Sam Mellinger

The Royals’ journey from a joke to the World Series

Royals owner David Glass (center) and his wife, Ruth Glass spoke with Royals designated hitter Billy Butler before game two of the American League Division Series on Oct. 3.
Royals owner David Glass (center) and his wife, Ruth Glass spoke with Royals designated hitter Billy Butler before game two of the American League Division Series on Oct. 3. The Kansas City Star

Back before anyone ever saw David Glass’ hair doused in champagne, one of the richest, most quantifiably successful businessmen in modern American history had to admit he didn’t know what he was doing.

He had to recognize that for all the money he made for himself and others running Wal-Mart, more people knew him as the owner of the bumbling baseball team in Kansas City. Had to realize that before he could stand in front of a national television audience and dedicate the American League championship trophy to Royals fans, he had to give up control.

The Royals have gone from a joke of a franchise to the World Series in eight years, the absolute best thing in sports right now. To make this journey, Glass had to accept his leadership pushed the Royals into becoming a punch line. He would need help pushing them back to the top.

Glass has always wanted to win, and Royals fans have always rolled their eyes when they hear that. But there’s an enormous difference between wanting something and knowing how to do it. There’s an even bigger difference between knowing how to do it and being willing to do it.

“We had to change the whole thing,” Glass says now. “We had to get a fresh start.”

Who can say why a man pledges complete change? Who can say what, exactly, pushes a successful man to admit he’s out of answers? That the fans who root for his team and curse his leadership might have a point?

Glass’ breaking point came in 2006. The year before, the team was so bad that Mark Teahen hoped the other team’s pitcher was hung over. Maybe that way they could win. Mike Sweeney remembers the general manager saying that improving the team felt like shopping without a credit card. Friends have said Glass was embarrassed by all the losing. He’s conceded that he was tired.

So whatever the reasons — was it the 19-game losing streak? Employees hiding their ID badges when going out to lunch? George Brett telling friends he didn’t really work for the team anymore? — Glass got on a plane.

After he fired his general manager, Glass went to see Dayton Moore in Atlanta, because that’s who people kept telling Glass he needed to hire. He made an appointment, shook Moore’s hand and asked for help. Moore told Glass about a plan. Virtually everything about the Royals, from big-league payroll to rookie-league instruction, would have to change. It wouldn’t be easy, wouldn’t be quick and wouldn’t be cheap.

Glass listened. Took notes. Nodded his head. He was sold. That was the summer of 2006, when Glass turned around how he ran the Royals, becoming a model small-money owner, and when this week — the World Series starting in Kansas City on Tuesday — became possible.

“I always had the commitment,” Glass says. “Until we got Dayton on board, we didn’t really have the organization that could carry it out.”

Parts of this story have been told before, of course, even in this newspaper. But it’s one thing to talk about infrastructure improvements that may lead to a better future. It’s quite a different thing to see those changes in the light of the franchise’s best moment in 29 years, to see those changes as the beginning of what is now four wins away from the greatest baseball success story in at least a decade.

The journey would test the limits of both Royals fans’ patience, and Glass’ belief.

When Moore took the job, he dreamed of a week like this, the World Series coming to Kansas City. He called it the greatest challenge in professional sports.

There was a certain pride and energy in that description. He looked at building the Royals as a calling, more than a job, and he wanted men to come work with him only if they saw it the same way. Moore needed dreamers. Needed idealists willing to see the Royals for what they could be, instead of what they were.

One of the men he called was Gene Watson, who had covered the Royals for a while as a scout for the Marlins. Watson had been on the inside of an organization that won championships doing what Moore was trying to do. The move made perfect sense for the Royals. It made less sense for Watson, whose boss was among his closest friends and who liked his life.

Watson came to Kansas City to talk to Moore. The Royals were playing that night, and getting smoked. The stands were mostly empty, except for a family of four sitting a few rows behind, chanting LET’S GO ROYALS! with sincerity and hope through most of the night.

“That’s what changed my mind,” says Watson, now the Royals’ director of pro scouting. “I’m thinking, ‘How cool would it be if we came here and won?’”

Saying they had to change everything is an exaggeration in technical terms only. Losing for so long meant a fading pride, so right away Moore named organizational awards and spring training fields after former stars. All minor-leaguers were required to take what amounted to a Royals history class, to learn about Brett and Frank White and Dan Quisenberry and a proud past.

Moore emphasized winning in the minor leagues in a way that is rarely done. Development meant more than pitch recognition; now it also meant team recognition. Scouts and teammates still talk about the day Mike Moustakas took an older teammate by the collar for disrespecting a coach the way some people talk about the best concert they’ve ever seen.

In a movie, these scenes would be in the rising montage before the World Series trophy is lifted. But in reality, improvement came with setbacks, too.

In 2009, the Royals opened what they called the new Kauffman Stadium. Taxpayers put up $225 million, and the Glass family spent $25 million. It would be the third full season under the “new” direction, and Glass had seen other franchises turned around that quickly.

The Royals had improved by seven wins in Moore’s first year, and six more the next season. Glass increased payroll by 20 percent going into 2009, to a franchise record. Moore and everyone in the front office knew what was expected.

That team lost 97 games, and men who’d worked in baseball for decades called it the most disappointing season they’d ever been part of. The next year, they lost 95 more games.

