Why Royals great Frank White no longer associates with the team whose stadium he built

·MLB columnist
Why Royals great Frank White no longer associates with the team whose stadium he built

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On the biggest night of baseball this city has seen in nearly 30 years, the man responsible for so many great moments here was just like the 40,000-plus people losing their minds around him. About a dozen rows back of the third-base dugout, Frank White sat anonymously – or as anonymously as Frank White can sit in his city – and relished the Kansas City Royals clinching a spot in the World Series for this suddenly baseball-mad town.

It was his third time visiting Kauffman Stadium in the past month, a softening from the stance outlined in his autobiography released less than two years ago: "You'll never see me in that stadium again." White smiled, posed for pictures, signed autographs, momentarily forgetting what kept him away and still keeps him at a distance.

Frank White should be in the middle of all this. He should be on the field, slapping the backs of Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, two linchpins of these Royals whom he once managed. He should be throwing out a first pitch, or catching one, or doing something that would allow him to bask in the Royals' resurgence. He should be a broadcaster or ambassador or anything with the Royals rather than spending the team's first meaningful October in ages campaigning for an open Jackson County Legislature spot he intends to fill for the final act of his career.

"I could throw out a first pitch for the fans, and it would be a wonderful experience," White said. "I guess my biggest thing is it doesn't fix what's wrong. Only the Royals could fix what's wrong. I've come to grips with that situation with the Royals a couple years ago and decided to move on and do some things that are positive in the community."

Frank White played 18 seasons for the Royals. (Getty Images)
Frank White played 18 seasons for the Royals. (Getty Images)

The saddest estrangement in baseball, between a man who embodied the ascent of a franchise and a franchise that once again has risen, lingers on the fringe of a World Series set to begin Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. Frank White and the Royals, happily married for nearly two decades, tolerant of one another for two more, now exist at an awkward impasse forged by slights perceived and actual, insults spoken and monetary, and the most intractable force of all: pride.

Last week, the Royals extended an olive branch to White. If ever there were a time to make amends, it was heading into Game 3 of the ALCS against Baltimore, the first ALCS the Royals would host since the 1985 team that featured White, a sure-handed second baseman, filling the cleanup spot. The director of the Royals Hall of Fame, Curt Nelson, reached out to White. Others in the hall were coming to town for the occasion, and they were going to be on the field together, and the team wanted to let bygones be bygones, to have White join the group.

He said no.

"It wasn't right for me," White said, and it prompted some in the organization to wonder: If that wasn't right for him, can anything be?

Frank White built Kauffman Stadium. This is not like Babe Ruth building Yankee Stadium. White literally built Kauffman Stadium, toiling with mortar, scraping floors level, a kid working construction to earn some money on a side job to his real work: trying to make baseball history.

The man after whom the stadium is named, the late Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, dreamed up his fair share of ideas, and one of them was brilliant: take raw athletes, send them to what amounts to baseball school and turn them into major leaguers. Frank White was the first graduate of the Royals Baseball Academy and the best. He made five All-Star teams, won eight Gold Gloves and spent all 18 of his major league seasons with his hometown team. He was Bill Mazeroski with one fewer World Series-winning home run and one fewer ring.

White grew up a 9-iron from Municipal Stadium, the predecessor to the ballpark he built and imbued with memories. George Brett was the Royals' greatness incarnate; White was its local kid done right, and in right-center field today stands a massive bronze statue that honors him. Only White, Brett and the late Dick Howser, the manager of the '85 champions, have their jersey numbers retired.

By birth, by deed, by any measure, Frank White is royalty for a team whose scoreboard is shaped like a crown. How, then, did it come to this? Pride, yes, and an inability for White and team president Dan Glass to sit down and communicate like adults, and even decades of Royals misery building up and creating pressure points that cracked a bottle they'd shaken for years. The biggest surprise was that it took so long.

White wanted to manage the Royals. This spoke to the opinion he held of himself, though White lacked neither credentials nor a willingness to pay dues. He started a managerial apprenticeship running the Royals' Double-A team in 2004. When Kansas City passed him over for Buddy Bell in 2005 and Trey Hillman in 2008, White felt slighted, and he left Wichita after three seasons only to join the Royals' TV broadcast booth. He was growing into an excellent color commentator, marrying his knowledge of the game's intricacies with a willingness to speak the truth about the organization. Coming off as many 100-loss seasons as the Royals booked, such facts hurt.

White is one of three former Royals to have his number retired. (Getty Images)
White is one of three former Royals to have his number retired. (Getty Images)

Whether it was his criticism or the perception that he bad-mouthed the team to other organizations, the Royals told White they wanted to slash the salary of his community-relations job – essentially a perfunctory, appearance-making gig – from $150,000 to $50,000. The Bell hiring was one slight, the Hillman another. White saw this as too much, an insult. A year later, Fox Sports fired him from his announcing job and replaced him with Rex Hudler, an unabashed booster.

