Kansas City Baseball Goes Back to the Future

11 minute read

Curt Nelson holds a Ph.D. in failure. As the team historian for the Kansas City Royals, Nelson has documented three decades of futility. The Royals won their first and only World Series in 1985, and they haven’t made it back to the playoffs until this year. It’s the longest drought of any major North American pro sports team and enough time that an entire generation of fans know the team only as losers. The eye rolls come on especially strong when Nelson talks about running the Royals Hall of Fame. Wait, there’s a Royals Hall of Fame? Must be lonely out there. “I understand the snark,” he says. “But I don’t necessarily appreciate it.”

He’ll no longer have to hear it, since Kansas City’s march to the 2014 World Series has been so spectacular that it shattered the thick wall of cynicism built over the past 29 years. “It’s such a freeing feeling,” says Nelson, his voice flush. After clawing their way into the one-game Wild Card playoff with an 89-73 regular-season record, the Royals came back to beat the Oakland A’s in extra innings and never stopped winning. They swept the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles to reach the World Series, becoming the first team in baseball history to start a postseason with eight straight wins.

That streak ended abruptly Oct. 21, when the San Francisco Giants opened the series with a dominant 7-1 road victory. Vegas may have favored Kansas City going in, but the win should not have been a complete surprise. San Francisco has a finer pedigree–and a larger payroll. The Giants have won championships as recently as 2010 and 2012, and Bay Area fans expect to contend every year.

No matter the outcome, the two teams, both of which beat favored opponents to advance, share a style fit for the times. With steroids largely gone from the major leagues, balls are no longer clearing the fences at ridiculous rates. Power hitting is out. Pitching and defense are in. “I think small ball is the key to the game,” Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco’s very large third baseman, said during the National League Championship Series.

The speedy Royals, in particular, embody the current dink-and-doink game, which rewards grinding out runs through bunting and base stealing, and playing tight defense. In their pennant-clinching 2-1 win over Baltimore, the Royals scored both runs in the bottom of the first inning. The balls never even left the infield.

“Catch the ball if you’re on defense, and utilize speed to create runs on offense,” says John Schuerholz, president of the Atlanta Braves, who was Kansas City’s general manager during its last playoff run in the 1980s. “That was the game when it was started–pitchers dominated, and runs were hard to come by. We’re going back to the future.”

Speed Kills

If the 2014 season was a long farewell tour for Major League Baseball’s last marquee star, this World Series is an apt transition to life without Derek Jeter. The newly retired Yankees captain is an international brand, with a Q Score popularity rating that trailed only that of Peyton Manning among active U.S. pro athletes. No other ballplayer ranks in the top 15. “Baseball players aren’t even on the national radar for the general population,” says Henry Schafer, an executive vice president at Q Scores. “They’re just not out there like players from other sports.”

The Royals embody the new era of relative anonymity. The team plays in a midsize Midwestern market and has few recognizable stars. “You don’t see the big, big names here,” says Art Stewart, who has been a Royals scout since the team began playing in 1969. The best-known member of the current team may be manager Ned Yost, a former backup catcher who spends the offseason bow hunting with comedian Jeff Foxworthy.

The dimmer star wattage has coincided with a major transition on the field. Since the end of the steroid-fueled offensive boom a decade or so ago, pro baseball has become a pitcher’s game. Home runs per game are at their lowest levels since 1992. Teams scored 4.07 runs per game during the 2014 regular season, according to stats site Baseball-Reference.com–the lowest total in 33 years. In each of the past seven seasons, baseball set a new all-time high for strikeouts per game. “I mean, my goodness, it amazes me,” says Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who led Boston to a pair of World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. “It’s not just starters. It’s bullpen, it’s setup men, it’s closers. You just have one good arm coming in after another.”

Francona may as well have been describing the Royals bullpen. The one-two-three punch of Kelvin Herrera in the seventh inning, Wade Davis in the eighth and Greg Holland in the ninth was close to unhittable during the run to the World Series. When opposing teams make contact, the Royals’ defense is better than anyone else’s at getting them out. According to FanGraphs.com, Kansas City players collectively finished with the highest Ultimate Zone Rating–an advanced metric that measures defensive value–in the majors. The team’s speedy outfield is like a moat. “They run everything down in the outfield,” says Francona. “So they save runs defensively and add runs with their speed.”

Kansas City’s 95 home runs were the fewest in the majors this season. But no team had more stolen bases, and the Royals have kept running in the postseason. The last big-league club to reach the World Series while finishing last in home runs–but first in swipes–was the 1987 St. Louis Cardinals during the last small-ball era.

These days, if you swing for the fences, you’re more likely than ever to strike out. So just try to put the ball in play–Royals hitters have the lowest strikeout rate in the majors–and take your chances with your legs. At the same time, make sure you have defensive players who can turn potential hits into outs. It’s a formula that Kansas City, a team that can’t afford power players anyway, might never have adopted were it a big-city squad with a big-city payroll.

