By Kevin O'Brien
After a 74-88 season, the Kansas City Royals have now gone six straight seasons without making the postseason. Granted, the last time the Royals had a postseason drought, it was 29 years between playoff appearances (from 1985 to 2014).
Hence, six years without a postseason appearance (or a winning record, for that matter) isn’t the worst thing in the world for Kansas City sports fans (especially with the NFL’s Chiefs and MLS’ Sporting KC doing well). Nonetheless, there is hope among KC sports fans that the Royals’ next playoff appearance won’t take another 29 years to come about. Yes, Royals fans have great memories of 2014 and 2015. However, after each losing season, those memories only become more distant, which in turn, makes Kansas City baseball fans more jaded and pessimistic about the franchise’s outlook.
Just two years ago, John Sherman bought the Royals from former owner David Glass for $1 billion. The move was massive for the Kansas City community, mostly because Sherman wasn’t Glass, who was a polarizing owner who prioritized keeping costs low over winning early in his tenure, much to the chagrin of championship-starved Kansas Citians at the time.
Sherman has already made his mark in his short tenure as owner. He approved paying Royals Minor League players during the pandemic. He promoted general manager Dayton Moore to president of baseball operations, and assistant general manager JJ Picollo to general manager following the 2021 season. And in the past offseason, Sherman allowed Moore to acquire playoff-experienced veterans like Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, and Mike Minor through free agency or trade (though the acquisitions only “slightly” improved the Royals’ standing in the AL Central last year).
There is no doubt that the “Sherman-led” Royals want to make a splash in the heart of the Midwest. There is already talk of building a downtown stadium to replace Kauffman Stadium after Kauffman’s lease expires in 2031, which has been polarizing among many sports fans in Kansas City. Yes, a new stadium could improve the civic infrastructure of Kansas City that is in dire need of expansion, especially when it comes to public transportation. However, Royals fans are attached to the memories of Kauffman Stadium, which has been around since 1973. Considering the stadium just underwent a renovation in 2009, it’s not surprising that Jackson County voters aren’t eager to foot the bill for another stadium project.
On the other hand, a winning Royals club can change that discussion. If the Royals become competitive in the AL Central again like they were from 2013-2017, then Kansas City folks will do what is necessary to make Sherman’s “downtown Royals stadium” a reality. Kansas City is a small-market, Midwestern city at its heart. But if there is one thing that drives the people of the city, it’s the sports teams, the Royals and Chiefs specifically.
The key to the Royals becoming lastingly relevant again in 2022 and beyond will be Bobby Witt Jr., their top prospect and arguably the best prospect in baseball heading into 2022.
The Royals have had only one Hall of Fame player in their 53-year history: George Brett. And while Brett certainly statistically deserved his enshrinement in Cooperstown, his impact as a leader and Royals figurehead is what made his legacy in Kansas City so lasting.
From the late ’70s into the early ’90s, Brett WAS the Royals. Once he finally retired in 1993, the Royals’ fortunes went south as a result. For years after Brett stepped away from the game, Royals fans looked to certain prospects to follow in his footsteps. Johnny Damon, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer were all homegrown players that Royals fans thought could be the next Brett. While they didn’t have “bad” careers by any means, they fell far short of that “Brett” standard.
However, the feeling is that Witt may finally be that prospect who can not only be that “Brett-esque” player, but somehow, maybe be even better, as sacrilegious as that sounds.
Already bestowed with the moniker of “Bobby Baseball,” Witt has given even the most pessimistic Royals fans hope for the future.
At the alternate training site in 2020, he wowed the coaching staff and veteran players, despite only playing in 37 games in the Arizona Rookie League after being drafted second overall in 2019. In Spring Training of 2021, Witt posted an .851 OPS in 40 plate appearances, and also added three home runs and seven RBIs in only 14 Cactus League games. In his first full Minor League season, where he played 123 games across Double-A and Triple-A, Witt posted an OPS of .936, hit 33 home runs, scored 99 runs, and stole 29 bases.
Both the Royals and the city as a whole are ready for “Bobby Baseball” on Opening Day in 2022. How Witt does at the Major League level in 2022 could be a sign of what could develop in Kansas City on a greater level.
A solid rookie campaign from Witt not only will help catapult this Royals team into the playoff discussion in the AL Central (especially considering only the White Sox finished with a winning record in 2021), but such a season could also make baseball more relevant than ever in Kansas City. Witt could be a “superstar” player, a franchise cornerstone who impacts Kansas City like Fernando Tatis Jr. in San Diego or Tim Anderson in the South Side of Chicago.
Witt could perhaps give some serious competition in the next few years to the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes as the most “beloved” athlete in Kansas City, which is no easy feat considering the magnitude of Mahomes’ accomplishments thus far.
With that kind of impact, a downtown baseball stadium becomes more of a reality. “Bobby Baseball” becomes the nightly attraction in downtown Kansas City, which rejuvenates the city’s downtown and the entire metro area.
Sherman is banking on Witt helping the Royals become a winning club again, and perhaps making Kansas City baseball bigger than ever before. But first, the Royals need to make him either the starting shortstop or third baseman on Opening Day … Let’s see if the Royals and Witt will make that happen this Spring Training.
Kevin O’Brien is a high school educator and lifelong baseball fan who shares his thoughts on the Royals at his blog, the Royals Reporter, and on Twitter @RoyalReportKev. Kevin is also a member of SABR.