It’s already been a remarkable October in Kansas City. For the first time since 1985, the Royals qualified for postseason play, and since defeating Oakland in the American League Wild Card Game they’ve become America’s baseball Cinderella, sweeping their way to their first World Series berth since that 1985 campaign. Before you hop aboard the royal blue bandwagon, here are 25 things you might not know about the Kansas City Royals.
1. Lou Piniella was one of the most influential baseball figures of the late 20th century thanks mostly to his time as a Yankee outfielder and Major League manager. Before all that, though, Piniella was left unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft and was selected by the Seattle Pilots, then traded to fellow expansion team Kansas City on April 1, 1969 for John Gelnard and Steve Whitaker. A week later, Piniella collected the first hit in Royals’ history—a leadoff double. That hit jumpstarted a campaign that ended in Piniella winning the American League Rookie of the Year award.
2. Speaking of those expansion Royals, Kansas City owes its place in the 1968 expansion draft to Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. The city had just lost the Athletics to Oakland following the 1967 season but didn’t have to wait long to receive a new franchise when Symington threatened to revoke baseball’s antitrust exemption if Kansas City wasn’t awarded a team.
3. The Royals didn’t take their name from any noble connections, but rather from the city’s reputation as a livestock hub. The team held a contest in 1968 to name the franchise, and many of the top suggestions showcased the city’s deep ties to the livestock industry, with monikers like “Mules” and “Cowpokes” among the suggestions. Kansas City engineer Sanford Porte managed to make that connection in a dignified fashion when he suggested the “Royals” in honor of the American Royal livestock show, an October tradition being forced this year to share Kansas City’s attention with the ballclub for the first time since 1985.
4. Team mascot Sluggerrr has a knack for stirring up trouble. Sometimes, it’s all in good fun, like when he pulled an exceptional troll job on Mr. Met earlier this year.
5. On the other hand, there was the time Sluggerrr allegedly detached a guy’s retina. Fans are warned before games that objects may leave the playing field and enter the stands, but that hasn’t stopped Sluggerrr from facing lawsuits after some misfired meat struck one fan in the face back in 2009.
6. One more Sluggerrr fact before we leave this mischievous mascot alone—and we’ll even end on a far more heart-warming front. Earlier this year, Sluggerrr helped the Make-a-Wish Foundation build a hero out of a local boy battling leukemia. As part of a day-long series of activities akin to the Batkid stunt in San Francisco, 6-year-old Isai Rojas was asked to rescue Sluggerrr from the evil KC Cucaracha. Rojas—dressed up as Muchacho de Hierro—defeated Cucaracha and rescued the Royals’ rope-tied mascot just in time.
7. Missouri native Ewing Kauffman purchased the rights to the expansion Royals after making his fortune forming and operating a pharmaceutical company. The entrepreneur lived a fairly remarkable life, with one of his particularly unique achievements coming as a child. Kauffman—the namesake for Kauffman Stadium—was bedridden for a year with a heart ailment when he was 11. In order to pass the time, he claims to have read an average of 40 books per month.
8. Office fans, remember that time Michael Scott promised college tuition to a whole class of kids if they graduated high school? That was Ewing Kauffman’s idea, only the Royals’ founder actually came through. In 1988, Kauffman developed Project Choice, a program that funded post-secondary education for nearly 1,400 Kansas City students who “graduated on time, avoided drugs and pregnancy, and otherwise stayed out of trouble.” The final Project Choice students graduated college in 2001 and, in 2003, the Kauffman Foundation followed up with the launch of the Kauffman Scholars program, a 19-year initiative aimed at “academic enrichment and mentoring.”
9. Royals Hall of Fame third baseman and current VP of baseball operations George Brett is credited with coining the term “The Mendoza Line,” a short-hand term used to describe a batting average of exactly .200. “The Mendoza Line” was first referenced publicly by Brett in 1980 in response to questions about an early season slump. Brett quipped to reporters, “The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who is below the Mendoza line,” referring to light-hitting Mariners shortstop Mario Mendoza, who finished his nine-year career with a .215 average.
10. Brett developed into quite a storyteller over the years. It’s a bit difficult to hear, but the tale Brett told a few spring trainings ago about a Vegas vacation gone awry (NSFW) is perhaps the best Inside Baseball moment fans have gotten in the internet age.
11. Royals manager Ned Yost has built up quite the list of famous friends in his career. During the 1994 baseball strike, Yost—a NASCAR fan—served as a volunteer member on Dale Earnhardt’s pit crew, working eight races down the home stretch and forging a friendship with the Intimidator that lasted until his death in 2001. He’s also hunting buddies with comedian Jeff Foxworthy, and even promised the world famous redneck a role as bench coach—a promise that as of 2011 hadn’t been fulfilled.
12. Current outfielder Alex Gordon was a notable name for baseball card collectors long before making the Majors. Gordon, the second overall pick in the 2005 draft, was included in Topps' 2006 baseball card set completely by mistake. Due to MLB Players Association rules, Topps was only allowed to print cards for players who made the 25-man roster or played in a Major League game the year before—neither of which applied to Gordon in 2006. Despite that, a few Gordon cards slipped into some packs that were mostly shipped to Wal-Marts. One lucky fan found five Gordon cards at his local Wal-Mart and flipped those cards for $5,761.79.
