When the 2018 season concludes, the Royals will have closed the book on 50 years of competitive existence with an overall record under .500.
We’ll get ’em in the next half-century.
But although they’ve posted more losing than winning seasons in their lifetime, there is an underlying truth about the organization that serves as a bottom line for the franchise.
The founding fathers were right about the Royals and Kansas City: The city deserved a second shot at baseball, and the franchise has proudly represented its community and region.
The Royals have reached the game’s pinnacle — twice. They spent many of the seasons between the championships of 1985 and 2015 in baseball’s wilderness, but no other franchise that was born in expansion owns more World Series trophies. (The Mets and Blue Jays also have won two championships.) Among expansion teams, only the Mets have appeared in more World Series: five to the Royals’ four.
Kansas City’s return to baseball after 1967, when Athletics owner Charlie Finley finally made good on his threats of disowning the city and relocated to Oakland, was not a given.
For 13 years Kansas City had been major-league, a relocation destination itself for the A’s when they moved out of Philadelphia. But without a winning season or a finish closer than 19 games out of first place in KC, plus mostly poor average attendance, the fear was that Major League Baseball was lost forever in the Heartland.
No sooner had the A’s picked up stakes, however, did Kansas City go to work to find a new team. And thanks to a collection of influential forces — U.S. Senator Stuart Symington, Kansas City Star columnist Joe McGuff and former longtime Star sports editor Ernie Mehl chief among them — Kansas City was one of four cities awarded expansion franchises for the 1969 season.
Local pharmaceutical magnate Ewing Kauffman agreed to become the owner, and after a one-year absence Kansas City was back in the baseball business with a much stronger foundation and more stable ownership than before.
The Royals were born, and they hit the ground running.
Established baseball men were plucked from other organizations to operate the franchise. Cedric Tallis was hired from the California Angels as the Royals’ first general manager. Lou Gorman from the Orioles was named the first director of player development, and Joe Gordon, who had managed the Indians, Tigers and A’s, would become the Royals’ first skipper.
They were all in the “war room” for the expansion draft that would help stock the roster. The two new American League clubs — the Royals and Seattle Pilots — selected players from the 10 other AL teams. The Royals picked first and chose pitcher Roger Nelson from the Orioles. His 2.08 ERA in 1972 still stands as the club’s best mark for a starting pitcher over a full season.
The roster completed and farm system established, Municipal Stadium was shined up for its new tenants. The Royals made their debut on April 8, 1969, under “gray, spongy looking clouds,” as described by McGuff in The Star. The Minnesota Twins were their first opponent, and in front of a disappointing crowd of 17,688, the Royals prevailed 4-3 in 12 innings.
In the first inning, Lou Piniella recorded the team’s first hit, a leadoff double, and scored the first run on Jerry Adair’s single. The third-base umpire that day would become much more familiar to Royals fans in the future — Don Denkinger.
The Royals completed their first season at 69-93, best among the four expansion teams. Only four Kansas City’s A’s teams won more games. In their maiden season, the Royals finished fourth in the AL West, ahead of the White Sox and Pilots.
With new manager Charlie Metro, the Royals took a step back in 1970. But other developments that year helped chart a course for success. Before the season, the Royals conducted a trade that brought outfielder Amos Otis from the Mets for Joe Foy. After the season, left-handed pitcher Paul Splittorff was added to the major-league roster.
Splittorff would become the most durable starting pitcher in Royals history. He still holds club records for victories (166), games started (392) and innings pitched (2,554 2/3 ). He would soon be joined in KC by Dennis Leonard, and together they’d provide the foundation of the pitching staff through the club’s first decade.
Otis, the graceful outfielder, became the team’s first multiyear All-Star and joined slugging first baseman John Mayberry, starting pitcher Steve Busby — who threw no-hitters in 1973 and 1974 — and Piniella as the Royals’ early fan favorites.
In early 1971, ground was broken on the Royals Baseball Academy in Sarasota, Fla., a Kauffman brainchild created to turn top-level athletes into baseball players. The greatest success story of the academy: Frank White.
