1 Sunday in the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Eight-Man I rankings. They looked every bit the part in their opening game, the first of what they hope is many Friday Night Lights as they pursue the school’s first state title since 1972.

BURLINGAME 57, SOUTHERN COFFEY COUNTY 0
Burlingame                              38        19        X         X         —          57
Southern Coffey County        0          0          X         X         —          0

BUR – Thompson 46 pass from Giffin (Greenwood run)
BUR – Noonan 44 punt return (Pass failed)
BUR – Noonan 13 run (Pass failed)
BUR – Hovestadt 18 interception return (Run failed)
BUR – Musick 34 pass from Giffin (Run failed)
BUR – Greenwood 17 run (Run failed)
BUR – Greenwood 9 pass from Giffin (Pass failed)
BUR – Noonan 19 pass from Giffin (Caldas kick)
BUR – Noonan 1 run (Kick failed)

GAME IN FIGURES

SCC    BUR
First downs                 3          11
Rushes-yards               24-32   14-128
Passing yards              0          128
Passes                          0-3-1    7-9-0
Fumbles-lost                4-1       1-0
Punts-Avg.                  3-46.0  0-0
Penalties-yards            4-30     2-10

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING – SCC: Gillis 14-52, Leimkuhler 2-(-3), Harvey 1-(-3), Crooks 2-(-4), Edwards 5-(-10). BUR: Greenwood 6-57, Noonan 5-25, Giffin 2-22, Musick 1-18.
PASSING – SCC: Harvey 0-2-1 0, Gillis 0-1-0 0. BUR: Giffin 7-9-0 128.
RECEIVING – SCC: None. BUR: Musick 3-49, Thompson 1-46, Noonan 2-24, Greenwood 1-9.
PUNTING – SCC: Leimkuhler 3-46.0. BUR: None.

Webb: Time to accept end of Royals run

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No player epitomizes the Royals demise in the past two seasons more than Alex Gordon, who has gone from an All-Star to a .211 average and .638 OPS.

Several hours after the Royals flailed their way to a fourth straight loss and 34 innings without scoring a run Sunday, I grabbed my iPhone, tapped on the YouTube app and typed in “2015 World Series Game 1.”

I spent 30 minutes scrolling through various points of that game, from Alcides Escobar’s inside-the-park home run to Alex Gordon’s game-tying homer, to Eric Hosmer’s sacrifice fly to win in the 14th inning.

As Royals fans, we’re always going to have 2015. Flags fly forever.

A day later, as I watch the Royals slog through another game with no heart or emotion, I can’t believe this is the same team that won a World Series less than two years ago.

There are five stages of grief, and we’ve gone through them all in the last week as the Royals of Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain succumb to a slow, mind-numbing death:

Denial: “So, Minor blew a game (again). We’re coming off a Hosmer walkoff and can get right back in it in Cleveland.”

Anger: “How do you not score a frigging run against Ryan Merritt and Mike Clevinger?” Followed by, “Why the hell is Eric Skoglund starting a big game in the major leagues?”

Bargaining: “Eh, Cleveland is white hot, and we’ve still got the Wild-Card. This team will get hot again.”

Depression: “We’re at 40 scoreless innings and counting, including six again Austin Pruitt and his 5.72 ERA. It’s over.”

Acceptance: “Instead of cussing and yelling at the TV, I’m calmly writing this blog and intrigued that the Royals could set the big-league record for consecutive scoreless innings (48).”

I often told myself years ago as the Royals bumbled their way through lost decades that I would never be spoiled if they started winning again. I would appreciate having a team you can take pride in. I failed miserably. I’m spoiled. Watching this team fail sucks.

It’s another good lesson to enjoy success when it’s happening. I should have enjoyed it more when the Royals had a string of miraculous comebacks to win a championship.

The 2016-17 Royals also are a great example of just how hard it is to win like they did in 2014-15. It takes talent. It takes heart. It takes discipline. It takes luck. And it takes strategy.

The latter two have been awful the last two seasons. The heart-breaking death of Yordano Ventura. Injuries to Moustakas, Cain, Gordon and Wade Davis probably cost Kansas City a playoff spot in 2016. That’s terrible luck.

General Manager Dayton Moore’s strategic moves have been nothing short of awful: Signing Gordon to a long-term deal, signing Joakim Soria to any length of deal, signing Travis Wood, trading Davis for Jorge Soler. For every great move he made from 2013-2015, the balance has come due.

