Kansas City’s baseball rebirth will be on display for Royals’ opening day

Interest in baseball was revived last October when the Royals reached the World Series, and the effect has carried over into 2015 as the club hopes to pack in the most fans in a season since 1991.
Interest in baseball was revived last October when the Royals reached the World Series, and the effect has carried over into 2015 as the club hopes to pack in the most fans in a season since 1991. The Kansas City Star

Dayton Moore walked along a concrete pathway that wended through monuments to the Kansas City Royals. He slipped past a chain link fence and into a dugout of a field dedicated to Hall of Famer George Brett.

This was once just another nameless diamond, a place for players to go through the motions en route to another hopeless season. Moore dedicated it to establish a connection with the past that he hoped to honor with its present.

Nine years ago, Moore inherited a franchise that lacked pride or any visible connection to its history. Their spring training complex reflected the divide.

The walls inside the baseball operations offices were blank. There were no murals for the franchise’s Hall of Famers. There were no awards to inspire minor leaguers to future success and no fields to salute past legends.

“There was none of that there,” Moore said. “There was nothing.”

After last year’s breakthrough in the World Series, now there is a contemporary event worth celebrating. October brought a baseball town back to life, a fact verified by civic leaders, members of the business community and the thousands of citizens captivated by the Royals’ run. The effects have swept through Kansas City.

Moore did not build a franchise from scratch, but his front office did resurrect one from its ashes. On the day the Royals introduced him as their general manager, Moore conducted an interview with a television host. After the conversation, the cameraman spoke up.

“Congratulations,” the man said, in Moore’s recollection, “you’re the general manager of a minor league team who has to play in the major leagues.”

Moore told this story as he wore a pullover with an American League championship logo over his heart. The proof is plastered all over this complex, on signs and T-shirts and all 68 lockers inside the major league clubhouse. On Monday afternoon, before 40,000 fans at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals will raise the pennant high enough for all passers-by on Interstate 70 to see.

The flag symbolizes how 15 games in October reinvigorated Kansas City, restored the franchise’s image and rebuilt a relationship sundered by a 29-year playoff drought. The last time the Royals inhabited Kauffman Stadium, James Shields told the crowd he was glad “baseball is back in Kansas City.” In the intervening months, the city proved Shields right.

The ticket office reported significant increases in sales and set attendance goals unreached in decades. The front office preached to its prospects the honor of defending a championship. The ownership group funded a payroll that approaches $115 million.

Across the area, thousands of new kids signed up to play for the first time. The city’s mayor saw a youthful, diverse club that exemplified the city’s ethos and exposed a nation to its charms. A lost generation of fans discovered the joy and hope inherent in the summer game.

“Kansas City is an unbelievable community,” Moore said. “The people have great hearts. I’m honored that baseball is playing a larger role in the lives of our families.”

The owner

On the other end of the telephone, David Glass chuckled. He admitted patience is not his strongest suit. It is also the quality he needed most during the past decade as owner of the Royals.

“That’s the most difficult thing of all because there are so many short-term strategies that you can’t pursue,” Glass said. “And you get a lot of pressure from everyone to pursue the short-term strategies.”

After six unsuccessful seasons, Glass turned to Moore in 2006. Moore came from Atlanta, the paragon of drafting and development, and aimed to replicate those practices in Kansas City. The journey lasted longer than both men expected. They absorbed the slings and arrows that come after years and years of losing baseball. Yet the process forged a baseball operations department capable of crafting a winner on a budget — and an owner willing to spend larger sums than he ever dreamed.

The Royals occupy the second smallest market in baseball, and they continue to shy away from financial competitions for top free agents. They may lose Alex Gordon, their franchise cornerstone, to the open market next winter. But their payroll has risen each of the past four seasons.

The growth has been mutual. As the organization pours resources into the franchise, the fan base has responded by opening their own wallets.

The season ticket base has grown 35 percent from last season, explained Steve Shiffman, the club’s senior director of sales and service. The total has surpassed 12,000, the highest since 1994, according to vice president of community affairs and publicity Toby Cook. Given this base, Cook cited a goal of packing 2 million fans into the park for the first time since 1991. Cook also reported increases in corporate sponsorships, merchandise sales and contributions to Royals-related charities.

“The bigger item is locking in people’s excitement about the team for the long haul,” Cook said. “Where whatever happens over the next five or 10 years, 2014 gave them the ability to hope and dream that the Royals are going to just be in it from here on out. I think everybody’s goal in the organization is to never go through the kind of drought that we experienced from 1985 to 2014.”

One night this spring, Mike Sweeney and George Brett bumped into Glass at dinner. The owner “looks like a middle-aged model out of a Brooks Brothers magazine,” Sweeney said, but his mind churns with baseball. Glass grilled the two members of his club’s Hall of Fame about the stability of reliever Ryan Madson’s elbow and the readiness of minor league outfielders Brett Eibner and Whit Merrifield.

