At 6:04 p.m. on a cool Wednesday evening, Art Stewart stood at his usual post behind home plate at Kauffman Stadium. For the better part of four decades, Stewart had come to this stadium, sat in this seat, watching grown men play baseball.
He was a scout first, always a baseball man, so each night was much like the next. Stewart would clutch his radar gun, scribble notes and talk with the scouts from the opposing team. The days faded into months, the months into years, the seasons passing by like a dancing light in the darkened sky above the stadium’s horizon.
Stewart is 87 now, special adviser to the general manager, the venerable sage of the Royals. This year was his 62nd season in baseball, most of them in the Midwest. Forty-five years ago, Stewart left the New York Yankees to join the expansion franchise in Kansas City. So on Wednesday afternoon, with the Royals just one victory from their first American League pennant since 1985, Stewart never really gave it much thought.
“I never moved out of my seat,” Stewart said, “I stayed right behind the plate.”
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For 29 years, Stewart had waited for this day, the moment of salvation after nearly three decades in the darkness. All around Kauffman Stadium, others were waiting, too.
There was David Glass, the owner who bought the team in 2000, kept it in Kansas City and claimed ownership of the futility. There was Dayton Moore, the general manager who arrived in 2006, outlining a vision for a small-market team.
There was Mike Jirschele, the third-base coach who has been in the Royals organization since the early 1990s. After coaching 2,342 games in the minor leagues, this was his first season in the bigs.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” Jirschele said.
And there was Curt Nelson, a Royals employee who joined the organization in 1999, a 30-year-old seasonal intern who worked for $7.25 per hour. Nelson wanted to take a shot in baseball. He now runs the team’s Hall of Fame.
“I always thought we would see it,” Nelson said. “But with each passing year, it’s like: ‘I’m sure it’s going to happen at some point. But when is it going to happen?’”
And, of course, there was Stewart, standing at his seat as Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy hit a chopper down the third-base line with two outs in the ninth inning. Moments later, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas threw a strike to first. A cannon-blast of fireworks exploded in the evening sky. And Kauffman Stadium let out a 29-year roar.
“There’s no words to tell,” Stewart said.
It was now 30 minutes after salvation, and Stewart was standing on the infield dirt. Kauffman Stadium was still shaking, the Royals were headed for the World Series, and after 29 years of waiting, there was this:
“This team,” Stewart said, “wasn’t given a chance in hell.”
Before the season, Royals owner David Glass found himself discussing the upcoming season with manager Ned Yost. The Royals were coming off an 86-win season, the best year in a generation and Glass was feeling optimistic.
In the summer of 2006, Moore had arrived from the Atlanta Braves with a clear mission — a plan to transform the Royals from the laughingstock of baseball to an organizational model. It began with the scouts.
“His vision was to have unlimited resources,” Stewart says, “to have the best scouting staff, the best player development staff and the biggest Latin American staff.”
After nearly eight years, Glass thought the process was close to hitting a crescendo. So in a quiet moment before the year, he told Yost his goal for the season.
“Let’s win all 162,” Glass said.
“You can’t do that,” Yost responded.
“Well, Why not?” Glass said.
On Wednesday, Glass hoisted the American League championship trophy for the first time. The Royals had just become the first major-league team to win their first eight games in a postseason. And Glass found himself on the Kauffman Stadium infield, remembering his conversation with Yost.
“I still don’t have an answer why,” Glass said. “You might as well plan to win them all.”
Here was the symbol of Kansas City’s loserdom, the former Wal-Mart CEO who had lorded over all those 100-loss seasons and hopeless years. Now Glass was a winner — as crazy as that sounds — on his way to the franchise’s third World Series. For a moment, he just wanted to soak in the scene on the infield grass. Amidst a crowd of bodies on the infield, he stumbled into a group of players, including right fielder Nori Aoki.
“Let’s get four more,” he said.
In the hour after the final out, Art Stewart stood on the Kauffman Stadium infield, retracing the past 29 years. When the Royals won the World Series in 1985, he kept saying, the payroll of the New York Yankees was just $5 million more than the Kansas City Royals. Now the disparity is closer to a $100 million.
“For a market like us,” Stewart said, “to come up and do what we’ve done.”
He talked about the star players that left — Beltran and Damon and Dye — and the seasons where the Royals were handcuffed by fiscal restraints. He talked about pain of losing, and that innate feeling that, yes, someday it would turn around.
Baseball, at its core, is largely a game about time. The games last three hours. You play every day. If you’re Stewart, you find your seat behind home plate.
Each year, the season provides a measuring stick. You are a success. You are a failure. You wait for next year. But for Moore and Stewart and those that have waited, there is one immortal truth: You have to work for today.
So in the moments after the game, Moore stood in front of a pack of reporters on the Kauffman Stadium field. For eight years, he had been working toward a moment like this. A stadium was alive, a franchise invigorated, a city on fire.
Now it was here. The Royals are going to the World Series. What can you really say about that?
“You never really put yourself in this spot,” Moore said. “And then when it happens, it’s moving fast.”