A tale of two cities – Kansas City and St. Louis
When you’re a fan of the Royals, you naturally hear a lot about the other Missouri team. It’s only natural for the two cities to have a bit of a rivalry. The cities are connected by Interstate 70, the drive from Kauffman to Busch is 241 miles. St. Louis has beer; Kansas City has BBQ. They’ve got the Arch; we’ve got fountains. KC has the Missouri River; St. Louis has the Mississippi. St. Louis is the Gateway to the West, KC is Paris of the Plains. St. Louis has Laclede’s Landing and Kansas City has the Plaza. They had Leon Spinks and Rick Hummel, we’ve had Tommy Morrison and Joe Posnanski. You get the idea.
St. Louis proper has a population just over 300,000 with a metro footprint of about 2.8 million people.
Kansas City, Missouri proper is home to just over 500,000 people with a metro footprint of 2.3 million.
The two cities are even connected in darker ways. St. Louis has the highest murder rate in the country per 100,000 people with a startling 64.54. Kansas City came in at #8 with a mark of 29.88 per 100,000. To put that into perspective, much maligned Chicago sits at #18 with 18.26 per 100,000.
One major difference, KC has the Chiefs. St. Louis has, well, nothing in the NFL. They once had the Cardinals and later, the Rams. St. Louis even won a Super Bowl with the Rams. I’m going to put in a shameless plug here for Kurt Warner. I often think Warner gets overlooked in the discussion of all-time great quarterbacks. To me, he’s in the top 15, hands down. I mean the guy took two previously moribund franchises to the Super Bowl a total of three times, winning one and very nearly winning the other two. The Rams (now back in LA) finally won their second last year, but the Cardinals are still light years away. The Royals might win another World Series before Arizona wins a Super Bowl. I’d take that bet. St. Louis does have the Blues, while Kansas City is currently iced out of the NHL. Anyway, football and hockey will be here soon enough, let’s get back to baseball.
Having lived in Maryland Heights at one time, I’ve heard plenty about “The Cardinal Way” and “The greatest fans in baseball”. You know what? I can’t argue with that. I’ve spent a lot of time recently pondering the difference between the two franchises. What does the St. Louis Cardinal organization do differently to achieve such success and consistency?
At first, the Royals were able to match, if not eclipse the Cardinals in on-field results, which is nothing short of amazing since St. Louis had a 77-year head start. From 1969 to when the two teams met in the 1985 World Series, Kansas City went 1,411 wins with 1,275 losses (.525%) while the Cardinals clocked in at 1,376 wins and 1,311 losses (.512%). Each team won one World Series and lost one World Series. The Cardinals won 90+ games in three seasons, while the Royals won 90+ games seven times! Each team lost 90+ games twice, with those two for Kansas City being the first two years of operation, so that is understandable. This early success for Kansas City is a testament to the leadership of Ewing Kauffman and the brilliant guidance of then General Manager Cedric Tallis.
Now here’s where the story gets ugly. From 1986 to 2022, the two franchises have gone in entirely different directions. The Cardinals have won 3,097 games while losing 2,685 (.536%) while Kansas City fell off a cliff, winning 2,641 and losing 3,144 (.456%).
During that 37-year time frame, the Cardinals have won 90+ games 13 times and are on their way to a 14th, while the Royals only accomplished that feat twice. The Cards lost 90+ games in a season just once, while Kansas City has managed to do that an astounding 15 times, and they’re on pace to lose 90 for the 16th time unless they have some miraculous run to close out the 2022 season. Think about that for a minute. 15 seasons (soon to be 16) of 90 losses or more. Wow! You really have to work at it to have that kind of ineptitude.
The Royals have lost 100 games or more in 6 of the past 20 seasons and are a bad slump away from possibly doing it in 2022. The last time St. Louis lost 100 games was….1908. For a fan, what’s the difference if your team loses 88 games or 97 games or 106 games? To me, the 100-loss barrier signifies that the organization has lost their way. They’re either totally incompetent or they’ve given up.
At one time, Kansas City gave St. Louis a manager they still consider among their best, Whitey Herzog. The Royals have gotten one of theirs, Mike Matheny, to which you will not find any Cardinal fans losing sleep. So that tells you something. In fact, I can remember several Cardinal fans telling me how much I’d eventually dislike how Matheny managed. They weren’t wrong!
As for the “greatest fans” argument, it’s hard to dispute. St. Louis routinely lands close to the top of the National League in annual attendance. From 1996 to 2019, they drew more than three million fans 21 out of the 22 years. Kansas City has never drawn more than 3 million, their best being 2.7 million in the 2015 season. The Royals routinely average about 1.5 million fans per. There’s certainly some financial advantage that those extra 1.5 million fans bring to the club and the Cardinals are not afraid to use that.
The biggest difference I can come up with, and this is not earth-shattering news, is that St. Louis has had and still has better ownership, front office executives, managers, coaches, scouting, and development staff. How else can you explain the divergence of the two franchises?
