From glory to heartache and back, Orioles and Royals have traveled similar roads to ALCS

The Baltimore Sun
The Orioles and Royals prepare for ALCS as franchises that have traveled similar roads.

Cal Ripken Jr. remembers well the pleasures of playing in Kansas City the last time the Royals were contenders — the smart, respectful fans who adored their team but would also applaud an opponent's standout catch.

"Playing in Kansas City was a lot like playing in Baltimore," the Orioles great said Thursday as his former club prepared to play the Royals in the American League Championship Series.

It's hard to imagine two franchises or two fan bases better equipped to understand one another's journeys.

Both the Orioles and Royals perennially contended for pennants in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fans in both cities grew up under the spell of sharp managers and utterly dependable star players. It was hard to imagine the good days ever ending for either.

Then, both teams stumbled into ruts of losing and humiliation that lasted more than a decade and nearly cost them a generation of supporters. Few wanted to be openly associated with two of the most bedraggled names in American sports. But now, latent fan enthusiasm is spilling forth as the Orioles and Royals battle to reach the World Series for the first time since Ronald Reagan occupied the White House.

"They're very similar fan bases," said Royals director of player development Scott Sharp, who grew up in Carroll County. "It's not New York, it's not L.A. It's not a lot of glitz and glamour, either one. They're just really good sports towns that love their teams."

'They deserve to be here too'

You can draw parallels all day long between these two baseball cities, both of which nurse persistent inferiority complexes.

When it comes to baseball owners whose legacies are on the mend, Baltimore has Peter Angelos, long decried as a meddler. Kansas City has David Glass, forever maligned as a cheapskate.

Baltimore has crab cakes. Kansas City has burnt ends. Baltimore has Ripken. Kansas City has George Brett. Baltimore suffered through 14 straight seasons of losing baseball before 2012. Kansas City endured 29 years without a playoff appearance until this season.

"I think all O's fans know exactly how their fans feel," said Julie Saxenmeyer of Cockeysville. "Though I won't have a hard time doing it, it will be weird rooting against them in the ALCS."

A good friend of hers is a Royals fan. "We've spent years commiserating over our teams' mutual failures," she said, "and sometimes tried to one up each other regarding whose team was worse."

Terry Cook of Parkville was so fed up with the Orioles a few years ago that he helped found a protest movement called Occupy Eutaw Street. As badly as he wants his team to beat the Royals now, he feels a strong affinity for Kansas City fans.

"The Royals are a team I could never hate, knowing the pain their fans have gone through over the last 30 years," he said. "They deserve to be here too."

It's almost incredible the Orioles and Royals never met in the postseason during the long stretch when both ranked among the best franchises in baseball. Between 1975 and 1985, the Orioles finished first or second in the AL East eight times and the Royals finished first or second in the AL West 10 times. Both went to two World Series and won one in that span.

Beyond mere winning, the franchises shared an air of stability. Brett, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson and Frank White held durable places in Kansas City culture, just as Ripken, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and Rick Dempsey did in Baltimore. The Orioles were skippered by a Hall of Famer in Earl Weaver, and the Royals answered with their own in Whitey Herzog.

The similarities were no accident, said Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, a Baltimore native who went on to become general manager of the Royals in the 1980s. The Orioles gave Schuerholz his first baseball job, and Lou Gorman, then the club's director of player development, took him along when Gorman left to help build the expansion Royals.

"What we did was take what we knew of the Orioles way and we brought that to Kansas City," Schuerholz recalled. "What better model could there be?"

Fans had felt betrayed when their previous club, the Athletics, fled to Oakland. But when they saw the new regime's commitment to homegrown talent, a love affair sprouted. "We were building a legacy," Schuerholz said. "Our fans had to see it was sustainable and real before they would buy into it."

And for a glorious decade, the Royals joined the Orioles in baseball's upper echelon.

'Comically bad'

When the two franchises hit hard times, however, they hit really hard. Orioles fans know how bleak the baseball culture grew in the mid-2000s. Losing was a given, made worse by perpetual disarray in the front office and the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of a division dominated by the richest teams in the sport, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Royals fans felt an equally strong claim to supporting the sport's most hopeless team. The optimism they felt when the Royals assembled a young core led by Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon or when the club managed an 83-79 record in 2003 only seemed to set them up for greater falls.