The Royals’ third season brought a winning record for the first time in Kansas City’s American League history: the 1971 Royals finished 85-76. Their middle infield had been shored up with the additions of shortstop Fred Patek and second baseman Cookie Rojas, who became All-Stars.
The Royals had been trending upward since their inaugural season, but 1973 marked a major advancement.
The team moved into a beautiful new home — Royals Stadium. Marked by a distinctive water display, the venue opened just in time to usher in a new crop of Royals. George Brett made his major-league debut that season, as did White, and Hal McRae was acquired in a trade with the Reds. The team’s 88-74 record and second-place finish meant the Royals, for the first time in their history, were contenders.
The real breakthrough occurred in 1976 with the Royals’ first division championship. The club played to its spacious ballpark, emphasizing speed, defense and pitching. The Royals’ first postseason appearance produced one of the most dramatic swings in club history, with Brett’s game-tying three-run homer in the eighth inning against the New York Yankees. The fifth and deciding game against the Yankees was now deadlocked, only to be decided an inning later by Chris Chambliss’ solo walk-off homer for New York.
The Royals suffered painful additional playoff losses to the Yankees in 1977 and 1978 before breaking through with a three-game sweep of New York in 1980. Again, the big blow was provided by Brett. His mammoth three-run homer against Goose Gossage in the seventh inning reached the upper deck at Yankee Stadium and sent the Royals to their first World Series.
Falling behind 2-0 to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Royals rallied to win the next two games but eventually fell in six despite the heroics of Willie Mays Aikens, who hit four home runs in the Series, and Otis, who belted three.
The Royals made postseason appearances in the strike-abbreviated 1981 season and in 1984, and by now they had turned over some major pieces. Brett, White and Willie Wilson were the nucleus of the club’s position players, while the pitching staff featured young guns Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson, with reliable sidewinder Dan Quisenberry as the closer.
It all came together in 1985.
The Royals’ seventh postseason appearance in 10 years looked like a quick exit as they fell behind the Blue Jays 3-1 in the first best-of-seven American League Championship Series. But the Royals rallied — Brett’s 4-4-4-3 line from the box score in Game 3 helped turned the tide — to win the final three games of the ALCS and give the team its second AL championship.
Next up, the St. Louis Cardinals and the I-70 Series. In a time before interleague play, baseball offered this intriguing showdown of organizations bound by state lines and Whitey Herzog, the Cardinals manager who had guided the Royals in their early playoff years.
St. Louis jumped to Series leads of 2-0 and 3-1. But once again the Royals fought back. Saberhagen came up big in Game 3, and Jackson did the same in Game 5, and they staved off elimination.
The Cardinals looked golden in Game 6, taking a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Jorge Orta grounded a three-hopper to first baseman Jack Clark, who flipped the ball to pitcher Todd Worrell at first base. The throw beat Orta, but Orta was ruled safe by Denkinger. Remember him from the Royals’ first game?
The Royals took full advantage of the break, and with the bases loaded Dane Iorg dropped a single into right field. That scored pinch runner Onix Concepcion and Jim Sundberg and gave the Royals a 2-1 victory.
With new life, the Royals crushed the Cardinals 11-0 in Game 7 in front of a raucous home crowd. Saberhagen, who pitched the game, was selected the World Series MVP. Champagne splashed on Kauffman, manager Dick Howser, general manager John Schuerholz and a clubhouse of champions.
In their first 17 years, the Royals had 11 winning seasons, appeared in seven postseasons, won six division titles and two AL championships, and captured a World Series crown. The torch was passed to a new generation of Royals stars, like outfielders Danny Tartabull and Bo Jackson and pitchers David Cone, Kevin Appier and closer Jeff Montgomery.
The Royals put together solid seasons in the years after 1985, such as the 92-70 team of 1989, but couldn’t claim a division title.