13. While Brett’s 1983 pine tar incident is perhaps the most famous pre-steroid, post-Black Sox scandal in Major League history, the third baseman wasn’t the only Royal who bent the rules at the plate in the ‘80s. In a 1992 Mobile Press story, long-time Royal Amos Otis admitted to corking his bat in roughly half of his 7970 plate appearances. The outfielder hit .277 and made five All-Star teams during his 17-year career, earning entry into the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame and the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame. “I’m also in the hall of shame. That’s when you cheat in the big leagues,” Otis said.
14. Long-time reliever Dan Quisenberry published a book of poems shortly before his death in 1998. Quisenberry made three All-Star teams and finished in the top five of Cy Young voting five times in his 12-year Major League career, played primarily in Kansas City. Quisenberry was an affable, quotable submariner who released his first poems shortly after retirement. A few months before he passed of brain cancer, he published a collection of work titled On Days Like This.
15. Rookie reliever Brandon Finnegan has only been a professional baseball player for a few months, but he’s already figured out how to make himself a fan favorite. Self-proclaimed “broke Royals fan” Nicholas Knapple reached out to Finnegan via Twitter prior to the American League Championship Series, hoping the TCU product could hook him and his girlfriend up with some tickets. Finnegan shocked Knapple by responding that, yeah, he could get him some tickets, even ensuring Knapple had seats when Tuesday’s scheduled game was postponed.
16. Veteran Royals outfielder Raul Ibanez was one of Fredi Gonzalez’s earliest coaching success stories. Ibanez was a sophomore catcher at Miami’s Sunset High School when he was introduced to Gonzalez, now the manager of the Atlanta Braves. At the time, Gonzalez was working as a security guard at Sunset High—an offseason gig for the then-minor leaguer—and the future skipper helped coach up Ibanez, with the pair connecting thanks in part to their shared Cuban heritage.
17. There are teenagers who have played baseball for longer than current Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who hit .301 in 133 games on this year’s Royals’ squad. The Florida native tried out for his high school baseball team as a sophomore without any baseball experience—or even a glove—but ended up making his way into the Brewers’ organization as a 17th-round pick in 2004. Cain went out for the baseball team after failing to make his high school’s basketball team. “If I would have made the basketball team, there’s no chance I would have played baseball,” Cain told the Kansas City Star.
18. Teams have tried a lot of fascinating things to gain edges in the world of player recruitment and development, but perhaps nothing has matched the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy both for creativity and surprising results. As a struggling expansion team, Kansas City was looking for any edge possible—as well as some positive publicity—in its early days, which led Kauffman to the idea of the Academy. The team constructed the site with dormitory-style housing in Florida in 1971, aiming to sign undrafted athletes who were light on baseball experience. The academy was shuttered after just four years, but managed to churn out 14 Major League players, including eight-time Gold Glover Frank White, Ron Washington, and U.L. Washington.
19. Bo Jackson did some absurd things as a member of the Royals from 1986 until 1990, including becoming the first player to make All-Star teams in two different professional sports.
20. The last time the Royals made the postseason, they beat the St. Louis Cardinals in what was dubbed the I-70 Series, after the interstate that connects the two Midwestern cities. Dayton Moore—Kansas City’s GM since 2006—was on hand for the Royals’ 11-0 Game 7 victory, though he didn’t have a ticket. Instead, the then-19-year-old Wichita native and lifelong Royals fan camped out on a knoll between I-70 and the left field fence at Royals Stadium, hoping to catch just a sliver of the action.
21. Los Angeles native and Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas is very proud of his Greek heritage, something he had in common with locker mate George Kottaras last season. The duo hung a Greek flag over their lockers, with Kottaras noting, “I don’t know how many times you’ve had two Greek guys in the same clubhouse on the same team.” Kottaras even represented Greece at the 2004 Olympics. Moustakas might’ve joined him, but he “was only about 14 years old then,” he said.
22. Japanese outfielder Nori Aoki was a pitcher in high school and didn’t transition off the mound until he arrived at Waseda University. At Waseda, Aoki supported a team stacked with players who went on to have pro careers. Four hitters from his class alone went on to play professionally (Aoki, Takashi Toritani, Toshimitsu Higa, and Shintaro Yoshida), plus he was one year behind left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, who made his MLB debut with the Cubs this summer. Two older teammates from Wadeda later joined Aoki on the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in Nippon Professional Baseball (Hiroyasu Tanaka and Shinichi Takeuchi).
23. Once he made it to the Swallows, Aoki went on to become just the second player in NPB history to get 200 hits in a season—the first was Ichiro Suzuki.
24. Kansas City-based sportswriter Jeff Passan has helped make baseball’s postseason return to the City of Fountains even more memorable for the baseball press by showing up to K.C. home games with boxes of food from Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Que, often considered the top BBQ spot in a city famous for its slow-cooked meats. Passan, a writer at Yahoo Sports, may be trying to score some points with his media buddies in return for some positive press regarding his book about baseball’s scourge of Tommy John surgeries, set for release in 2015.