You may have heard the news - the Kansas City Royals are dreadful. It’s hard to say exactly why they’re so dreadful because their only real consistency is in how they’re able to find myriad ways to be dreadful. Sometimes they score lots of runs and sometimes they give up lots of runs and these things rarely happen at the same time or with the correct outcome for Royals fans.
And yet, I keep watching. The question is: why?
A clue, for me, can be found in Spain. I played professional basketball for five different teams in Europe. Three of these teams were headquartered in Spain: one in Malaga, one in Barcelona, and one on the tiny island of Menorca. At one point in my late twenties and early thirties, I spent the entirety of two years living, working, and playing in Spain.
One of the peculiarities of European basketball is the limit most leagues have on the number of foreigners those teams can employ. Spanish teams are no different. In the course of my career the rules were modified a few times, but it was always true that a team could trot out no more than two Americans. In more youthful days, this rule raised my hackles because it cut against the grain of all my competitive instincts, which said that you assembled the best team you could, tossed up a ball, and then saw how things played out.
What kind of anti-capitalist nonsense was this?
But as I toured the Spanish ACB, playing at levels both high and low, I came to understand: the Spanish league had figured something out. They knew fans would only show up if some of the players looked like them. In other words, through regulation, the Spanish leagues were being even more capitalist than I thought. If they wanted to keep butts in the seats (culos en los asientos), they needed to give those culos something to root for.
For all the Royals’ faults, this is something the 2019 version of their front office understands. I like watching this team because I like watching “our” guys evolve, whether that’s through Hunter Dozier’s early career redemption or Alex Gordon’s late career one, progress by Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez, or consistency by Whit Merrifield. I can even handle Ryan O’Hearn’s struggles.
None of these dudes grew up in Kansas City, it’s not like they went to Blue Springs High School. They did, though, grow up in the Royals’ system, and that’s close enough for me.
That “close enough” is the tricky part for any front office. Professional sports have long since outgrown the days when teams were made up of the town’s best athletes. Fans have gotten accustomed to mercenaries. And it will always be a debate, when it comes to how mercenary the fans are willing to accept. Winning brings more acceptance. Losing brings almost none.
Which is why, if you’re going to be dreadful, you’re better off doing it with players your fans can cheer for, whether that’s Spaniards in Spain or Brad Keller at the K.