As one of the dwindling few original Royals season-ticket holders, 87-year-old Rich Burstein persevered through the club’s 28-year postseason drought even as he absorbed each agonizing indignity along the way.
Each setback, each false step forward, every season that was over by June 1, it all took its toll.
“When they lose, I lose,” he said Sunday at his Overland Park apartment. “And that’s kind of a foolish statement, but it seems to be kind of true in my case.”
But he slogged on.
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He wasn’t a glutton for punishment, just devoted, so he kept coming back: through a heart ailment and a degenerative hip condition and, most recently, what he was told was the risky removal of his gallbladder.
“I fooled everybody,” he said, “and here I am.”
He meant still alive, but his words also spoke to the constancy of his faith that at last was rewarded Friday in Chicago when the Royals clinched a wild-card berth.
So many people called him immediately afterward that you’d have thought he played for the team, which will play host to Oakland Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
It breaks his heart to know some of the other originals have died waiting for a resurgence of the team.
It angered him to see so many chose to stop coming.
Just the same, if he’s candid with himself, he maybe possibly almost wondered if he’d ever see this moment arrive.
“I would say, ‘Wait, it’s going to happen,’” he said, smiling and adding, “But to be real honest about it, down deep I hope I meant that. I think I did.”
Now that it’s here, Burstein finds it hard to describe the meaning.
So, too, did Allen Buzzard, 76, who’s had season tickets since 1974 and could measure the meaning more by the sense of going through “thick and thin” to get here than through mere words.
Maybe it will be clarified for him today at Kauffman, where he’ll hope to rekindle the feeling he had after the Royals beat the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series.
“It felt like New Year’s Eve,” Buzzard said.
With a really long hangover, it turns out.
Since then, the existence of Royals fans has lent fresh meaning to the concept of long-suffering.
It’s been so long, in fact, that part of the dynamic here is that of a torch at last being passed to a new generation.
“We’ve had to manage our expectations in a pretty brutal way, because those expectations have been pretty low,” said Danne Webb, an attorney and a season-ticket holder since the late 1980s.
So when Webb’s wife, Stephanie, and his 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, and 11-year-old son, Braden, were waiting for the clinch, they were experiencing much of the acquired anxiety that had to be smothering most Royals fans.
“I feel like I’m living and breathing and dying with every pitch and every fly ball that’s hit,” Webb said Friday. “It’s exhilarating and nerve-wracking, all of the emotions all at once. It’s just nice to have some of the positive emotions to go with the anxiety for a change.”
His fondest hope was that the Royals just would get a home playoff game Tuesday, something he suggested would be “just poetic.”
By the end of that night, something “absolutely beautiful” had happened. With Stephanie and Hannah in another room, jittery and wanting to avoid jinxing it by looking too directly at it, the Royals beat the White Sox 3-1 to assure a playoff spot.
Truth be told, father and son cried as they watched the Royals uncork.
“He’d never really seen a champagne celebration like that,” Webb said Monday. “To see the guys all goggled up, and the champagne and the exuberance of those guys, it took his appreciation, I think, to a totally different level.”
With the celebration at home unfolding, Webb had a fleeting notion to try to calm things down.
Then he caught himself.
“I wanted to say, ‘Act like we’ve been there before,’” he said, laughing. “But then I realized we really can’t do that. We forgot that that’s like.”
According to the Royals’ ticket services folks, just 161 accounts remain on the books from 1969, the franchise’s inaugural season.
Of those, it’s hard to trace how many remain in the same hands, as do Burstein’s.
But the Royals are just the most recent baseball passion for Burstein, who grew up in Decatur, Ill., an ardent fan of the local minor-league team, the Commodores … for a time affectionately known as the “Commies.”
“That fell out of favor,” he said, laughing.
Baseball never did with him.
That was in part because a procession of the minor-leaguers regularly came to his house for his mother’s cooking and in part because he had become an avid Cardinals fan through listening to Harry Caray on KMOX in St. Louis.
Say the words “Stan Musial,” and his instinct remains to bow — though he was long since a Royals fan by the ’85 Series.
(And, no, he doesn’t want to think what the modern replay rule would have done to game six: “Well,” he said, “we got a break.”)
Once, he swears, he met Branch Rickey, who was scouting at a Commodores game.
“I remember the cigar — ooh,” he said, cringing.
He recalls vividly shaking the hand of post-career Babe Ruth when his father took him to New York and got him on the field with a media credential he had somehow appropriated from a local paper.
And all of that was just a preamble.
Burstein came to Kansas City in the 1950s with his then-wife, Sue, whom he’d met at the University of Missouri and for whose father he would work at Meyer Jewelry.
His father-in-law had season tickets for the Kansas City Blues, then a top New York Yankees farm club, and he was quick to enlist for tickets when the Athletics moved from Philadelphia to KC in 1955.
When the A’s left for Oakland in 1967, he said, “It was just, ‘Thud.’”
But only two years later, the Royals arrived on the scene. He signed up for tickets as the team debuted at Municipal Stadium.
He doubled down when Royals representatives came to share plans for the new stadium to open in 1973, buying four instead of two.
“I thought, ‘Well, you know what, it’s civic-minded,’” he said. “I’m using that for an excuse, but it is civic-minded to help out something new. And I told myself that to make myself feel better.”
He laughed and added, “Don’t forget I was fortunate enough to let the company pay for it.”
Ultimately, they were exclusively in his name, though through different financial challenges over the years his son Steve would take them over.
But they’re back in his name now, the seats just down the row from longtime Royals scout Art Stewart, a friend whose recent book sits on Burstein’s coffee table as he plans to read it a third time.
And who deserves them more?
He wasn’t ready for a “floppo,” as he called the lost last generation, but he’s proud he fended off doubts and never stopped expecting this day.
“To me,” he said, “a fan sticks with it.”