Opinion: Baseball is Fun Again In Kansas City


I remember my first Kansas City Royals game. I was 11 years old old and the hated Yankees were in town. The pitching match up featured two men who would eventually become team legends and two Hall-of-Famers were in the line-up that night.

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I remember a lot about the game, including that the Royals won the game 7-4, and that a light hitting second baseman tried to bunt on the first pitch of his at bat, then hit a home run. I remember my dad predicting the homer after the failed bunt attempt, and I recall looking at the score board and seeing Frank White only had 2 home runs on the season and doubting he would hit one at that point. I remember my excitement as the near capacity crowd went nuts when the ball crept over the fence.

I knew the year but I didn’t remember the the exact date. Thanks to the wealth of information at our fingertips, I now know it was July 15, 1977. Paul Splittorff beat Ron Guidry that night, and I got a first look at players I had only read about in the newspapers and seen occasionally on TV.

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It was the early stages of the hay days for the Royals and the line-up was filled with guys like George Brett (who led off, by the way), Hal McRae, Amos Otis, Al Cowens, John Mayberry, White, little Freddie Patek, and Darrel Porter. One guy I don’t recall at all, even though he played parts of 3 seasons with Kansas City, was a rookie name Joe Zdeb, who was hitting at .342 at the time, according to the box score.

Any kid who loved baseball at that time knew who the Yankees were – Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles (still the reason I have trouble with the names Craig and Greg), Mickey Rivers, Sweet Lou Piniella, Chris Chambliss, Roy White, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent, and the late Thurman Munson. Boy, it was easy the loathe those guys as a Royal fan.

The purpose to this stroll down memory lane was that I grew up in the glory days of the Royals. The Royals were one of the winningest teams in baseball from 1975-1985 and I remember just how fun baseball was. It was ingrained into my personality. Even after the the World Series in 1985, the Royals still had several years of George Brett and Frank White. Of Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza. Eventually, of Bo Jackson.

Then, a couple of things happened. First, in December of 1991, 4 months after he threw a no-hitter (which I saw in person), the Royals traded Bret Saberhagen to the New York Mets. I remember sitting in front of my television, watching in disbelief as they announced it on ESPN. I was furious. I’m still mad!

The second thing that happened was that Ewing Kauffman, the beloved owner of the Royals, died in August 1993. Since these two things occurred, it has seemed as if the Royals were falling down and no one was going to pick them up. And no one has. Since Mr. Kauffman died in 1993, the Royals have had exactly 3 winning season – 1993, 1994, and 2003.

The team I grew up with, the team that averaged 90 wins a season from 1975-1985 (discounting the 1981 strike shortened season in which Kansas City went 50-53), the team I loved, has become one of the worst franchises in all of professional sports.

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If you throw out the Royals first two years in existence (1969, 1970), from 1971 through the season of Mr. Kauffman’s passing, 1993, the Royals had a total of seven seasons under .500, including 1981. Throw in the first two expansion seasons, and the Kansas City Royals only had 9 losing seasons in their first 25 years of existence.

In the 19 subsequent seasons, the post-Kauffman era, the Royals have 16 seasons under .500.

Enough with the memories of the good old days and the history lessons. It is now 2013. And for the first time in a long time, the Kansas City Royals are relevant mid way through August.

For the past month, baseball has been really fun again.

I am the kind of fan who watches at least part of nearly every Kansas City broadcast, much to my wife’s chagrin. I watch them every day now, and I watched them every day since they went to the extended number of broadcasts several ago. I would moan and groan during every poor play and losing streak, and would be happy and hopefully at every winning streak, no matter how brief.

Every spring, I would hope this would be the year. That it was the Royals’ year for everything to go right. It had to happen sometime, right? In 2003, the Royals shocked the baseball world by starting off 9-0, then they spent the rest of the season just trying to hold on. The offense was potent that season but the pitching was not good. The team ERA was 5.05 (that is not a typo) and the WHIP was 1.484. They ranked 4th in the league in runs scored and 12th in runs allowed.

Eventually, the Royals faded late and finished 83-79. That was the only time since 1994 the Royals have finished over .500.

