The nature of baseball fandom is often fickle. Team wins, gets more fans. Team loses, has fewer fans. There’s a subset in that mix of “true fans,” the ones who suffer through losing seasons and who wouldn’t know a bandwagon if it left wheel marks on their backs. They sit in Atlanta and watch Nick Markakis try to make a difference on a lost-cause team, in Philadelphia wondering just how much longer Ryan Howard will be starting, and in Cincinnati watching their relievers yield football scores. These foul-weather fans are the ones who keep the sport moving, who carry on the memories of the good times while enduring the bad.
The fans in Kansas City have had a team for 47 years now. The Royals saw a decade of great success and then roughly three decades of jaw-dropping losing before enjoying a renaissance on the field. How did Royals fans experience the massive swings from being a league powerhouse to a shoddy doormat and then back again?
The Kansas City Royals debuted in 1969, wooing many former St. Louis Cardinals fans in that part of the country and resuming a strong tradition of Kansas City baseball that dated back to the nineteenth century and carried through with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Leagues. Buck O’Neil and Satchel Paige are interred in a local cemetery, which also boasts a separate monument to O’Neil for his contributions to the game. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is located here and is well worth a visit for all fans of baseball and American cultural history. In short, baseball fans in Kansas City are made from really strong stock.
The Royals had a few lean years early on, as expansion teams do, before beginning their ascent. They began to rise to the top of baseball, ahem, royalty in the mid-1970s, led by Hall of Famer and team icon George Brett. The team won six division titles and two pennants from 1976-85, climbing the mountain in 1985 to win their first World Series title.
And then … nothing. Nearly three decades of futility followed. They had some competitive teams and even some big free agent signings (for the era) in Mark Davis and Storm Davis as the Reagan and Bush years transitioned into the Clinton years, but it all crashed down after the 1994 strike. From 1995 to 2012, the team had a winning season just once, when they scraped out an 83-79 record in 2003. Otherwise, that span included four seasons of 100-plus losses and twelve (!) seasons of 90 or more losses. Good players came up on occasion and then left town for more money and greener pastures elsewhere. Zack Greinke, Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, and Jermaine Dye actually played home games in Kansas City, and Greinke even won a Cy Young Award there before departing. A few good players did stay. Well, okay, Mike Sweeney stayed.
Then it all finally changed for the team. The Royals won 86 games in 2013, their highest total since 1989, and came fairly close to landing a playoff spot. Many folks outside Kansas City figured it was a fluke. Then a year later they won 89 games and claimed a Wild Card spot before winning the American League pennant and taking the San Francisco Giants to seven games in the World Series. Those Giants, by the way, included Madison Bumgarner pitching like Cy Young’s mentor. Had to be another fluke, said the pundits. An average team with a great bullpen and great defense, yes, but clearly they got lucky. The Royals went into 2015 still considered underdogs even in their own division, but this time they finished the season with their second World Series trophy. They were finally all the way back.
I contacted a handful of Royals fans who are closer to the team than I am, both literally and figuratively, and asked their thoughts about how Royals fans experienced the team’s very high highs and extremely low lows. Jeff was a teenager when the Royals were born, and got to see everything from the first day of their existence. Sean, who operates a popular Royals blog, began following them in 1985. That happens to be the year the Brett-led teams peaked, and he has been a devoted fan ever since. Both got to see the Royals at their best, and then for many years at their worst before once again seeing a championship team. The group here is rounded out by Sarah, a high school senior who only started following the team within the past decade and therefore has no prior experience seeing the Royals achieve on-field success.
What was the general attitude among the fans as the team re-emerged from baseball purgatory? Hope? Cautious optimism? Pessimism? Cynicism? Resignation? Jeff thinks those are all “the true traits of a true baseball fan whoever their team is. Maybe all the traits are not brought to the fore by the fans with the beginning of every new season, but maybe they emerge separately as the season progresses or in most cases for most teams, digresses.”
That’s easy to see, since fans are likely to go through a range of emotions over 162 games, or more if their teams make the playoffs.
In this case, though, the fans had endured so many years of losing that it might have been hard to completely embrace the team, which might have been a factor in predictions that these Royals couldn’t sustain their newfound winning. According to Sean, when asked about the team’s 2014 season, “I remember wondering if I should be more optimistic about the season because of what they did the year before and if all the years of losing had made me gun-shy and unable to get my hopes up, in case the ceiling fell in again.”
Sarah felt similarly, adding that “there appeared a glimmer of hope at the end of 2013 with just barely missing the playoffs, but I don’t think any of us imagined 2014 happening the way it did.”
As players came and went and the team’s losing campaigns mounted, fans understandably held tight to the glory days of the 1976-85 teams. Brett, Frank White (a native of the area), Dan Quisenberry, and Bret Saberhagen, among others, held a special place in these fans’ hearts and dominated conversation about any contemporary team and most of the players themselves.
