Kansas City, Mo. It’s been 19 years since George Brett retired, and he remains the face of the Royals.
The George Brett Bridge gets you across Interstate 70 and into Kauffman Stadium, where you pass by his statue as you head through Gate B. Men far too old to be asking for autographs cry out for his signature, and children stare in awe at someone they’re far too young to have seen play.
It makes sense, too, when you consider the Royals have been baseball’s laughingstock the past two decades. They haven’t made the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series, and haven’t had a winning season since 2003. Their fans have had little to cheer about during the summer heat.
Until this year, and this moment, when the best of Major League Baseball has converged on Kansas City for the All-Star game, and all those fans finally have reason to celebrate.
“I love this town. This town adopted me when I first came here in 1973,” said Brett, who has worked tirelessly the past 18 months as the All-Star game’s official ambassador.
“I’m extremely honored that they named me ambassador,” he added, the strain of long days and sleepless nights evident in his voice. “I didn’t realize how much work was involved. But it’s been a lot of fun to show off the city.”
To a nation that has rarely had an opportunity to see it.
The product on the field has been so miserable over the years, the losing so common, that all those outsiders rarely have had a chance to appreciate what Midwesterners have come to adore.
During one five-year stretch, the franchise lost 100 games four times. Players such as Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon sparked hope, then were traded away. Prospects flamed out, youth movements fizzled, veterans got hurt. Guys such as Mark Redman wound up representing the club in the All-Star game.
So of course Kansas City has been ignored by the baseball establishment.
Fox, which will broadcast Tuesday night’s All-Star game, has had the rights to MLB’s game of the week since 1996. But who would want to see the Royals over the Yankees anywhere but Kansas City? In the past three years, Fox has aired just one game nationally from Kauffman Stadium — earlier this year, in part to drum up interest in the Midsummer Classic.
Rock musician David Cook, who grew up in nearby Blue Springs and spent five years working at the ballpark before his big break on “American Idol,” can only shake his head when he ponders all the years that Royals fans have suffered.
There was that one magical summer, nearly a decade ago now, when Kansas City got off to an incredible start. Former manager Tony Pena cried out, “Nosotros creemos” — or, “We believe” — and fans finally did, if only for a short time. Kansas City finished four games above .500.
“I thought after that season it was going to go one of two ways, the way it or went or maybe we would build off of it,” Cook said. “Unfortunately, it went the other way.”
The franchise lost a record 104 games the following season, and then 106 the very next year, a period of particularly bitter darkness for fans accustomed to living in the shadows.
Much of their vitriol has been directed at owner David Glass, who purchased the team after the death of the beloved Ewing M. Kauffman. Rarely does Glass speak to the media, and his suite at the stadium is empty nearly every game. Fans believe he’d rather run a profitable franchise than a winning one, pointing out its modest payroll and failure to sign homegrown talent.
“The problem here is that they’ve never been able to keep everyone together,” said Beltran, now with the Cardinals, who is back in Kansas City as the NL’s starting right fielder.
It’s not just that star players such as Beltran have gotten away, though. There have been wasted drafts, lousy trades and lengthy strings of bad luck, pure and simple.
At times, it seems as if fate is conspiring against them.
Even during the All-Star festivities this week, when Kansas City fans have had every reason to be proud, there are reasons to be sour at nearly every turn.
Designated hitter Billy Butler, the Royals’ lone All-Star representative, was passed over for participation in the home run derby, even though the Yankees’ Robinson Cano — the captain of the AL squad — had promised he would choose a hometown player a few weeks ago.
Along with Beltran in the NL outfield will be Melky Cabrera, who was dealt in the offseason to San Francisco. The Royals got pitcher Jonathan Sanchez in return, and the left-hander was so abysmal during the first of the season that most believe he’ll soon be waived.
“Kansas city is a small market, we all know that. But they love their baseball here just as much, if not more,” Butler said. “There will be a time we’re going to be a force in the American League, and where you’re going to have to talk about us a lot more.”
For now, though, the city is content with people talking about the All-Star game.
Thousands have packed Bartle Hall for the FanFest, and lines to get autographs from players past and present have snaked their way through dozens of booths, each surrounded by even more fans hungry to get their hands on anything connected to the game.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, not long ago on the brink of collapse, has drawn overflow crowds to such events as a forum featuring Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Dave Winfield.
Even the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday afternoon, considered an afterthought in most other places, became a must-see event. A sellout crowd of better than 40,000 on a picturesque night was spurred on in part by three Royals prospects participating in the game.
Perhaps there’s so much interest because Kansas City hasn’t rolled out an All-Star red carpet since 1973, and since the first World Series was played in 1903, no city has gone longer without hosting an All-Star game or World Series. Then again, perhaps it’s because a city starved for success is just happy for its moment in the spotlight.
“Kansas City is a great city. It’s nostalgic. It’s a baseball town,” Padres reliever Huston Street said. “It’s one of those middle-of-the-country baseball towns where it means a lot. You come here and you know you’re going to see plenty of fountains. You know you’re going to meet friendly people and eat some great barbecue. Kauffman Stadium is a really cool, special place.
“It’s a great place for me to experience my first All-Star game.”