Sam Mellinger

Royals fans expect more out of this team, and deservedly so

Catch someone with the Royals in the right mood on the right day and you’ll hear something that’s at the heart of a complicated relationship between a longtime losing franchise and the fans who care about it.

“We get more love outside of Kansas City than we do here,” they say.

In a lot of ways this is true, and in every way it is understandable. Like, take Theo Epstein, for one. Around the baseball world he is something of a star, the man in charge of the Red Sox’s first World Series winner in 86 years. The Cubs paid him $20 million to try to end their 105-years-and-counting drought and you know how he wants to do it?

Like the Royals. Honest.

“That’s one example of an organization that has done a great job accumulating young talent,” Epstein told the Chicago Tribune this spring.

At the moment, the Royals are one game under .500 and the season could easily turn either way. The pitching and defense has again been mostly terrific, and there is logical hope the offense will improve. Or, it could turn into another in a two-decades-long string of disappointments.

But this is the Royals’ best team (on paper) in a generation, and especially with two wild-card spots, the playoffs are (finally) a realistic expectation. The baseball world sees the Royals’ steps from Industry Punchline to Rebuilding Model as sound. They strengthened their infrastructure with bigger scouting budgets, more scouts and record-breaking spending on amateur players. The game’s best farm system was built from ashes.

That’s what people like Epstein are talking about, and what frustrates some inside the Royals. If folks around baseball can see it, with no rooting interest in the Royals, why can’t more of Kansas City get behind its best baseball team since the strike?

Why is every loss taken by a significant (or, at least, significantly loud) portion of the fan base as doom?

How did Kansas City turn from a passionate and confident baseball town to a passionate and fatalistic baseball town?

The quick answer is that the baseball people outside of Kansas City aren’t working their way through the PTSD of Ken Harvey being hit in the back with a throw to the plate, Kerry Robinson climbing a wall for a ball that bounces in front of him, or Esteban German wearing sunglasses to cover a black eye from a dropped fly ball but not wearing them to, you know, try to catch the fly ball.

When Buddy Bell said, “I never say it can’t get worse,” he unwittingly defined a generation of fans, nodding in sad agreement.

So a portion of Royals management will look at the work they’ve done in turning the worst franchise in baseball into one coming off an 86-win season with three All-Stars, three Gold Glovers, a legitimate frontline starting pitcher and another homegrown star with ace talent and poise.

But what they don’t understand is that everything done by Dayton Moore and Ned Yost and Eric Hosmer is seen through battered memories clouded with visions of Runelvys Hernandez and Calvin Pickering and Roscoe Crosby. That’s just reality. If a segment of Royals fans are stir crazy, they’ve been driven that way by a team that’s finished in last place eight times and above .500 just twice in two decades.

“Losing is much harder on the soul than winning,” is how one big-leaguer with time in Kansas City puts it.

The Royals set all sorts of TV ratings records last year while winning their most games since 1989, but attendance went up by only 134 fans per game. There are a lot of reasons for this (including that the 2012 numbers may have been inflated by the All-Star Game) but chief among them is a latent skepticism that fans have come by honestly and that frustrates some within the Royals’ offices.

In other words, the Royals have produced enough promise for fans to turn on the TV after dinner, but you’ll have to forgive them for saving their money.

The franchise’s worst moments came before the current leadership was in place, but not before most of the current fans were around. The last generation is defined by, in order, directionless leadership after Ewing Kauffman’s death, horrendous pitching, cheap management, Mike Sweeney’s back and The Process.

Royals officials will point out that since 2006, David Glass has been a model small-money owner and this is true. Depending on how you do the math, a franchise record payroll of around $92 million ranks about 19th in baseball this year. The Royals’ revenues this year will almost certainly rank in the bottom four.

More importantly, this particular roster has been built with concrete, not plastic. The best players have come through the system, and many are under long-term, club-friendly contracts.

But it wouldn’t be the first group to talk about patience and foundations and then ultimately let down a fan base that deserves better.

Club officials can be quietly frustrated by this, but the truth is, they should embrace it. If this group of players and executives win, they will be given far more credit than they would for winning in New York or Los Angeles or St. Louis or Detroit. You don’t get the joy without the pain. Clinching the second wild-card playoff berth in Kansas City would be greeted like a division championship in most other cities.

The Royals’ current leadership — and this goes for Ned Yost talking about an instant-gratification society and every team executive who thinks there should be more optimism — is going to have to accept that it is paying for prior sins.

Royals fans brought baggage into this relationship. That’s not their fault. Moore and Yost aren’t the first ones to ask for trust. The fans have been let down enough already. Human nature is to protect yourself emotionally.

This may be the most trustworthy team Royals fans have had in a generation, but that trust still has to be earned.

This is the first weekend of May, which means the time of year Royals fans are used to being let down. In three of the last five years, the Royals have come out of April above .500 before imploding in May.

That has nothing to do with this year’s Royals, of course, no bearing on what happens this weekend against the Tigers or this week against the Padres. But there is a certain muscle memory in taking a punch, so a team that’s one game under .500 at this point is a vessel in the eye of the beholder.

Baseball people can see a team in the middle of it even through the worst slump of Billy Butler’s life, an injury to Lorenzo Cain and no home runs from Hosmer. Skeptical fans can see a team that’s already behind the Tigers despite a hot month by Alcides Escobar, a 2.40 ERA by Jason Vargas and 19 RBIs from Omar Infante.

Many Royals players past and present talk about the courteousness, loyalty and support in describing Kansas City fans. Others talk about a distance the fans can keep, to protect their hearts. Some over the years have taken disrespect from the “CHIEFS” yell at the end of the national anthem, but the reasonable ones can understand where it comes from. At least the Chiefs sometimes make the playoffs before breaking your heart.

If you spent your childhood rooting for the Royals’ last consistent winner, you’re now in your 30s or 40s. If you were in your 30s or 40s the last time Royals fans cheered without calloused wounds, you are now in your 50s or 60s.

That’s a lot of bad memories to overcome, a lot of hurt to unpack. It will take time. It will take wins. It will take an actual, no-20-losses-in-one-month type of pennant race. This is the Royals’ best chance in a generation. Their fans have stared down this beast many times during the last 20 years. Believing might mean one more heartbreak.

Then again, believing might mean a moment they’ll remember for the next 20 years.

Related stories from Kansas City Star