Sam Mellinger

Why those who know him believe John Sherman is the right man to buy, lead KC Royals

Here’s a story the man who will likely be the next owner of the Royals sometimes tells friends.

This is back in the 1970s, when John Sherman played quarterback at Ottawa University and on a day the practice field felt like the surface of the sun. Then it got worse. Locusts. Everywhere. Swarming his legs. Then comes the story’s punchline, with his thoughts in that moment of insect warfare:

Where did I come to?

The particulars of this story may have changed in the retellings. One friend remembered it as mosquitoes, not locusts. But the takeaway is the same no matter the details.

Sherman has come a long way since those years, and whether the story has been enhanced for comedic effect or not, the place he came to has become his own. He is of Kansas City, a resident for more than 40 years, and will be an even bigger part of our city assuming a group he’s leading is approved by Major League Baseball’s owners to buy the Royals for a reported $1 billion.

That seems to be more formality than anything else at this point, by the way. He’s already been vetted by the league office and is already respected in those circles. The Royals announced the proposed transaction Friday afternoon. The other 29 owners could ratify the sale as soon as November. Current Royals owner David Glass targeted Sherman as a potential buyer for reasons that include his experience and roots in Kansas City, according to a source.

Sherman is a minority owner in the Indians, a stake thought to be around 30 percent. He had a path to become the majority owner but instead will divest himself of that interest to control his hometown team, the one he’s had season tickets for in the past. He lives near the Plaza, a short drive from his new office.

“I am enormously grateful to David and the Glass (f)amily for this extraordinary opportunity and am humbled by the chance to team up with a distinguished group of local investors to carry forward and build on this rich Kansas City Royals legacy,” Sherman said in a news release issued by the team Friday. “Our goal will be threefold: to compete for a championship on behalf of our fans; to honor their passion, their experience and their unwavering commitment; and to carry their hopes and dreams forward in this great Kansas City region we all love — for decades to come.”

Whether you know it or not — and his privacy indicates he probably doesn’t care either way — Sherman has been one of the city’s most influential and respected leaders, businessmen and philanthropists for years.

More than a dozen of Sherman’s friends and associates spoke for this column. And the insight provided from many who know him tells a consistent story.

He loves baseball and Kansas City. He became wildly successful with businesses in energy with a style described as thoughtful, open-minded, inclusive and simultaneously pragmatic and accepting of risk. He is not the first or loudest voice in the room. His questions are researched and considered and sometimes asked to see how much research and consideration is coming from the other side.

He and his wife, Marny, are often talked about in tandem, both in business and community work that focuses largely on education and opportunities for the underserved. Friends were hesitant to say too much about his personal life, but the Shermans adopted a boy from a Romanian orphanage.

He is a wealthy entrepreneur with a history of words and actions that indicate he will not only keep the Royals here but work tirelessly to improve the club’s success on the field and around town.

A clearer picture will come in time, particularly when Sherman can talk publicly about the purchase. A clearer picture still will come when we can see what he actually does. But for now, based on what we can find, this transaction appears to be an unqualified positive for the Royals and Kansas City.

“He’s close to perfect,” said Cliff Illig, the Cerner co-founder, owner of Sporting Kansas City and a friend of Sherman’s. “If all the great sports writers got together and wrote a spec of what we needed in ownership in Kansas City, I’m not sure you’d be writing much that would be different than the strengths and capabilities that John Sherman has.”

‘Very engaged’

John Sherman is a baseball nerd. That’s how some friends describe him, anyway. He is the kind of fan who not only can go over last night’s game but tell you who’s pitching the next day and who might not be available out of the bullpen.

He reads books that would only appeal to hardcore baseball people, from “Big Data Baseball” (about the number-crunching that fueled the Pirates’ rise from the bottom) to “The Grind” (about the human struggles behind professional sports’ longest season).

He has toured the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum multiple times, one time bringing along Indians majority owner Paul Dolan.

“Very engaged,” said Bob Kendrick, the museum’s president. “With the ties to Cleveland, he was especially interested in the stories about Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. Of course, it’s hard not to be interested in the stories of Satch. But he wanted to know more, and asked questions.”

Sherman built two companies from an idea to billions in revenue, an entrepreneurial path accelerated by both building on what he knew and asking questions of those who knew what he didn’t.

Entrepreneurs can be flashy. Sometimes, that’s a calculated business move. Flash can mean buzz, and buzz can mean business. That is not Sherman’s way.

“He’s quiet and helpful,” said Sly James, the former Kansas City mayor. “He tends not to be the one in the spotlight. He just does the right thing and doesn’t look for people to pat him on the back for it.”

Sherman’s low profile can be seen in how long the negotiations with the Royals have been kept secret — one source said it’s been nearly a year. He continues to work, too, including on a startup with Illig that’s focused on innovation around agriculture and bio-science.

Sherman has given time and money to causes close to his heart — among them the Truman Presidential Library, Teach for America, the Negro Leagues Museum and several schools. Sherman worked with James to preserve Kansas City’s earning taxes and in an ultimately unsuccessful push for universal pre-K.

