How the Royals reached the World Series after 29 years of angst

·MLB columnist

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Kansas City Royals are America. They are not America because they reside in the heartland or because they love barbecue so much one of their players concocted his own signature sauce. They aren't America because they play baseball, either, seeing as baseball isn't America's sport anymore, nor because they represent hard work or determination or the other bromides that soothe the masses.

The Kansas City Royals are America because the system that served them so well went haywire, and they did something about it. They stopped feeling bad for themselves, concocted a plan, fought back. They succeeded. They are America because their rich-poor divide grew bigger every year, their middle class withered away, the economics of their world marooned them, and they refused to use any of those things for an excuse, not anymore.

Want to hear something crazy about the Kansas City Royals? Twenty-four years ago, they spent more money on players than any team in baseball. It's true. On opening day 1990, the Royals carried a payroll of $23,873,745. And in 1991, they paid more in salary than the Yankees, and in 1992, they bumped it up 17 percent from that, and in 1993, their median salary of $1 million was the highest in the game, and in 1994, their total payroll ranked fourth, just $4 million behind the Yankees.

Then baseball went on strike and went crazy, prioritizing economics over all, which sounds like what pretty much every corporate entity does these days. And it worked, worked so well for the net worth of the owners who replaced the M with a B in front of their -illionaire. They lost the 1994 World Series to change their economics, grew annual revenues seven-fold to nearly $9 billion and ushered in what commissioner Bud Selig calls the sport's golden era, aptly named for the riches he fostered.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore (left) hugs pitcher Jason Vargas. (USA Today)
Royals general manager Dayton Moore (left) hugs pitcher Jason Vargas. (USA Today)

Here's the thing: For the past two decades, baseball in Kansas City nearly died because of this. At points, the Yankees' payroll wasn't $4 million higher than the Royals', it was four times higher. The middle class evaporated into an intractable chasm. No matter how much wealth the big-revenue teams redistributed, the game was rigged against teams that didn't play it perfectly. And the Royals didn't. They cried poor. They skimped on salaries. They punted on draft picks. They did everything wrong.

Then came May 31, 2006, the day the Royals promised to change. A 39-year-old named Dayton Moore was hired as general manager, and David Glass, the former CEO of Wal-Mart, promised to give him a bigger scouting staff and more money to spend on amateur players and a budget for international players that went beyond six figures and, most of all, hope. Other small markets across the league were doing this. For the Royals, this represented audacity. It gave them a chance.

Soon after he arrived, Moore confessed to visualizing a World Series parade through the Country Club Plaza in downtown Kansas City, a charming bit of naivete. Moore was from Kansas. He was a dreamer. He wanted to deliver peace to a city that since the Royals won a World Series in 1985 knew nothing but sporting misery. And he kept at that, barreled forward, improved incrementally, asked for more from Glass, received it and found himself at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday evening surrounded by screams and tears and Champagne showers, one step from the very thing he set out to build.

"We just tried to be as honest as we could and articulate who we were and where we were," Moore said. "And we're going to the World Series."

The Kansas City Royals are going to the World Series. This, too, sounds Bellevue crazy, and it, is if only in how it happened: A 2-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles that finished off an American League Championship Series sweep, which followed a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels, which trailed a scintillating comeback win over the Oakland A's in the wild-card game. All told, the Royals have started the 2014 postseason with eight consecutive victories. No team in baseball history has done the same.

Kauffman Stadium turned into one giant, unrelenting, history-cleansing, burden-emptying, 29-years-in-the-making wall of sound on the final out, a throw from third baseman Mike Moustakas to Eric Hosmer, from one pedigreed first-round pick of Moore's to another. Center fielder Jarrod Dyson (50th-round pick) celebrated with a backflip. Left fielder Alex Gordon (first-rounder) and right fielder and ALCS MVP Lorenzo Cain (Moore trade acquisition) sprinted toward the pile in the middle of the field. Closer Greg Holland (10th-round pick) embraced catcher Salvador Perez (international free agent). Madness descended, 40,468 fans divesting themselves of voice box and inhibition. Kansas City will host Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 21 against the St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants.

Before the Royals endeavored to reclaim their crown, before they slugged on $400 bottles of bubbly, before one player walked around in a jacket that looked like a grizzly bear, before a grown man did snow angels on grass in center field, before a smiling giant ran into the crowd and started taking selfies, before someone consumed the most perfect drink possible for the occasion, there was a seminal moment where the Royals vowed to become the Royals who ran roughshod through the AL. Without one question Moore asked in a hotel room, he cringes to think where they might be.

"Take him out, take him out, take him out and take him out. Do we still have a good system?"

