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The complicated legacy of David Glass

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It’s never easy.

New York Yankees v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

For the first time in two and a half decades, David Glass is not in charge of the Royals.

On Thursday at the MLB owner’s meetings in Arizona, it was made official. John Sherman is now the third owner in club history. (Fourth if you want to get technical and count the trust the team was placed in after the passing of Ewing Kauffman.)

Glass exits with a pair of AL pennants, a World Series title, around $900 million in profit from his initial investment in the teams, and a complicated legacy

Glass has been involved in Royals baseball since he was the managing partner in the trust that assumed ownership upon Kauffman’s death in 1993. Things did not get off to a good start.

It wasn’t surprising that it was a rough beginning for Glass, Kansas City and the Royals. After the largess of Ewing Kauffman, he saw the incoming storm clouds before tapping Glass as the man to head the trust the team would be placed into. Both men were convinced the franchise couldn’t continue to operate the way it had in the past. Changes would have to be made, both in Kansas City and in baseball at large.

The charge would be led by Glass. He made his bones at Wal-Mart; had plenty of anti-labor credibility. He was the perfect character as baseball endured its most destructive strike in 1994. While he wasn’t officially an owner, his bona fides meant that he was welcomed into the club as ownership once again set out to destroy the union. Games were cancelled, the World Series scrapped and Glass was on the front lines.

In the aftermath, the Royals slashed payroll and entered into an extended period of malaise.

It was a dicey and uncomfortable moment to be a Royals fan and the ownership situation had a lot to do with it. Attendance was dipping as the team found contention difficult in the early 90s. It cratered after the strike as the club traded away key players such as David Cone and Brian McRae, getting next to nothing in return. Despite the attempt to present Johnny Damon as the heir apparent to George Brett, the team was sinking into lethargy. Glass, to a large portion of the fanbase, was the wrong person at the wrong time. An ownership hardliner who was more than happy to use the Royals as the cudgel in the labor wars—small market teams couldn't compete without revenue sharing. Local conspiracy theories held that Glass was more than happy to strip the team of it’s assets to drive down the value of the franchise so he could purchase the Royals at a bargain. As the losses piled up on the field, the trust held off putting the team on the market, adding fuel to those theories.

When the team was finally put up for sale with an asking price of $75 million, Glass had removed his name from consideration. He probably didn’t like the heat he was getting for destroying what had been a once proud franchise. With Glass on the sidelines, the prospective bidders were a rogues gallery of lowlifes and grifters. Lamar Hunt offered $25 million, apparently thinking his name was worth the balance. Miles Prentice assembled an ownership group so large that it was almost equal to the population of Kansas City proper. He so badly wanted to own a team, but didn’t have the means. Nearly every day he would announce a new member of his ownership group. After a while, you got the feeling that $25 and a dry cleaning coupon would be enough to get you in the door.

The board agreed to sell the team to Prentice for it’s asking price of $75 million, but concerned that Prentice and his group lacked the funds to run the club, Bud Selig and the owners scotched the deal. With a mandated date for a sale approaching , the Royals were back to square one.

Lacking a viable ownership option, there was a great deal of uncertainty around the club.

While all this was happening, the Royals were losing. A lot. After the retirement of Brett and the firing of manager Hal McRae, the club lacked an identity. Glass became a lightening rod for fan criticism. All of it was justified.

Through their first two-plus decades, the Royals never had a season where they finished in last place. That achievement was unlocked in 1996, the Glass family’s third year at the helm of the community trust that was in charge of the team. And the first full season that wasn’t impacted by the strike. (In fairness, this was the third year of the new three division split in the leagues. Previously, the Royals played in a division with six and then seven teams. It’s easier to finish last when there is less competition. Although the Royals turned last place finishes into something akin to performance art.) From that point the Royals finished fourth or fifth in the AL Central in 13 of the next 15 seasons. On average, they finished 25 games out of first. It wasn’t that the Royals weren’t competitive. They barely existed.

The stories were rampant and unflattering. Slashing of budgets in the scouting and player development departments. The passing on draft picks due to their contract demands. The backtracking on a contract promise to a superstar. The interfering in trades that could have improved the team. Ownership was meddling and the team was a disaster.

Contrast that to the successful stewardship of Kauffman in the 70s and the 80s where the Royals were innovative with their baseball academy, in on free agents (although never successful), and most importantly, winning. Glass wasted no time in establishing himself as something of an anti-Kauffman. It was always going to be a chore to step out from the shadow of Kauffman. He was, in many ways, the Royals. He loved Kansas City, he loved the fans and he loved his team. He wasn’t a destructive showman like Charlie Finley with the Kansas City A’s, but he didn’t shy from the spotlight and knew what levers to pull to gain the maximum, positive attention. Glass was the polar opposite. It was difficult to understand and accept.