“Don’t let that sweet smile and the perfect part in his hair trick you,” Sweeney said of Glass. “He’s a competitor. He really wants to win. And he’s shown that in the way that he has supported Dayton’s vision, building a winner by writing the big checks.”

The checks remain modest by modern standards, but they are competitive. Sweeney languished in Kansas City’s dark ages, when the club was a punch line, the scouts lacked cellphones and the group once declined to take a team picture. Like Glass, he never envisioned a world in which the Royals posted a nine-figure payroll.

Glass will never be confused with George Steinbrenner. But he has pledged to continue to spend as long as the club continues to win and fans continue to fill the ballpark. The pain of the team’s World Series defeat to San Francisco still gnaws at him, but the memories of October still invigorate him.

“I’ve never seen Kansas City as energized,” Glass said. “Ever. Even in ’85. I have not seen it as energized as they were for those World Series games.”

The city

The text message landed in Derek Ryan’s phone a few hours before the third game of the Royals’ American League Division Series against the Angels.

If we win this thing, Eric Hosmer wrote, we want to come out tonight.

Ryan is an assistant general manager at McFadden’s in the Power & Light District. He had met Hosmer and Jarrod Dyson earlier in the summer, and when the duo stopped by the bar after capturing the first two games in Anaheim, they struck up a conversation. Hosmer wondered if the venue could host a celebration.

One of the most remarkable images of October stemmed from that moment. After the Royals clinched on Sunday night, some players raced downtown to McFadden’s. On his Twitter account, Hosmer invited fans to join them. The players opened up the bar and split a $15,000 tab. Hosmer, Dyson and others, such as closer Greg Holland, sprayed the revelers with champagne.

“The support level, I had never seen the city like that before in my life,” outfielder Lorenzo Cain said.

The convergence of a team and its city became possible through social media, a factor that amplified the excitement through the playoffs. It was one example of a month that was “totally banana-nuts,” in the words of Mayor Sly James. He witnessed an atmosphere that surpassed his memories from 1985 as the proliferation of Twitter, Instagram and the like helped the energy to “spread like wildfire.”

The connection allowed the city’s mayor to bask in the nation’s attention. Television viewers on Fox saw a glittering ballpark and a sea of blue. Visitors in October dabbled in the city’s culture and its food. The Royals created a lasting conversation starter for James — at a conference in Paris earlier this year, those attending asked him about the Royals.

“I think that they really exemplified the under-the-radar, self-effacing, humble city that they sit in that has a lot more talent than people give them credit for,” James said. “I think the team and the city are synonymous in that regard.”

They also managed to share the celebration. After the Royals raced their way into the World Series, they convened at McFadden’s again. This time, Ryan estimated there were 8,000 packing the block after the Royals swept Baltimore. Police led a group of players from the street to a stage where Hosmer, Salvador Perez and James Shields thanked the fans for their support.

“Probably the craziest thing we’ve ever had,” Ryan said. “There was no comparing it to another event. There was no comparing it to another sporting event at all. I couldn’t rewrite it, I couldn’t do a play-by-play because it was something that none of us expected to be as crazy as it was.”

The kids

The board members of the Lee’s Summit Baseball Association could only point to Kauffman Stadium in October to explain what they experienced this spring. The league closed registration in the middle of March, two weeks earlier than normal. They had already added 19 new teams and absorbed an influx of at least 250 kids.

“We’re completely out of room,” said Rick Murrow, the league’s registrar. “We’re packed on every team. Unprecedented numbers in any year. And the only thing that I can think of is it’s the Royals.”

The surge left the league scrambling for sponsorships and coaches and field space. It is not a problem unique to Lee’s Summit. Across the region, more children than ever are signing up to play the game, say officials from youth leagues.

In Kansas City, the NKCA Baseball League experienced a 10 percent uptick before high-school-age registration had even finished, said league director Michael Cantwell. The league saw about 150 additional kids from ages 8 and under.

“We’re seeing more teams now than we ever had before,” Cantwell said. “Particularly at the younger ages. Which is good for baseball.”

Blue Springs Baseball expected about 300 more players, according to league president David Henry. He found an influx on both ends of the age spectrum, in kids signing up for tee-ball and in teenagers returning to the game.

“Ages where the kids would have already moved on, either went competitive or they’re done with baseball, they’re coming back in, just to play rec ball,” Henry said.

In Overland Park, Blue Valley Recreation’s youth leagues encountered 5 percent growth, with 250 additional registrations for baseball and softball. The 3&2 Baseball Club of Johnson County added only two teams, but executive director Jeff Chalk relayed anecdotal evidence of the Royals’ footprint.

