What if the Royals won a division, and nobody came?


The Kansas City Royals lead the AL Central by a half game after Friday, a margin that’s been mostly shrinking.

The same can be said this week for the number of fans who watch them. Maybe, after 29 years out of the playoffs, there aren’t that many Royals fans left.

Tuesday night the Royals won in the bottom of the ninth, turning a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win over the Twins with one swing by Alex Gordon (score one for WAR). Most of the celebrating was done at home plate by the Royals, because there were almost as many people there as in the stands.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the announced attendance was 13,847 for a first-place team in late August. That’s not exactly the stuff of America’s pastime, unless its pastime is past its time.

Royals manager Ned Yost called out the fans who weren’t there after the game, according to the Kansas City Star: “I mean, what, 13,000 people got to see a great game? . . . It’s really, really important we have our fans behind us at the stadium . . . I know there’s different things you can do. You can watch it on the Internet. You can watch it on TV. But there’s a real need for our fans to be a part of this. We had a great crowd last night, and I was kind of hoping we’d have another great crowd tonight, and we really didn’t.”

Yost played defense for the rest of the week, but he has a point. Only it’s not just Kansas City. Thursday night both the AL East and Central division leaders, who haven’t won a division title for a combined 46 years, were home and with their two crowds added together couldn’t fill either stadium.

There were a couple of hundred more fans in Kansas City than Baltimore and they were rewarded with seeing Bruce Chen give up six runs in the 10th inning. There’s 17,000 fans who won’t be back if Chen is (the Royals released him before the week was out).

It was too easy for some to explain the sparse crowd, if 13,000 in a 37,000-seat stadium can be called that, by saying it was a school night in August. If the Royals do make the playoffs, they might need to schedule all their home games for the weekend.

The issue became so important in Kansas City that the city’s newspaper editorialized on it, saying:

“… the current squad hasn’t won anything, yet, of lasting value. No playoff spot, no division title, no league crown and certainly no World Series rings.

The club still has the opportunity to accomplish all of those goals, and that’s a welcome change for fans. They are ready to relive the team’s glory days of winning seasons in the late 1970s and the 1980s.

If those days do return to Kauffman Stadium, the fans will likely follow.”

The fans will show up, the Star seems to be saying, after the Royals win something. Great strategy, which is what happens when editorial page writers opine on baseball (if you haven’t read George Will’s book Men at Work, don’t).

Why enjoy the ride when you can simply take a shortcut and start watching in October? I’m sure Rosie Ruiz would approve.

“I know it’s a school night,” said Yost. “But I’ve been through this before in Atlanta (when the Braves first made the playoffs) in ’91, where it didn’t matter what night it was, that place was packed at the end of August and September. The fans really got into it.”

The Star’s columnist, Sam Mellinger, said “what a stupid thing to say, on so many levels …” and then proved it, in part, by pointing out the Braves drew 12,889 fans on Aug. 26, 1991 and 15,806 on Aug. 27.

This is why we don’t make Hall of Fame votes based on memories like Yost’s, which are only slightly less reliable than eyewitness testimony.

Mellinger is right. That’s what the Braves drew. And he’s also wrong, or at least short on context, which happens when writing on deadline.

The 1991 Atlanta Braves had 18 home games in August, and drew less than 20,000 fans just twice, on the dates Mellinger cited. But they drew at least 30,000 fans six times and 40,000 fans four other times.

The 2014 Royals have had 12 dates in August through Friday, drawn less than 20,000 fans three straight games and more than 30,000 fans just four times (once for Derek Jeter’s final game in K.C.). The stadium’s capacity is 37,900, so they won’t be topping 40,000.

The 1991 Braves also more than doubled their average crowd and total attendance from 1990, in part because they drew so few fans in 1990, going from 12,000-plus to 26,000-plus.

The 2014 Royals have increased by more than 2,000 fans a game, going from 21,000-plus to 23,000-plus.

The 1991 Braves were 16th out of 26th teams in attendance; the 2014 Royals are 25th. When your fan base is less rabid than the Braves, it’s hard to defend.

Yost isn’t all wrong. Tuesday’s crowd was embarrassingly low, and he was right about that if not the ’91 Braves.

You’d have to be a local to better explain why: high prices, games on tablets, no home blackouts, the Twins, Bruce Chen, 29 years of defeat, apathy or who knows how many local issues.

But attendance is down at MLB games by an average of 230 fans a game this year. The average game attracts 30,400 fans, which will support a lot of long-term contracts. There’s no crisis.

But the arrow pointing down isn’t a good trend. And that first-place teams are playing in the middle of the pennant race before last-place crowds is not something that can be easily explained away, even by the denizens of the editorial page.

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