This season has been a roller coaster ride. The Royals were the Cactus League champs in Spring Training and just knocked the cover off the ball. When the season started, it was the newly revamped pitching staff that won games and the offense sputtered a bit. Through May 5th, Kansas City was 17-10 and everyone was starting to get excited.

Then, the same thing happened that always happened with the Royals. They went in the tank. For the rest of May, the Royals went 5-20, culminating in an 8-game losing streak from May 22nd through May 29th. The Royals went from 17-10 to 22-30 in less than 4 weeks.

A funny thing happened after that. Credit George Brett, or just the baseball gods finally acknowledging the Royals’ fans long suffering, but they started to win some ball games. In early June, they won 6 in a row, 9 out of 10, and 11 out of 13. They erased those 8 games under .500 by going 16-11 in June and 5-3 in the first few days of July.

Then, right before the All-Star break, they lost 5 in a row, including 3 to Cleveland. They were now 8 games behind the Tigers and it looked like they had very little chance of making any kind of dent in the playoff race.

Most of the Royals’ blogging universe begged Dayton Moore to look toward 2014. I, myself, wrote an article pleading with him to sell off at least Ervin Santana and Greg Holland and gain back as much value as possible for 2014.

Luckily, Moore didn’t listen. Since the break, the Royals have won 19 of 24 games, including a 9-game winning streak. They now have come out on top 17 of the last 20 games, the longest such 20-game stretch for the franchise since 1980. And they are winning games legitimately. They are hitting. The starting pitching has been good. The bullpen has been fantastic, and the defense has been phenomenal. They have played like a very good team for an extended period of time, and quite frankly, it has been great.

Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly 20 years of baseball disappointment and failure will inevitably make a cynic out of the most loyal and enthusiastic of fans. That is the case with me. My figurative heart has been broken by the Royals so many times, it cannot be mended all at once. I am always waiting for the shoe to drop.

While I celebrate each win, I am still afraid, deep down,  each loss will lead to an extended losing skid. I can’t help it. It has become ingrained. But…but each time that doesn’t happen, I believe a little more. With each win, I become a little bit more excited. I am actually score board watching each night, looking at not only Detroit and Cleveland, but Oakland, Texas, Boston, Tampa, Baltimore, and New York.

This is as excited as I have been about baseball in very long time.

This team has been constructed, successfully so, to have a deep, strong veteran rotation, and a bullpen full of strong power arms. That is the strength of this team. This pitching staff is keeping the team in just about every game.

The offense, which has sputtered for so long, has averaged 4.54 runs a game over the last 24 games, and that includes being shut out once and winning two games 1-0. The offense is starting to produce runs. Hitters who have been inconsistent and underachieving most of the year, have started to heat up.

Moore made one move at the trade deadline, acquiring Justin Maxwell. At the time, it seemed like a minor move with little value, but Maxwell has provided a spark, adding power to a line-up that was painfully shy in that department.

And the Royals keep winning. And it has been exciting.

Moore will always be criticized for personnel decisions like keeping Jeff Francoeur around far too long. People will complain about Chris Getz still playing second base way too often. Yet, Chris Getz, coming off the DL, had 3 big hits last night, and was in the middle of some scoring opportunities. He contributed.

Everyone is contributing to the success of this team right now and it is thrilling. It is making me believe. I am starting to think the Kansas City Royals can play their way into the playoffs for the first time in a very long time.

So, what will happen if they don’t make the post-season? Well, it really depends on how it plays out. If the Royals go on a streak where they lose 9 of ten, then the claws will come back out, more vicious than ever. If the Royals continue to play well, and can stay in the race until the end, I will enjoy every tension filled moment of it. If they slowly start to fade away, or are flat out outplayed down the stretch, I will criticize management for having too many holes in the line up to be a playoff team.

Whatever happens though, these past four weeks have been fun. Baseball is once again important in Kansas City. My cold, dead heart is starting to beat again. I have decided that I will try to enjoy these last few weeks of the season for as long as the Royals can stay in it. In the end, I may  be disappointed or angry that I bought in, that I jumped on the old bandwagon.

But you know what? It’s August 13th, and the Royals are still in the hunt. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Baseball is fun again in Kansas City.