The lights of Kauffman Stadium glittered and illuminated Interstate 70 as Wednesday night approached Thursday morning.
Most of the Royals had already left the ballpark, hopes raised by a restorative victory, ready to enjoy a day off before what Billy Butler called “the biggest series since 1985, right?”
Inside the clubhouse, a few stragglers milled and an attendant hummed a vacuum across the carpet. A distinctive squawk cut the quiet.
It was the voice of Art Stewart, the 87-year-old scout, an architect of Kansas City’s last baseball dynasty and a witness to 29 years in the wilderness. As he headed for the exit, Stewart could not contain his excitement for Friday, for the sort of party this park hasn’t hosted in ages.
“The place should be rocking,” Stewart said. “Rocking!”
The front office has waited eight years for this. The owner has waited 20. The fans have waited almost three decades without a playoff appearance, a generation of rooters exposed only to slapstick performances and 90-loss campaigns, a group wracked by anxiety during the final weeks of this season.
With one triumphant weekend in their glistening stadium, the Royals can, at last, reward this city and this region for their faith.
On Friday night, the Kansas City Royals begin a three-game series with the Detroit Tigers, the leaders of the American League Central Division. The Royals, 83-68, effectively trail Detroit, 84-68, by a game in the standings. Two victories would tie the clubs. A sweep would vault the Royals into first place for the final week of the season. The stakes could not be higher.
“The importance of it, to this organization and this city, it’s 10 out of 10,” Butler said.
After winning 86 games last season, the club’s highest total since 1989, expectations soared for 2014. Owner David Glass authorized general manager Dayton Moore to fashion a roster with a franchise-record $94 million payroll, the 19th-largest in the majors. The club boasts a trio of All-Stars, a bonafide workhorse in James Shields and an eclectic roster of mostly home-grown players.
They also inhabit a shrinking window. When this season ends, Shields will depart in free agency. The Royals could cut ties with Butler, their longest-tenured player. The complexion of this team could be radically different next spring.
Given the urgency, fans have flocked in droves to the ballpark. Kauffman Stadium, with 37,903 seats, averaged 23,644 attendees through 78 games, the club’s highest average since 1994. With already more than 100,000 tickets sold for the weekend, the season’s overall attendance will number more than 1,944,000, the Royals’ largest since 1991.
On Thursday morning, as the Royals sold tickets to potential playoff games, lines snaked from the box office to the parking lot. Within 10 minutes of making tickets available online, an unprecedented surge of interest “overwhelmed” the server and caused a glitch in the system, explained Toby Cook, the team’s vice president of community affairs and publicity.
During the day, Cook found himself in conversation with a local barber. “He said that everybody that’s in his chair over the last month and a half is talking about the Royals,” Cook said. “And every single one of them is an expert. They know exactly why we weren’t hitting very well for the longest time. And they’re having a blast with it.”
Despite the turnout, the legacy of losing has jaded the perspective of some fans. Moore incited outrage when he remarked, after last season’s improvement, “in a small way, I feel like we’ve won the World Series.” The managerial tactics of Ned Yost occur under a microscope of criticism. A sense of pessimism pervades.
The family of Julie Bradford, a 34-year-old veterinarian from Kansas City, has held season tickets since the team’s stint in Municipal Stadium. Bradford can still recall the car-honking, flag-waving bedlam that engulfed Kauffman Stadium during the 1985 World Series.
With a two-game lead on Seattle in the AL wild-card standings, the Royals appear to occupy a steady foothold. ESPN placed their odds of making the playoffs at 84.9 percent on Thursday morning. Yet a lifetime spent watching a losing squad still left Bradford with anxiety heading into this weekend.
“I’m pretty nervous about it,” Bradford said. “I’m used to disappointment.”
The Royals aim to buck that trend. Their season has been a saga of ecstasy and agony. They rose from fourth place in May to first place in June. They tumbled all the way back to two games below .500 in July. They held onto first place for 32 days in August and September, only to watch their offense vanish and Detroit reclaim the lead.
The Tigers own their advantage based on their record against the Royals, who are 5-11 against Detroit this season. “They’ve dominated us thus far,” Moore admitted, including two losses at Comerica Park last week. The significance of these next games is not lost on the group.
“It has some good weight to it, for sure,” Shields said. “We’re right on their heels. This is where we want to be. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The arrival of Shields, a 32-year-old blessed with California cool and one of baseball’s most reliable right arms, altered the course of this franchise — and also incited waves of criticism toward the front office.
Moore had left the player-development machine of the Atlanta Braves in the summer of 2006 to shepherd the resurrection of the club he grew up adoring. On Oct. 27, 1985, he stopped his car on I-70, scuttled down an embankment and watched Game 7 of the World Series.
Twenty-one years later, he inherited a franchise that had gone to seed. The club ran out of money to sign its draft picks some years. The international scouting operation was nonexistent. The computer system ran on the archaic Lotus Notes software. One season, the Royals never even took a team picture. Moore needed to build more than a 25-man roster. He needed to funnel dollars into scouting, player development and an overall infrastructure.
“We have been building for this opportunity,” Moore said. “Our first draft was in 2007. We were very fortunate that Mr. Glass understood and respected and desired our vision for the team, and how we were going to try to build this. Knowing it was going to take some time.”
The group scheduled its arrival for 2012. Five years into the rebuilding phase, the Royals felt primed for a breakout. They fashioned billboards with a slogan: “Our Time.” Then future All-Star catcher Salvador Perez required knee surgery, a slew of arm injuries decimated their pitching depth and the club careened to yet another 90-loss season.
After the season, the front office felt compelled to alter the composition of the club. They dealt top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay for Shields and fellow pitcher Wade Davis. The trade invoked howls: Shields becomes a free agent after this season, while Myers can’t leave his club until 2020.
Myers won the American League Rookie of the Year award and played in the American League Division Series last year. Despite their improvement, the Royals spent October at home once again. The outcome only heightened the drama for 2014, likely Shields’ last season in a Kansas City uniform.
The long road, through anger and anguish and a temporary reign at the top of the division, brought the Royals to this weekend. The Tigers stand in the way of the team’s first division title in nearly three decades. For years, the club’s marketing department attempted to drum up interest by hawking the majesty of its ballpark and the brightness of its future.
The moment has arrived.
“You’ve got to knock off the champion to take their crown,” Butler said. “They’re not going to give it to us. We’ve got to take it from them.”
This weekend’s Royals-Tigers games
At Kauffman Stadium
▪ Friday (7:10 p.m. on FSKC): Justin Verlander (13-12, 4.81 ERA) vs. Jason Vargas (11-9, 3.41 ERA)
▪ Saturday (12:05 p.m. on Fox): Max Scherzer (16-5, 3.26 ERA) vs. James Shields (14-7, 3.15 ERA)
▪ Sunday (1:10 p.m. on FSKC): Rick Porcello (15-11, 3.19 ERA) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (11-11, 4.35 ERA)