Kansas City is regarded by both insiders and tourists as one of the most underrated cities in the United States, for any reason. The city has a famously lively food scene, rich music and sports histories, and a public transit system that prides itself on its efficiency so much that its busses are allowed to run red lights to stay on schedule. Yet, big city people tend to look at the word "Kansas" and think it's a backward cow town. The recent performances of Kansas City's professional sports teams tend to lend to that perception, because both have been sucking quite a bit lately, but both were powerhouses in their leagues for extended stretches of time, and they're both important to the history of their leagues.
Baseball has always been a constant in Kansas City. It was, after all, home to the Kansas City Blues, for years a top farm team for the New York Yankees. They also had the crown jewel of the Negro League, the Kansas City Monarchs. They got Major League Baseball for awhile too when the Philadelphia Athletics moved in in 1954, but they were gone 13 years later, even though the people of Kansas City turned out in record numbers to watch them. You would think Major League Baseball wouldn't want to ignore that kind of feverish devotion, but they tried like hell. The only reason Kansas City was given a new team was because of Senator Stuart Symington, a Missouri Democrat who got really pissed off by MLB letting the Athletics move to Oakland and responded by threatening legislation to remove baseball's antitrust exemption and vowing to support any and all challenges to the reserve clause. Baseball relented. In a hastily organized round of expansions, they created the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Pilots, San Diego Padres, and Montreal Expos. The Royals named themselves after the American Royal, a livestock show held in the city since 1899. Some other sources say the name was a tribute to the Kansas City Monarchs.
The Royals' first general manager, Cedric Tallis, was a big time trader. He loved to make trades, and his tenure in Kansas City started with a bang when he made a trade with the Pilots which brought in the 1969 Rookie of the Year, Lou Piniella. The Royals finished the season in fifth place, then went the way of building a team through speed. For the following season, they traded for Amos Otis - who became their first real star - Cookie Rojas, Ted Abernathy, Fred Patek, John Mayberry, and Hal McRae while spending on a good farm system. It was just two years before the Royals were winning. They finished second in 1971, and their next couple of managers kept putting the emphasis on defense and good, smart baserunning. In 1975, the Royals hired new manager Whitey Herzog, and with that, they truly began their climb to the top. They finished second that year, going 91-71, and that set the tone for the rest of the decade as the Royals became thoroughly dominant. Starting in 1976, the Royals won three straight division titles, only to lose to the New York Yankees in the ALCS in all three years.
It was during this period that superstar and face of the Royals George Brett emerged. In the 1978 ALCS, he hit three home runs. Those teams also featured players like Dennis Leonard, Larry Gura, Dan Quisenberry, Willie Wilson, UL Washington, and Darrell Porter. Even with all their power and the fact that the Royals in those years won more games in the regular season than the Yankees, they couldn't catch the BIG break. Don't forget, back then the division was so weak that it was nicknamed the American League Least. At the end of his famous book The Bronx Zoo, Yankees closer Sparky Lyle says outright that he hopes the divisions are realigned and that the Royals are placed in New York's division, because they'd never win again. 1977 ended with Whitey Herzog saying he would leave the team if John Mayberry wasn't traded. Herzog is one of baseball's great strategists of all time, so Mayberry was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays.
How good was Herzog? Let me put it this way: When the Royals finished in second place in 1979, it was considered such a disappointment that he was fired and replaced by Jim Frey. Also, Herzog's relationship with the front office was strained, which is probably the primary reason they let him go. In 1980 George Brett nearly hit .400 and won the AL MVP. The team wound up back in the ALCS, facing the Yankees again, and this time they finally swept the Yankees out. Upon winning their first Pennant, victory in the World Series was looking kinda like a gimme for the Royals. After all, they were facing the perpetually doomed Philadelphia Phillies, a team with 97 years of futility weighing down on their shoulders, a moody staff ace, a quiet third baseman, and a manager who just got lucky, and they had been through a nasty drug scandal. But the pitcher in question was Steve Carlton and the third baseman, Mike Schmidt. They also had Pete Rose. They did NOT have the Karma Houdini. Everything went Philadelphia's way, and the Phillies won their first-ever World Series in six games.
1983 saw the Royals get rocked by scandals seemingly every other day. In one, George Brett hit a home run in the ninth inning of a game against the Yankees. The Yankees' manager, Billy Martin, spotted something unusual on the bat. Billy Martin being Billy Martin, he threw one of his famously volcanic hissy fits, complaining that Brett had more pine tar on his bat than was allowed. The umpires inspected the bat and, no doubt to their everlasting shock, found themselves agreeing with Martin. Brett's home run was taken off the score and Brett was called out, and the game was over. Brett argued, creating the signature image of the whole event when he stormed out of the dugout. Another scandal isn't so lighthearted because ot had to do with cocaine. Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, Jerry Martin, and Vide Blue were charged with trying to buy the stuff. They were charged in October 1983, pled guilty, and spent three months in jail. Baseball suspended them for the whole season in 1984, but they all appealed and were allowed to return in May.
In 1985, the Royals topped the division again, for the sixth time in ten years. Bret Saberhagan won the Cy Young. In the last week of the season, George Brett went on a tear with a hitting streak that helped the Royals bring down the California Angels in the standings. In the ALCS, the Royals fell behind the Toronto Blue Jays two games to none, then three games to one, before they rallied and pulled off the comeback victory. Upon vaulting into their second World Series, the Royals were probably drooling at the chance to take on their opponents: Their cross-state rivals, the Saint Louis Cardinals, flying high thanks to slick managerial work by none other than their old pal Whitey Herzog, in the position that defined Herzog's career. This Series was nicknamed the I-70 Series. The Royals made another show of it when they fell behind again 3-1. They came back to win the Series 4-3, upstaging the shit out of the Cardinals.