History Takes the Field

After the 1967 season, when Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley moved his team west to Oakland, a furious Missouri Senator–Democrat Stuart Symington–threatened to remove baseball’s antitrust exemption if the city wasn’t awarded an expansion franchise. The ploy worked: Kansas City got a new team in time for the 1969 season. All it needed was a name. “Kansas City’s new baseball team should be called the Royals,” wrote a man named Sanford Porte, who lived right across the state line, in Overland Park, Kans., “because of Missouri’s billion-dollar livestock income, Kansas City’s position as the nation’s leading stocker and feeder market and the nationally known American Royal parade and pageant”–an annual livestock show. The new owner, pharmaceutical entrepreneur Ewing Kauffman, agreed, though he declined Porte’s suggestion to make the team’s mascot a “Royal stallion like the West’s golden Palomino.”

For a stretch, the team was a model franchise. From 1976 to 1985, Hall of Famer George Brett led the Royals to seven playoff appearances, two pennants and that 1985 World Series title. All the while, Kauffman invested in the team and laid the groundwork for future success. In 1990, Kansas City had a $23.6 million payroll–higher than that of any other team.

That began to change after Kauffman died in 1993. After a players’ strike the next season, big-city teams started spending significantly more than other franchises. Kauffman left the team to a charitable foundation charged with selling it to an owner who would keep the Royals in town. Payroll was pared back. When current owner David Glass, the former CEO of Walmart, took over in 2000, he kept the checkbook closed. The result was a standing reservation at the bottom of the league. From 2002 to 2006, the Royals lost 100 or more games four times. Former manager Tony Peña once showered with his clothes on after a loss, to “get the stink out.”

The seeds of the reversal were planted in 2006, when former Atlanta Braves assistant general manager Dayton Moore was hired as GM. Moore committed to building a core of competitive, homegrown talent, rather than stocking up on expensive free agents, and he called his plan “the process.” It was born of necessity as much as philosophy. Speedy defenders command less money than oversize boppers, and Moore didn’t have the luxury of lavishing big money on aging free-agent sluggers.

For years, that young nucleus wasn’t enough to buy a winning season, and Moore’s mantra became a local punch line. The bio for @fakedaytonmoore, a parody Twitter account, reads, “My life is a process.” Says Dave Holtzman, who worked in the team’s media-relations department from 2004 to 2013 and now covers the Royals as an associate producer for Fox Sports Kansas City: “It was a bit of a dirty phrase.”

Two trades finally sped up the process. After the 2010 season, Moore dealt top pitcher Zack Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers in return for ALCS MVP Lorenzo Cain and starting shortstop Alcides Escobar. After the 2012 season, Moore traded a bundle of prospects for starter James Shields, the team’s ace and spiritual leader–though he was of little help in Game 1–plus Davis, the relief pitcher. These additions complement the core: 12 players on the team’s 25-man World Series roster are guys the Royals discovered and developed.

This crew is led by skipper Yost, a gruff country guy with a penchant for the unconventional (he spent the 1994 strike working in Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s NASCAR pit crew) and exasperating. Fans have coined the verb Yosted to refer to decisions that backfire. The manager’s fondness for sacrifice bunting drives some statheads bonkers: the numbers show that the strategy tends not to work. After a puzzling pitching change in the Wild Card game, TBS analyst Pedro Martinez, a former star pitcher, said Yost would have been an “ugly goat” had the Royals lost.

“As a friend, the criticism goes all over you a little bit,” says Foxworthy, the Southern-fried stand-up man who has been friends with Yost since they met at a Bible-study group nearly 20 years ago. The two compete as the Thump Monkeys in an annual hunting competition among their circle of friends. “But you know what–and we’ve talked about this–it’s all water off a duck’s back. It just rolls right off.”

Kansas City is too ecstatic to roast Yost now. Some of the metro area’s more than 200 fountains were dyed blue ahead of the World Series, and even losing the big one may not puncture the good vibes. “I have never experienced the energy in Kansas City I have today,” says native Maria-Victoria Houlehan, a 28-year-old legal assistant who had never rooted for a playoff team. “We’ve listened to our dad time and time again tell us how amazing the Royals were, which was hard for us to understand after seeing them lose game after game. Now we understand what this is all about.”

There’s still the very big matter of the Giants. San Francisco returns 14 players from the team that won it all two years ago. Pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who shut down the Royals in Game 1, had a 212/3-inning scoreless streak in World Series games. Buster Posey is the best all-around catcher in the game. Small ball may be sound strategy, but a well-timed blast into the center-field seats–like the one Hunter Pence smacked to bolster an early Game 1 lead the Giants never gave up–can settle things in a hurry. The Giants may lack Kansas City’s plucky charm, but they too are poised for something big. Three championships in five years is no longer a quiet success story. That’s a dynasty.

But the Royals may have done enough already to rekindle the love in Kansas City. After the team clinched the division series, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and some teammates went to a local bar and bought drinks for their fans. Such moments won’t be forgotten. “The way this has all been done is amazing, no doubt,” says Nelson, the team historian. “And it’s been oh so much fun.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com