KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On Oct. 27, 1985, Dayton Moore slowed his car along the patch of Interstate 70 overlooking Royals Stadium. He and a college buddy named Dave Larsen were driving back to Garden City Community College in Kansas from fall break in Illinois. They wanted to buy tickets to Game 7 of the World Series, but at $150 a pop, that did not fit their budget. Moore noticed a parked car surrounded by grills and portable televisions. They befriended some guys from Omaha and joined them for all nine innings. “We could see everything except Lonnie Smith in left field,” Moore said.
Wednesday afternoon, 29 years and two days after the Kansas City Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals, Moore sat in the home dugout of what is now called Kaufmann Stadium. If not for the Royals Hall of Fame suites looming over left field, Moore could have seen that same spot along the highway from an entirely different vantage point.
“It’s crazy,” Moore said. “I’m not a person that reflects a whole lot, but I thought about that once this playoff run began.”
The playoff run ended Wednesday night at the end of Madison Bumgarner’s left arm with a 3-2 loss in Game 7. The Royals lost the World Series, and the soft voices in their silent clubhouse, where Moore went locker to locker and told players he loved them, displayed their pain. They will soon recall what they gained over the past seven months, especially in October. A generation of lost fans had been reborn.
The Royals had been a wayward franchise for almost all of the years between 1985 and 2014. From 1994 through 2012, the Royals posted one winning season. Between 1985 and this year, they did not appear in the playoffs. Moore grew up in Quad Cities along the Iowa-Illinois border as a Royals fan. He understood the Midwest, and once he took over as Kansas City’s general manager in 2006, he grew to understand how the years of losing had eroded the specific bond between baseball and Kansas City.
“People stay here,” Moore said. “People go away, and they come back. There are lots of generations who grew up Royals fans. Their kids didn’t grow up Royals fans.”
Moore would sit in his office and watch kids in Dustin Pedroia and Derek Jeter jerseys stream into the stands. Fans came to watch the Red Sox and Yankees. He understood that kids would gravitate toward a winning team.
“That added to a lot of the frustration,” Moore said. “You had grandfathers and fathers who were die-hard Royals fans and really appreciated the success here for a long time, and their kids don’t care about the Royals. It hit home right away: We don’t have anybody to carry the torch here in Kansas City. That’s what’s most rewarding to me as a general manager. I feel like we have captured a group of young people who want to be the next Salvador Perez or Mike Moustakas.”
A reporter asked him in 2013, when they won 86 games and flirted with the wild-card race, about the enhanced interest in baseball in Kansas City. “In a small way,” Moore responded, “I feel like we have won the World Series.”
Fans rolled their eyes at the comment. They had grown skeptical over the years. They had seen the Royals trade away great, young players the moment they became expensive great, young players. The mention of Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran draws sorrow.
The skepticism melted in October. There were no Boston or New York jerseys to be seen. Downtown and the Plaza resembled a college campus on a fall Saturday, teeming with people all wearing the same color. They told each other, “Go Royals,” chatted about Lorenzo Cain and fretted about Madison Bumgarner. At Kaufmann Stadium, fans filled a ballpark with as much noise as possible. The entire lower bowl stood and howled. They embraced the team that for so long had pushed them away.
The wonderful civic moment will cede to questions about the Royals’ ability to repeat the magical run that ended Wednesday with hope stranded 90 feet from home plate. Top starter James Shields and designated hitter Billy Butler are free agents. Closer Greg Holland and ace reliever Wade Davis are due big raises. Without financial might, the Royals will rely on creativity and player development.
The Royals have locked up shortstop Alcides Escobar and catcher Salvador Perez to affordable contract extensions. Their strategy is to take on risk and guarantee homegrown players money before they reach free agency. Before they traded Zack Greinke, they extended him prior to winning a Cy Young. Butler is at the end of a deal. Alex Gordon became a longtime Royal before he became an all-star.
“That will always be our main approach or our main vision for our players – sign them when they’re young,” Moore said. “It’s a little riskier, I get it. It gives you some cost-certainty. It’s going to always be difficult for us to compete and win negotiations for impact, major league free agents.”
Last winter, the Royals managed to sign left-handed starter Jason Vargas and second baseman Omar Infante, two players on a middle tier but still coveted. The Royals can make an occasional splash, or at least a ripple, and their finances improved with their postseason. But it will not change their approach.
“Are we going to go toe-to-toe with some markets? No, we’re not,” Moore said. “It’s always going to be, what’s in the pipeline? What are we doing in scouting and player development? Who the next young player is.”
Acquiring players, for the Royals, stands as a second achievement. They did not win the World Series, 29 years after Moore watched from the highway. The Royals won their fans back, an accomplishment that may mean just as much.