This evening the Royals are scheduled to play an exhibition game in Omaha against their AAA affiliate, the Storm Chasers. It is the first time the two teams have matched up in almost two decades. The score of the game won’t matter much - the Royals are unlikely to even play many regulars. Nonetheless, this is an important game that the Royals should schedule on a regular basis.
The Royals have had a special relationship with the city of Omaha ever since their inception in 1969. Professional baseball has been played in Omaha since 1879. For many years they hosted a team in the Western League that went through several iterations - the Omahogs, the Indians, the Rangers, the Rourkes (named after their owner-manager Pa Rourke), the Buffaloes, the Crickets, and the Packers. After a hiatus due to World War II, Omaha fielded a new team, the Cardinals, affiliated with the St. Louis franchise, although not without some controversy. The Cardinals lasted until 1959, and after a year with no baseball, Omaha had a two-year affiliation with the Dodgers. But teams were cutting back on their numerous minor league clubs, and Omaha was left without a team beginning in 1963.
In 1969, minor league baseball returned to Omaha with the revival of the defunct American Association. With four new Major League expansion teams that year, there was a need for more affiliates. Both the Kansas City Royals and Montreal Expos helped staff the roster that first year, but it was clear whose team it was with the team name - the Omaha Royals. The Expos would get their own affiliate in 1970, and the Royals kept their affiliation with Omaha for 50 years, the third-longest running affiliation in baseball.
Major League teams playing their minor league affiliates used to be a common occurrence. In the 1960s up through the 1990s it was common for teams to take a scheduled off-day in the middle of the regular season and travel to Columbus, Ohio; Wichita, Kansas; Louisville, Kentucky to play an exhibition game against one of their affiliates. In 1971, the Royals had their first exhibition game against Omaha.
The game became a yearly tradition, a way of paying back affiliates for their service with a game that could guarantee a strong gate. Sometimes the stars played, often times they didn’t, but for a day, these minor league towns got a taste of the big leagues.
Eventually, however, teams began protecting their regulars more and more to the point where the Major League roster would be populated mostly by low-A players on loan. The players began to complain about using their off-day to travel to a far away town playing in less-than Major League conditions. Eventually, exhibitions during the regular season would be prohibited.
The fortunes of the Royals at the Major League level didn’t help matters either. As the Royals plunged to the bottom of the standings, interest in seeing them dwindled. Attendance fell from a crowd of 13,788 for the exhibition in 1997 to just a few thousand fans in 2000, when the Royals fielded a lineup that kept stars Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, and Mike Sweeney out of the lineup in favor of Scott Pose, Jose Pagan, Rod Metzler, and James Shanks.
Just wondering, but maybe this annual exhibition game between the Omaha Golden Spikes and their parent club, the Kansas City Royals, has run its course.
-Rob White, Omaha World-Herald
That 2000 game would be the last exhibition game for the Royals in Omaha. Until now.
As the Royals celebrate their 50th anniversary, Omaha celebrates its 50th season in AAA. To commemorate the anniversary, they have revived the exhibition against the Royals, to be played tonight. The game sold out within 24 hours.
Clearly there is interest in seeing Royals stars in Omaha again. And even if Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy aren’t on the field, having them in the ballpark, interacting with fans and making appearances helps grow the fanbase in Omaha.
Because the Royals need to preserve their fanbase. The Kansas City metro are is one of the smallest in all of Major League Baseball. The Royals depend on having a broad regional appeal to other Midwestern cities like Wichita, Topeka, Tulsa, Springfield, and Omaha. With the Cardinals to the east, the Cubs and Twins to the north, the Rockies to the west, and the Rangers to the south, the Royals need to protect their territory like Jon Snow fending off the Lannisters, Targaryens, and Greyjoys. The House of Omaha has been loyal to the Royals through thick and thin, and should be rewarded as such.
Hopefully the interest in tonight’s game helps spur an annual event. The Royals must play exhibition games to ready themselves for the season. Instead of playing those games in San Antonio or Arlington, Texas, as they have in past seasons, why not give their fans in Omaha a treat? Storm clouds loom for today’s game, but hopefully they can be “chased” away and Omaha can be Major League for a night.