Five years later, Royals turning corner

Five years later, Royals turning corner

KANSAS CITY -- The story begins with two Minor League baseball players sitting in an airport in New Orleans in June 2004.

John Buck was a Triple-A catcher in the Houston organization who had just been included in a trade for an outfielder from Kansas City named Carlos Beltran.

The other was a Triple-A outfielder with the Omaha Royals named David DeJesus. He had just been called up to replace Beltran.

Buck and DeJesus had sat in the airport and talked. They were heading to the Majors, and they had no idea what was coming.

"We were sitting there together, not sure if we were gonna play." DeJesus said.

The Kansas City Royals will play the Houston Astros on Wednesday, a day that marks the five-year anniversary of the trade that sent franchise cornerstone Carlos Beltran to Houston in exchange for Buck and Oakland Minor Leaguers Mark Teahen and Mike Wood.

The trade signaled the end of one Royals rebuilding phase and the beginning of a new one.

Five years later, Beltran is in New York, starting in center field for the Mets. Wood is no longer with the organization.

There isn't much left around here from the summer of 2004. The Royals have a new general manager, a new manager and a newly renovated stadium.

Starting pitcher Zack Greinke, who made his debut in 2004 at age 20, is the only pitcher left.

But Buck, Teahen and DeJesus are still here -- trying to turn the tide after years of baseball misfortune in Kansas City. The Royals went 58-104 in 2004 and then followed it up with a 106-loss season in 2005 and 100 losses in 2006.

There's a feeling around the clubhouse that those nightmare seasons from a few years ago are over, that the Royals are headed in the right direction.

"Seeing where the team is now, compared to where it was when I got here, it's leaps and bounds better," Buck said.

But then there's the fact that the Royals' promising 18-11 start in 2009 has evaporated into a 29-39 record. The Royals, who have been ravaged by injuries and inconsistency, have gone 11-28 in their last 39 games.

"Obviously, it needs to continue to get better," Buck said.

Buck can tell you exactly where he was when he heard the news. He was in New Orleans, playing for Houston's Triple-A affiliate against the Omaha Royals.

In a blur, Buck was packing his things and heading to the airport. His destination: Kansas City.

Buck saw DeJesus at the airport. They didn't know each other well, but they had played against each other for years in the Minors.

"I didn't realize I'd end up being real good friends with him," Buck said. "I just kind of remember being numb to the whole situation."

Teahen was playing for Triple-A Sacramento in the Athletics' organization when he heard the news.

Teahen would finish out the year with Triple-A Omaha, and make the Royals' Opening Day roster in 2005.

"It was a time of transition and a couple of bad years to start there," Teahen said. "I kind of got thrown into the fire. I kind of had to learn on the fly."

Teahen played in 130 games in 2005. Buck played 118 and DeJesus played in 122.

But they were surrounded by veterans as the Royals tried to piece together a lineup.

"The first couple years, it was like, 'Let's just try to get through the season and learn something along the way,' '' Buck said. "It's changed for the better, but obviously we need to keep getting better."

Buck buzzed about the Royals clubhouse on Sunday before the Royals game against the Cardinals. He's trying to come back after a trip to the disabled list for back spasms.

Mike Jacobs sat at his locker a few feet away. Coco Crisp's locker is in the corner next to Buck's. Billy Butler and Willie Bloomquist played cards at a table a few feet away.

None of these faces were here when Buck showed up in 2004. And for him, that's reason to hope.

"We definitely feel we have the team. We've just been underachieving and not doing things right," Buck said. "Where we were, as far as a pitching staff and a team, you can't argue that we're not better."

Teahen agrees with Buck. There's talent on this team, he says.

"Hopefully, the organization is kind of stabilizing, and there will be more guys here for extended periods of time," Teahen said.

It's been five years since Buck sat in that airport in New Orleans with DeJesus. Five years since the deal changed the lives of Buck, Teahen and DeJesus.

They're still searching for the right combination in Kansas City, and right now, there are no easy answers. But Buck has hope that the organization that wanted him in 2004 is finally headed in the right direction.

"If you're not looking forward in a positive way," Buck said. "In my mind you're defeated."

Rustin Dodd is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.