Saying you have a plan is great. Sticking with it quite another, especially when it’s not working. Four years into spending more money and trusting a new general manager had gotten the Royals nowhere.

Luke Hochevar, the only No. 1 overall pick in franchise history, never developed into a frontline starting pitcher. The Royals debated extensively but chose current backup infielder Christian Colon over Chris Sale, now an ace for the Chicago White Sox. They gave José Guillen what was then the largest annual salary in franchise history, then watched him underperform and miss half of 2009 because of injury. Moore hired Trey Hillman as manager, called it the most important decision he’d ever make, and then watched it blow up.

Optimism required imagination. Confidence required creativity. What happens when your plan isn’t working? What happens when you admit your mistakes, let someone else take over, and then see no discernible improvement?

Other owners would’ve fired a GM after 372 losses in four full seasons. Instead, Glass doubled down. Moore wanted to surround himself with believers. He didn’t know he’d converted his boss.

“I’ve learned a lot from Dayton,” Glass says. “He’s a very astute baseball guy, and I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is let him do it his way and support him.”

The year the Royals drafted Billy Butler, in 2004, they lost 104 games. Four of their five starting pitchers had ERAs above 5.00. Matt Stairs hit cleanup.

That’s what bubbles up with that old way of thinking, and if you want to know how the Royals have changed over the years, Butler might be the best person to ask. The entire franchise has flipped. No player who was in the organization when Butler arrived is still around.

The front office, the coaching staff, virtually everyone is gone.

“It’s been a couple of rebuilding processes, hasn’t it?” he says.

Eighteen days after the Royals drafted Butler — and back then, part of the attraction was that Butler was willing to sign quickly, and not ask for the moon — they traded an emerging superstar outfielder in Carlos Beltran for what amounted to pennies on the dollar. The next year, they lost 106 games. When Butler says he’s seen the Royals go from the bottom to the top, he’s not being poetic.

Everyone tends to focus on money, and that’s an important part of this. Money is an important part of virtually everything. But Glass’ fundamental change wasn’t just about spending more money. It was also about spending money differently, with more of a consistent focus. It was about making decisions differently.

It used to be that a few hot weeks at Class AA would get a guy to the big leagues. Butler won three minor-league batting titles before getting a shot in the majors, and when the team didn’t like his attitude, it didn’t matter that he was among their best hitters. He was sent down to Omaha, and it wasn’t lost on the organization that he would be there for the entirety of a three-week road trip.

The Royals were doing things they only talked about doing before, and Moore was able to ask for things that his predecessors only dreamed of. A new minor-league team. New facilities in Latin America and beyond. An enormous increase in staffing, with the money and freedom to hire scouts and executives with World Series championships on their resumes.

They drafted Moustakas, then Eric Hosmer in the first round. Spent first-round money later in the draft on Wil Myers. Signed Salvador Perez, Yordano Ventura and Kelvin Herrera through an international program that had previously been all but dead. They found Greg Holland in the 10th round, moved Alex Gordon to left field, and got Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain in a trade made without much leverage. They hired Ned Yost as manager, to fill the players with confidence as much as instruction.

The organization was being remade, but most of those changes had been below the surface. It’s one thing to eat right and jog regularly. It’s quite another to complete a marathon, and it took eight full years — longer than anyone expected — before it felt like the Royals were ready for the real race.

That came two winters ago, when Moore wrote all the names of the Royals’ top prospects on a white board. The team had fallen in love with Tampa Bay’s James Shields, both for his pitching talent and experience helping lead a group from a losing culture to a winning one. The Rays were asking for a lot from the Royals, including Myers, who’d developed into the best hitting prospect in baseball. All that talk about spending more on amateur talent was about to pay off.

Moore crossed off the names the Rays wanted. He asked his assistants if they would still have a good farm system. They all said yes. So Moore made the deal, and changed the Royals forever.

“That right there let me know, ‘OK, we’re here to win now,’” Butler says. “It hadn’t been like that before. It’s like that now, as you can see.”

Glass has never liked attention, which has always been a problem. His good friend Ewing Kauffman used to lean out of the owners’ suite during the seventh-inning stretch to wave at fans most games. Glass prefers the windows closed, and so rarely speaks publicly that a myth has formed that he never attends games.

Of all the changes that Glass funded — more scouts, more spending on amateur talent, doubling payroll since 2006 and nearly quadrupling it from 2000 — his private nature has endured. Outwardly, he is the same man who bought the team in 2000. He talks publicly once or twice a year, until the last few weeks when reporters have asked questions during the celebrations.

Even with his hair drenched in champagne, Glass usually talks about patience and the pride he has in Moore and Yost. That cosmetic consistency has made it easy for fans to miss the important change. Eight years ago, Glass had to admit he didn’t know what he was doing. He had to hire someone who did.

That’s the only way the Royals could go from baseball’s worst team to four wins from being its best.

A few days ago, Sweeney and Brett were sitting together at a game, the best players and most recognizable faces from the two defining periods of Royals history smiling as they watch the third.

“George,” Sweeney said, “today’s a great day to be a Royal.”

“Mike, every day’s a great day to be a Royal.”

The two men laughed. Those words have never been truer than they are today, eight years after Glass entirely changed the way he ran a franchise that the world is finally seeing under the brightest lights the sport has to offer.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to

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