Sam Mellinger

The World Series-bound Royals have transformed KC’s sports identity

They must be getting good at this. The Royals’ Alex Gordon (left) and Salvador Perez celebrated with champagne after Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Baltimore in the American League Championship Series. It was the third postseason celebration for KC after winning the Wild Card Game and the AL Division Series.
They must be getting good at this. The Royals’ Alex Gordon (left) and Salvador Perez celebrated with champagne after Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Baltimore in the American League Championship Series. It was the third postseason celebration for KC after winning the Wild Card Game and the AL Division Series. The Kansas City Star

Forty thousand people standing and screaming have only seen this kind of party in other cities, so they’re not going anywhere. Not anytime soon.

Fireworks explode over the scoreboard. Fans jump over the railing, onto the field, and are still smiling even as they’re led off the field in handcuffs. At least one of the cops may have been smiling, too.

The Royals will play in the World Series. Saying or hearing or reading those words will send chills down the arms of fans across Kansas City and beyond. This is the kind of thing that always happens somewhere else. Not Kansas City, where they tailgate hard because they know that might be the best part of the day.

The franchise once defined by a manager saying it can always get worse is now, somehow, America’s team and the greatest story in sports. They are the last team standing in the American League and the betting favorite to win the whole thing. In the stands and even in the clubhouse, over and over, you hear grown men ask each other if this is real life.

This American League playoff race was supposed to be decided by the Oakland A’s trading for Jon Lester or the Detroit Tigers getting David Price. Instead, it’s been won by a group of friends that believe in each other, run like hell and play the best defense baseball has seen in quite some time. Together, they ended the longest playoff drought in North American sports and have now pushed the fairy tale all the way to the World Series for the first time since 1985.

Honestly, how many people would have called it good after the Wild Card Game?

“This is better than ’85,” says Art Stewart, who has been here longer than anyone else in baseball operations.

Officials pulled the man who built it all from his suite an inning early to make sure he could join the celebration, so Dayton Moore watched the final outs on a small TV screen in the batting cages behind the Royals’ dugout. He watched as Greg Holland got the last batter to roll over on a slider, a harmless grounder to Mike Moustakas, who threw the ball across the diamond and leaped in the air before his friend Eric Hosmer caught it and made official a 2-1 win and a sweep of the Orioles in the American League Championship Series.

Moore pumped his fist, hugged some friends and went out to the field, where the noise rained down on him. He came here eight years ago against the advice of some of his most trusted mentors. They told him he’d never win in Kansas City. He’d turned down better jobs, but the Royals were his boyhood team, as he likes to say, and he wanted to take on what he thought of as the greatest challenge in professional sports.

When he got here, he talked about a parade route. They’d go through the Country Club Plaza. He had no idea it would take this long to get within four wins of making that happen. There have been times he had no idea if he’d ever get this far, period.

“I don’t even know why I said that, but I did,” Moore says now. “I was stupid, and naive. But this, this is incredible.”

Part of that is the movie-script way this season has played out. They were bad enough in May that they fired the hitting coach. Demoted their third baseman. Got swept by the Houston Astros, which some inside the organization still mark as the season’s low point. Look at them now: Salvador Perez leading his friends and teammates in a victory lap around the stadium, in front of the seats in the outfield that didn’t even exist when the team started building toward this moment.

But so much of the joy is that they’ve done this here, in Kansas City, where this is appreciated and celebrated in a way that perhaps no other place in baseball could. Celebrations run hotter and harder when fueled by a generation of pain.

This is the organization that lost a game when the first baseman was hit in the back with a throw to the plate and the next day announced him as their All-Star. This is the franchise that literally flipped a coin to decide if Runelvys Hernandez or Jeremy Affeldt would be the opening-day starter, lost 310 games in three years and didn’t bother with a team picture one year because, and this is a direct quote: “Who would want a picture of this team?”

Now they are eight games into a playoff run that’s captured the hearts of strangers and still undefeated on an incredible combination of enough hitting, good pitching and great defense.

A few weeks ago, this was a thrilling story and a validation of eight years of patience. Today, a city sleeps off a night of wild midweek celebration knowing that in some real ways its sports identity is now fundamentally different.

“We’re changing lives in the city,” says outfielder Jarrod Dyson. “We’re bringing excitement back. That’s our goal, man.”

Dyson was mostly talking about the fans he meets and hugs and takes selfies with every day. They range from high school girls to old men. From the woman who has already outlived a cancer diagnosis and lives close enough to hear the cheers from Kauffman Stadium before seeing what happens on TV to the 28-year-old man who is facing his own grim battle with the disease and has been adopted by the team and given seats by the club president and a champagne bottle to spray from the star first baseman.

But Dyson could have been talking about something much bigger than even that. This is a city that lost its pro basketball team, lost its hockey team and even lost its major-league baseball team before a pharmaceutical billionaire and an influential local newspaperman helped get one back. They’ve lost a lot here.

This is the city that watched its NFL team blow the second-biggest lead in playoff history. That football team hasn’t won a playoff game in more than 20 years, and before two weeks ago the baseball team hadn’t even been close to the playoffs in 29 years. This changes everything.

“The fans here deserve this,” chairman David Glass says. “They’ve stuck with us for a long time.”

The kind of losing Kansas City has seen can get in a place’s identity. It can become part of the DNA. There are fans old enough to still bristle at Howard Cosell calling Kansas City a cowtown on a national broadcast back in the 1970s. There are people inside the Royals — executives with nice salaries — who used to complain after close calls went against them that this wouldn’t happen to the Red Sox or Yankees or Dodgers.

At some point, there became a comfort in this setup because what other choice did people here have? So they bond in cussing Lin Elliott and Elvis Grbac and Scott Boras and for so long the rudderless leadership that drowned the franchise from Ewing Kauffman’s death in 1993 to 2006, when Glass finally committed to spending like a competitive, if small-money, franchise.

That’s all over now. The dark humor about 19-game losing streaks and serving as a farm system for real big-league teams loses its punch when the Royals run through the American League playoffs with Lorenzo Cain turning into Willie Mays. The losers are winners now, and there’s no going back. Two weeks ago, it had been 29 years since the Royals made the playoffs. Today, it’s been 29 years since they’ve lost a playoff game.

“I’ve seen this organization go from the bottom to the top,” says Billy Butler, drafted in 2004 and in the organization longer than any of his teammates.

An identity is changed now, and forever. This used to be the thing people in Kansas City watched happen in other cities, and always on TV. The St. Louis Rams won a Super Bowl. The Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series. The Minnesota Twins and A’s became postseason mainstays on small payrolls. Good for them, as far as that goes.

Watching those parties in other places with other teams is such a way of life in Kansas City that it’s hard to know whether it’s imagination or delusion to picture it here.

That different way is here now, and it smells like fresh champagne and an old joy spilling out all over the city.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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