“I will tell you this,” Chalk said. “There’s a lot more blue gear out there.”

When Dayton Moore walked the concourse at Kauffman Stadium upon his arrival, he saw something “that broke my heart,” he said. The parents wore the jerseys of retired Royals such as Brett, Amos Otis and Willie Wilson. The children wore the gear of Derek Jeter and David Ortiz. Moore sensed a generation that longed for baseball but lacked a major league club worth following.

The events of October changed that. The streets and schools and fields of Kansas City overflow with the jerseys of Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain.

“You see young kids wearing Royals stuff,” said John Hager, the president of the 3&2 Baseball Club of Kansas City. “You would never see that before.”

“That’s cool,” Gordon said. “Hey, no more iPads and computers and video games. Go out and play baseball. For sure. Just like the old days.”

The front office

The sun was fading over the White Tank Mountains as Dayton Moore sat inside the dugout at George Brett Field. A reporter relayed the increased turnout at the youth level and Moore’s eyes brightened.

“That gives me goose bumps,” Moore said. “That’s why I felt like we won the World Series in 2013. Because I could see all that changing.

“That is as important as anything we do. Do we want to win a championship? Of course we do. But it’s always been the motive of our front office, and the Glass family, to grow the game in Kansas City. And represent the game well.”

He has dedicated his life to baseball. His friends and colleagues say he has few other hobbies. He rises most days around 4:30 a.m., consumed by the challenges of his profession.

“I don’t sleep much,” he admitted.

His ethos fuels the front office. A day after after game seven of the World Series, Moore paced in the Kauffman Stadium dugout. For a few minutes he addressed the 15,000 fans gathered for a celebration of the season and a wake for the loss to Madison Bumgarner’s Giants. Then he sprinted down the steps into the building and back up to the baseball operations department.

With his staff gathered around him, Moore opted to look forward, not back. He opened discussions about the team’s strengths and weaknesses heading into the offseason. They talked about free agents and arbitration cases. Those attending the meeting reflected on how Moore reinforced the necessity of returning to this stage rather than reflecting on the accomplishment.

During spring training, assistant general manager J.J. Picollo addressed the minor leaguers about the standards of their franchise. He told them it was their job to uphold the expectations of the Kansas City Royals.

He had rehearsed the speech for five years.

“I’d been waiting for the day to say we’re a championship organization,” Picollo said.

The last round of batting practice had finished up, and Moore headed toward his office. On his way out of the dugout, he noticed debris of Gatorade bottles and paper cups left on the bench. A pair of baseballs was left behind.

He binned the litter and scooped the two balls as he walked back to his office. The sun bronzed the team’s logos, the portraits of their Hall of Famers, the signs proclaiming this is the home of the American League champions. The Royals have filled up those blank walls with memories. They believe they have restored pride to this organization. They brought the game back to life in Kansas City.

Moore tossed one of the baseballs to a minor leaguer jogging past. He kept the second in his right hand. The ball was stained with green grass and scuffed with red clay. It was perfect. He handed it to a reporter.

“Here,” Moore said. “Give it to a kid.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4730 or email Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar. Download True Blue, The Star’s free Royals app, here.

More kids on the diamond

Kansas City area youth baseball organizations have reported more sign-ups following the Royals’ run to the World Series last October.

▪ Lee’s Summit: 250 new kids

▪ NKCA: 150 new kids

▪ Blue Springs: 300 new kids

▪ Blue Valley Recreation: 250 new kids

Royals’ attendance under Dayton Moore

The Royals are hoping to top 2 million in season attendance for the first time since Dayton Moore became general manager and the first time overall since 1991.

▪ 2006: 1,372,638 (62-100)

▪ 2007: 1,616,867 (69-93)

▪ 2008: 1,578,922 (75-87)

▪ 2009: 1,797,887 (65-97)

▪ 2010: 1,615,326 (67-95)

▪ 2011: 1,724,370 (71-91)

▪ 2012: 1,739,821 (72-90)

▪ 2013: 1,750,754 (86-76)

▪ 2014: 1,956,482 (89-73)

Payroll on the rise

Despite residing in the second smallest revenue market in baseball, the Royals’ payroll has risen to 16th out of MLB’s 30 teams since David Glass hired Dayton Moore as general manager.

▪ 2006: $47.3 million (26th)

▪ 2007: $67.1 million (22nd)

▪ 2008: $58.2 million (24th)

▪ 2009: $70.5 million (21st)

▪ 2010: $71.4 million (24th)

▪ 2011: $36.1 million (30th)

▪ 2012: $36.1 million (30th)

▪ 2013: $79.3 million (18th)

▪ 2014: $92.1 million (19th)

▪ 2015: $113.6 million (16th)

Sources: USA Today, Los Angeles Times and The Star

Related stories from Kansas City Star