Royals fans 'tired of waiting'
ANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It starts with a photo of a baby. The kid's not more than 4 months old. For years, Scott Biel would hear the story of the chutzpah his dad needed to acquire this picture because, technically, it was against the rules to go behind the ropes and ask a player to pose with a kid, but how could anyone say no to a cute little baby? Paul Biel drove 3½ hours from Hutchinson, Kan., that day to get a photo of George Brett, and Brett was good enough to hold Biel's little bundle of a son and mug for the camera. And another Royals fan was hooked.
They did not know that, in a few months, Brett would be soaked in champagne, celebrating a World Series title for the Kansas City Royals. They did not know that these snapshots would be as good as it gets.
Where does the time go? Twenty-seven years, and Scott Biel is a bearded young man grilling hamburgers in the parking lot at Kauffman Stadium. He's a geologist now. He is wearing a powder-blue jersey with no name on the back, and that's advantageous, he jokes, because the moment he gets attached to a player, the Royals inevitably trade him.
So young, so cynical. This is the Royals' Generation Y, as in, "Why do we put ourselves through this every summer?" But it's almost like an addiction; Biel can't quit them. He has seen a 100-loss season. Four of them in five years. He has watched Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran leave town in their prime. But here's the biggest thing: Unless you count that year when he was teething, Biel has never seen his team in the playoffs. The Kansas City Royals have not been back to the postseason since that magical '85 year, the longest drought in baseball.
"Every year," Biel says, "they say this is going to be the year. And every year, this is not the year.
"I'm tired of waiting."
But for a week, at least, baseball in Kansas City is relevant again. The All-Star Game comes to town Tuesday, and the city is awash in banners and hype because this is a huge deal in a place that hasn't had much reason to celebrate in the past few decades. The most optimistic Royals fans will welcome the masses, feed them some barbecue and tell them that, very soon, the national spotlight will return to Kansas City to illuminate one of the biggest turnarounds in baseball.
The more realistic fans, such as Biel, don't know what to think. They've spent years watching the drafts, tracking teenagers in the minor leagues, and have seen the rankings that named Kansas City's talented farm system the best in baseball. They bought their tickets to the first homestand of the season. They watched the Royals lose every game in that homestand.
But somehow, they continue to have hope. An excessive heat warning has gripped the lower Plains, and, in a couple of hours on this midsummer afternoon, the temperature will climb above 100 degrees. And Biel and his friends will sit through a seemingly innocuous baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays and wait. For luck to finally change. For history to come back.
he big-city-market types might laugh at this because the All-Star Game, essentially, is an exhibition. It was once so irrelevant that Major League Baseball had to add the awarding of home-field World Series advantage to the winner and coin the phrase "This Game Counts" just so fans would believe that it is in fact relevant.
But in Kansas City, the 2012 All-Star Game is being called the biggest stand-alone national sporting event to hit town since April 4, 1988.
Oh, how the city celebrated that day. At night, it hosted the national championship game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament -- which, by the way, was won by the Kansas Jayhawks -- and, roughly 10 miles down Interstate 70, the Royals, still full of swagger, opened their home season with Bret Saberhagen on the mound.
"That was quite a day," says David Witty, a former vice president of communications and marketing for the Royals. "It was quite a time."
It seems so long ago. Some random mind-blowing snippets, courtesy of Witty, who was with the franchise for 21 years:
∙ In 1990, the Royals had the largest payroll in baseball. (Today, they come in at No. 27, $137 million shy of the New York Yankees).
∙ In the late 1980s, the club consistently drew at least 2 million fans a season. It was considered a disappointment if the Royals didn't have at least 30,000 people in the stands every night.
∙ In the span of a few short years in the early 1990s, everything fell apart.
The fall can be tied to a handful of events, but the biggest ones came in 1990, when general manager John Schuerholz left Kansas City to run the Atlanta Braves, and in 1993, when owner Ewing Kauffman died. Kauffman was beloved and engaged, and he wasn't afraid to lose millions of his own money in the pursuit of championships. Before his death, Kauffman fretted that the team would be moved elsewhere when he was gone. So he arranged a succession plan that left the team to a charitable trust. Kauffman meant well, but, for the rest of the decade, the Royals were in limbo until Wal-Mart CEO David Glass bought the team in 2000.
By 1994, it was clear Kauffman's benevolent ways were gone.
Jeff Montgomery, a relief pitcher who turned down a few lucrative offers to stay in Kansas City, felt the seismic shift. He was headed to spring training in 1995, and, in the course of a few hours to and from airports, he heard that David Cone and Brian McRae, two of the Royals' top players, had been traded in a massive salary dump.
"It was a shock," Montgomery said. "It was very obvious there was going to be a change in Kansas City baseball."
Baseball changed after the strike in 1994. Payrolls skyrocketed. The Royals went the other way and slashed. Their 1994 payroll was $40.5 million; two years later, it shrank in half. The results on the field were obvious. The Royals had just one winning season after 1994.
Look hard enough around Kauffman Stadium today and you'll still see remnants of that lone winning season, which came in 2003. Fans still wear faded old T-shirts with the team theme, "Believe." The Royals finished just four games above .500 that season, third in the American League Central. But the city fell in love with that team. The next year, with excitement building, Kansas City lost 104 games.