The highlights of this era included Brett’s 3,000th career hit in 1992 and final game of his remarkable 21-year career in 1993. Appropriately, in his final plate appearance, Brett singled up the middle for career hit 3,154.
Two events changed the direction of the organization after Brett retired.
Upon Kauffman’s death in 1993, the Royals were bequeathed to charity. The complex succession plan withstood a two-year review by the IRS before it was approved. The Royals were donated to the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation with two provisions: The foundation had to sell the team to someone who would keep it in Kansas City, and proceeds of the sale had to go to local charities.
David Glass, CEO of Wal-Mart, became interim CEO and chairman of the Royals after Kauffman’s death. And in 2000, he became the team’s sole owner.
Another factor altered the Royals’ course. The strike of 1994 hurt the team competitively — the Royals owned the AL’s fifth-best record and were in the thick of the playoff hunt when the season was canceled — and the financial direction of the club changed going forward.
The Royals had baseball’s highest payroll in 1990. But in the years between owners Kauffman and Glass, their payroll sank to the bottom of the majors and the team operated on a shoestring budget.
Budding stars came through the organization — Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye comprised the big-league club’s outfield in 2000 — but they all found greater success later with other teams.
The losing continued into the 2000s and bottomed out with four 100-loss seasons in a five-year span. A bright spot during this depressing time was Mike Sweeney, a five-time All-Star.
The about-face started in 2006, the last of the 100-loss seasons, when general manager Dayton Moore was hired away from the Atlanta Braves.
The Royals started building through the draft. Alex Gordon was the team’s first-round selection in 2005, Luke Hochevar in 2006, Mike Moustakas in 2007 and Erik Hosmer in 2008. The Royals stepped up their efforts in scouting Latin America and signed Salvador Perez in 2006 and Yordano Ventura in 2008.
Shrewd trades completed the picture. The Royals sent Zack Greinke, the 2009 Cy Young Award winner, to the Brewers in exchange for Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. James Shields and Wade Davis came from the Rays.
Leading it all from the bench was manager Ned Yost.
The payoff of this roster construction arrived in 2014, when the Royals ended a 29-year playoff drought by qualifying for the AL Wild Card Game against the Oakland A’s at Kauffman Stadium. After seven innings, the Royals trailed 7-3, but three runs in the eighth and one in the ninth tied it. After falling behind 8-7 in the 12th, Salvador Perez stroked a two-out single to drive in Christian Colon with the game-winner.
The remarkable triumph was the first of eight consecutive postseason victories for the Royals, whose fortune expired against the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the World Series.
Determined to finish the job in 2015, the Royals captured their first division championship since 1985 and outlasted the Astros and Blue Jays in the playoffs before meeting the Mets in the first World Series contested by one-time expansion teams.
The opener started with Escobar’s first-pitch inside-the-park home run and continued into extra innings when Gordon blasted a game-tying homer in the ninth.
The Royals finished off their Game 1 triumph in the 14th inning, and as they did throughout the postseason, recorded comeback triumphs all the way through the deciding fifth game. With the Royals trailing 2-0 in the ninth inning, Eric Hosmer hit a double to score Cain, and Hosmer scored on a daring dash from third base when Perez hit a soft grounder to third.
The play went to first and the throw home was wild. With five runs in the 12th, and Davis recording a strikeout for the final out, the Royals secured their second World Series championship, touching off a wild scene in New York.
It was nothing like what awaited the team in Kansas City. Two days after the clincher, on an unseasonably warm and cloudless November afternoon, hundreds of thousands of fans lined downtown streets and converged at Union Station for a celebration three decades in the making.
A franchise that started with a determined effort to save the sport in Kansas City had delivered the biggest party in the city’s history.
The Royals enter their 50th season much as they did their first. They aren’t favored to win the division. With roster uncertainty headed into spring training, there is a sense of starting anew, with a few proven players, such as Perez and pitcher Danny Duffy, as cornerstones.
The idea for these Royals is to emulate the club’s earliest editions: begin a path to prosperity and then sustain that success.