But the lack of heart … that hurts. The fans deserve better, especially when we know it’s going to be a long, slow rebuilding process (let’s hope it’s not 30 years this time).

[Prove me wrong again in writing your obit, Royals. I think I’m right this time, though.]

Webb: Home is where the heart was and is

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The vintage arcade 1984 was one of the main reasons we made the trip to Springfield, Missouri, a few weeks ago. The arcade has an array of old-school games like Track & Field.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went on a mini-vacation – more of a trip, really – to Springfield, Missouri. Though we’d been planning the trip for several months, it ended being squeezed between two life-changing events: My departure from Metropolitan Community College and beginning a new job at my alma mater, Washburn University.

We’ve had some memorable vacations, most notably more than a week off to visit San Diego in 2015. The 2017 version of a vacation was as much about taking a break from the grind as it was anything.

I recommended Springfield several months ago for a couple of reasons: 1. To satisfy the nerd in me with a trip to the vintage arcade 1984. 2. To revisit where I grew up: southwest Missouri.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I grew up a borderline hillbilly. Let’s just say one of my parents refers to me as “Ernie Bill” to this day. It was the best way the family came up with to differentiate between three people with the same name: Grandpa, dad and myself (Grandpa, at 6-foot-2, was Big Ernie, dad was Little Ernie and I was Ernie Bill, or E.B.).

Much of my brother and I’s upbringing was in the country. We rarely lived in town until high school. In between periods of living several miles outside of Neosho, Anderson and Lebanon, Missouri, we had a small house in the center of Joplin, on the edge of the large swath the F5 tornado left in 2011.

Though we often lived in the middle of nowhere, we were never bored. When we weren’t traveling across the Heartland with our parents on business trips, we were hunting, fishing and playing any sport we could on large, open pastures. I have fond memories of playing catch with my father, the hours of practice resulting in a pretty good Little League career.

I also remember growing up with good, old-fashioned country folks. These were people who worked hard and played hard. Virtually every weekend, there was a large fish fry, followed by a dance featuring a plethora of beer (for the adults, of course).

That part of our life came to an end in 1989 when mom and dad moved us from Lebanon, where we’d been for five years, to tiny Burlingame, just outside of Topeka. Our parents told us about the move just a few weeks before the end of school. A seventh-grader who was finally comfortable at Lebanon Junior High, I was devastated.

In the years after, I often wondered what my former classmates were up to. Sometimes, I wondered how things would have worked out if we’d stayed. Fortunately, social media has connected most of those dots.

As for my wife and I’s trip back to the homeland, I wanted to see how much the towns have changed in the 20 years since I last visited. As we drove around Lebanon visiting the schools I attended through seventh grade, hundreds of memories crossed through my mind: Little League games at Jones Park, dances at the junior high and the first crush.

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Once a clean, well-manicured property, the land I grew up on resembles a junkyard in 2017.

We drove by both places where my childhood homes sat. Both are gone now, one replaced by a plush new home, the other burned to the ground. The latter plot of land now serves as a dumping ground for dilapidated trailer homes, junked out cars and other trash. Gone are the basketball goal I shot on daily and the tree house my dad spent days building while my mom, brother and I were on vacation in California.

 

The more we drove around, the more I thought, “Things seemed so much bigger then than they are now.” It’s a shame that happens.

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Why wife paying respect to a man she never met, unfortunately. My grandfather, Big Ernie, died in 1984.

My wife and I also visited Anderson, Missouri, where I attended kindergarten and first grade, followed by Joplin (second and third grade). We also visited my grandfather at the local cemetery. As my wife cleared off his headstone, I thought about the day he died in 1984. I was only seven, but I’ll never forget the devastation on my father’s face when he hung up the phone.

 

I realized as we were driving home that the trip was closure for me. In some ways, I never got over leaving Lebanon as a 13-year-old and losing several wonderful friends. But, as I looked over at my wife, I realized I never would have met her if we’d stayed. I wouldn’t have three great kids. I wouldn’t have the amazing best friend I’ve had since eighth grade, nor the hundreds of wonderful friends I met in Burlingame and in Topeka. I wouldn’t have attended Washburn University.

I finally came to the conclusion that going back it always good, but so is coming home.

Forever Ichabod: Washburn has always been home

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wu moves

It’s true: Washburn does move me. Enough so that I’m going back next week.

I spent much of my childhood on the road with my parents, who ran a small leather crafts business. On most weekends, my brother and I would travel with our parents across the Heartland to craft shows throughout the region.