"You really cannot overstate how hopeless they've been," says Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger. "People talk about 2003. … That was not a very good team. They got outscored that year. And that's all they've had since the strike. People are always angry, but you just sort of grow to love them. You're addicted; there's no way out when you're a fan.
"I think Royals fans have a good sense of humor, mostly because they've had to."
n the night of June 27, Dayton Moore left the sticky confines of Kauffman Stadium and drove 180 miles to the equally unbearable heat in Omaha, Neb., to see a pitcher. His name is Jake Odorizzi. Like so many of the other Royals prospects, Odorizzi oozes potential. He's one of many pieces that went to Kansas City in the Zack Greinke trade two years ago, another wait-'til-this-guy-develops prospect. Odorizzi went 14-0 with a 0.08 ERA in high school, and he has yet to lose a game this season for the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Royals' Triple-A affiliate. If Royals fans had their way, the kid would be in Kansas City yesterday.
On this particular night, Odorizzi gave up two home runs. Moore patiently watched. His patience occasionally drives Royals fans nuts. Moore has been Kansas City's general manager for six years, and it is believed that not even once has he felt compelled to run his fist through a wall. He's not wired that way. He's calm and unwavering and tells Royals fans to trust The Process.
The Process, he says, will take eight years.
"We're the youngest team on the field right now in the American League, last time I checked," he says. "And we're going to continue to get younger and more talented.
"Look, we've got to embrace who we are. We can't make excuses for our product on the field. We can't make excuses because the economics of the game don't allow us to compete for top free agents. We have to embrace who we are. We're always going to be a young team; we're going to have to grow talent from within, develop players at the major league level. And that's what we're doing."
When Moore came to Kansas City in 2006, the franchise was at rock bottom. The pitching staff was depleted, save for Greinke, who went on the 60-day disabled list to deal with anxiety issues. There was no speed in the lineup and no true shortstops in the system.
So here is Year 6, and homegrown players Alex Gordon and Billy Butler have developed into polished veterans, and a couple of the Royals' 2011 call-ups -- Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer -- are evolving into young stars. Moore says it takes two or three years for a young ballplayer to be truly acclimated into the league. Royals fans sigh.
"[Eight years] is a long time to wait," Montgomery says. "But the reason the wait has gotten increasingly more bearable is we're seeing more players at various positions who fans now identify with and say, 'That's going to be our third baseman for the next six to eight years.'
"We've been along with these players for the ride. Once they get there, it will be a much more gratifying experience."
Moore has deeper ties to his employer than the average GM. The Royals are a part of him. He grew up in Wichita, Kan., and followed the team throughout his childhood. In October 1985, Moore was driving through Missouri the night the Royals played the Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series. He was 18 years old. He couldn't afford a ticket to the game. So he pulled off of Interstate 70 in Kansas City and watched it from the side of the road.
"People were grilling out, tailgating up there," Moore says. "We could see everything but Lonnie Smith in left field."
he 2012 season started with great anticipation. Not 1985 expectations, but hope. The Royals played their first regular-season home game on a mid-April Friday. Friday the 13th. The place was sold out, jammed with more than 40,000 fans. It was the largest crowd in five years. The Royals stepped out onto the field in their sparkling white uniforms and gave up seven runs in the first inning. They lost 8-3 to the Cleveland Indians. By the end of the 10-game homestand, they had lost all 10. It wasn't even May yet.
"I timed it," Mellinger says of the home opener. "I think it was 15 or 16 minutes after the first pitch that Royals fans started booing. And it was justified. They were down 7-0 in a season that was supposed to matter.
"It was incredible. It was the kind of thing you couldn't make up. If you saw a movie like this, you'd be like, 'Ah, that would never happen.' It was really the one time a year where the place is full with Royals fans who haven't been beaten over the head yet."
Injuries haven't helped. The Royals lost closer Joakim Soria to an elbow injury before the season even started. Injuries to outfielder Lorenzo Cain and pitchers Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino followed. But, unlike in many other years, the Royals are inexplicably still in it at the All-Star break. They're 36-44 and 7½ games back in the watered-down AL Central.
They showed flashes of promise in three-game sweeps against the Brewers and Rays, but they followed the sweep of Tampa Bay by losing three straight at Minnesota. Perhaps youth is making the Royals so inconsistent, veteran outfielder Jeff Francoeur says.
"I think this team is only going to get better as the year goes on," he says. "You take away our horrible start at the beginning of the season and we've played good baseball.
"The fans, they're dying for us to win. It's fun when you go around town and you actually see people wearing Royals stuff. If we win, this place will go crazy. That's what we want."
It's all Scott Biel wants, too. He doesn't like to talk too much about it and won't wax on about what it means to be a Royals fan. That would be too frustrating. But his friend Scott Miller will. Royals fans are loyal. Miller recently drove two hours from Manhattan, Kan., to watch the Royals play Tampa Bay, but that's nothing compared with what his family used to do when he was a kid. The Millers would come four hours, one way, from Mankato, Kan. They would do it at least five times a season.
Royals fans can't help themselves. Miller can't count all the times his dad said he was through, that he couldn't watch this team anymore because it continually stomped on his heart. The next night, father and son would be glued in front of the TV, going through it all again.
Royals fans always have next year. If they give up now, they'll miss it when the team gets good.
"You get down, but you always have hope," Miller says.
"Something about baseball brings you back."