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Back in that Decade of Dominance from 1976-85, when the Royals advanced to baseball's postseason seven times, and won a World Series championship in 1985, it was said in more than a joking manner that the top three sports franchises in town were: 1. Royals, 2. Tom Watson and 3. Chiefs.
Watson is now retired, but a generation of sports fans who had known nothing but frustration for three decades is now exposed to Royals Fever. And it has reached epidemic proportions with the hometown club returning to Kauffman Stadium tonight for Game 6 of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the Blue Jays (7 p.m. ET air time, 8 p.m. ET game time on FOX Sports 1/Sportsnet). Kansas City needs one more victory to win an AL pennant and advance to the World Series for the second year in a row.
"I took my kids to school, and I'm driving right by the middle school, and a good 70 percent of the kids had some kind of Royals gear on," said general manager Dayton Moore. "And when we played that Monday afternoon game [in Houston to decide the AL Division Series] the teachers had TVs on in their rooms and everybody was watching."
There was a late-season outbreak of the fever a year ago when the Royals, after 29 years of being left out of baseball's postseason, made the late-season push to claim an AL Wild Card spot and then surprised the baseball world by taking the Giants to seven games in the World Series.
This year, though, the expectations among the locals were there from the start. When the Royals ran away from the rest of the AL Central in the second half of the season the epidemic spread, much like it did decades earlier when the Royals made more postseason appearances than any other big league team from 1976-85.
The memories are embedded in the mind of Moore, who had such a passion for the Royals in his teen years that for Game 7 of the 1985 World Series against St. Louis, he and a teammate from Garden City (Kan.) Community College watched the game from their car, along I-70, overlooking what was then named Royals Stadium, where "we could see everything except Lonnie Smith in left field."
The fever began to fade after that. The Royals had a winning record in only seven of 27 seasons before their current run of three consecutive. They had a losing record in 17 of 18 seasons from 1995 through 2012. Attendance dropped below two million a year for 24 consecutive seasons before this year's record-setting total of 2,758,549 tickets sold at Kauffman Stadium.
It's back now.
"Life has been breathed back into the fan base," said Moore. "Being a kid born in [Wichita], I know how important this team was to my family and families through the Midwest. I grew up a fan of this team in the '70s and '80s, but I did not know about the character of that team until I came back to Kansas City and could be around George Brett and listen to him explain his passion. Then, I realized why those Royals were so special."
Brett's perspective has changed dramatically in the last three decades. He's gone from a Hall of Fame player to his current role as a special assistant to Moore.
"Back then," Brett said of that decade of Royals success, "I was a player. I'd get to the park at 12:30 in the afternoon and be focused on the game. You don't really have the focus on what's going on in the community, but now I drive through the Plaza in the late afternoon on the way to the park. I go out to dinner with friends and family. I am involved in things in the community and it is exciting to see how much the team means to the fans.
"And these guys [on the team] get into it. Last year, after the World Series, they invited the fans to come down to the Kansas City Power and Light District, and 25,000 showed up. The players picked up the tab. These guys get into it. They know what's going on and that's why they have the town eating out of their hands."
The fans are feasting on the franchise's success.