Regardless of whether they win the World Series, the Kansas City Royals clearly are baseball’s feelgood story of the year. They’re in their first postseason since 1985 – representing the longest playoff drought by any team in the four major American sports.
From 1995 to 2012 the Royals had just one winning year, and not by much: 83-79 in 2003. Designated hitter Billy Butler, who has been rebuilding with them for seven years, said, “For the fans, 30 years without feels like a lifetime. It’s an eternity to me. Kansas City deserves everything they’re getting, and we want to give it to them.”
So they’re in the American League Championship Series, threatening to upset favored Baltimore. Not that this is a David-Goliath faceoff. The Orioles are themselves long denied, this being their first LCS appearance since 1997.
While Baltimore’s $102 million payroll ranks 15th out of the 30 major league clubs, the Royal are lower middle class, their $92 million being 19th. Only two of their players – ace pitcher James Shields and their one power hitter, Alex Gordon – are earning more than $10 million a year.
Gordon’s 19 aside, they’re not winning with home runs, since they can’t afford the premium-grade sluggers. Baltimore this season led the big leagues with 211 homers, while KC was last with 95.
The Royals are chipping and chopping with singles, doubles, bunts and stolen bases. In fact, they lead the majors with 153 steals. They’re playing what was once known as National League ball.
Though low budget, they’re actually not Moneyballers. Their general manager, Dayton Moore, is a traditionalist. He eschews the analytics geeks who say stolen bases and bunts are worthless. The team Moore has assembled is a throwback to the 1970s and ’80s, the pre-steroid era, when championships could be won with small-ball, Dodger-style, Cardinal-style.
They’re a throwback also to the pre-agency era of the Sixties, when teams built and re-stocked through their farm systems. The Royals’ postseason roster has 14 homegrown players.
Small-ball is especially suitable to Kansas City’s ballpark, the most spacious in the league. Robbery is rampant on the base paths and in the lush green outfield, Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson stretching out to squeeze a liner that’s about to clear a fence or sink and skid in the grass.
Then on their own turn at bat, they spray hits between the less rangy outfielders of the opposition. Imagine the perspective of the Baltimore pitchers. Butler noted the effect of some defensive dazzlers by Gordon and Cain: “You try not to let a great play affect you, but it does.”
The 2014 Royals are one of the fastest teams in baseball history. They’ve been running harder in the postseason than in the regular season. They stole seven bases in the wild-card game that landed them in the Division Series against the LA Angels, whom they dispatched in three straight. They stole 13 bases in their first six games of the playoffs.
Their starting rotation is just good enough to keep them close, until their door-slamming bullpen takes over the late innings. They have baseball’s best middle reliever, Kelvin Herrera, best setup man, Wade Davis, and best closer, Greg Holland.
In the playoffs, with more days off (plus a rainout Monday), the power of their bullpen is emphasized.
With athleticism and crescendo finishes rare to the sport, the Royals have captured the public stage. The Kansas City Star aptly calls it “the magical mystical tour.”
It’s not just the Royals’ dizzy dazzling pace that wins our hearts, but the confidence that occasionally crosses the line into bravado. Kansas Citians are wearing blue T-shirts that say, “Baltimore? More like Balti-less.”
There’s nothing this country loves more than a brash underdog, a Muhammad Ali promising to whip Liston, a Joe Namath guaranteeing his Jets will beat a team favored by three touchdowns.
So we welcome Dyson candidly assessing the series with his team up 2-0 and heading home to Kansas City for three more games if needed.
Asked by a reporter if he expected to return to Baltimore’s harbor-kissed Camden Yards to close out the best of seven series, Dyson said, “No, sir, I don’t. And I don’t think they (the Orioles) think that, either.”
The Royals’ blue-shirted, blue-collar surge could have long-ranging significance. They give hope to Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa – other cities with teams on limited budgets that have consistent success but have been unable to reach for a pennant. The message to them is — what else? — but be patient.
And don’t think it has to take 29 years.