Sam Mellinger

The layered legacy of David Glass’ nearly 2 decades as owner of the Kansas City Royals

Twenty-six years ago last month one of the most influential and respected men in Kansas City sports history died.

Ewing Kauffman lived a life worth a movie, a self-made billionaire whose success created hundreds of millionaires and bought a baseball team even though he didn’t know much about the sport. He thought it would be nice for his city.

Kauffman wanted that to last, too, which only amplified the importance of who would own the Royals after his death. Kauffman’s wishes became clear: The team must stay and Kansas City must remain a major-league city. Eventually, he identified the man he hoped would take the job.

Bud Selig, then the acting commissioner for Major League Baseball, is believed to be the last man to see Kauffman alive. Selig can still remember Kauffman’s words. He wanted David Glass to run his team.

“And I think Ewing Kauffman would be proud,” Selig said.

Glass is selling the Royals for a reported $1 billion to Kansas City businessman John Sherman, a transaction that can’t become official until the owners vote after the season. Glass bought the club for $96 million in April 2000. The Royals are in their 51st season and have had just two owners.

This column is about Glass’ nearly 20 years in charge, which is sort of like writing about politics, because most interested parties have seemingly already made up their minds.

Getting it right

Most of those opinions, even after the Royals’ 2014 American League pennant and 2015 World Series championship, lean negative.

So here is something that may not be well received but deserves to be said anyway: Glass got the biggest things right.

Not just the parade, either. The club was once mentioned in contraction talks as a board of directors (which Glass chaired, at Kauffman’s request) ran the team in a way that cut costs to become more attractive to a buyer.

Kauffman’s most important demand was that the next owner keep the team in Kansas City. Glass did that and has now paid it forward by targeting Sherman. Glass will profit wildly from selling for more than 10 times his purchase price, but sources with knowledge of the process have said Glass likely could have made even more by opening the club for bid.

He wanted to make sure the next owner would keep the team in Kansas City, and treat it as a community asset — a clear through-line from the club’s original owner to its new future.

“It gives me chills every time I think about it,” general manager Dayton Moore said.

In some ways, the negative public opinion about Glass is a testament to the power of first impressions. The Royals went from a perennial contender before the strike of 1994 to the worst team in the sport by the mid 2000s.

There are a million reasons for that outside of any one person’s control, most notably the explosion in television revenue and an economic model that increasingly put small-market franchises at a disadvantage.

But Glass was the chairman of the board, and then the owner, as the Royals lost 100 games or more four times between 2002 and 2006. The organization was a mess, and Glass was in charge.

The critical mile marker here is June 2006, when Glass hired Moore, who had previously turned down the Red Sox and was set to become the Atlanta Braves’ next GM

It’s not all tied to Moore, but his hiring serves as a telling scene change — the Royals modernized their IT from Lotus to Outlook, invested in baseball infrastructure like extra scouts and generally operated the way ambitious small-market clubs should. They set records in amateur spending, added minor-league affiliates and updated the way they sold themselves to sponsors.

The change was something of a roc-bottom moment for Glass. Various associates and friends have said Glass felt embarrassed by the losing and angry because he had never failed in a competitive setting before.

One former baseball operations employee put it this way: “He wanted to believe in the people who were there, but eventually the losing stacks up and he realized he needed new people.”

Kevin Uhlich was hired in November of 2006 as a vice president of business, and calls his 13 years working for Glass “the most enjoyable” of his 43-year career.

“He was painted in such a bad light before,” Uhlich said. “He took the team over from the trust, and for the first four or five years he tried to show confidence in the people who were here. Unfortunately, it was a different age and things weren’t working.”

Many who’ve worked for Glass retain a fierce loyalty, even those who are now in other places.

His reputation among those people remains the boss who not only asks about your family but remembers the answer and follows up the next time. He is known for a sturdy handshake, a whack on the arm and a friendly greeting for players. No meeting ends without him asking the room what he can do to help.

He is obsessed with the game, too. That might be the greatest disconnect between public perception and that of those who work with him. Moore has said that Glass knows not just the next day’s pitcher and available bullpen arms, but how each minor-league team did the day before, all the way down to the Dominican summer league.

Here’s a scene that’s played out more than once: Glass calls to rip into someone in baseball operations, who, depending on how well they know him, begins to wonder if they’re about to be fired. The conversation turns at some point, often after Glass breaks the tension with a joke, and then ends the same way:

Is there anything I can do for you?

Rags to riches

The Royals became one of the worst-run franchises in baseball on Glass’ watch. That’s a fact that even his strongest supporters must admit.

But he also should be remembered for one of the greatest course-corrections in modern sports. That would be easier to see and more widely recognized if a new owner bought the team in June 2006, but it remains true all the same. Glass found the right people to trust, and the right ideas to invest in.

The Royals have the fewest winning seasons and playoff appearances of any team in the American League Central since Glass’ purchase.

But the Chicago White Sox are the only other team to win a World Series, and that was in 2005, from a much bigger market. Only the Detroit Tigers can match the Royals’ two pennants. Around the American League, only the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have won more World Series or pennants.

In the broader view, Glass was a leading voice for increased revenue sharing and chaired the committee that started MLB’s Advanced Media. He oversaw the heaviest renovation in Kauffman Stadium history and a wildly successful All-Star weekend in 2012.

He refused to sell the stadium’s naming rights, too, even after Julia Irene Kauffman gave her blessing. In some ways, Glass always considered this his old friend’s team.

His legacy is complicated, then. Winning is what matters, and for some the success of 2014 and 2015 won’t stick in the mind as much as the other years, market forces be damned.

But beyond anything that happened on the field, the single most important thing an owner can do for a city is to keep the team in place. Glass did that, when others may have looked around.

And, after seeking and taking advice from those who knew the business better than him, he owned the first small-market World Series champion since the strike.

His final move is his most lasting: He sought and sold the team to a man seemingly committed to the organization’s highest ambitions, both in remaining in Kansas City and finding more success on the field.

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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.