When I was a kid, I would always wonder what would happen if my tiny rural hometown of Mattoon, Illinois, somehow procured a Major League Baseball team. On the surface — and beneath the surface, down to the center of the earth's core — this was an absurd notion: Mattoon, population 18,291 at the 2000 census (and surely less this next time around), couldn't even support a minor league team. The Mattoon Phillies of the Midwest League last played in 1957, and after that, the most exciting baseball event in town wouldn't happen until 1993, when the Mattoon Green Wave, powered by their backup catcher's .368 average (7-for-19 on the year!), won the Big 12 Conference. (Suck it, Rantoul!) There was obviously no chance.
But as long as Green Bay had an NFL team, I could dream. After all, all you had to do was get a team: Once that happened, the rest of the country couldn't help but take Mattoon seriously. (It is possible I had some inferiority issues about my town when I was a kid.) It just required a billionaire willing to move the team to Peterson Park and maybe add some bleacher seats to the ballpark to keep up with demand. It was easy. Surely some of the people in those big houses out by the golf course had a billion dollars lying around. Those homes were huge; some even had an upstairs and a downstairs!
I worried what it would do to my town, though. I knew, even as a pre-teen, that bringing a Major League Baseball team to our sleepy burg would bring with it a fair share of headache. Where would the players stay? (Maybe we could sign Jack Clark! My mom always had a crush on him.) Would the media attention be too intense? Would this somehow mess with Bagelfest? Most important: What if the team were not connected to the values of Mattoon itself? What if it became the only thing in the town that mattered? What if it thought it was somehow bigger than the community that it made its own? That seemed a larger problem than finding the right Mattoon billionaire to purchase the team. What if it somehow turned us against it? What if it divided rather than united? What if it brought out the worst in us?
Last year, Rany Jazayerli, one of the grand Baseball Prospectus poo-bahs and uniformly excellent human being, penned a damning screed about the Royals' inability to deal with injuries, singling out Royals' trainer Nick Swartz, whom he claimed deserved to be fired. Jazayerli is another example of one of my favorite aspects of the Royals: They have unusually intelligent and thoughtful fans. Bill James, Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer (before he decided he'd had enough), Hampton Stevens, Jason Sudeikis. (We Cardinals have this guy.) Jazayerli's column was not something he published on the front page of the Kansas City Star, or screamed into a mike on the pregame show, or spray-painted across the entrance to Kauffman Stadium. He wrote it on his personal blog.
In just about every other city with a baseball team on earth, with the possible exception of Beijing, this would inspire, at worst, a disappointed shake of the head by the team's head of public relations. In Kansas City, the second-smallest metropolitan area with a baseball team (just ahead of Milwaukee, which drew more than 3,000,000 fans last season), this led to a meting of frontier justice. Jazayerli was immediately banned by the club, stopped not only from having Royals personnel on his radio show, but having anyone doing any business with the club at all on there. They even tried to prevent him from going on anyone else's show. "[The Royals] have intimated that any other radio show which has me on as a guest faces the same penalty."
The thing I love about the Royals, the reason I'm not even still mad about 1985, is that, well, they're adorable. I love their mascot — the hilariously named "Sluggerrr" — I love that they have women's self-defense classes as promotions, I love their waterfalls, I love that they have a Buck O'Neil Legacy Seat, I love that you can jump out of a plane onto their field (scored by Creed!), I love that their fans are devoted and silly enough to score 2009 highlight videos to "Don't Stop Believing," I love that they have open tryouts that might actually help, I love that they once drove Hal McRae crazy. (It is also possible that I love their center fielder.) The Royals are everything that should be great about baseball: They are dopey and charming and small-town, all the way through. The world is a better place when the Royals are good.
But when they're not, the angry politics of small towns turn in on themselves. It turns from Our Town to Dogville. (Or The White Ribbon.) We love our small towns because all seems innocent and unaffected. But that's just when everyone is happy. When they're not happy, it gets ugly, and it gets mean. Because there are fewer places to hide.
Someday — honestly, the AL Central, this has to happen someday — the Royals will turn it around and maybe even sneak in the playoffs. We will all want to be happy for them, and we should. But a small company town will often take on the personality of its company. Nobody's pleasant when everything's falling apart. Sometimes these teams can do harm. Sometimes they can bring out the worst.
Their invitation to move to Mattoon, however, is still open. Though public transportation to the park is scarce, and the local TV contracts are a bitch.