KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Mark and Cindy Mawhirter left for the hospital a few hours before the game began, and baby Luke took his time. She labored and they waited. Hours passed, and Kansas City Royals starter Bret Saberhagen threw his first pitch at St. Louis’s Busch Stadium during the 1985 World Series. During quiet times, Mark slipped into the waiting room to share updates and check the score. This was a special occasion, one to be shared with family and friends — and the baby coming was a pretty big deal, too.
“I’ve heard the story,” Luke said recently as he sat in the stands near the first base line at Kauffman Stadium, “so many times.”
Luke will turn 29 in late October, and his very existence is a way to mark a difficult time in Kansas City’s sports history. A few days after his birth, the Royals won the World Series. Since then, the team hasn’t reached the postseason — the longest playoff drought in baseball. During those nearly three decades, Luke Mawhirter took his first steps and spoke his first word. He grew up, learned to drive and studied aviation at the University of Central Missouri. He married his high school sweetheart, began his career at a suburban airport and waited and prayed and hoped while his own children, Callie and Connor, were born.
He watches most Royals games and attends as many as he can, and like so many, he is hopeful this season finally will end the drought. The Royals are contenders in the American League’s Central Division, likely will have several all-stars and last month won 10 consecutive games, their longest winning streak in 20 years.
But here, the only emotion stronger than hope is caution that, at some point, every foolish believer will be punished for falling for the Royals again. Sure enough, the team followed the winning streak with its more typical erratic play, falling behind first-place Detroit, leading to panic.
“To finally see a first-place team, then fall flat on their faces again,” Mawhirter said, shaking his head. “It’s kind of expected. We were just hoping it was going to be later.”
This season, though, the Royals seem fortified. Kansas City has a talented pitching staff, an elite closer and a stingy defense. Team executives targeted this season as the payoff for a grueling eight-year turnaround plan. A mostly homegrown — and relatively cheap — roster is young, exciting and skilled, and the crowds at the refurbished stadium are growing.
So with a summer of celebration seemingly on the horizon, why are so many of the team’s most loyal fans filled with anxiety?
“We’ve earned this mistrust,” said Frank White, who became a local icon in 1985 after playing second base on that championship team. “They want to believe, but then again they don’t want to get their hearts broken again.”
Dayton Moore, a George Mason graduate, likes to tell the story of his road trip in October 1985, when he and a friend were passing through Kansas City on the way back to college and, heck, while they were there, they thought they might as well stop and experience the World Series.
They couldn’t afford tickets, so they partied with strangers in the parking lot, watching the fireworks and toasting to the future when the final out was recorded. Moore had grown up a Royals fan, and on that night he learned how hard a city can fall for its baseball team.
Twenty-one years later, Moore was named the team’s general manager, just the latest of many supposed saviors. The franchise had decayed, and fans had come to expect not pennant races but annual disappointment. If a prospect became a star — Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran all were once Royals — why bother getting to know him? He would inevitably sign elsewhere, turning Kansas City into a feeder for big-market teams.
On the rare occasion the team showed promise, such as a brief surge in 2003, the playoff light flickered in the breeze and went out. It became trendy to point toward owner David Glass — who had made his fortune as a Wal-Mart executive and slashed his team’s payroll — and lament how he transferred his discount philosophy to the baseball diamond.
In 2005, the Royals’s opening-day payroll was about $37 million, roughly 18 percent of the New York Yankees’. No team spent less on scouting in Latin America than the Royals, and their farm system was in shambles. Mid-to-late-round draft picks were regularly offered signing bonuses of $1,000.
Fans just came to expect a lifetime of following a losing team, pushing attendance toward the bottom of the league and often giving Kauffman Stadium the feeling of an oversized minor league park.
In 2006, Glass hired Moore, telling him he was tired of being embarrassed — but that he wouldn’t spend as much as the Dodgers, Red Sox or Yankees. Kansas City nearly doubled its payroll in Moore’s first full season as GM, and it directed money toward international scouting and draft preparation. The team would be built slowly and through the draft, which would save Glass money, but if Moore felt strongly about a big-money free agent, he was authorized to dip into his boss’s wallet.
“I was a little more aggressive with free agents than Mr. Glass probably appreciated at the time,” Moore said. “We just felt we needed to change the perception of how we were doing business.”
Moore told Glass and fans that the job would take time, maybe upward of a decade. He signed the Royals’s best young players to team-friendly extensions, and when young stars like Zack Greinke did leave, fanning the fan base’s fear of abandonment, Moore acquired future starters in return. Billy Butler and Alex Gordon became foundation blocks, and youngsters like catcher Salvador Perez, first baseman Eric Hosmer and closer Greg Holland were reasons to believe.
Moore kept talking about a long-term vision, even after firing his first manager and admitting the job was taking longer than expected. A few of the team’s high draft picks and Moore’s free agent splurges failed, slowing the timeline. Fans became impatient, told for so long that they would be rewarded, even as more losing seasons mounted and the Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals restructured bad teams to reach the playoffs. “So many years,” White said, “of empty promises.”
The team was gradually improving, though fans were reluctant to accept it. This was Kansas City, after all, where belief was rewarded with repeated letdowns.
The Royals, who lost at least 100 games four times from 2002 to ’06, finished 2013 with a winning record for the first time in a decade, leading the team to publicly identify 2014 as its payoff year. “The success right there as a team, it changes the way guys are,” said Butler, who at 28 is in his eighth major league season. “It boosts your game when you have confidence, and that confidence isn’t gone.”
The Royals’ payroll this season is more than $90 million, and the roster is full of talented youngsters who speak of contending, hanging with the big boys and, like Moore once did, maybe even partying in the Kauffman Stadium parking lots.
Outside the clubhouse, though, many of those wearing blue are hesitant to take such a leap. It’s just not that easy to forget the pain of hitting the ground.
“The Royals try to tell you every year that this is the year,” said longtime fan Andrew Klinsman, who was born a few hours before the Royals won the ’85 World Series. “I’ve been watching it too long to believe it.”
As the Royals built their June winning streak, four games becoming six, worry set in. Eight victories became 10 with Kansas City defeating Detroit starters Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander to take the division lead, which brought about full-on anxiety because the greater the high, the deeper the inevitable low.
Watching on television, Klinsman turned to his fiancée and said he wouldn’t be surprised if Kansas City then lost 10 straight. “A curse for me,” he said.
Sure enough, the team lost four in a row, including a sweep at home by Seattle. It was, as people in Kansas City say, a very Royals thing to do. “My biggest fear,” White said, “was what happened.”
Consistency is a problem, particularly with the team’s erratic hitting, but the Royals are talented and hungry. And whether their battered fans are emotionally prepared for it or not, a promising but agonizing summer has begun. “To see a first-place team in June,” Luke Mawhirter said, thinking about it. “I have never seen that.”
A moment later, Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who came to Kansas City as part of the Greinke trade, singled to right field, and the fans stood and cheered as Jarrod Dyson, a versatile player who makes $530,000, crossed the plate.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Mawhirter said as he retook his seat. “But we’ll take what we can get.”