The Kansas City Royals: The American Dream Team

The 2015 Major League Baseball season was packed with American dream stories of comebacks, character, redemption, entrepreneurial vision and innovation. The season showed why baseball is still America’s pastime. Several teams and players proved that if you work hard and play by the rules you really could succeed beyond all expectations.

The Chicago Cubs won 97 games and clinched their first playoff series victory at Wrigley Field in a century. The Houston Astros went from bottom dwellers two years ago to nearly knocking off reigning American League Champion Royals in the American League Division Series. Alex Rodriguez helped lead the New York Yankees to the playoffs after being suspended for a year for using performance-enhancing drugs. The 40-year-old Rodriguez hit 33 home runs and drove in 83 runs in 153 games. (Memo to kids: he never needed enhancements.)

But no story is more poignant than the one the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals, led by General Manager Dayton Moore, wrote in 2015.

Last year, the Royals enjoyed a Cinderella season in which they went from an improbable wild card berth to the cusp of the championship. The Royals came 90 feet away from tying Game 7 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants in the bottom of the ninth inning at home. Even though they couldn’t overcome the Giants, who were led by starting pitcher and World Series MVP Madison Bumbargner’s historic performance, they captured the nation’s imagination.

Yet, even after last season’s impressive run, the baseball commentariat said the 2014 Royals were more a fluke and an aberration — a good, but not great, team that got lucky in the postseason and were simply hot at the right time. None of baseball’s 88 leading experts predicted the Royals would win the World Series this year and only three predicted they would win their division. (The National League Champion Mets weren’t picked to go very far, either).

Yet, in 2015, the Royals defied their critics and became MLB’s greatest postseason comeback team in history

The 2014-2015 Royals deserve to be regarded as one of the most complete teams in the history of sports. Perhaps not since the 1980 U.S. Olympic “Miracle on Ice” Hockey Team has a major sports team been more complete and more than the sum of its parts. Few baseball teams in history have been so successful, and demonstrated so much heart and character, without the help of truly dominant players, or the help of a large payroll budget. (The Royals payroll is now in the middle of the pack, but was near the bottom of MLB a decade ago).

The truth is the critics have a point about the Royals. While they are a championship team of all stars, they are not necessarily a team of superstars. They rarely dominate or overpower opponents like other championship teams. They’re not the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the 1972 Miami Dolphins or the 1998 New York Yankees. The Royals lack a reliable pitching ace and a George Brett caliber hitter. Instead, they excel in areas that typically aren’t celebrated — contact, not striking out, putting the ball in play, efficient defense, smart base running (see Eric Hosmer’s game-tying run in game 5) and great relief pitching. Most of all, the Royals have the heart of a champion. They are lethal in close games and fearless in the clutch. They have a knack for being just a little a bit better than their opponent when it counts.

Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett, center, and others get cold champagne from a tub in the Royals locker room to celebrate after World Series win over the St. Louis Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 27, 1985, Kansas City, Mo. The rest of the players are unidentified. (AP Photo/John Swart)

Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett, center, and teammates celebrate after the Kansas City won the 1985 World Series, the last championship for the franchise until 2015. | Photo: AP

The Miracle of Nice

For the Royals, none of this success is a fluke or happened by accident, and no one deserves more credit than Moore.

As described in Moore’s book, “More than a Season: Building a Championship Culture,” the Royals comeback era started in 2006, when owner David Glass was searching for the right GM to help end the Royal’s 20-year playoff drought and string of losing seasons (the Royals had finished above .500 only once in the previous decade). Glass’ search focused on Moore, a protégé of John Schuerholz, the former Royals General Manager who built the 1985 championship team before building another championship team as General Manager of the Atlanta Braves in 1995.

Moore, whose career was poised to take off (he was in line to be the Braves’ GM and was being courted by the Boston Red Sox), had little to gain from going to the bad news Royals.

He recalls some professional advice he received at the time: “Don’t take the job in Kansas City. You can’t win.” “It’s a professional graveyard.” “Because of the economics of today’s game, you can’t win quickly enough.”

But Moore had a deep affection for the Royals, his favorite boyhood team, and Kansas City. He decided to accept the challenge.

Schuerholz recalls, “I thought he was the perfect guy going into the perfect place.”

Moore immediately went to work on what would be called “The Process” that would bring Kansas City back to the World Series in 2014 and crown them champions in 2015.

For Moore, adversity and limitation forced innovation. He knew he couldn’t buy the right pieces through free agency, so he’d have to build slowly through smart draft picks like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Moore’s model of durable success also meant building a team designed to win at spacious Kaufman Stadium in Kansas City. This meant emphasizing contact, speed and defense and spending money on pieces they could afford (e.g., a good bullpen and signing bonuses to top prospects) rather than on pieces they couldn’t afford (elite hitting and pitching).

