The internet has cultivated our desire to rank things, to order and to categorize. Lists are ubiquitous in modern media; there is a fascination with the best and the worst. Sports is one genre of discussion in which there can be a legitimate argument for the best and the worst. Who is the best baseball player in the game? Is Peyton Manning or Tom Brady the better quarterback? Which is the worst sports city in the nation?
The last question is a particularly fascinating one. There are a few cities that are immediately discounted - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, San Fransisco - these cities have multiple teams, sure, but also multiple recent titles. Likewise, cities with contemporary major successes in one sport, like Denver, Miami, Seattle, and St. Louis are not considered.
Cleveland immediately comes to mind as a winner of that ignominious title. Even with an NBA, MLB, and NFL team, no squad has won a championship in half a century. The Indians missed the playoffs in 1955 and did not make their next postseason until 1995, but a brief burst of brilliance through the 90s failed to yield any World Series titles. The Browns, at the cusp of the Super Bowl in the late 80s, were repeatedly brought down by John Elway. The team moved to Baltimore in 1996, and would win the Super Bowl within five years. The new Browns team has made the playoffs once in 16 years, their crowning achievements a 10-win season in 2007 and a Wild Card loss in 2002. The Cavaliers, led by local superhero Lebron James, lost their one and only Finals appearance. James then went on to spurn Cleveland in "The Decision", winning two titles with Miami.
In 2012, Kansas City was a legitimate answer for "worst sports city" as well. Their NBA team, the Kings, moved to Sacramento in 1985, the same year since the Royals had won their World Series. The Royals were 27 seasons removed from the playoffs, longest current drought in the Big Four North American sports, and had just suffered their ninth straight losing season. The Chiefs had just crumbled to a 2-14 record, nabbing the top spot in a draft class with no player worthy of the selection. They had one two-year stretch since 1997 with winning records in both campaigns. Kansas City was a wretched place to be a sports fan.
What a difference two years makes.
On December 10, 2012 I sat in my room at William Jewell College, a few weeks away from finishing my penultimate semester before graduation. I read online the news - Kansas City had traded top prospect Wil Myers along with Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. I was immediately saddened as I felt the Royals weren't good enough to capitalize on that trade. It was the biggest nail in Dayton Moore's coffin as a General Manager. I walked across the hall to a friend's room where we acknowledged the trade and partook in a moment of silence.
I was not the only one who thought the way I did. Royals Review was unhappy and others also voiced their disappointment at The Trade. The general consensus was that the Royals should have gotten more from Myers, especially with Odorizzi as a component, and that the Royals were too far away to utilize Shields effectively and efficiently. It was a misappropriation of resources, they said.
The 2013 season began well enough. The team shot out to a 14-10 record in April and tiny eddies of optimism began to swirl. Of course, everything came crashing down; on June 4 the Royals were 23-32 and had hit rock bottom. Though the team surged, the Royals stumbled into the break with five consecutive losses. The pressure built. Moore did nothing. And, in this instance, nothing worked. Moore claimed that there was no reason the team couldn't win 15 of 20 games to put them back in the running. We laughed. The Royals delivered, proceeding to win 19 out of their next 24 games. A losing streak of 10 of their next 12 games knocked them out of contention, though they fought back and were in the conversation for the final Wild Card spot until the end of September.
The Royals final record was 86-76. James Shields was excellent, Eric Hosmer produced his best season yet, and optimism was finally well-deserved. One decade after their last winning season, the Royals could finally say they were winners. The playoff streak continued, yes, but the team's horizons looked good - actually, legitimately good. The team's farm system had produced competitive players and the KC team was young; not a single member of the starting lineup was yet 30. Improvement seemed inevitable. The Royals were on the cusp.
Between the 2-14 season, laughably bad coaching, and the horrific murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher at the Truman Sports Complex, 2012 was true misery for the Chiefs and their fans. Scott Pioli's reign as General Manager ended in January 2013 following the firing of head coach Romeo Crennel. Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn were jettisoned and the Chiefs hired the former Philadelphia coach, Andy Reid, to helm the football team. Later, they brought in John Dorsey to be General Manager of the club.
With the first pick in the draft there was immense pressure and a unique opportunity for the Chiefs. Drafting a quarterback would had been a great idea had there been any realistic choices at the top of the draft. Instead of taking on the high risk that drafting a quarterback would entail, Dorsey pulled the trigger on the Chiefs' version of "The Trade" - San Fransisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was coming to Kansas City in exchange for a few draft picks in the upcoming drafts. Reception of the deal was mixed - some thought Smith was merely "Cassel 2.0", others were more optimistic and welcomed what they saw as legitimate competency at the important position.
The Chiefs immediately jumped out to a 9-0 start fueled by a staunch defense. After a bye week, the Chiefs went to Denver to take on their rival Broncos for control of the AFC West. They were dismantled by Peyton Manning and company. Though they made the playoffs, the Chiefs suffered an unprecedented collapse against the Indianapolis Colts in the first round, losing by one point after leading by four touchdowns at halftime. The defense, a huge weapon in the first half of the season, vanished in the final eight games, giving up an average of 30 points per game in that stretch.
Though it was an ultimately disappointing season, the Chiefs worked their way to a solid 11-5 season, making the playoffs. Their future looked bright with Alex Smith and Andy Reid leading a confident, disciplined, and talented team. Their net improvement of 9 wins was one of the greatest single-year turnarounds by any team; they were the only NFL team in history to net the first draft pick in on year and be the last undefeated team in the very next season.
