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Michael Shapiro

Michael Shapiro

Posted May 12, 2009 | 08:39 PM (EST)

Break Up The Royals; Damn (the) Yankees


The feel good story of the young baseball season is unfolding in Kansas City, and the timing could not be better, not with Manny's suspension, A-Rod's confession and the steroids story that never seems to go away.

The Royals are in first place! -- okay, as of this morning tied for first, with the Tigers, who were the feel good story a few years ago when they jumped from worst to first and finally began drawing fans to their new, retro ballpark. The Royals also boast the best pitcher of the moment in the American League in Zach Greinke who has struck out 59, tops in the bigs.

Baseball loves this kind of story because it confirms the myth that the men who run the game do so with wisdom and foresight.

Nothing can, and ever has, been further from the truth.

The rise of the Royals suggests that baseball is indeed a game in which every team has a shot at a pennant, and not just the rich ones. There is some truth in this, but it is very recent, maddeningly so.

Only in the last few years has baseball fully accepted -- embraced is too strong a word -- the idea of competitive balance achieved by sharing revenue. The men who run the game -- the owners, not the commissioner -- for decades fought this proposition, even as professional football adapted it with such success that the smallest market in big league sports -- Green Bay -- could produce winners and legends.

Kansas City might have, too, had baseball been a sport with a core and a prevailing wisdom, rather than an amalgam of fiefdoms ruled by warlords who, like warlords everywhere, measure their success by the failure of their rivals.

So it is that the overdue joy in Kansas City tells a lot about what went wrong and only recently has gone right in the long history of the game.

Big league baseball came to Kansas City in 1954 when a man named Arnold Johnson bought the Philadelphia Athletics from their ancient owner, Connie Mack, and his aging sons. Johnson was good with numbers, especially when it came to making a lot of money without having to invest very much of his own. Among his interests was a share in the American Canteen Company, where his partners were Del Webb and Dan Topping, who also owned the Yankees.

You are thinking, this doesn't seem Kosher. And you are right.

The three partners did well by each other. When Johnson moved his club to Kansas City he needed to retrofit the city's minor league park for the majors. The job went to Webb, a building magnate whose projects included several Las Vegas casinos. Yes, casinos. When the Yankees needed players they always found a willing trading partner in Johnson, who traded his best players -- Roger Maris, among them -- for his business partners' castoffs. Fifty players exchanged uniforms, far more transactions than between any two other clubs.

No one minded. They did not mind because baseball, especially in the American League, needed the Yankees, not only to win every year -- which they typically did -- but, as champions, to fill every ballpark they visited, and thereby ensure that the other owners could meet their payrolls. This was baseball's definition of spreading the wealth.

There was an attempt in the late 1950s to change all this, to transform the game into a balanced sport. The movement was called the Continental League and had it succeeded it would have brought a new, eight-team league to the majors. The league was the brainchild of the most innovative thinker in the game - Branch Rickey. More on that another time.

Johnson died in 1960. His wife sold the team to Charlie Finley who moved to club to Oakland. The Royals arrived in 1969 and between the mid-1970s and 80s were a very good team, winning a World Series in 1985. But they have faded in recent years, and have not had a winning season since 1994. Other small market clubs have had their runs -- Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, each of whom had a solid core that produced winners for several years before age, injury and the lure of big free agency bucks ended the good years.

Their success did not come with baseball's assistance, but in spite of the prevailing and enduring order which has always benefited the wealthiest teams, at the expense of the poorest. So it is that the teams have won most often were the teams with the most money and that money comes primarily through local cable television contracts.

Baseball was not built on a tradition of balance, and only now is seeing the great benefits that come when every team can be a winner.

Last year the happy story unfolded in Tampa. And the year before it was in Colorado.
But just now it is Kansas City's turn.

As it might and should have been, all along.