The 2014-2015 Royals showed Moore’s process come to fruition. The most important part of the process wasn’t Moore making the right tactical baseball moves — though that was critical — but his drive to build a championship culture based on core values, and then hiring the right leaders to model and implement those values so that everyone in the organization, from Moore to the single-A reserve players, would be a part of the same culture.

Kansas City Royals' Salvador Perez celebrates after Game 5 of the Major League Baseball World Series against the New York Mets Monday, Nov. 2, 2015, in New York. The Royals won 7-2 to win the series. (Al Bello/Pool via AP)

“This team… we are like a family,” says Royals’ starting catcher and World Series MVP Salvador Perez. | Photo: AP

I describe Moore’s four pillars, which I’ve culled from his writings and interviews, in more detail here, but they consist of:

  • A commitment to strong moral principles, including a devotion to family
  • A commitment to excellence and a drive to reach one’s ceiling
  • A humble desire to learn, listen and forgive
  • A refusal to give up

Moore’s most important insight, however, may be his understanding of the role of sports in a community.

As he writes in his book, “We understand the role of this baseball team in the Kansas City community. The Royals have brought families together and helped heal broken hearts. Our run in 2014 perhaps took people’s minds away from chemotherapy treatments or other illnesses and afflictions. This is the primary role a baseball team can play in a community. We understand that, at the end of the day, it’s about more than a season.”

This certainly has been true with my family. Last summer, we received tragic and unexpected news that my brother, Joe, had died of a heart attack at 45. Those days were a blur, but one memory that stands out is my wife having the wisdom and grace to buy several of us tickets to a Royals game.

A few days after my brother’s memorial service in Kansas City, we sat in Kaufmann Stadium on August 8, 2014 for what felt like a Perfect Game. We sat in what’s called the “Hy-Vee” deck opposite the left field General Admission section where I watched Royals greats like George Brett and Bo Jackson countless times as a kid, and above the Royals dugout where 30 years earlier my dad, brother and I watched the Royals’ Steve Balboni crush two home runs down the left field line.

We didn’t realize how special it was that the Royals beat Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants that day. It felt like we were the only family in the stadium. It was a few hours of perfect rest and, as my kids recall, concessions bliss.

This year, my brother-in-law Art stepped up and took Joe’s five-year old son Clyde to quite a few games.

Moore is right that baseball, and the joy of rooting for a team, can help heal broken hearts. But Moore, with characteristic humility, understates the role of sports in our national life. Yes, sports can take our minds off of things but it also inspires us to dwell on things greater than ourselves.

At its best, baseball — and any sport — isn’t mere entertainment or a diversion. It is one of life’s great canvases that capture epic stories. Those stories often bring out life’s most important virtues like doing one’s best, serving others and never giving up. Rather than being mere escapism, the game becomes a guide that leads us into adulthood and to a place a called home.

Every sports fan has an origin story that’s often connected to family and community. My journey started as a five-year-old in Kansas City. It had nothing to do with Royals, though. Instead, it was about the Dallas Cowboys. But, more than anything, it was about my dad.

At its best, baseball — and any sport — isn’t mere entertainment or a diversion. It is one of life’s great canvases that capture epic stories.

One of my first and happiest memories was sitting — or, more accurately, being placed — on the green shag carpet of our home in Leawood, Kansas on January 15, 1978 to watch Roger Staubach lead the Dallas Cowboys to victory in Superbowl XII. My dad, who used to sell popcorn at the Cotton Bowl as a kid, had an agenda. Of course, he wanted to raise a sports buddy. But he also wanted to expose me to the Cowboys’ championship culture led by Tom Landry and “Captain Comeback” Roger Staubach.

The subtext was a father using sports to transmit values from one generation to the next.

I’m for you. You belong. Never give up. Believe.

This moment started my lifelong love of Comeback stories in sports and “real” life. The Royals naturally became my favorite baseball team, especially after they finally made it to the World Series in 1980 after losing repeatedly to the Yankees in the playoffs. When the Royals won the World Series in 1985, it was, of course, in spectacular comeback fashion. They were down three games to one in both the World Series and the American League Championship series.

The reason parents get their kids involved in sports or take them to games isn’t so much about their favorite team but their favored people — their family and community. A dad can take his son to a baseball game and the only sounds may be the roar of the crowd and the crack of bats and peanuts. Few words need to be spoken, but the shared experience can last a lifetime.

Clyde will never forget the games Uncle Art took him to as a little boy.

I’m for you. You belong. Never give up. Believe.

Moore’s mission statement for the Royals is: “Let’s create and have an organization we’d want our own sons to be a part of.”

He’s done that and more. He’s built an organization parents across the country want their kids to be fans of.

Moore has given his city and the nation more than a season.

John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.