They remember a time that the fountains ran blue, October was a time of possibilities, and Kansas City’s heart belonged to the Royals.
By KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star
High-fives from strangers came standard in the hours after games, a sign of the kinship between the men wearing baseball gloves and the residents who came to see them. The bars served them both, and conversations were shared deep into the night.
“A love affair,” former longtime second baseman Frank White says of the city and its team, for a period during the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s.
Today’s Kansas City is divided. That’s what losing will do. There are Chiefs fans and Royals fans — sure, there’s plenty of shared attention — but until both franchise’s youth movements begin to show meaningful progress, a city starved for a winner will remain up for grabs.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was a Chiefs town. Throughout the ’80s, when the Royals were consistent winners and claimed their only World Series title, they were identified as the city’s favorite. The Chiefs retook bragging rights through the ’90s, but then losing on both sides of the Truman Sports Complex left hearts broken and loyalty fading.
“It felt like the fans were still waiting and hoping,” says Steve Balboni, who played five seasons with the Royals during the franchise’s height and revisited Kansas City in 2010, seemingly a lifetime later.
The Royals ruled Kansas City in those days, and it gave the city a taste of success it hasn’t reached since. The men who played here haven’t forgotten. Neither have the fans who knew them as heroes and friends.
Bret Saberhagen, the Royals’ two-time Cy Young Award winner who debuted in 1984, remembers it well.
“You kind of felt,” he says, “like you were king of the world.”
They’d spend their nights on the Country Club Plaza or in Brookside, maybe playing backgammon at the bar in the Adam’s Mark hotel.
Baseball players didn’t make millions in those days. They were working men like those who wore hardhats or neckties. They’d gather at one of those watering holes, pressing the flesh and exchanging stories.
“Everybody pulled together,” White says, “in the same direction.”
It began in 1975, about the time the flavor of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory five years earlier was fading, players were aging, and coach Hank Stram no longer had the answers. He stepped away after the ’74 season, leaving a new Kansas City team, six years old and hungry, waiting for support across the parking lot. Royals Stadium had been built in ’73, and two mediocre seasons later, the home team attracted the city’s attention with 91 wins.
During the 14-year span that followed, the Royals reached the playoffs seven times, advancing twice to the World Series and only three times finishing lower than second place. The Royals didn’t know last place in those days; a tired association between the two would come much later.
Back then, life was different.
“Everyone was having a good time,” says former pitcher Mark Gubicza.
Players didn’t have cordoned-off parking lots then. Fans would park next to them and wait after the games, slapping five after wins and patting their shoulders after losses. Some nights, they’d all go together for a beer or two.
Gubicza and Saberhagen, who made the major-league roster in ’84, were usually dragged out by George Brett, the Royals slugger and the team’s unofficial big brother. He’d pull them to Bristol or Chandler Court, and Gubicza says that if they ordered a cheeseburger, Brett would insist they have the patty topped with avocado, the way they did it in his native California.
“As soon as he’d turn his head,” Gubicza says, “I’d get the avocado out of there.”
Fans in those days didn’t worry so much about expiring contracts or young stars being stolen by the Yankees or Red Sox; free agency was still in its infancy, and besides, many players stayed in Kansas City year-round. They didn’t escape to the coast or the Keys; this was home.
“I think that’s what fans fell in love with,” White says. “The fact that they could depend on who the players were going to be the next year; they could depend on them being in the game. When they came to the ballpark, they had a great chance of winning.”
The Royals did plenty of winning then. But during 1974-88, the Chiefs had two winning seasons. The Royals players were a hospitable bunch, supporting their NFL neighbors. White and Saberhagen were season-ticket holders.
On the afternoon of game seven of the 1985 World Series, Brett and Gubicza spent a few hours in Lamar Hunt’s suite, watching the Chiefs play host to Denver at Arrowhead Stadium. After another Chiefs loss, the players walked through a tunnel that connected the stadiums to prepare for the deciding game of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“One of those sports days that you never forget,” Gubicza says.
The night before, the Royals had tied the Series at three wins apiece, and Gubicza remembers walking to the parking lot and celebrating with fans. Away from the sports complex, Saberhagen’s wife was giving birth to their first child, a son. Game seven was the 21-year-old’s turn in the rotation. Drew Saberhagen was only a few hours old, but his father went to work anyway, shutting out the Cardinals and earning the World Series MVP award.
“A dream come true,” Bret Saberhagen says now.
After the Royals’ 11-0 deciding win on that sweet October night, they all headed together to the Plaza, where Gubicza says Brett had the owner of a burger joint open the doors, fire up the grills, and slice an avocado or two. Even Saberhagen stopped by, soaking in a surreal weekend with the boys and the fans who’d cherish that season for decades.
“It was amazing,” Gubicza says. “Just talking with people, having a conversation as if they were part of the team, as if they were in our locker room the whole time — except the locker room changed from Royals Stadium to the Country Club Plaza.”
The fountains pumped blue water that night, and the kinship took hold.
“People just walking in and out and high-fiving us,” Gubicza says, “and having a cold one with everybody.”
A pair of college baseball players were driving back to campus on that Sunday night, cruising Interstate 70, when they decided to stop and join the party. Garden City Community College’s catcher and second baseman had spent the weekend in Illinois, and on their drive back, game seven was going on.
They stopped, unable to buy a ticket to join the 41,658 inside Kauffman Stadium, so young Dayton Moore, the second baseman, and his friend Dave watched in the parking lot with a few hundred eager souls. Moore says that was the first time he’d been to a Royals game.
“Just a lot of excitement and passion around the team,” says Moore, whose favorite team growing up was the Royals because his mother grew up in Kansas. Now he’s the team’s general manager.
They gathered around grills and televisions, watching the Royals win their only World Series. A generation later, Moore says a prime reason he interviewed six years ago with the Royals was because of an emotional connection he felt with his boyhood team.
“We’ve tried to recapture that,” Moore says.
He says the game has changed, and he isn’t exaggerating. The economics and personalities are different. Players make millions, park in private lots and slip into tavern corners where they won’t be seen.
But Gubicza, who lived through those nights and slapped hands with fans, says Kansas City can be a Royals town again. Even amid the time and change, he says, the kinship is still there – dormant, maybe, but still there. Another winning season or two would bring it back.
“The fans were just going nuts,” he says, “and we’re celebrating with the fans as if they were part of our team at that point. And we felt that they were.”
A moment later, he continues.
“I think that’s capable of happening again.”