White joined the Kansas City T-Bones, a local independent team, as a coach, and worked in sales and marketing for a local roofing company. At public appearances, fans would ask when he was going to go back to the Royals, and White would smile and laugh, because that's how he hides his pain. And at the same time, the Royals grit their teeth at being cast as the bad guys, knowing that a six-figure annual golden parachute is the sort of luxury rarely given, believing that White's desire to be treated as Brett's equal fueled an animosity that needn't have existed.

"I'm not waiting for an apology at all," White said. "I've basically moved on. What happened with the Royals happened with the Royals. What happened with Dan Glass and his front office happened with him. My focus has been on rooting for the team and winning the race next month."

His first appearance at the ballpark, in September, did both, as did his subsequent visits at the wild card and ALCS games. The crowd in the playoff games, White said, bested that of 1985, almost like the fans from the Chiefs migrated across the street from Arrowhead Stadium to Kauffman. The crowd cheered practically every strike, even in the early innings. One fan near White noticed he wasn't doing it.

"How come you're not cheering every strike?" he asked White.

"If you cheer strike one, strike two might be over the wall," White said. "I always wait for strike three."

Nobody knows this for sure, because nobody up at the highest levels of Royals management gave the go-ahead, but if Frank White had said yes last week – if he had agreed to forget the past, or at least forget it for now – he might have thrown out the first pitch for that game. Or caught it. Or something that would have provided an incredible moment, a surge of excitement to a stadium already taxing the grid with its electricity levels. He would've been back. That would've meant something. He would've seen it. The Royals would've seen it. Both sides would've known never, ever to let something get in the way of their relationship, no matter how much of a pain he can be, no matter how stubborn they can be.

The Royals didn't offer that. Brett threw the first pitch. Even though White said, "I'm not asking for anything special," it's obvious he wants just that, seeing as the olive branch wasn't sufficient. In his book, White said his heart was broken, and mending a broken heart takes something special, something extraordinary, a conciliatory effort well beyond what may be warranted. White may be too prideful for his own good, but flawed men are not broken, not worth forsaking, not when such hubris can be laughed off by those who spend time understanding its roots. Fixing estrangements takes both sides not just extending a branch but offering the whole damn tree, and as uncomfortable a position as it may be for the Royals, it's theirs to proffer before White will his.

They are the team in the World Series, the team riding the first 8-0 run ever to begin the postseason, the team with personality and talent, the team that has transfixed the city every bit as much as, if not more than, the 1985 team. They are kingmakers right now, and it would not make them weak to approach White and ask how to make this proper. It would add another win to a postseason full of them.

Of course, it may be too late. Major League Baseball approves those who throw out the first pitch, and the league isn't altogether fond of last-minute surprises. Certainly this would be a worthwhile one, if only to ensure White sees in person what he grew so fond of on TV over the summer. He's particularly smitten by Lorenzo Cain, like him a kid with limited baseball experience who grew into a star, and Alcides Escobar, a middle infielder who can survive a 162-game grind. He loves the raw ability of Eric Hosmer, the knowledge of Salvador Perez, the incredible bullpen. White especially takes pride in Gordon and Butler, the last two links from his managing days in Wichita.

White was a key member of the Royals' 1985 championship team. (AP)
White was a key member of the Royals' 1985 championship team. (AP)

"I have nothing but good things to say about him," Gordon said. "I loved him as a manager in Double-A and loved him as an announcer. It would be great to see him here."

Said Butler: "He's a part of this organization – a big part of this organization – and it would be nice to have him back. He's done a lot of good things for this organization, this city. He should definitely want to come back. The city would embrace him."

In a way, it is. White cruised to the Democratic nomination of the 1st District At-Large seat for the county legislature that covers Kansas City, and his opponent in the notoriously liberal area is a Republican who prides himself on not spending a single dollar on his campaign. White is going to win and win running away, and he'll spend at least the next four years trying to fulfill his promises of fighting crime, making his community safer and improving parks and recreation.

"I've always been one to want to do something I've never done before," he said. "The Baseball Academy, being the first to graduate from that. I had to work for everything I've got. So I felt like this would be a good opportunity to end it all. This would be the last challenge for me."

White wants to dabble in politics for 10 years, then retire for good. He's 64 – a grandfather 12 times over, a great grandpa now, too, and "one year from Social Security," he noted with a laugh. He's got only so much time left to work, so much change to affect.

"And you know," he said, "I couldn't have done this if I'd have stayed in baseball."

He's right. He couldn't have. And maybe that's what he wants now, after spending this much time away from the Royals. Maybe, though, he'll keep softening, like the "You'll never see me in that stadium again" turning into a few appearances in the stands. Maybe he'll understand that this relationship is symbiotic, that he's better with the Royals and the Royals are better with him, because this is so much bigger than just them. This is the distillation of distant yet still wonderful memories, the last ones worth remembering before this October.

Hopefully, time will give Frank White even more wisdom than he has already and fill him with forgiveness as well, because this fight has gone on long enough already. The saddest estrangement in baseball doesn't need to be that way. Not when both sides have so much more to gain than they've already lost.

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