The Value of the Struggle in Kansas City
The first paragraph of the first article I ever wrote for Grantland went like this:
There aren’t a lot of benefits to being a Royals fan, but this is unquestionably one of them: No one will ever question your sincerity. If ever there was such a thing as a “bandwagon Royals fan,” a quarter-century of escalating irrelevance hounded it into extinction.
That was written in July 2011, but if I had written it in July 2014, I wouldn’t have had to change a word. Not when the Royals lost their first four games after the All-Star break to fall to 48-50, putting them eight games out of first in the AL Central and sixth in the wild-card race. Not with a fan base that responded exactly as expected to what looked like a 29th straight year without sniffing the playoffs: After drawing a sellout crowd of 40,103 on Opening Day, the Royals had drawn one more crowd of even 36,000 all season.
For an entire Lost Generation who had lived (and mostly died) with the Royals, the surprise wasn’t that the Royals would average barely 11,000 fans a night in a series against Toronto in April, or that their TV ratings were the sort of number you didn’t bring up in polite company. The surprise was that the Royals had even as many fans as they did. I can’t tell you how many times during the really lean years, when the Royals lost 100 games four times in five years, when they lost 19 games in a row in 2005, I became angry with myself for caring so much about this godforsaken team. I began to question whether being a Royals fan was really a test of my loyalty and character or simply a sign of mental illness, perhaps listed under the “Masochism” heading in the DSM-IV. Why would I willingly subject myself to this torture? Why would anyone?
And then Twitter arrived, and I found that I wasn’t alone. There were lots of people out there who suffered from the same affliction that I did, who cared about the Royals seemingly more than the Royals cared about themselves. Some of them even had season tickets, but most of them — check the attendance figures — watched from afar, just waiting for the Royals to give them a reason to lavish even more attention on the team.
Twitter may be the greatest community-building invention ever, and certainly fans of all sports teams use it to congregate online. But even early on it seemed like Royals Twitter was special. Maybe it’s because so many Royals fans, like me, were just so damn surprised to find out that they weren’t alone — but what was once a source of mild embarrassment now became a badge of honor. Logging in to Royals Twitter was like Norm walking into Cheers — everyone knew your name, no one judged you, no one cared what you did when you weren’t there, and while you were there you were treated like family. That didn’t make the team any better, and it didn’t make us bitch about the team any less — quite the opposite, actually — but it made the losing more tolerable. Misery loves company because every experience is better when shared with others.
And in the Cheers bar that was Royals Twitter, SungWoo Lee was Vera: a near-mythical figure whom everyone knew existed, but was rarely heard from and never seen. A Royals fan who’s lived in South Korea his entire life? And he’s as die-hard as the rest of us? Almost all of us root for this team for reasons of either genetics or geography; we were either born or indoctrinated into the Royal Blue. It felt like SungWoo was the only person since 1985 to choose to be a Royals fan out of his own free will.
That’s why, last June, before the Royals started winning, before they started attracting attention, before architectural plans for the bandwagon had even been drawn up, so many of us were excited by the news that SungWoo was finally coming to America, to Kansas City, and to Kauffman Stadium to see the Royals play. No one in the history of sports had ever been less of a bandwagon fan than him. After two decades of being a Royals fan, the team had yet to reciprocate his kindness; the least we could do is show him a good time and let him know that we appreciated that he was one of us.
And then … well, it turns out that in addition to being a really useful tool to build online communities, Twitter is also really good at making things go viral. Around the time that SungWoo’s plane departed South Korea, #SungWooToKC started trending. By the time he landed at the airport on August 5, it seemed like half the city had come out to greet him. Within 72 hours he was a national sports story. And the Royals started winning. And winning. And winning.
The Royals would eventually win one of the most important games in their franchise’s history, and then sweep their way to the World Series, and then Royals Twitter united again to #BringBackSungWoo, and he returned to watch as the Royals came one swing away from the perfect Cinderella season. And then the Royals returned this year to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke, that it was just something to build on, winning the AL Central practically wire-to-wire and finishing with the best record in the American League for the first time since 1977. Being a Royals fan right now is just about the coolest thing in the world for anyone within 300 miles of Kansas City. They set an all-time attendance record this year. Local TV ratings of 12.3 — up 84 percent over last year, more than tripling their 3.8 rating in 2012 — were the highest any team had recorded in 13 years. Chart-topping rappers want to hang with them. Jimmy Kimmel is bringing on Royals players to serenade their famous fans.
It would be tempting for the diehards who suffered for so long to be a little miffed that their favorite little indie band is now more overplayed than U2 — 70 percent of the people watching a Royals game this year weren’t watching them three years ago. But after waiting 29 years to make the playoffs, how do you complain when your team follows a World Series Game 7 by having the best record in the league? Complaining about the bandwagon that follows a winning team is like complaining about the water bill on your dream home.
But it’s more than that. What I’ve learned from the past 15 months of being a Royals fan is that being a die-hard supporter is its own reward. The secret worry that every true-blue fan has is that bandwagon fans actually do it right — that it’s better to root for your team just when it’s good and ignore the team when it’s not than it is to suffer through the lean years. What I’ve learned from this experience is that I shouldn’t have worried about that at all. God bless bandwagon fans, and God bless an entire new generation of fans, like my 12-year-old daughter, whom the Royals have gotten their hooks into now and may never let go. But for those of us who watched the Royals when they were terrible, the events of the past 15 months take on a meaning and a depth that can’t be replicated without the experience of the years, if not decades, of futility that preceded them.
Royals Twitter rooted for the Royals before they were cool. Royals Twitter also knew SungWoo before he was famous. That is its own reward. That is enough.