In early December 2012, at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Moore called a meeting for the Royals' braintrust. Scouts and development guys and transaction specialists and sabermetricians filled Moore's suite and started to argue.

The Royals' trade for James Shields has helped pay off with their first World Series trip since 1985. (USA Today)
The Royals' trade for James Shields has helped pay off with their first World Series trip since 1985. (USA Today)

Him was Wil Myers. Him was Jake Odorizzi. Him was Mike Montgomery. Him was Patrick Leonard. They were four prospects in the Royals' farm system. Myers was one of the best in baseball, Odorizzi another high-reward sort, Montgomery and Leonard each with significant upside. Trading a prospect such as Myers is somewhere between heresy and lunacy in the modern-baseball handbook. Moore disagreed. He needed a starting pitcher. He wanted the decades of losing to stop.

"It was time to win," Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo said. "The window for Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and the young guys coming into their own was now. Planning to get to the World Series and the actuality of getting there are two different things."

Moore believed in himself, in his plan. He told the fans, tired of waiting, to trust the process. The phrase took on a life of its own, the T and P capitalized as the Trust waned and the Process floundered. This was the last step of the process. "Usually when you're trying to win," Butler said, "you trade prospects for the veteran guys."

The veteran guy was named James Shields. He wasn't one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball, more an excellent No. 2 starter than a lockdown No. 1. No matter. The Royals' supposedly great class of pitching prospects went belly up, and after days of phone calls to gauge the market, Moore settled on Shields and a maybe-starter, maybe-reliever named Wade Davis.

So he asked the question: "Do we still have a good system?" The answer was overwhelmingly yes, as was the idea the Royals would be better with Shields and Davis than without. Moore consummated the deal. Outrage blazed. Critics accused him of moral hazard, of setting back the franchise years by dealing a potentially dynamic middle-of-the-order bat for two years of a starting pitcher.

"It was a gutsy move by Dayton and his staff," Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. 'I know he took a lot of heat for it, but here we are two years later, and we're going to the World Series. I think a lot of times people in this game, all of us, we pass judgment too soon. Gutsy move by him. And if he doesn't make that move, we're probably not standing here right now."

Immediately the Royals improved, not just because of Shields but the growth of their kids and other savvy moves. No American League team played better in the second half of 2013 than the Royals, who went 43-27. Expectations shrouded them coming into 2014, even with questions still, with weaknesses present.

None manifested itself more than the managing of Ned Yost, the most beaten punching bag in Kansas City outside of a boxing gym. Yost benefited from Moore's loyalty at his lowest points, ones in which the Royals on whom Glass spent a franchise-high $90.5 million – 18th highest in baseball – teetered on the brink. As good as they looked during a 10-game winning streak, a mistimed Yost bunt here and an ill-advised pitching change there engendered little faith.

Only, they shocked the A's and stunned the Angels with the characteristics that defined this team – the bullpen, the defense, the bullpen and the defense, and maybe a little hitting and some starting pitching, and more bullpen and defense – and pitted Yost against Buck Showalter, the baseball Patton. "The Dunce and the Chessmaster," snarked a Wall Street Journal headline.

Kansas City eked out an 8-6 extra-innings win in Game 1, put Baltimore in a hole with a 6-4 win in Game 2 and finished off the Orioles with back-to-back 2-1 wins. He deployed his bullpen with the sort of aplomb rarely exhibited in the regular season, riding the troika of Kelvin Herrera, Davis – turns out he was a reliever, and one of the best in the game – and Holland like plow horses. Save a few inexplicable bunts – ones that more often than not ended with the Royals plating runs – Yost managed a near-perfect series.

Lorenzo Cain was named the ALCS MVP. (AP)
Lorenzo Cain was named the ALCS MVP. (AP)

"I don't need vindication," Yost said. "I'm real – you know, I'm comfortable with who I am. And everything that I look at, I don't look at much [media]. But I'm the dumbest guy on the face of the earth. But I know that's not true. …

"My whole goal – none of this was ever about me. Winning a championship was all about this city, our fans and these players. …What they've done is they've fallen in love with our team. They love our athleticism. They love our energy. They love the way these guys play hard and enjoy each other. And they love the way that they stand up and get clutch hits and make fantastic plays. And everybody is tipping their cap to each other. They love speed. I think they just love the way we play the game. And I think it was a great experience for our players, but I think that we've made a bunch of new fans throughout the country."

Something funny happened over the past 16 days, since that first playoff game, and Ned Yost hit on it. America fell in love with the perfect team for it.