Sarah grew up hearing all about them.
“I had never experienced a winning team, and my family members would all talk about ‘The Good Ol’ Days’ with Brett, Bo Jackson, and Frank White. Even as late as 2013 and into 2014, that’s all I would hear about.”
Any conversation about the team would inevitably lead right back to the Royals teams of the early 1980s.
The players who passed through during the team’s twenty-nine years in the wilderness are mostly lost in the fog of the Royals’ years off the grid. As Sean said, “They are tied into that losing period for the team and because of such aren’t really heralded the way that maybe they should be.”
Fans knew that Damon wouldn’t stick around long with the money he could get elsewhere. Beltran was sent packing to the Houston Astros just as his career was taking off. Sweeney is fondly remembered and was, as Jeff put it, a “‘great guy’ that represented the Royals in the right way.” He held his head high and gave his best effort for losing teams, but never really had a team around him.
Greinke is an interesting case, since he won the 2009 Cy Young Award with the team, but he’ll generally be remembered as a player for other teams. Perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers, or maybe his current Arizona Diamondbacks, but not with the team he came up with. Jeff notes that with Greinke, “every fan wanted to hang their hopeful hats on him getting the team over the hump, taking them to the promised land. But he kept moving his head. He was on his own agenda, own timeline. Own planet.” And Sarah cited his 2009 campaign as the lone exception to fans returning to talk of the Brett-led teams, since it was such a special and spectacular season for him, if not so much for the team.
As the 2014 season progressed, the Royals followed a poor May with stronger play. They were playing really well by August, which was something that very few recent Royals teams could say. It was at that time that South Korean super-fan Sung Woo Lee made headlines by coming to the United States to see his favorite team play for the first time. He became somewhat of a media darling, fan favorite, and good luck charm all at once, and embodied the joy and catharsis that many fans were by now starting to feel.
Sean said, “There was a real belief at that point that the team was for real and that it could be the year the playoff drought would be over.”
He and many fans, including Sung Woo Lee, would soon see their belief proven correct.
When the team finally did win its first pennant since “Back to the Future” was in theaters, it made a big difference in how fans thought of their Royals. As Sean put it, “It took the 2014 team to make a lot of people quit mentioning 1985 every time a good Royals team took the field.”
It wasn’t always easy to get there, though, and even after they nearly won the World Series, many people outside Kansas City just couldn’t believe they were for real. The fans who watched it up close, however, knew what was going on. Jeff points out that even if the team had only won three more games than the year before, the “true fan recognized what was happening with [general manager] Dayton Moore and this team,” a sentiment emphatically echoed by Sarah.
The pieces were finally being put together in a way that made sense. Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, and others were not going to immediately head for greener pastures elsewhere, since it was plenty green right where they were. The Royals were back, even if not everyone outside the Kansas City area realized it yet. The true fans inside did, along with, yes, some bandwagon-hoppers. They hadn’t seen a winner for years, but they knew one when they saw it.
This was the first pennant that Sarah got to see her team win, and it was something she’ll never forget. She said, “The Royals becoming winners was, and I can only speak for myself here, a huge weight being lifted off of my shoulders.”
It’s pretty clear that she isn’t speaking just for herself. The Royals and their fans were for real again.
When the Royals beat the New York Mets to win the 2015 World Series, the team solidified itself as a perennial contender in the eyes of non-Royals fans, but it also permanently altered the fans’ attitudes.
According to Sean, “There is a belief, especially late in games, that this team will win. During the losing seasons there was always an ‘Okay, they are winning now; how will they blow this game?’-type attitude. People are just happy to be at the ballpark, wear their blue, and cheer on the team. It has definitely become more of an ‘event’ for a Royals game than in years past, but totally in a positive way. This town wanted to cheer this team, but they needed a reason to believe.”
Sarah added that the crowds are heavier now, which meant some longer lines that were definitely a fair tradeoff for winning baseball.
Jeff points to the team’s stability and having stuck to a single plan. “The success of the younger players, service wise, called up helps in the attitude of the fans. In addition, I think the play of the call-ups has created some positive buzz at the stadium between fans.”
The Royals’ fans have seen unique highs and lows that few other teams who aren’t the Miami Marlins get to see at such extremes in such rapid succession. After three decades, many starts and fits, some hesitation of their own, and the skepticism of non-Royals fans nearly everywhere, they no longer have to refer back to 1985 as the apex of their team’s success. Not now, not with the arrival of a second era of Royals success.
A whole new generation of fans will know what it’s like to have a winning team, and that goes a long way toward building a team’s relationship with its fans. Sarah understandably notes that Royals fans would love to have more experiences like in 2014 and 2015, and the team’s prospects for that are bright at the moment. Hopefully, these younger fans won’t follow the previous generation and end up sitting at a game sometime in 2045, wistfully recalling the lone glory days they got to witness for their team.