Jason Kander met Sherman in 2012 during his race for Missouri secretary of state. Kander now works at the Veterans Community Project, which Sherman had already supported. Their relationship started with politics and grew with a mutual love for baseball.

“Our political views are aligned, but here’s something about him that speaks well of how he approaches anything in business,” Kander said. “I’ve never gotten the sense from John that he’s particularly partisan. Never got the sense he viewed it in that us-versus-them sort of way.

“He approaches it with a very thoughtful, ‘This is a way he can make his community a stronger place.’ I know that sounds like politician talk, but not everybody feels that way. With John I always got the impression he was really thoughtful about everything. He didn’t arrive at any opinion just because he thought it’s the opinion he’s supposed to have.”

A modern Mr. K

When John Sherman led the search committee for the Kauffman Foundation’s CEO in 2014, he said, “We are looking for a leader that understands and appreciates the impact of successfully executing Mr. Kauffman’s vision.”

The eventual hire, Wendy Guillies, described the charge like this: to treat others the way you want to be treated in life and business, to share with those who produce the rewards, and to give back.

“Mr. Kauffman believed what you did is important, but how you do it is just as important,” Guillies said. “John is an example of that in so many ways.”

Guillies said Sherman is “a pragmatist, but he’s not afraid of risk.” This brought further comparison to Kauffman, and to emphasize the point she texted a video of Kauffman telling a story from his time in the Navy during World War II.

The two-sentence version: Kauffman went over his navigation officer’s head to correct an error. Merely checking his math put his fleet at risk; being correct likely saved at least three ships. He became the new navigation officer.

Now, the stakes of a baseball team clearly do not compare to that example from Kauffman.

But the through-line is there — a self-made wealthy entrepreneur whose work made himself and others wealthy, making Kansas City his home, and spending much of his time and money on causes close to his heart.

“He’s clearly connected to Mr. K’s legacy,” said Adam Sachs, a partner at Hush Blackwell and vice chairman at both the Truman Library and Negro Leagues Museum. “That continuity is a special thing.”

Sherman’s pending purchase would be one of the most significant sports stories in Kansas City history. The Chiefs, for their entire existence, have been owned by one family. Illig’s group bought what is now Sporting Kansas City from Lamar Hunt in 2006. The Royals are in their 51st season and have two owners. Sherman would be the third.

He shares some similarities with Kauffman and a strong mutual respect with Glass. But this is a new man, in a new time, and clues exist as to how he might operate.

Forward thinker

Sherman and Illig are not best friends, exactly, but they are similarly driven with enough in common that their conversations have increased in number and depth in recent years.

The pool of Kansas City-based team owners is shallow, after all, so as Sherman considered and then executed his partnership with Dolan to run the Indians, Illig became something of an informal sounding board.

Illig described Sherman as a forward thinker, one who wants to meet the next challenge before it surfaces. Sherman has talked about baseball’s declining attendance and some of the changes required to make the sport more appealing to younger people — from big things, like a full exploration of moving the team downtown, to little things, like opening a year-round sports bar at the stadium and buying the first round.

Privately, the Royals have described the exploration of potential downtown sites as “very exhilarating,” and the project is said to be supported by various levels of government and local leaders.

“He’s expressed some pride to me that they were trying some things differently (in Cleveland),” Illig said. “I wouldn’t say the Royals, out of necessity, under the Glasses have done some of that stuff. I don’t think the Glass family is wired the way I’m describing.”

Sports ownership is changing. Interests shift. Teams in all leagues are having more difficultly selling tickets, especially season tickets. Television contracts have an uncertain future.

Innovation is no longer a buzzword. It’s a necessity. And in that context, a man with the heart of a fan and a love for his city and a proven track record of managing the risk required to build empires from scratch might just be the ideal leader for this moment.

The Royals will be fundamentally different under Sherman. Some of that is mechanical, like the power structure of making decisions. Gone will be the days of club president Dan Glass as day-to-day supervisor and the liaison to his father who approved or rejected all major decisions.

Sherman is said to favor hiring the best people he can and know when to stay out of the way and when to provide support. According to friends, he has become more interested in the science of baseball in recent years and would figure to bring a more modern view of the sport.

The grandest shift in Royals history since Kauffman’s death in 1993 is happening.

“David was a professional executive CEO,” said Illig, a Royals season-ticket holder. “He’s a smart guy and clearly knew a good opportunity and investment when he saw one. But that’s a little different than being steeped in Kansas City, having built a company, grown it, enjoyed the fruits of the wealth that might go with that and willing to turn it around and invest it back into the city in some way.

“All due respect, I’ve always been a huge supporter of what the Glasses did. You made the point the other day, this is not just about cheap. In small markets, you have to manage these things.

“But baseball’s been the outlier in terms of the full commitment: civic and philanthropic, a local identity basis. So it’ll be great to see a change in ownership if it gets us much more vested in what Kansas City can be for sports.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.