Both teams have had some success in the free agent market, and both have had some stinkers. Interestingly, when reading who Cardinal fans consider the team’s worst recent free agent signings, three former Royals pop up: Greg Holland, Mark Ellis, and Brayan Pena. The Cards also dumped some dead money into Bobby Bonilla. But the Cards keep signing people. Lance Berkman gave them some good years and Matt Holiday was an excellent signing. Both filled a need and helped them win games. The best Kansas City free agent signing in recent memory was Kendrys Morales. He was a key piece to the 2015 championship. I’m not sure I could tell you who the second-best signing over the past 15 years would have been.
The Cardinals have also been willing to let their players walk away in free agency when their play either declines or their price tag exceeds their worth. They let Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler walk when they didn’t muster up. They let Albert Pujols walk when his price got too high. Albert Pujols! Cardinal icon. Soon to be unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer. Pujols, from Independence, Missouri, in case you’ve forgotten. The team’s reunion with him (and Pujol’s amazing rebirth) this summer has been one of the season’s great stories. As of this writing, he needs three more home runs to get to 700 and I’m hoping he gets them.
The biggest difference between the franchises come from scouting and development, where St. Louis has a much better track record of finding and developing what I call meat and potato players, those guys who have two or three good to excellent seasons. You can win a lot of games with guys like that. The Redbirds currently hold a six-game lead in the National League Central, while the Royals are close to the bottom of the AL Central. Looking at various rankings of farm systems is encouraging for St. Louis. MLB.com and Keith Law both have St. Louis at #13. Bleacher Reports has the Cards at #2. Their top prospect, Jordan Walker and most of their other top prospects have yet to make their major league debuts. The Cardinals’ minor league tank is still full.
MLB.com has the Royals farm system at #21, while Bleacher report has them at #22 and Law has them at #23. The sad part is those rankings count Massey, Pratto, Zerpa, Eaton, Waters and Vinnie, all of who are either already on the roster or have seen some playing time. In other words, when you drain those names out of the system, the Royals are no longer at 22. They’d be near the bottom. The Royals farm tank is now empty and if they don’t win with the guys on the current roster, it’s going to be another long and painful reboot.
The second major difference is that St. Louis is not afraid to be a big boy at the trading table. The Royals have done it on a couple of rare occasions (Zach Greinke to Milwaukee and the Wil Myers package to Tampa) but aside from that, the Royals have a tepid trading record. The trade to acquire Andrew Benintendi was a good one, but one player isn’t going to move the needle for the Royals. The Royals brain trust made a few deadline deals this year, but missed a prime opportunity to move a few veterans such as Michael A. Taylor, Josh Staumont, and Hunter Dozier. Maybe they tried to move them and nobody wanted them? That would even be worse.
St. Louis? They swing for the fences. Some of their recent trade acquisitions were Marcell Ozuna, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nolan Arenado. Ozuna gave them a couple of decent seasons, but they’d probably like to have that trade back. They sent four players to Florida for Ozuna, including Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen, two of the better young pitchers in the game today. Can you imagine the 2022 Cards with those two guys on the mound? They’d be sizing up Pujols for a World Series ring.
Goldschmidt and Arenado, who are both on their way to the Hall of Fame, were huge acquisitions. They are helping St. Louis win games when it matters. Goldschmidt might very well be the MVP this season. The bottom line is the Cardinals did what needed to be done in order for them to stay competitive. As a fan, you have to admire that.
What about the small market effect? What about it? St. Louis and Kansas City are similar-sized cities. I just don’t buy into that idea. I think smaller markets like KC and Milwaukee, can be competitive. To be competitive on a consistent basis, just about everything must go right. You must scout and draft well. You better have excellent player development. You best hit on most of your trades and free agent signings. And you better be careful about dumping big money into extensions. Sometimes it’s best to let a player walk.
One of the Royals’ most recent flaws has been to hang onto and continue to play non-productive players. The Royals front office lacks the boldness to own up to their mistakes and cut their losses. Sunk money? Who cares. What’s the point of keeping a veteran hitting .200 with an unfavorable contract on the roster? All that’s doing is blocking the progress of a younger player. The Royals have been really bad about this the last couple of seasons. Really bad. And believe me when I say, the players know who should be playing and who should be sitting. Nothing will kill a locker room faster than a manager who continues to play a guy that shouldn’t be in the lineup. The players know.
What’s the solution? I think every Royals fan knows that answer. John Sherman knows what needs to be done. I believe deep in his heart, Dayton Moore also knows. Royals ownership is going to have to insist on a standard of excellence and stick with it. That means that the current front office and managerial regime as well as most of the scouting and development staff are going to have to be let go, starting with Moore. That sounds harsh, but professional sports are a results-oriented business. Wins and losses. And the Royals and their fans have endured far too many seasons of losses. It doesn’t have to be this way.