They were consistently one of baseball’s worst teams, and have endured a record 29 years absence from the end-of-season playoffs, but now the Kansas City Royals are one series away from becoming world champions.
They face the San Francisco Giants, World Series champions twice in the last four years, in the best-of-seven game series, starting in Kansas City on Tuesday.
The Royals, named after a famous rodeo show, have finished bottom of the American League Central division eight times, becoming the butt of countless jokes, including: “What do you say to a Royals’ fan when they win the World Series? Don’t forget to switch your computer console off.”
The nadir came in 2005 when they lost 106 out of 162 games, finishing 43 games behind the division-winning Chicago White Sox, and winning 11 fewer games than any other team in the major leagues.
It was the second of four straight seasons when the team finished in last place. Since 2000 Kansas City have lost more games than any other team in the American League.
It was not always that way. The Royals entered the major leagues in 1969, and, unusually for a new franchise, were quick to make their mark.
They made the end-of-season playoffs in seven out of 10 seasons from 1976, their path to glory often blocked only by the New York Yankees, a perennial powerhouse of the game.
In 1985, though, they took the ultimate prize, beating their glamorous and successful Missouri state rivals, the St Louis Cardinals, in a World Series dubbed the Interstate-70 Showdown.
But in US sport, money talks, and the Royals – based in a relatively small city – simply could not continue to compete with the super-wealthy juggernauts of the game.
Even this year, when the team finally made it back to the postseason playoffs, their average attendance has been the sixth smallest in the major leagues. The Los Angeles Dodgers pulled in twice as many fans during the regular season, while the Boston Red Sox attracted a million more fans, despite slumping to last place in their division.
The year 1993 marked a major low for the Royals. The death of the team’s founding owner Ewing Kauffman was followed by a savage cut in the payroll, with budding stars traded to bigger franchises.
That year also saw the retirement of George Brett, one of the game’s greatest hitters, and the only true 24-carat superstar in Kansas City’s history. The team lost not only his consistently outstanding productivity at the plate, but a talisman, who once described losing as equivalent to “kissing your grandmother with her teeth out”.
The grim years that followed were summed up by leading US sports journalist Joe Posnanski: “More than anything you could count on them to make the wrong decision. Always.”
Many believe the key to the Royals’ change of fortunes after so many years of misery was a trade following the end of the 2012 season, which saw the signing of pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis from Tampa Bay in return for a clutch of highly promising young talent.
At the time it was a huge gamble, but it appears to have signalled a new sense of self-belief.
“It was the trade that put us over the hump,” Royals manager Ned Yost said recently.
Shields, in particular, has been impressive during 2014, winning 14 games in the regular season.
Another important factor has been the dominant performance of the pitchers who enter the game in later innings after the starting pitcher has run out of steam. Repeatedly three men – Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland and Davis – have stepped out of the bullpen to shut down opponents.
But above all the Royals have relied on teamwork to overcome their shortcomings. The speed of their base runners and excellent defence in the field have helped compensate for a relative lack of batting power – the team hit the fewest home runs in the major leagues with just just 95; the Baltimore Orioles hit 211.
In the play-offs, they saw off the Oakland Athletics, in a game described as one of the most exciting ever, then ‘swept’ the Los Angeles Angels 3-0, and the big-hitting Orioles 4-0 in the American League Championship Series.
Simply breaking the three-decade absence from the play-offs was seen by many as triumph enough; few anticipated they would go all the way to the World Series without losing a game.
Star player Lorenzo Cain told USA Today: “The chemistry has been great and I’m having a blast right now. To be on this run is a lot of fun.”
The best-of-seven World Series will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday in Kansas City before moving to San Francisco for the next three games on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, if required.