One weekend, my dad and I would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive across Missouri to Hannibal, while mom and my brother would travel into Kansas for a show in Coffeyville. The next weekend, one set would trek to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and the other to Hillsboro, Kansas.

diploma

Both of my degrees, including a master’s, are from Washburn University.

Once in a while, my brother and I would go on a road trip with one parent, while the other worked the show alone. Topeka just happened to be one of the trips.

Every Fourth of July, my mom would drive from our home in Lebanon, Missouri, to Washburn University, where we set up a booth at Go Fourth. The idea, of course, was that the sons would help their mother. More often than not, we weren’t at the booth.

Instead, my brother and I would run around a campus that seemed gigantic to a couple of borderline hillbillies from southwest Missouri. We spent most of the show in the basement of the Memorial Union, which had a small arcade with about 15 games, a TV room and vending machines.

The Union also had an elevator, which we rode up to the top floor from the basement about 6,594 times. When we weren’t in the Union, we hung out around the fountains in front of Mulvane Art Museum or spent much of our time with the Scardinas, who also had a crafts business and lived in Topeka.

The Scardinas’ sons were amazing hosts, taking the hillbillies to the palace known as West Ridge Mall and letting us ignite half of the fireworks they purchased on the Fourth.

Other than growing up a University of Missouri fan, Washburn was my first experience on a college campus. Not in a million years, however, did I imagine how much an impact the school would have on my life.

Even after we moved 20 miles south of Topeka in 1989, Washburn wasn’t on the radar. When I realized that Mizzou and TCU were out of the price range, I ended up going to Kansas State for a year.

Academically, I did OK. Emotionally, I wasn’t ready. K-State was far too big and far too impersonal. It just didn’t feel like home.

After spending a year at Allen County Community College in Burlingame, where I also went to high school, I really had no idea where I was going to go. I did attend a Transfer Day at Washburn in 1996, expecting to enroll.

I didn’t listen well in 1996 (my wife might argue that I still don’t), so I “heard” that Washburn wasn’t going to take most of my credits during a session on transferring (that wasn’t the case). My dad and I left 45 minutes into the event.

Completely lost, I called several schools when we got home, asking primarily if they had a journalism program. After 30 minutes on the phone, I got a call that changed my life. The Admissions director at Washburn discovered we left early and spoke to me for 20 minutes about the Mass Media department and the University.

He asked if I’d come up for a one-on-one tour of the campus the next day. I came to campus early that next morning, met with the director and Mass Media chairperson and enrolled in classes that day.

Two years later, I was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, one of the youngest members of a school board in the state of Kansas and an assistant high school basketball coach. None of that happens if I don’t attend Washburn.

Years later, when I left the newspaper industry, I struggled mightily to find a full-time job. Being a genius, I picked the worst time to change careers: 2010, when the economy rode the struggle bus. After a year of surviving at a part-time job, the Washburn Alumni Association hired me as media relations specialist.

During the next four years, I wrote hundreds of stories about alumni, reconnected with professors I’d had in class and met some of the finest people you can imagine, most of whom shared the bond of graduating from Washburn.

In 2015, I knew if I wanted to climb the ladder, I needed to step out of my comfort zone and take a risk. After several agonizing days trying to make a decision, including a couple of tearful nights, I decided to leave my alma mater to become campus communications coordinator at Metropolitan Community College-Business & Technology.

ernie jeanne

I worked with amazing people at MCC, including Je-Anne Rueckert, an instructor and lab technician in the HVAC department.

For nearly two years at MCC-BT, I tried to learn as much as I possibly could to become a better marketer and communicator. In the meantime, I continued to work toward a master’s degree, which I finally received in May.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that opportunity would knock at Washburn within two years of leaving. But it has. To make a long story short, I’m returning to my alma mater next week as director of strategic marketing and communications.

To say I’m excited would be an understatement. I’m also humbled that a school I love so much would give me such a wonderful opportunity.

Before I go, I want to thank MCC, in particular the staff and faculty who work their tails off to make the college a high-quality academic experience in Kansas City. I can’t possibly name everybody, but folks like Mike, Dan, Steve, Shawn, Ryan, Tracy, Tatia, Dixie, Aaron, Matt, Jen, Star, Lisa, Jim, Robert, Je-Anne and dozens of others have made the experience a great one. Without the knowledge I gained at MCC, I would not be returning to Washburn.

As for my alma mater: Thank you. From Go Fourth to now, thank you for bringing me home.