Kansas City livin’: Royals proving rebuild was no fluke

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On a crisp, cool night last October, John Schuerholz walked through the gates of Kauffman Stadium. Every seat was full, bunting hung proudly from the railings. There was a buzz.

It was all so familiar.

"That’s what we used to have all the time," he told The Associated Press, reflecting on the Royals’ improbable run to the World Series. "To see that back, and the banners over the plaza and all over the town, it was heartwarming. It really was."

Kansas City had once again become a baseball town.

And if anybody thought that it was a fluke, a lucky run to a memorable autumn climax, the Royals have done enough to prove them wrong: Seven players chosen to this week’s All-Star Game, a big lead in the AL Central, some of the best young talent in the game in their clubhouse.

"I’m happy for the organization," said Schuerholz, who was part of the initial front office when the franchise began in the late 1960s, then built another dynasty with the Atlanta Braves, where he still serves as the team’s president.

"They deserve what they have," he said, "but it took a lot of work to get there."

That work fell on the shoulders of Dayton Moore, one of Schuerholz’s top lieutenants in Atlanta. He turned down other general manager openings, but the job in Kansas City resonated with Moore, who grew up in Wichita and rooted for the Royals as a kid.

Over most of a decade, he tirelessly rebuilt their farm system. He poured money into scouting and player development. He established academies in the Caribbean and pushed boundaries of the status quo in search of players — retreads, hot prospects and virtual unknowns.

None of that has changed with their recent success, either.

The frugal franchise could not afford to keep staff ace James Shields when he hit free agency, so they allowed him to sign in San Diego. Moore then signed Edinson Volquez, Chris Young and Kris Medlen to serve as replacements. None of them made headlines nationally — the signings were met with a collective, ‘Meh’ — but they have far exceeded expectations.

Volquez has been the most dependable starter in the Kansas City rotation. Young has been perhaps the best. And Medlen is coming off his second Tommy John surgery but could give Kansas City a big second-half boost if he is even a fraction of the pitcher he once was.

That’s just the starting rotation, too.

Designated hitter Billy Butler became too expensive, so Moore signed Kendrys Morales, who has out-played Butler in every way. Paulo Orlando may not be well known, but he has helped Kansas City weather injuries and suspensions — including the latest, a potentially season-ending groin injury to star outfielder Alex Gordon.

"I’m not really smart. I’m not. But I’m a believer in players," Moore explained. "We knew those guys are winners. I can’t predict what their numbers will be, but everyone we bring in, we expect them to help us win."

Therein lies perhaps the biggest change in Kansas City: Winning is expected.

No longer do fans turn up to waste away a lazy summer evening. No longer do they count the days until Arrowhead Stadium comes alive across the parking lot with the start of the NFL season.

"I’ll say I never dreamt of this. You just do everything you can each and every day to improve your organization," Moore said. "But then again, in our business, accomplishments have no bearing on future success."

That is why Moore hardly reveled in last year’s success. Even during the World Series, he was tied up most days in meetings, breaking down his roster and potential acquisitions.

In that respect, Moore is a lot like his manager.

"It doesn’t really matter what we’ve done," said Ned Yost, who served as the AL’s All-Star manager. "You’ve just got to keep your head down and keep plodding along."

Many thought the Royals would regress this season, that such a young team devoid of big-name, big-money talent would fold. But so far, they are still in the hunt, their eye on defending their AL pennant.

If they can do it, you can bet Schuerholz will be pleased.

"There’s a lot of people in this world that think they’re baseball experts, whether they’ve worked a day in it or not," he said. "What they’ve done in Kansas City is prove many wrong."