For years, Sporting Kansas City (previously known as the Kansas City Wizards until 2011) was overlooked in the pantheon of Kansas City sports. The club had won the MLS cup in 2000 but the cultural impact of such a victory was minimal. A metaphor for the dominance of the NFL in sports culture, the Wizards played in Arrowhead Stadium for over a decade, literally in the shadow of the Chiefs' power and influence over the city. Unlike the main tenants of Arrowhead and of the Royals, the Wizards were generally competitive. Unlike the main tenants of Arrowhead and the Royals, very few people seemed to care.
In 2011, though, things started changing. The Wizards rebranded themselves into Sporting Kansas City with an emphasis on fan experience. They moved into a beautiful, soccer-specific stadium by the Kansas Speedway and began to cultivate their loyal fanbase into something truly special.
It worked. In their first year in Sporting Park, they filled it to 96% capacity at 17,810 fans per game, a jump of about 7,000 fans from the previous year. They were good, too--the team made the playoffs and advanced to the MLS Eastern Conference finals. The team built on its successes in 2012, as the team advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals after winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup a few months prior. Attendance continued to rise, this year to 105% capacity at 19,404 fans per game. Stars were beginning to emerge - goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen won Goalkeeper of the Year, defender Matt Besler won Defender of the Year, and midfielder Graham Zusi was one of three finalists for the 2012 MLS MVP award.
Like the Royals and Chiefs, 2013 was a breakthrough year for the club. Sporting Kansas City again dominated on the attendance front, this time to 107% capacity at 19,758 fans per game. Sporting Park was rapidly gaining national acclaim as one of the best soccer venues in the nation; the teams' fervent fans dubbed it 'The Blue Hell' and made that known to every team that would travel there. The 2013 MLS All-Star game was held in Sporting Park as well, furthering its reputation. In the MLS playoffs, Sporting would advance far into the tournament once again. This time, though, the Final was held in Sporting Park, as the team finally broke through to compete for the title. In the coldest MLS final in history, Sporting won in penalty kicks, Nielsen making multiple brilliant blocks to close his career in a triumphant manner. Sporting Kansas City were the MLS Champions in the same year that the Royals and Chiefs posted winning records.
Ten years before the combined success of 2013, the Chiefs, Royals, and Wizards had a similarly impressive performance. The Royals, out of nowhere, clawed to a winning season for the first time in a decade. The Chiefs went 13-3 and won the AFC West. The Wizards posted a winning record on route to a MLS playoff series and advanced to the Western Conference Finals. It was a great showing of sports relevance.
But it all fell apart, as it always does, for Kansas City. The 2004 Royals, a putrid mess, went 58-104 and proceeded to post 100-loss seasons in 2005 and 2006. The 2004 Chiefs posted a losing record, failing to make the playoffs again through a porous defense, and missed the playoffs again in 2005. The 2004 Wizards were the lone repeat team, again making it to the Conference Finals. Even the Wizards weren't completely immune, however; they missed the playoffs in the following two years whilst simultaneously posting the lowest attendance of any MLS team.
2014 was different than 2004.
For one, the Chiefs and Sporting again sustained their success, though without quite the heights of 2003. The Chiefs fought their way to another winning season, barely missing the playoffs. However, through two years of Dorsey and Reid, the Chiefs put up a 20-12 record and are in unquestionably skilled hands. Doubts remain--how could they not--but the last Chiefs squad to put up consecutive winning seasons with the same coach was 1996-1997.
Sporting were eliminated in the playoffs quickly in 2014, but their success was funneled through two men in the largest sports stage in the world. The United States Men's National Team featured two Sporting players in the starting lineup--Besler and Zusi. These homegrown players performed well and helped magnify the excitement of soccer. In the Power and Light District downtown, fervent fans attended watch parties and reacted like this whenever something positive happened:
This doesn't happen if Sporting did not achieve the success and cultural impact that it did. The MLS doesn't decide to build a US Soccer National Training Facility in Kansas City if Sporting didn't exist. Though 2014 may have been a bland season for the club in the MLS regular season, Sporting's impact on the national and international stage might have led to its greatest season yet.
Then, of course, there's the Royals. The 2014 American League Championship Royals.
These Royals pulled off the impossible this postseason and made Lazarus' revival look boring by comparison. Down 7-4 in the eighth inning of an elimination game, against one of the best starting pitchers in the league, in the first playoff game in Kansas City in almost three decades, the Royals roared back to tie the game. Down one run in the bottom of the 12th inning, the Royals again roared back to not only tie the game but win it. The next two games in Anaheim went into extra innings as the Royals won both with home runs by the prodigal sons, Hosmer and Moustakas. The Royals won eight straight playoff games to ride to the World Series.
It was an event that seemed to be a fundamental shift in the sports culture of the city. I attended the Wild Card victory, and I have never experienced such fervor before. The excitement for the Royals is tangible this year. On Wednesday night, I drove home from a rehearsal in Liberty, passing downtown and glimpsing the business sector of Overland Park. No fewer than four separate buildings shone blue in support of the Royals' season. You can pick up a conversation with a total stranger about the Royals. Championship gear abounds everywhere, blue Royals caps adorning the heads of kids and adults alike.
This season, it certainly feels as if something is different. The 2014 Royals squad is in the unique position of deserving swagger and reasonable skepticism. Somehow, the Royals are still underdogs. One season doesn't make a club. It doesn't make a city.
This year, all three of Kansas City's prized clubs have a realistic chance to combine for three straight years of winning ball. Three teams, three winning seasons in a row.
We may be in the beginning stages of a sports renaissance. Few cities and their fans, if any, deserve it more.