The Royals were swept at home by the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend. Now, this is not the kind of headline that anyone is going to look at in shock. It’s sort of similar to saying, “The sun rose in the East this morning!” or “Brittney Spears had a visit from social services.” So, the sweep at the hands of their cross state rivals is hardly a lead story. You see, the Cardinals are twice the team the Royals are right now. They have a strong, if not spectacular pitching staff with some solid starters, dependable middle relief and a great closer. They have a powerful lineup that can knock the ball around the park with the best of them. And, they have, in all likelihood, the 2006 MVP and home run leader in Albert Pujols, one of the most exciting young stars in all of baseball. The Cardinals have a legitimate shot at going back to the World Series for the second time in three years.
The Royals? Not so much. The Royals have, by all accounts, a pretty weak pitching staff. There is no ace on this team, nor even a king, queen or jack. It’s entirely possible that no Royals starter will finish the year with double-digit wins. Their middle relief is probably the strongest element on the team. Not exactly a great selling point for a professional baseball team – “Come see Mike Wood hold the opponent scoreless for two innings before Burgos gives up a game breaking three-run homer in the ninth!” Yes, their closer leaves plenty to be desired. Now, all of this would be fine if the offense was solid. Not even close. The Royals are not known for their ability to string together consecutive hits, never mind put up a lot of runs. “But the Royals are young,” you say. Certainly their youth would allow for some leniency if they were playing solid, fundamental baseball and showing growth from game to game. No luck there, either. The Royals’ defense has been atrocious and each night they seem to find new ways to lose.
So, when the Cardinals strolled into Kaufman stadium on Friday for a three game set, few people considered that the Royals would be able to put up much of a fight. And, believe me, they didn’t. But, here’s the hard part for the lifelong Royals’ fan. It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, there was a time when Kansas City and St. Louis were the best two teams in all of baseball. The competition between the powder blue Royals – led by tough as nails Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett – was fierce for in-state loyalties with the red birds of St. Louis – led by silky, smooth Hall of Fame short-stop Ozzie Smith. And at no time was that rivalry stronger than in 1985 – when the two teams came together in the World Series.
Certainly, the 1985 Fall Classic will not go down as one of the best in history for the national television audience – and definitely not for the network that carried the match-up. The I-70 series held little interest for most of the country. But, here, in the Midwest, it was huge. Remember, this was before interleague play so up until 1985, we could only argue about which team was better, but we couldn’t ever prove it. I went to school with lots of Cardinal fans. I collected the baseball cards of Brett and White and the Quiz – and willingly traded away Ozzie and McGee and Andujar. They were the enemy and we were thrilled to be facing them. Those were heady times for baseball in the Midwest. The Royals had been to the series in 1980, losing to the Phillies. The Cardinals won it all in 1982 and went back to the series in 1987. But, for a Royals fan, 1985 was the moment to remember. The series went seven games but turned on a controversial eighth inning call at first base in Game 6 when Jorge Orta was called safe – a dubious judgment at best that even most Royals fans admit was wrong today. But, after the crushing Game 6 loss, the Cardinals were no match for Kansas City in Game 7 and we were celebrating in the streets.
And, frankly, that was pretty much it for the Royals. That was the high point. I don’t know if it was the Orta call or the increasing salaries or the change in ownership, but the Cardinals stole our Mojo after that. After winning their division six times between 1976 and 1985, the Royals haven’t been to the post season since. Attendance peaked at 2.4 million in 1989 and fell all the way to 1.3 million last year – just 100K more than after the 1994 strike when many baseball fans stayed away to make a point to Major League Baseball. And, of course, you are aware of the brutality of losing endured over the last four years in Kansas City, losing 100 in 2002, 104 in 2004 and 106 last year. The Royals are well on their way to crushing that mark this year. It’s a frightful and frustrating time to be a Royals fan.
Meanwhile, just three hours away down I-70, things couldn’t be more positive. The Cards returned to the series in 1987 and then again in 2004. They’ve appeared in the post season seven times since the ’85 Series, each time as their division winner. Their attendance marks have gone through the roof with 3.5 million last year. That mark will certainly be eclipsed this year as they opened the new Busch Stadium. They’re exciting. They play good baseball. They are competitive each and every night.
But, do you know what really bugs me about St. Louis right now? Despite all the losing here and all the winning there, the thing that really pushes me over the edge is that they now pass themselves off as Baseball City, USA. There’s this sense of superiority that goes beyond wins and loses. It’s this idea that they are simply better fans and that’s why their team has been better. That drives me crazy. If Royals fans really thought it would make a difference in how ownership spent the money and how the team was run from day to day, Kaufman Stadium would sell out every night. But we know that won’t make a difference. While St. Louis fans have been coddled and nurtured and rewarded by their ownership group, Kansas City fans have been neglected and ignored and punished with viciously ugly baseball. We’ve been treated poorly and you can only take that kind of neglect for so long.
My frustration stems from this neglect. It’s an issue that Kansas City management just doesn’t get or, if they do get it, they just don’t care. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The fans in Kansas City are good fans. Kansas City is a baseball town at its core. There are 2.5 to 3 million people that will buy tickets over the course of the year. We want to be there. We want to wear our Royal blue throw-back jerseys with Patek or Wilson or MacFarland on the back. We want to walk through the Royals Hall of Fame and see Splitorff and McRae and Montgomery. We want to sit and talk and say “remember when” about George Brett and “what if” about Bo Jackson and “why not the Hall” about Frank White. These guys were our heroes growing up. We rifled though our mother’s baking cupboards to find toothpicks so we would look like U.L. Washington when we took the field. We got in arguments with the Reds bandwagoner in the early 90s who though Chris Sabo was tougher than Kevin Seitzer – a laughable proposition at best and fighting words on some days. We were jealous when our friends had tickets and we didn’t. We wanted to be there. It didn’t matter if you had box seats behind the plate or upper level right field line seats for Mormon Night at the Royals. The stadium was the place to be in the summer. It was an event.
Not anymore. Now, we are the fools. Now, we mumble to our friends that we are Royals fans. The response is an incredulous stare – “Really? Why?” We wait for the evening sports report and hope that there wasn’t a play so atrocious that it will make the SportCenter highlights. We secretly watch the waiver wires and listen to baseball insiders and we hope for some tidbit of positive information about a prospect or a trade or a hot hitter. And we wait. And we wait. And we wait. All we need is a sign – a little bit of positive news, a sincere effort from ownership to improve without asking for money for stadium renovations at the same time. We need a manager that gets mad and looks more than just downtrodden at the losing. We need a captain who doesn’t spend a third of every year on the disabled list. We need a player – any player – who says, “I love playing in Kansas City. The fans are the best. This is a wonderful baseball town and a solid franchise!” Except it isn’t. It’s a joke. You want Major League Baseball? It’s available and just a short, three hour drive east on I-70. We don’t play that way anymore in Kansas City.
The Race to 63! For the second time this year, the Royals returned from a road trip without a single victory. They are just the ninth team in the last 30 years to have two double-digit losing streaks in the same year. And it’s only May. The Royals spent last week getting swept by the Indians in Cleveland before returning home and getting embarrassed by a sea of Cardinals fans at Kaufman Stadium. Since I’m posting this a day late, they added a shutout by the Tigers after a players only meeting. They are, in word, pathetic. Current record: 10-32. Projected Record: 39-123.
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