A 15-minute film at the Royals Hall of Fame strives to make the case that Kansas City always has been a baseball town.
A jubilant George Brett rushes to the mound in 1985 to embrace Bret Saberhagen. Seen it.
Ewing M. Kauffman. Charlie Finley. Been there.
But the film convinces — clearing the bases with one swing — when Buck O’Neil begins to speak:
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“Opening Day is always a good day. Mm-hmm. Everyone’s got hopes up.”
Buck was hope in the flesh, but not even he, among the game’s finest storytellers, could have spun a tale so incredible as the 2014 Royals.
Think about it. In January when musical phenom Lorde won a Grammy Award for her breakthrough hit “Royals,” did she know pixie dust was in the air?
When SungWoo Lee spent his summer vacation from work in South Korea to travel to Kauffman Stadium and captivate an entire community, did he know?
Curt Nelson knows for sure that baseball and Kansas City could never be estranged forever, if at all. Pent-up passions were bound to be unleashed.
It’s happening now.
“You’re stretching peoples’ loyalties going 29 years between playoffs, but in this city that bond with baseball never broke,” said Nelson, the director of the Royals Hall Fame. “It never broke.”
What might have cracked a bit among many Kansas Citians was an appreciation of the day-to-day drama of the game. Some may have forgotten how every pitch matters, how even a bunt can win a pennant. But the thrill of all that is rushing back.
The blue around town is a fresh blue. Crisp Royals caps and T-shirts, barely faded. At Chappell’s Restaurant and Sports Museum in North Kansas City, the whole staff, on its own and one by one, bought new Royals gear that workers decided to wear in place of their issued apparel.
“I got people here who know the lineups top to bottom but didn’t even know the players back in June,” said owner Jim Chappell. “I’ve never seen Kansas City as wired as it is for the Royals, and that includes 1985,” when the team won the World Series.
“This town is crazy right now,” he added. “Good crazy.”
By “good crazy,” Chappell is referring to a warm excitement recalled by generations born before 1980.
Strangers remark, “Let’s go Royals,” passing one another in the grocery aisle. They gaze together at TVs without turning away until the inning is done.
Nail salons around town have never before applied so much blue polish.
“We’ve gone beyond rediscovering baseball and created a whole new generation of fans,” said said Lloyd Johnson of Belton, an author of baseball books and the executive director of the Society of American Baseball Research.
When the Royals were corralling 2 million fans annually to the stadium in the late 1970s and ’80s, the team had massive appeal to baby boomers who were coming of age, Johnson said.
“So many of the fans then were young and single, the same age as those players,” he said. “You’re seeing that happen all over again.
“There’s definitely a new generation of fans that’s going to be season-ticket holders next year.”
Blue to red
Attendance at Royals home games peaked in 1989, when crowds averaged more than 30,000 per game.
Turnout fell to almost half of that in 2002. During the baseball drought, the football Chiefs posted record attendance figures, giving rise to a notion that Kansas City could only enjoy one big-league sports party at a time.
Experts can’t seem to agree on whether a community the size of Kansas City has a finite amount of spending power when it comes to professional sports. When one team struggles, do its fans jump to the other because they can’t afford to support both?
“There are many who’d argue that sports teams function more or less independent of each other,” said Michael C. Davis, a sports economist at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
Beyond any argument, however, is Kansas City’s place in baseball history.
In that brief documentary packing fans into the theater above left field, we see a story that extends beyond the Royals’ polyester era of the late 1970s and ’80s. We see J.L. Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs and the Sunday outings, with fans all dressed up, at Muehlebach Field.
We see a young Jackie Robinson.
We see the Kansas City Blues, the erstwhile farm club of the New York Yankees. We see the downtown parade that in 1955 celebrated the arrival to Municipal Stadium of the Kansas City Athletics, a team that signaled baseball’s march west.
And there on a bench next to you at the theater sits a life-size bronze of O’Neil, eyes on the screen, grinning and gesturing as if telling the story.
During the Royals’ lean years, he was at the center of a history rekindled, giving Kansas City something it needed to fill the playoff void. O’Neil and others founded the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 1990, which would found a permanent home in 1997 at the 18th and Vine District.
The Negro Leagues heritage and the Royals’ recent success have combined to ignite a new vigor for youth baseball in Kansas City, Kan.
“Five years ago, there wasn’t hardly any baseball being played in the inner city of KCK,” said Cle Ross, the executive director of the city’s Reviving Baseball in the Inner City program. RBI is a nationwide program overseen by Major League Baseball.
Today, Kansas City, Kan., is home to 57 RBI teams with 900 participants ages 3 to 18. This summer Ross’ team of 15 local teens won the regional championship in Milwaukee and traveled to Texas, playing in uniforms donated by the Royals, and finished fifth in the nation.
Ross said his players visit the Negro Leagues museum every year. Not only have they connected with the local legacy of O’Neil, Robinson and Satchel Paige, but they’ve also turned on to the new heroes in blue.
“Now they can tell you about them all: Lorenzo Cain. Mike Moustakis. Eric Hosmer. Jarrod Dyson,” said Ross. “Moving forward, with the Royals winning, youth baseball around here is going to be huge.”
Nelson, of the Royals Hall of Fame, can talk for hours about why this is so right for Kansas City.
“Kid Nichols, one of the great pitchers of the game, called Kansas City home,” Nelson said. In 1890, when Nichols embarked on a career spanning 361 victories on the mound, Charles Dillon Stengel was born here.
“He even took the city’s initials,” Nelson said of the iconic manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves, New York Yankees and New York Mets. “Casey Stengel! Now that’s what defines a baseball town.”
You kidding me?
Is it the town, the team or the game itself that has made for such a memorable October?
Easy, said restaurateur Chappell: “It’s this team.
“… No superstars. No prima donnas,” he said. “Our fans know we’re a small market. They look at this team and see a bunch of guys having fun.
“The defense of Mike Moustakas. Terrance Gore stealing bases. Billy Butler stealing a base! Are you kidding me?
“Everything is just wonderful,” Chappell declared.
That’s what speed do. (We couldn’t end this story without quoting Dyson.)
Baseball historian Johnson said that the Royals’ brand of action — intimidating pitching, scrappy base-running, bunting, slap hitting — harkens to an earlier age of playing ball. Think Kid Nichols and Jackie Robinson. Think Buck O’Neil.
“We’re in this new era of speed replacing steroids in the game,” he said. “We are being reacquainted with old-time baseball.
“The Royals hit upon it earlier than other clubs, but you’re going to see the others start mimicking these Royals.”
Morrie Carlson, 74, can’t wait for a new film to premiere in the little theater at the Royals Hall of Fame.
The manager of stadium tours and education programs at The K, Carlson has sat next to the bronze of O’Neil and seen the 2014 version, replete with images from 1985, a couple hundred times.
“I never get tired of it,” he said, but he acknowledged that the wait has been long enough.
“This is a movie that cries out for a sequel.”