While the team was in shambles on the field, inventing internet memes before they were a thing with their inept play (such as hitting the cutoff man in the back with a relay throw) there was equal chaos behind the scenes. General manager Allard Baird was fired just days ahead of the 2006 draft where the Royals held the first pick for the first time in franchise history. Baird discovered about his dismissal when a reporter traveling with team asked his for comment about his firing. Process? Hell, the team was lucky someone knew where the switch was to turn on the lights in the office.

Retail isn’t sexy. Pharmacuticals are where it’s at, baby.

We may never know what exactly happened, but we can say with absolute certainty that something did happen. Glass realized that his way wasn’t working. He needed to get the hell out of the way and throw his trust to a baseball man to run the team. Finally.

Enter Dayton Moore.

At first, Moore turned down the gig. He didn’t want to work for someone who consistently got in the way. If he was going to be a general manager, Moore wanted autonomy. Budgets had to be expanded. The team had to build a culture that would attract strong baseball men with big ideas. The days of not paying for a scouts cell phone needed to end.

Moore convinced Glass he could change the fortune of the Royals. Glass convinced Moore he would change his meddling methods. A partnership that would last almost 13 years was born.

It took years to bear fruit, but it cannot be understated how seismic this move was.

I will forever have a difficult time reconciling the fact that Glass was surprised by the support and the turnout at the 2012 All Star Game. Rewind yourself to those days in July; baseball was the thing in Kansas City once again. The buzz around the city was like turning back the clock. Fans packed The K for the Futures Game, the Home Run Derby (to boo Robinson Cano), and the game itself. The Royals threw a baseball party and the city showed up. The legend has it that Glass was so taken by the city’s response and his own realization that the support for baseball was in fact there, he decided that the time was right to go bold.

The thing is, if his torpid franchise had assembled anything close to an interesting or halfway competitive team, he would have discovered that the support was right there all along. It’s shocking that 18 years of rebuilds, half-assed attempts at contention and rebuilds again didn’t drive attendance. The sudden epiphany was unexpected, but welcome.

On this website almost exactly seven years ago, I made the point that enough was enough. Glass needed to open up the team checkbook and finally, (finally!) go for it. Talk was cheap. It was time to make a downpayment on the future.

A few weeks later the Royals traded Wil Myers who appeared in that Futures Game at The K and three other prospects for James Shields and Wade Davis.

Glass always said that when the time was right, he would be willing to spend. The problem was as you could read above, the time was never right. If the Royals weren’t losing 100 games, they were losing 90. If they weren’t finishing in fifth, they were finishing in fourth. But that trade in 2012 changed the dynamic of the franchise.

Of course, that trade wasn’t the only thing that happened. It was made because the time was right. The time was right because through scouting, the draft and player development, the Royals had found a nucleus of ballplayers who would become the core of championship teams. Salvador Perez was signed as an international free agent in October of 2006. Mike Moustakas was drafted in the first round with the second overall pick in the 2007 draft and was handed a $4 million signing bonus. Eric Hosmer was drafted in the first round with the third overall pick in the 2008 draft and received a $6 million bonus. Zack Greinke brought back Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar.

An upgrade in scouting, an expanded international presence, and an investment in player development were green-lit by the owner who just years prior had eschewed such expenditures. The slash and burn method may work when you’re strong-arming suppliers and surprising the wages of your employees at Wal-Mart, but baseball is a different beast.

With Moore in charge, the Glass fingerprints on the franchise became less obvious. The team spent on scouting, spent on player development. They opened academies in Latin America. They spent money to improve. Sure, the progress and The Process moved slowly, but that wasn’t an ownership issue. And to Glass’s credit, while some were calling for Moore’s job (ahem) in 2013, he stayed the course.

There are two new flags flying just beyond the left field fence.

As Glass exits, how will you remember him? How should he be remembered? As the potential union-buster who stripped his team of nearly all assets? Or as the owner who stepped up when the time was right?

Like most legacies, it’s a complicated one. Maybe your perspective will depend on when your fandom was realized.

For me, I’ll remember Glass as the man who did save baseball in Kansas City, but I can’t forget how he came to own the team. I’ll remember Glass as the man who was on the podium accepting trophies, but I can’t forget the years of outright ineptitude and incompetence that preceded those victories. I’ll remember Glass as an owner who did spend when the time was right, but I can’t forget that for the longest time he meddled and tried to run his franchise like a retail organization.

Now, after years of worrying that Dan Glass would ultimately take over, I’m thankful that Glass found someone in John Sherman who, with deep civic ties to the city, should bring stability to the franchise as we prepare to enter another era of labor instability.

It’s complicated. It was always complicated.