Two years ago, after the Royals erased 29 years of punchlines with an unforgettable run to the World Series, a team sponsor offered to make a T-shirt that would’ve served as something like a wearable trophy for those who believed from the beginning and never stopped.
Dayton Moore, the general manager, had talked so often of “the process” that the phrase had been twisted into a joke in which the Royals were the suckers. At some point, Moore and his assistants stopped using the phrase altogether, a white flag that their rallying cry had lost its meaning.
But now the Royals were American League champions, winners, as popular a sports team as has existed in Kansas City in a generation, and the sponsor even promised to donate all proceeds from sales of the T-shirt, which would’ve been blue with bold lettering across the front:
TRUST THE PROCESS.
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Moore said no, and now laughs at the memory.
“First of all,” he says, “we probably would’ve sold 10 of them.”
As he says this, it’s impossible not to notice how little new bling there is at the World Series champions’ spring training camp. A cluster of utility boxes is protected by temporary fencing with World Series logos and, really, that’s it. And this is how Moore prefers it.
As the Royals enter another season as one of baseball’s best teams, the personalities around them are becoming more pronounced. Eric Hosmer would be the front-man for the boy band. Alex Gordon is the strong, silent type. Sal Perez is mostly laughing and occasionally using Instagram to harass Lorenzo Cain, who is one of the game’s most dynamic players despite constantly talking about how much his feet hurt.
Behind all of that is a front office that is among the worst in the sport at self-promotion. In an industry often populated by climbers, this group is allergic to taking credit. Their accomplishment — winning back-to-back pennants and a World Series in a small market — is without precedent in modern baseball. Ask them about, and prepare yourself for generalities and to hear how close they were to losing Game 4 of the AL Division Series.
Others have bragged far more after accomplishing far less, and the longer this goes on — the Royals winning and the executives in charge essentially freezing at the opportunity to boast — the more obvious it will become.
“I’ve heard that,” vice president for player personnel J.J. Picollo says. “I’ve heard people say we’re the worst self-promoters in baseball. Yeah, we hear that.”
There are real baseball consequences for this, too.
In a different world, one in which none of this stuff was connected, maybe the executives’ general humility would be an interesting character trait. Something to note, perhaps, but nothing more.
The Royals have created a culture where it’s a vital part of the bigger success. The friendships on this team are well-documented, and the genuine love they have for each other is often credited — by those inside the clubhouse as well as on the outside — for this run.
But this is all part of a bigger plan, not just targeting guys with the personalities and priorities to be part of a winning team, but by continuing to maintain that atmosphere with support.
Ego can bring good organizations down, not just in sports. When autopsies are done of failed efforts by teams, one of the most common fatal flaws is a lack of cohesion. When too many people lean in a little too hard for the spotlight, or bicker behind the scenes about who deserves the credit, that tends to be the beginning of the end. Scott Pioli’s time with the Chiefs is Kansas City’s most obvious example.
The Royals don’t have to worry about that. Cain calls the executives “very, very, very humble,” and agrees with the premise of them being awful self-promoters. He also knows this is part of a design, whether directly or indirectly, to keep the organization’s focus where it needs to be. It’s not just Cain, either.
“I know what you’re saying,” Hosmer says. “When the message from your leader, which for us is Dayton, is about family and we’re all working toward one goal, we’ve all bought in. We’re seeing it work and want to be part of it to help.”
The players see this in a lot of ways. They see the front office stick with Mike Moustakas through his struggles, and if they weren’t around have heard stories of what Gordon went through. That means they can trust Moore when he says he believes in them, and will stick with them.
They see Chris Getz hired to a position in the front office. That means they believe the coaches when they talk of how important the priorities and specifics of what they’re doing here matter to the people in charge.
Moore talks constantly of his job being all about players, a point that’s often repeated by the men who work for him. Stand up for your guys, he says, but share the glory. And never forget that no matter what, the players are the ones who determine the outcomes. If you want to get the best out of them, you have to create the right environment.
With hindsight, Moore says this is something he struggled with his first few years in Kansas City. He spent too much time defending his last move, and not enough time planning the next one. Even in recent years, there is occasional defensiveness or disproportionate sensitivity from the front office. But those moments are rare, particularly by the standards of professional sports.
This isn’t just a personality quirk, either. This is the DNA of the effort to build the American League’s best team, and part of what the Royals hope can insulate them from the problems of so many past champions.
“When you start having success, egos can get in the way, and that may be part of our next challenge,” Picollo says. “But if players know we always have their best interests at heart, hopefully that wins out: ‘The team is more important, and I’ll get where I need to go by the team getting where it needs to go.’ I think that’s what we’ve had so far.”
On Monday morning, assistant general manager Jin Wong walked toward the practice fields. Wong has been with the Royals since 2000, when Tony Muser was the manager and Carlos Beltran was not yet a star. He predates Moore with the Royals, and worked 13 seasons with just one winning record before the rise of the last three years.
“Where’s your ring?” I asked him.
Wong didn’t say anything. He smiled, raised his left hand, and pointed to his wedding band.