Here is why it is easy to love the Kansas City Royals: Because they spring for $15,000 bar tabs for fans and post amusing Instagram videos from inside the clubhouse and take in a terminally ill cancer patient as one of their own. Because a man from South Korea who adopted them years ago and stuck with them through all those awful seasons finally came to Kansas City this year and watched them rip off 10 straight wins. Because they can score a pair of runs 12 minutes into a clinching ALCS game on a play at home plate that kicks away from the catcher and make it hold for the next 2 hours, 44 minutes. Because Gordon runs into walls. Because Moustakas leaps over railings. Because Cain catches everything hit to him and pretty much everything not hit to him, too.

This is the team Dayton Moore set out to build, one that thrived in scouting and player development, that understood – maybe not this deep an understanding, but understood still – that a bullpen and defense could win some playoff games. The greatest trick Moore ever played was convincing a billionaire that he was being cheap.

So here the Royals find themselves, surrounded by ridiculous notions that they're some team of destiny. They're not. They executed a plan and continue to ride an October hot streak. They're loving every minute of it, understanding that if a team that was baseball's ideal in the early 1980s can fall into a 29-year funk then certainly this one isn't immune.

Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer celebrate after the Royals advanced to the World Series. (AP)
Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer celebrate after the Royals advanced to the World Series. (AP)

Perez traded his black AL champion hat with a fan in Section 119 who held a giant cutout of the 24-year-old's face and paraded around on the field with it, stopping to pose for pictures. Then he went into the stands with a broom whose bristles bore a KC logo and represented the sweep, and as he high-fived everyone he could, Perez stopped with a couple of lucky ladies who wanted to take selfies.

In center field, Nori Aoki lay on his back, basking in this, inhaling every moment, far from Japan, where he never could have imagined playing in a World Series. And Art Stewart, the original Royal, a scout with the team since 1969, the man who personally signed Bo Jackson and Carlos Beltran and so many others, went from person to person giving hugs and thanks, his powder-blue blazer and white hair impossible to miss. And Danny Duffy, the one pitching prospect from the failed four who made it, slung a brown coat with a grizzly bear head over his shoulders, like Blake from "Workaholics," and dodged spraying booze and flying beer.

Amid the chaos, Dyson – who irritated Baltimore all series by speaking in candid terms about just how good he thought the Royals were and how little a chance Baltimore had of ousting them – drank from a silver bottle of high-end Champagne.

"Whaddya got right here?" Holland asked.

"Ace of Spades," Dyson said.

Holland grabbed the bottle and took a whiff.

"Don't smell it!" Dyson said.

Holland tilted it back and savored a sip.

"Good," he said.

It was good. Kansas City avoided all the pitfalls that tripped the Orioles. After a leadoff walk in the ninth, Holland fielded a comebacker from Nelson Cruz. He wheeled to throw to second and was blinded by a tiny beam of light cast by a setting sun. His throw nearly went awry, saved by shortstop Alcides Escobar, another thing gone right in a series of them.

Near the batting cage, in front of a TV, sat an unfamiliar face. It was Dayton Moore. He was summoned down by Major League Baseball an inning earlier from his suite, where he'd have preferred to watch his plan unfold. The demands of success insisted otherwise, and since he wasn't allowed in the dugout, Moore married the TV to the crowd noise and got a full-enough picture. His plan rescued this team from what baseball's growth wrought. The second-smallest media market in the country can still go to the World Series.

"We've accepted who we are and who we're supposed to be from Day 1," Picollo said. "We've known the importance of scouting and development, and it's not going to go away. That's part of our DNA."

The trophy for winning the pennant made its way down to the field, and Shields was the first player to grab it. He lifted it, showed it to the fans, started running with it, passed it to teammates, shared in the celebration. Even if his performance was subpar in the first three rounds, Shields symbolized this team, this moment.

Perhaps only Gordon represents the Royals more. Butler is the fan favorite, Hosmer the superstar-in-the-making, Cain the breakout star, the roster dotted with the anonymous becoming anything but. Gordon is the longest-tenured Royal, the one who braved 100-loss seasons without complaint, who remade his career as one of the world's best outfielders after a few poor years at third base.

As the celebration died down, a teammate handed him a bottle of Champagne, and Gordon tilted it ever so slightly as someone snapped a photo. None poured in his mouth. Then he did the same with a small bottle of the protein drink Muscle Milk, a staple in his diet. Finally, he went back to the drink in his left hand, inside a green paper cup filled with ice.

For 29 years, the Royals have tried to recapture what once was theirs, what a new era in baseball left behind. Their nickname has been incongruous with their play long enough that it was almost comical – these Royals with no coronet. Maybe it was an accident, and maybe not, but Gordon strayed away from Champagne on the most glorious Wednesday of all in Kansas City because he instead wanted to drink a special kind of liquor.

"Crown," he said.