My neighbor's head was under the hood of his car so I walked over to his driveway and asked him what the problem was.
"Spark plugs," he replied. "I'm changing 'em. The engine's been running rough."
Oh, I said.
Then, without prompting, he said: "What are we going to do about the Royals?"
That seems to be the question on everybody's lips these days, whether their heads are under hoods or in the sand. The Royals are performing like an engine with dirty spark plugs and, unfortunately, manager John Wathan can't smooth the idle by installing new parts.
AS MANAGER of the highest salaried team in major league baseball, Wathan carries the heavy burden of unlimited expectations. That may not be the kiss of death in his case, but that gaunt geezer wearing a dark cloak and carrying a scythe has probably pecked him on the cheek.
"Obviously, with the buildup," relief pitcher Mark Davis, he of the fattest wallet on the club, said a few days ago, mixing metaphors, "people were expecting us to come out of the chute real hot."
Actually, chute-departure temperature pales immeasurably in comparison to speed of exit. Today's rodeo bull that fails to leave the chute in a hurry, for instance, is tomorrow's hamburger, regardless of thermometer readings.
Not that the Royals are chopped sirloin. At least not yet. A baseball season isn't a bull ride. It's a slow boat to a china shop.
Anyway, I think I know why the Royals have been so sluggish. I don't have any concrete evidence, but I suspect it's because they've simply reverted to form.
LAST YEAR the Royals bolted to the fastest April start in club history. KC won 16 games and lost only 8. Only once previously in their 21 years of existence had they come as close to jetting out of the gate during the first month of the season. That was in 1978 when they went 14-5.
Take away the 1989 and 1978 seasons and the Royals' record in April is 175-166. That's pretty ordinary.
How significant is a fast start? Well, that 16-8 beginning carried KC to a 92-70 overall record in '89, but the Royals still finished seven games behind the champion Oakland A's.
Everything is relative. For example, in 1985, the year the Royals won their only World Series, they won 11 of their 19 games in April. That's five fewer wins than '89, yet they wound up with a 91-71 record in '85.
Kansas City teams have 11 winning, nine losing and one .500 record during April since the Royals were born in 1969. Of those nine losing records in April, six were harbingers of a losing season.
THREE TIMES, however, the Royals bounced back from sub-par Aprils. In '84, KC was 8-11 in April, but won the AL West with an 84-78 mark. Same thing in '76 when KC was 5-7 in April, but 90-72 at the end of September. In '87, KC went 9-10 in April, wound up 83-79 and in second place in the division.
Even the best team in Royals history the '77 club that sprinted to a 102-60 record posted a pedestrian 11-8 April showing.
But enough discussion of digits. Numbers may suggest that a slow start doesn't necessarily portend doom, but they certainly don't guarantee that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't actually a lantern at the bottom of the mine shaft.
TO THE Royals, April 1990 has been one long Earth Day. They haven't wasted any pitches, they've conserved their hits and they've been recycling their errors.
In so doing, today's Royals have performed like my neighbor's discarded spark plugs.