That title has so far been the apex of the Royals' baseball royalty. They started falling in 1986 and started off 1987 by trading Kansas City native David Cone for Ed Hearn. Cone went on to become a perennial All-Star who eventually pitched a perfect game in 1999 with the Yankees while Hearn was gone in a month. They managed to win 83 games that year, good enough for second behind the World Series Champion Minnesota Twins. Maybe they could have been better, because they let go of Hal McRae and hired a new manager. The Royals were competitive most of the next several years, and they developed a lot of great young talent, including two-sport star Bo Jackson and Tom Gordon. Unfortunately, their best just wasn't good enough. Usually a 92-win season results in the playoffs, but not in 1989, when they finished second behind the Oakland Athletics. Plus they were getting rid of star pitchers and exchanging them for marginal players. Bud Black was traded for Pat Tabler. Danny Jackson was sent packing for Kurt Stillwell. Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagan was traded for Kevin McReynolds. In the early 90's, the end finally came for the longtime hero and face of the Kansas City Royals, and George Brett retired. The Royals dropped out of contention but still posted good records until 1993. In 1994, the team re-signed David Cone and the team began making a play at greatness again. Unfortunately, the strike threw a real monkey wrench into everything.
That was pretty much the end. By now, their longtime general manager was gone and their owner died in 1993. Without leadership, the Royals made the fateful decision to reduce payroll. Not JUST reduce it, actually, but send it spiraling to the bottom. The Royals until then had one of the league's highest payrolls. After their mid-90's salary dump, they had the second-lowest in baseball. In 1997, with the newest expansions, the Royals were given an opportunity to move to the National League. Such a move wouldn't have been bad for them. The NL's lack of dependancy on the designated hitter would have meant one less skyscraper salary to pay, and they would have had a chance to butt in on the rivalry between the Saint Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, two teams with enormous fanbases who would have given the Royals a great attendance boost. Looking at the Royals nw, it's easy to make this argument. Back then, though, it didn't fly quite as well; after all, Kansas City had a history with the AL. Their glory years weren't far in the past, plus they didn't want to be robbed of having the Yankees as rivals. The Royals stayed in the AL. The Milwaukee Brewers jumped to the NL, where their close proximity to the Cubs gave them a boost.
In the meantime, the Royals kept dumping salary. Instead of paying their best players, they traded rapidly. They sent their rapidly-developing outfielder Johnny Damon to Oakland; he eventually emerged with the Boston Red Sox, where he became a cult hero and a key cog with Boston's exorcism team in 2004. They sent outfielder Jermaine Dye to Oakland too; he turned up with the rival Chicago White Sox in 2005, when he was the World Series MVP on the team that exorcised Chicago's baseball curse. They sent Rookie of the Year Carlos Beltran to the Houston Astros. He has NOT won the World Series. Yet. No, he merely went to seven All-Star games and won three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers, none of which were with the Royals.
In 2002, the Royals hit their all-time futility mark, losing 100 games. A year later saw a temporary return to, well, goodness. Manager Tony Pena led them to their first winning record since 1994, and was rewarded with Manager of the Year. They started off very hot that year, too; they spent the first few months winning games at the same clip as the Yankees, who eventually won the Pennant. The Royals since then have been terrible. They've been in eternal youth movement mode, eternal rebuilding mode, constantly looking for silver bullets to buy with a low payroll. They don't look like they'll be contending again for awhile.
Hall of Fame players for the Royals are George Brett, Orlando Cepeda, Joe Gordon, Whitey Herzog, Harmon Killebrew, Bob Lemon, and Gaylord Perry. Brett is the only one there as a Royal, and for good reason: He is still easily the team's best player in history. He won batting titles in three different decades, and led the 1985 boys to their World Series title. Brett, Dick Howser, and Frank White all have their numbers retired. The Royals are notable for having been the team of Bo Jackson for a long time. Jackson played both baseball and football, and his football team was the Oakland Raiders, an unusual circumstance because the Raiders are direct rivals of the Kansas City Chiefs, Kansas City's football team. Bo was a good baseball player, but a much better football player. Had an injury not ended his football career, he may well have taken a spot in Canton. (And here fans all seem to believe baseball is the EASIER of these two sports. Deion Sanders, another baseball/football guy, is in Canton but not Cooperstown. Gee, I wonder why...)
The Royals once had a thriving rivalry with the New York Yankees, but those days are long gone. These days the Royals ply their trade languishing in the AL Central, the worst division in baseball, where they can barely keep pace with their fellow doormats, the Cleveland Indians and recently, the Twins while the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox (usually, when they're not choking) walk all over everyone.
Defining events and moments for the Royals include the Pine Tar Incident, which is just wacky in retrospect. But they also have their 1985 World Series title and their 1980 Pennant. George Brett led both of those teams. Where their identity was once linked to dominance, today the Kansas City Royals are one of Major League Baseball's faces of perpetual futility. As I mentioned above, the Royals today seem addicted to the use of youth and silver bullets. I don't know why they seem to think that going from a high payroll to a low payroll is a good move. Baseball doesn't have a real salary cap, so even though MLB has more diversity in its champions than any other professional league in the country, the winning teams either have to pony up, fluke, or capitalize on other, better teams' flukes.
The Royals are known to have a devoted, fanatical fanbase to rival the one across Missouri in Saint Louis for the Cardinals. Their team might not be as old, but they're historically important and great in their own respect.