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Strike Zone

Royals fans are the last to forgive baseball for the 1994 shutdown.

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Kansas City is a mid-major metropolis that rarely sets the pace for the rest of the nation. That changed in 1994 when the Major League Baseball Players' Union walked out on America's pastime and eventually forced the cancellation of the World Series: No baseball fans in the country grabbed their wallets and ran faster than we did.

"The last strike hurt Kansas City more than any other town," says Tony Muser, the Royals' manager the past four seasons. "When I came here and talked baseball and started going out shaking hands and meeting people, a lot of people said they still didn't go to games because of the strike."

But something is stirring here in the town where baseball died its most public death. The 41,000 tickets for opening day sold out in 36 hours this year. That's faster than it used to take Bob Hamelin to go from first to third. In contrast, last year the Royals started selling tickets for opening day on February 5 and didn't sell out until March 20.

The Royals were near rock bottom with their fans as the strike-delayed 1995 season was about to open. Not only had the lengthy labor dispute left the fans with the taste of a rosin bag in their mouths, but in a front-office move that can best be described as self-mutilation, Herk Robinson traded the club's two most popular players, Brian McRae and David Cone -- both hometown heroes -- on back-to-back days. In the Royals' dugout, a new skipper sat on the bench. Bob Boone had replaced the fired but still popular Hal McRae.

Ewing Kauffman's death in 1993 left a lifeless collection of suits and gowns, known officially as the Royals' board of directors, in charge of the team. Jason Whitlock, the rookie Kansas City Star sports columnist, called for Royals fans to boycott the home opener. Jeff Montgomery, the Royals' closer and most outspoken proponent of the players' strike, left little doubt how the players felt about the fans. "At this stage, we're not concerned if there are 10,000 or 40,000," Monty said shortly after a half-full Kauffman Stadium crowd greeted the Royals on opening day.

As bleak as April 1995 was for this franchise, it might have been the team's high point for the remainder of the decade. Last-place finishes, rent-a-player lineups and skeleton crowds replaced the mayhem that made Royals Stadium the place to be in the '70s and '80s.

"When I got here [in December of 1995], Herk told me that if you looked up the Royals in the dictionary you'd see a line through [the word]," says Mike Levy, the team's vice president of marketing. "We just weren't fun." Levy set out to erase that line and the Royals' stodgy image by introducing Sluggerrr the mascot, field-level suites, a video board that did more than run Coke ads, and a lot of gimmicks that fell as flat as those $5 beers -- remember the "diamond in the rough" ruse?

Levy has had one of the toughest jobs in this city over the past six years. How do you coax people into spending money to watch one of the worst teams in baseball? You don't. Levy says the missing piece is finally in place for the Royals. "We now have an owner that's committed to baseball, and that is huge," explains Levy.

Just how committed David Glass is to Kansas City and the Royals remains to be seen. He flunked his first test when he let the team's marquee player, Johnny Damon, be dealt away to the Oakland A's. Despite the Damon trade (or because of it), the Royals are telling anyone who will listen that they plan to sign such All-Star caliber players as Mike Sweeney and Jermaine Dye to long-term contracts.

Whether it is Glass' presence, Levy's marketing, the Royals' perceived talent or that itch fans feel from a scab that's healed, baseball is king for a summer again this year. Can it last? And what would another work stoppage do to baseball in Kansas City if the owners lock out the players in November, as many believe they will? "We aren't allowed to even comment on it," a very serious Levy says when asked about the probability of a lockout. "We can't even give our personal opinion." You can bet, though, that the Royals' fans will.

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