Editor's note: Since this story was originally published on August 18, the Royals have clinched their first playoff berth since 1985.
So here the Kansas City Royals stand in first place in the AL Central, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers, nicely positioned to make their first postseason appearance in 29 years. If the Royals manage to snap their streak, it will be a representation of how things ought to be done, and there will be plenty of folks around the baseball world who will be pulling for them.
Let's be clear about one thing right up front: Everything that has happened to the Royals begins with the patience, vision and resolve shown by team owner David Glass. He believed in his general manager, Dayton Moore, when that wasn't a popular position in Kansas City.
Sometimes, the toughest thing for competitive people to do is nothing. Sometimes, it's also the correct thing. Glass didn't simply accept losing, either. He asked questions. He listened. He trusted instincts during almost six decades in the business world.
If there's October baseball in Kansas City, it'll be because Glass showed an unwavering belief in the people he hired, beginning with Moore. He gave him the resources and freedom -- and most important, the time -- to do the job he hired him to do.
Who stays the course anymore? That's the most remarkable part of this story. From the beginning, Glass understood that Kansas City had to do things a certain way and that doing them this way might take extra time and patience. When he bought in, he bought all in. When Moore interviewed for the job in 2006, he outlined a vision of what the Royals could and should be, everything from the structure of the baseball operation right down to how the game should be scouted, taught and executed.
Moore knew that the Royals would not be throwing huge amounts of money at free agents, so there'd be bumps along the way because young players don't come with guarantees. Moore, who was one of the personnel gurus in Atlanta when the Braves made 14 straight postseason appearances, knew that the game is a series of adjustments and readjustments for all players, but especially for younger guys.
He did believe that once the Royals were good again they had a chance be good a long time. Baseball may never have another champion built largely through free agency. For one thing, teams don't allow many of their best players to reach free agency in their prime years, so there just aren't enough free agents to construct a champion. Besides, the Royals can't afford to do business like that.
Some of us thought the Royals had arrived in 2011 when Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Kelvin Herrera made their big league debuts and joined a nucleus that already had Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. A foundation appeared to be in place, and when the Royals rode those young guys to a 15-10 record in September 2011, it sparked hope that 2012 would be the turnaround season.
As scouting reports got around, weaknesses were revealed, and even though the Royals were touted for having arguably the best farm season ever, they did not conquer the world in 2012. They lost 90 games. Hosmer hit .232, Moustakas .242. The rotation was one of baseball's worst. This was the first time that the blueprint no longer looked perfect. Royals fans had waited a long time to be optimistic, and they were bitterly disappointed by those 90 losses. Same old, same old.
But here's where the story gets interesting.
Glass stayed the course. He didn't fire Moore. He didn't demand that Moore fire manager Ned Yost. Perhaps because Moore had told him -- he'd also told almost any reporter willing to listen -- that the Royals hadn't yet arrived.
They were getting close. In Gordon, they had one of the best outfielders in baseball. In Perez, they had a superstar catcher in the making. They had an assortment of young pitchers a year or two away. In the wake of losing 90 games, Moore actually felt pretty good about things, and so he did something he would never have done before then. He took a chance. He traded one of his best prospects. Actually, he traded two of them, shipping outfielder Wil Myers and right-hander Jake Odorizzi (among others) to the Rays for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.
Moore was roasted for trading away two young guys who have a chance to be big stars. And in trading for Shields, he was getting a guy he might only have for two seasons.
He did it anyway, though, because he believed the Royals had turned a corner even if their 2012 record didn't reflect it. He specifically wanted Shields, not just because he'd been so good for Tampa Bay and played a huge role in turning the Rays into a competitive baseball team. He wanted him for his attitude and work ethic, for his leadership skills, and swagger. Shields is one of those guys who believes that he can will whatever ending he decides to will. The Royals were different the moment Shields walked in the door in spring training 18 months ago. Because Shields believed, others were compelled to believe, too. Because he'd been where the Royals were still trying to get, his teammates had the confidence he could help get them there.
In a perfect world, the Royals would have trudged into October in 2013. They won 86 games, their first winning season since 2003, but it was terribly unfulfilling because they didn't make the playoffs. There were holes at the back of the rotation, and some in the offense, too.
So Moore again went back to work. He signed free-agent left-hander Jason Vargas for the rotation and Omar Infante to fill a gaping hole at second base. He traded a talented reliever, Will Smith, to get outfield Nori Aoki from the Brewers.
And still nothing came easy. They were 29-32 and in fourth place in the American League Central on June 6. And then they won 10 in a row to climb atop the division. And then they went 9-18 and left the ballpark on July 21 a whopping eight games behind the Tigers. To say there were cries for Moore to fire Yost and for Glass to fire everyone would be an understatement. Moore simply said that if this club was as good as he believed it was that things eventually would click.
And they did.
As any manager will tell you, there's no way to know when a team catches some kind of magic, when it just figures out how to win and when it begins to function as a living, breathing organism. At some point, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Even cliches have some enduring truths.
The Royals are now 20-5 since July 21. They've caught and passed the Tigers again. Their starting pitchers have a 3.07 ERA in this stretch. Their bullpen has been airtight (Herrera, Davis and Greg Holland have allowed three earned runs in their last 45 1/3 innings.) Butler, Gordon and Aoki have been among the hottest hitters in baseball. The Royals have baseball's best defense by a wide margin.
Shields? He has a 1.96 ERA since the Royals began this latest little sprint and is leading in all the ways Moore envisioned him leading.
Even if the Tigers hadn't been in free fall, the Royals would have moved into position to get one of the American League's two wild-card berths. Considering where they've been and how long it has taken them to get this far, the Royals will take it.
If they're able to finish the deal, it will be impossible to measure the emotion, not just in the executive offices, not just in the clubhouse, but also in the community. Remember what it was like in Pittsburgh last fall when that ballpark was full and fans were rocking the place to its bones? That's what it'll be like in Kansas City, too. Glass has worked tirelessly to put the Royals in this position. In many ways, he has run a model organization in terms of community involvement, ballpark upgrades and fiscal responsibility.
The Royals have been through so much these last 29 years, endured so much hope and so much disappointment. Maybe, just maybe, that'll make the endgame that much sweeter. Maybe this time it'll work out in a way that makes all that patience seem worthwhile.