Kansas City: Chiefs or Royals town?
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This is not a Royals and Chiefs town.
It is a Royals town or a Chiefs town.
Always been that way.
For as long as the Royals and Chiefs have been in existence, the two teams have taken turns owning the fans' collective hearts and dominating the sports culture here.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was all Chiefs, who came to Kansas City in 1963, made it to two Super Bowls and won one.
"Then we got old," said Hall of Famer and former Chiefs great Len Dawson. "We moved into the new stadium, we got old, they fired Hank (Stram) and we lost our grip on the city."
And in swooped the Royals, who came here in 1969 but did not become the talk of the town until the mid-1970s, when young studs named George Brett and Hal McRae and Willie Wilson helped guide the team to the playoffs seven times, while also advancing to two World Series and winning it all in 1985.
"During that time, the Chiefs went downhill and the fans took off with the Royals," Dawson said. "It was that way for almost 15 years."
But the Royals' grip on the fans of Kansas City faded soon after that 1985 championship. Owner Ewing Kauffman's health began failing, the team traded away two young stars in David Cone and Bret Saberhagen, losses began to pile up and the strike of 1994 severed the city's love with baseball.
Just before that, the Chiefs, who had suffered through over a decade of losing seasons and empty seats at Arrowhead Stadium, went out and hired general manager Carl Peterson, who in turn hired coach Marty Schottenheimer. And within minutes, it seemed, the Chiefs reclaimed the town.
Man, did they ever.
"It was hard not to get a little envious back then," Royals Hall of Famer George Brett said. "A Chiefs game became the thing to do in the '90s. It was a giant party. I mean, I loved going to the Chiefs games, too. I felt a little guilty, but it was fun."
Marty and Carl became one-name celebrities in Kansas City, just like George had been for two decades.
Under Peterson and Schottenheimer, Arrowhead Stadium rocked like never before, filling its capacity of nearly 80,000 seats each week. "Red Friday" gripped the town, as parties and fan gatherings stretched from the Plaza to Westport to downtown in anticipation of the weekend's game.
The Chiefs never made it to the Super Bowl under Peterson and Schottenheimer, but they took hold of Kansas City and simply left the stumbling Royals in their wake.
And so it remained even after Schottenheimer left in 1999, and even after Peterson left in 2008.
Kansas City was a Chiefs town.
"You just hoped every spring during that time that we could be competitive," Royals Hall of Famer Frank White said a few years back. "But by about May or June, everyone was starting to talk Chiefs again. It was kind of depressing."
But now, the tide of fan preference in Kansas City may soon be changing again.
Though the Royals have hardly distinguished themselves on the field in the past 20 years, they have slowly begun winning back the city's fans in the past two years.
General manager Dayton Moore's arrival in 2006 also came with his promise to commit completely to the farm system and develop prospects. And, finally, many of Moore's prospects have reached the major leagues, which created a buzz throughout the city prior to the 2012 season.
Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and Greg Holland suddenly became the faces of the new Royals, to go along with established young stars such as Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
Butler, in fact, became an All-Star last summer, and also became an instant folk hero as fans chanted "Billy! Billy!" during the All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium when he was introduced and when he appeared as a pinch-hitter.
"You got a glimpse of what baseball fever this town has or can have with all the Billy Butler stuff that went on at the All-Star Game," said KSHB television broadcaster Frank Boal, who has been in Kansas City since 1981. "That enthusiasm, that energy, is what it was like in the 1980s when I got here. It was all Royals."
But the Royals' horrific starting pitching continually weighed the team down during the second half of 2012.
"That momentum from the All-Star Game disappeared pretty fast," said Boal, who also appears on WHB radio. "You could tell the fans got pretty disappointed pretty fast, and it became kind of the same old Royals in the second half of the season."
And even though the Chiefs' embarked on one of their worst seasons in franchise history, they still held the town's heart.
But that started to change on Nov. 1 when the Royals surprised many observers by acquiring Angels right-hander Ervin Santana, a bulldog pitcher with the reputation and track record of throwing 200-plus innings a season.
Then on Nov. 20, the Royals re-signed Jeremy Guthrie, who had been stellar for the Royals in the second half after being acquired from the Colorado Rockies.
"I don't think a lot of fans believed that ownership would ante up the money to re-sign Guthrie," Boal said. "That got fans talking again."
And then, as the Chiefs continued to lose, the Royals again seized the headlines not only in Kansas City but throughout the baseball world with the blockbuster trade to acquire starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.
The pitching-thin Royals suddenly had something they hadn't had in more than 20 years — a bona-fide starting rotation with Shields, Santana, Guthrie and Davis.
"I can't tell you how exciting it was after the Shields trade to hear everyone in Kansas City talking Royals again," Brett said. "It was kind of like the old days. Everywhere you went, they were talking about the trade and talking about next season and talking about our rotation. I loved it."
Boal noticed the shift in talk-radio topics immediately.
"Here we were, in the middle of Chiefs season," Boal said, "and everyone wanted to talk Royals. It was just Royals, Royals, Royals after the Shields trade. That never happens in the offseason here, or it hadn't happened in decades."
But it did, and it has some observers wondering if the Royals indeed have come back to reclaim the town.
"It'd be nice," Brett said. "It was nice to talk Royals baseball in December. But we have to be careful not to get too excited. We still got to win."
Still, one of the principle marketing strategies for sports teams is to "win" the offseason in their respective towns.
"When we got here in 1989, that was one of the first things we always talked about," said former Chiefs media relations director Bob Moore. "We were very conscious of winning the offseasons here.
"And we did that a lot of the times in the 1990s. We did it through trades and free-agent signings. You can go back to the Joe Montana trade and the Marcus Allen acquisition. That's how you keep your fan base buzzing about your team. That's how you win off-seasons."
Moore acknowledged that the Royals made great moves, at least from a marketing perspective, with the acquisitions of Santana, Guthrie, Shields and Davis.
"But you still have to win," Moore said, smiling. "We made our moves and we also won. I'm not being negative toward the Royals, but . . ."
Moore, who still works for the Chiefs as the team's official historian, is not ready to concede that the Royals have won the town back.
"I don't care what town you're in," Moore said, "it still comes down to winning. That's what draws fans back."
Dawson agreed, which is why he is also not ready to acknowledge that the Chiefs suddenly won back the offseason with the recent signing of new coach Andy Reid. Dawson, after all, has been around for a few coaching changes with the Chiefs.
"Actually, I've been here for them all," Dawson said with a laugh. "There's always optimism when you hire a new coach, and it gets the town pumped up. But that can fade pretty quickly if you don't win. We'll see."
One thing Dawson would like to see is a Kansas City sports town undivided.
"Since I got here in 1963, we've never had both teams on top at once," Dawson said. "Wouldn't that be nice? Who knows? Maybe we have a chance now."