Why Does 2012 Feel Different in Kansas City?
Ever since the Royals took a perpetual downturn following the strike-shortened 1994 season, Royals fans everywhere have been holding onto hope that the magic will return and their favorite team will give them something to root for again. During the ensuing years, we’ve seen some good players come and go (Damon, Beltran, Dye, Sweeney, etc.), but we haven’t come close to experiencing the lightning in a bottle feeling of those legendary Royals who thrilled us back in the glory days of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Those Royals of old gave us something much more than just one World Series championship trophy. They gave us hope, and pride, and a feeling of euphoria that surpassed the sum of their wins and the pennants blowing in the outfield.
Is winning games all a team must do to capture the imagination of its fan base? Winning is obviously extremely important because nothing else matters if you don’t see a big number in the win column. However, in my opinion, winning or at least the hope of winning is only half the equation. The other half is based on the emotional investment the fans have in the team and particularly in the players.
I couldn’t be a Yankee fan because as Jerry Seinfeld once said, they’re “rooting for the clothes.” The Yankees are substantially made up of players who established their careers on other teams. Mark Teixeira originally from the Rangers, A-Rod originally from the Mariners, Curtis Granderson from the Tigers, Nick Swisher from the A’s, CC Sabathia from the Indians, etc. With a few notable exceptions (see Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and potentially Robinson Cano), the Yankees are a super star team cobbled together from pieces that became too expensive for other franchises to afford. They’re mercenaries. How do you root for mercenaries? I couldn’t do it.
How did you feel about Joe Montana when he took the Chiefs to the AFC Championship game? If you’re like me, you jumped out of your seat with every touchdown he threw and cheered for him and the Chiefs at the top of your lungs. But in your heart, you knew he wasn’t really a Chief – he was a 49er that we borrowed at the end of his career. It’s fun to cheer for your team when they’re winning, but it’s just not quite exactly the same when you aren’t emotionally invested in the players as well.
The great Royals teams of the 70’s and 80’s instilled an extra dose of pride in the fan base because they were homegrown players. Well, that’s not entirely true. Many of these legendary Royals including Amos Otis, John Mayberry, Freddie Patek, Hal McRae and a few others played a handful of games while wearing different uniforms prior to coming to KC. However, with the possible exception of Darrell Porter and Jim Sundberg, none of them will be remembered for anything other than playing in Royal blue, and white, and a little bit of powder blue. None of the core players for these great old Royals teams had established themselves in other cities before coming to the Royals.
In 2003, I was just as excited as everyone else when the Royals jumped out to an astounding 9-0 start. Much of the excitement was due to the fact that their strong performance was unexpected. The prior year in 2002 the Royals record was 62-100, their first ever 100 loss season. They had lost 21 of their first 29 games in 2002. Even the most optimistic Royals fans (myself among them) had very low expectations for 2003. I rooted hard for their surprising performance to begin the season, but it wasn’t with the same heartfelt fervor as when I was fighting to get a seat in the upper deck of a filled-to-capacity Royals stadium to watch a team stocked with homegrown players back in 1977. Back in ‘77, we knew this experience was just a taste of what was yet to come.
Now think about who was on the team in 2003. Carlos Beltran was the only potential perennial All-Star in the group. Some of us were holding out hope that Mike Sweeney would become the next George Brett, and although he was a very good player, he never completely reached the career potential we all dreamed of. Sweeney’s annual back injuries, for which he inexplicably refused surgery (maybe it could have been explained, but it was never explained to us, the fans), torpedoed a career that might have made him the 5th or 6th greatest Royal ever, in my opinion.
After Beltran and Sweeney, who did we have? Carlos Febles, Angel Berroa, Brent Mayne, Ken Harvey, Michael Tucker, Joe Randa, and Raul Ibanez. Not exactly murderer’s row. Ibanez turned out well, but we had to claim him off the Mariners’ scrap heap. Runelvys Hernandez was the opening day pitcher after winning only four games in 2002. Four games! Who starts a pitcher on opening day with four career victories? This roster was much more likely to inspire frustration and disappointment than confidence and optimism for the future.
How many of these guys from the 2003 roster did you dream could be key pieces of a pennant winning ball club? Please don’t say Angel Berroa. Joe Randa was a solid player on the downside of his career. We saw flashes of what Raul Ibanez was to become, but history taught us if he performed well he’d be rewarded with a long-term contract by a team that could afford it – aka not the Royals. If you believed anyone else on this roster could consistently compete at a high level, you were kidding yourself. Don’t even think of looking up the list of pitchers we had in 2003, it will make you cry.
We were all excited when the Royals unexpectedly won a bunch of games to begin the 2003 season, but even in the midst of a winning streak when the Royals found themselves in first place, the experience wasn’t everything we wanted it to be. We wanted to believe that our players had the potential to sustain and even improve their performance over several seasons, we wanted to believe if one or more of our players grew into a super star that we could sign him to a long term contract and prevent him from moving to the coast, and we wanted to believe in the direction the team was heading. If you’re honest you’ll say that you couldn’t believe any of these things in 2003. So all you were left with was a quickly fleeting winning record, and that’s not enough.
Today, something is different. The Royals had a losing record last year and you were still reading about them in the dead of winter, possibly for the first time in your life. You listened to the sports channel in December to hear the news about the Winter meetings, right in the middle of football season. You know something is different, don’t you? You can sense it like all the rest of us.
A couple of years ago, there was a little spark – some news about a home run hitting high school kid named Moustakas being drafted, and you watched Alex Gordon get moved from 3rd to the outfield to make room. You heard another younger kid named Hosmer was hitting the cover off the ball and making a mockery of minor league pitching. Then you learned that Wil Myers was also being moved to the outfield to make way so some A-ball stud named Salvador Perez could catch. (And yes, he will catch again. Probably around the All-Star break.) The Royals drafted multi-sport star Bubba Starling, and Nebraska boy Alex Gordon shot laser beams all over the park last summer and gunned down nearly everyone who dared challenge his arm. And the list goes on, as the spark begins to erupt into a roaring fire.
There are many other reasons to love this Royals team, but I think you get my point. The Royals are trotting out athletes that you believe have potential to play key roles on a championship club, players who haven’t yet reached their potential, players you’ve heard about and rooted for since they were in Rookie league, and players who are either homegrown or didn’t establish themselves on other teams. (I don’t care if Frenchy played for a few other clubs. That smile, hustle, and attitude of his are infectious and I think he was a great addition.)
And above all, you believe the club is headed in the right direction. We’ve stopped signing over-the-hill veterans to fill positions because we had no major league ready talent available. We signed Billy Butler, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, and Salvador Perez to long-term contracts and we have many other players tied up for several years into the future.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. This Royals team is different, and it’s not because they’re winning, because they aren’t winning yet. It’s because they have the potential to consistently win, because we believe in them, and because we’re emotionally invested in them. That’s why 2012 feels different.
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