Caring about sports in Kansas City mostly means being open to the metaphorical punch to the face. We know Lin Elliott and Elvis Grbac, Yuniesky Betancourt and David Glass, Tyus Edney and the Paige Arena, VCU and a ticket scandal, Ron Prince and a secret buyout.
Caring about sports in Kansas City mostly means thinking to yourself, “Damn, that sucks,” at least a few times a year.
So, even at the risk of doing a great big ol’ jinx, it sure feels like that’s about to change.
Think about it. The Chiefs were mostly miserable last season, but they return a promising core of players and a front office that has rare motivation and an unprecedented league mandate to spend on players. The Royals are unveiling a historical collection of young talent. Kansas has a highly rated basketball recruiting class and famous new football coach, K-State has Bill Snyder’s magic back and Missouri has the SEC.
In other words, this should be the most interesting sports year in quite some time. That becomes even clearer the closer you look at the 10 people who will shape Kansas City sports the most this year.
Title: Royals first baseman, owner of the area’s most carefully groomed beard
Why he’s important in 2012: The centerpiece — and most talented piece — of one of the greatest waves of young talent of any team in recent baseball history. He hit an absurd .439 in the minors last year, limiting an entire fan base’s need for Viagra, forcing a debut in Kansas City and, inevitably, the Hosmer Facts. Example: Hoz doesn’t flush the toilet. He scares the shit out of it.
What will happen: Stardom. There is no other way for this story to end. He is athletic, strong, smooth, blessed with the kind of swing that leaves nothing for pitchers to exploit. The Royals have six years before Hosmer signs a nine-figure contract somewhere else. They better make use of it.
Title: Center forward, unofficial face of Sporting KC
Why he’s important in 2012: No disrespect to C.J. Sapong or Graham Zusi, but Bunbury is the most talented player on a franchise that simply must keep last year’s momentum going or risk losing it forever. He also has the natural ability to play in Europe at some point, so his 2012 might be the most critical of any player’s on the roster.
What will happen: Bunbury will be the most dangerous player on the field as long as he’s on the field — and he’s into it. Sporting went through a massive roster facelift but is still loaded enough to be the Eastern Conference favorite. They’ll live up to it, if Bunbury does his thing.
Title: Royals left-hander and the only true potential ace in the organization
Twitter: None, which is a shame, because his would be awesome.
Why he’s important in 2012: The Royals have their best chance to win — now and into the future — in years. Their only glaring hole is at the top of the rotation, which just so happens to be what many scouts believe Montgomery can become.
What will happen: He’ll tease, at least for one more year. Montgomery had a mostly miserable 2010 (5.32 ERA, walks went up, strikeouts down), but he was still young for Class AAA and still has an explosive fastball-slider combination. He just won’t be ready this year.
Title: New Kansas football coach
Twitter: Nothing official, but @FakeChuckWeisis worth a look.
Why he’s important in 2012: Kansas is essentially doubling down on a historically bad $10 million contract for Turner Gill (good looking out, Lew Perkins) with $12.5 million for Weis. Basketball will always be king at Kansas, but in the bigger and fast-changing world of college sports, hoops is basically a nice car stereo: cool to have, but mostly useless if the transmission doesn’t work.
What will happen: Nothing definitive. KU will be better, mostly because it can’t get worse, and the signings of two former blue chip quarterbacks (Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps) have built optimism. But Weis’ failings have never been in delivering the sizzle. He’ll need to make at least a couple of bowl games for fans to believe he’s motivated beyond the money.
Title: Football coach and most important man in Kansas State history
Twitter: @CoachBillSnyder, though it’s exactly as interesting as you’d imagine.
Why he’s important in 2012: K-State won 10 games this year for the eighth time in school history (all under Snyder, of course). He has mostly the same team coming back next year, so winning what should be a weaker Big 12 and pushing Collin Klein into the Heisman race are perfectly plausible.
What will happen: Big success, because that’s what happens with the old man. Depending on Texas’ quarterback situation, K-State should challenge Oklahoma for the league title and a BCS bowl.
Title: Missouri quarterback
Twitter: @jfranktank1, though it’s private.
Why he’s important in 2012: Mizzou mostly went how Franklin went last season, and joining the SEC means this is perhaps MU’s most critical football season ever. Missouri’s best seasons under Gary Pinkel have been about the quarterback, and that’s especially true in a conference that plays defense like no other.
What will happen: Enough to reinforce Missouri’s confidence in joining the SEC, but not enough to keep rivals (hello, Jayhawks!) from cracking jokes. Alabama comes to Columbia, for instance, bringing a load of future millionaire, quarterback-killing defenders on the charter.
Title: Chiefs safety and quite possibly their most important player over the next decade
Why he’s important in 2012: Tamba Hali is the most talented player the Chiefs have on defense, but Berry may be the most critical. When he tore his knee early in the season opener, the Chiefs had to revise nearly everything they do. As a rookie, Berry got caught on a couple of long touchdown passes but mostly provided tremendous security for the cornerbacks and much-needed support for the linebackers.
What will happen: Smiles for Chiefs fans, bruises for opposing receivers. Berry relies more on smarts and positioning than Jamaal Charles (whose primary gift is freakish quicks and explosion), so his transition to a post-surgery career should be smoother. The Chiefs were wildly inconsistent this season, surely missing the steady presence of a man already among the locker room’s most respected.
Title: Chiefs general manager, prospective hoarder of the Right 53
Twitter: Yeah, right. This would require him communicating with people.
Why he’s important in 2012: Because as long as Clark Hunt has him in charge of players and coaches, Pioli is effectively in charge of the one thing Kansas City cares about more than anything else.
What will happen: A fascinating debate about a man who has become an instant argument around much of Kansas City. The Chiefs will be much improved next year, giving the apologists reason to believe. But they’ll almost surely still lack a good offensive line and franchise quarterback, giving the haters reason to curse. We’ll have one more year of pretending Matt Cassel can do it, then a bold move for a replacement to salvage what’s still a promising core.
Title: Chiefs star running back who finished this season with two games and one knee surgery
Why he’s important in 2012: The Chiefs led the league in rushing last year. They rank 15th this year (and 27th in yards per rush). The departure of Brian Waters is part of that fall, but Charles — depending on which version of Chris Johnson is playing — is among the very best game-breaking backs in the NFL. You know, just so long as that ACL is fully healed.
What will happen: He’ll be back, mostly. Charles is one of the Chiefs’ hardest workers, and technology being what it is, he should be able to make a virtually full recovery. But with this offensive line, Charles won’t be any safer.
Title: Five-star Kansas basketball signee
Why he’s important in 2012: Perhaps the most highly recruited Kansan since Wayne Simien, and coach Bill Self thinks that’s a good comparison for expected impact. He’s also a 4.0 student and volunteers at a Wichita children’s home. Basically, he’s the recruit coaches would create in a lab if they could.
What will happen: Stardom. There’s no reason to believe otherwise, and, assuming Thomas Robinson goes pro, next year’s roster sets up for Ellis to be KU’s most important freshman since Brandon Rush led the ‘06 conference co-champs in scoring.