Consider that the Royals followed 83-79 with seasons of 104, 106 and 100 losses. Not even the Orioles ever managed such a concentrated run of awful.

Few know how bad it got as well as Rany Jazayerli, a dermatologist in the Chicago suburbs by day and the country's best known Royals blogger by night.

"I've probably written more words about the Royals than J.K. Rowling did in the entire Harry Potter series," he said.

And he wasn't joking.

On his blog "Rany on the Royals," Jazayerli chronicled every futile step, first as an optimist and then with the perverse pride of the emotionally defeated. "They weren't just bad but comically bad," he said. "It finally dawned on me that I was supporting not just the most poorly run franchise in baseball but maybe in all of sports."

Jazayerli, 39, knows both baseball cultures well. Growing up a first-generation American in Wichita, his intense Royals fandom shaped his identity. His family was living in Saudi Arabia when the Royals won the World Series in 1985. But he remembers feeling connected to home as he watched the games on VHS tapes that arrived in the mail months after the fact.

Then he studied at Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate, attending Orioles games at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards.

"I see a lot of similarities," he said, comparing Baltimore and Kansas City. "They're both great fan bases that were just starved for baseball worthy of them."

Jazayerli equated the past few weeks to a fever dream. His team is suddenly such a hot story that he's become a minor character himself. Interview requests have piled up. A drug salesman came to his medical practice the other day with a cookie cake that said "Go Royals" on it.

"It took me 29 years to get to this point and suddenly, it all makes sense," Jazayerli said. "The suffering wasn't in vain."

'Baseball is important again'

At age 21, University of Missouri senior Preston Crouse is part of the subsequent generation of Royals fans, one with no memory of the glory years. "I grew up kind of liking them," the Kansas City native said matter of factly.

If he went to a Royals game in high school, it was because, for an $8 ticket, it represented a cheap night out.

This year, however, he watched 80-100 games, clutching his smart phone or iPad so he could monitor statistics along with the broadcasts. There were times — the Royals remained a .500 team, seven games out of their division lead as late as July 23 — when a return to hopelessness seemed just around the corner.

But such fatalism seemed far away to Crouse in the stands at Kauffman Stadium, when the Royals staged a far-fetched comeback to win their wild-card game against the Oakland Athletics.

"Craziest sporting event I've ever been to," he said, recalling the way fans honked their horns and set off fireworks as they spilled into the streets post-game. "This is huge for the city as a whole and especially my generation.

Now, Crouse is getting greedy, imagining a World Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Royals' elitist neighbors to the East.

And he's not alone.

"They're hungry, yeah," said Brett, the Royals' Hall of Fame third baseman, of Kansas City's fans. "They fasted for 29 years. How hungry would you be?"

It's a feeling many Orioles fans shared in 2012, when they saw playoff baseball return to Baltimore after a 15-year absence.

As with many current Orioles, the Royals lived their climb from the depths right along with their fans. Perhaps that's why first baseman Eric Hosmer sent an open invitation via Twitter to those who wanted to celebrate the Royals' ALCS berth with the players.

Shortly after dispatching the Los Angeles Angels, Hosmer and his teammates doused fans with champagne at McFadden's, a pub near the stadium, and ultimately picked up the $15,000 bar tab for the evening.

The Orioles haven't gone that far. But they stayed on the field celebrating for almost an hour the night they clinched the AL East, jogging the baselines to slap hands with fans and spray them with beer and champagne. Manager Buck Showalter has often spoken of Baltimore as "our city" in recent. "There's a closeness, an identification," he said.

For Saxenmeyer, who has bled orange and black most of her 39 years, the feeling is mutual.

"I would say I feel a particular affection for this team because they've defied all expectations," she said. "It's just been fun watching them find new ways to win every day. It's hard not to love these guys. There are no egos."

For Ripken, who will serve as an analyst on TBS's broadcast of the ALCS, the city's feelings about these Orioles evoke the Baltimore of his youth. "Baseball is important again. It's on everybody's mind," he said. "It's like I remember it."

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Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Pat Stoetzer contributed to this article.

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