Part 1 of the 3-part Royals “Easter” seasons posts, which focuses on the 1971 Royals, can be found here.
The 2003 Royals season was a short-lived “Easter” of sorts: the Royals went 83-79 that season which was their first winning season in almost a decade. For about 3/4 of a season, Royals baseball was relevant not just in Kansas City, but nationally as well, as the Royals held first place in the AL Central until August 31st. 2003 should have been a launching point for the organization, a sign of a turnaround after nearly 10 years of mediocrity prior to that. There was a relatively new GM in Allard Baird, they had some young talent who had potential to be superstars, they had an energetic manager in Tony Pena, the first and only Latino manager in the history of the Royals, and the Kansas City faithful were rejuvenated and motivated to support a frisky bunch who bucked expectations in 2003.
Baseball was a thing again at Kauffman Stadium in 2003. The Royals weren’t a punchline in 2003 like they were from the mid-90’s to 2002.
And then just like, the “Easter” was over. By 2004, the Royals returned to the tomb.
But 2003, for as short as it was, proved to be a special season worth remembering in Kansas City.
In order to understand the Royals fans’ psyche going into 2003, one has to understand the year where it all started, which was a decade earlier in 1993. That season Ewing Kauffman passed away, who in all ways was a Saint to the community of Kansas City. Kauffman and his family not only had a tremendous impact in terms of education, entrepreneurship, and the arts (and still does to this day thanks to his Kauffman Foundation charitable organization), but he also helped bring back and keep baseball in Kansas City. While today Kansas City is ingrained into the fabric of Major League Baseball (I mean after all, they have the best stadium in the AL Central), that wasn’t always the case, as it seemed like baseball’s future in the City of Fountains was hazy after the Athletics left for Oakland. And Kauffman not only kept baseball in Kansas City during his tenure, but he also set it up to do so for the future (he built a foundation that would assume ownership after his passing), and kept it competitive roster-wise, even if it came out of his own pocket.
Being in one of the smallest markets in baseball as well as all of sports, the Royals were not always profitable during Kauffman’s tenure as owner. However, he was willing to incur financial losses, because he viewed Royals baseball as a civic service to Kansas City, not a business like it is today. Even though the Royals did not make the playoffs after the 1985 World Series run during the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Royals had one of the higher payrolls in baseball, which was mostly thanks to Ewing Kauffman’s generosity.
However, after his passing, David Glass took over as CEO and that culture of generosity changed (he eventually bought the club outright for $96 million in 2000). While Glass was intent in terms of keeping the club in Kansas City for the future, Glass, with his Walmart CEO background, treated the Royals less like a charitable organization, and more like a business in the “Wal-Mart” model (i.e shed costs, increase profits). While many other owners were doing the same around the league, Glass’ frugal approach to building a baseball club didn’t do the small-market team any favors, and thus the team failed to be competitive after the 1994 strike-shortened season.
2003 was a microcosm of Glass’ penny pinching approach. Glass kept payroll low at around $40 million on Opening Day, which was second-lowest in the league, and seven million less from a season ago. To make matters worse, the Royals let their ace from the previous year, Paul Byrd, walk in free agency, and Glass also put restrictions on GM Baird in that June’s draft, limiting him to only $4.5 million in signing bonus money, according to a retrospective piece from Kings of Kauffman. Here’s what KOK writer John Viril said in the piece:
“The $4.5 million budget for the June draft was so tight, the KC Royals could pay a mere $1,000 signing bonus to players selected after the 5th round. Despite the first five picks becoming major-league non-entities, the Royals were still able to land four guys with big league futures in Mike Aviles, Ryan Braun (the pitcher, not the Milwaukee future MVP), Dusty Hughes, and Irving Falu. All of them signed for a mere $1,000 bonus, except for Hughes who got a whopping $3,500.”“Allard Baird Almost Delivered The Impossible In 2003”, by John Viril; Kings of Kauffman
To summarize: the Royals looked screwed going into 2003. They were also coming off their first 100-loss season in club history, and with a new manager at the helm in Tony Pena, who took over mid-year in 2002 and didn’t do so hot, all the signs were pointing to another 100-plus loss campaign in Kansas City.
But somehow, the Royals bucked all those low expectations and shocked the world…and it started with “Nosotros Creamos.”
“Nosotros Creamos” in English means “We Believe” and it was the rallying cry of the manager Tony Pena and the Kansas City Royals of 2003. In many ways, it probably started as an optimistic campaign from Royals P/R to bring butts to the ballpark, not much different from “Raised Royal” or “Always Royal”. After all, with the Royals coming off a 100-loss season, there’s not a lot the team could say other than “Well…don’t give up hope, Kansas City.” And honestly, there were some pieces for hope: Carlos Beltran was still on the roster and had grown to be one of the most valuable all-around players in baseball; and Mike Sweeney was emerging as one of the better designated hitters in the American League. But after that though, the future of the club looked hazy at best.
However, with Pena’s energy, and some surprising performances, the Royals started the year 16-3, which included a 17-7 mark by the end of April. And while the club struggled through a 10-19 May, they rebounded a bit in June and July to finish 57-49 going into August. The Royals’ best mark in the second half was a 65-57 record on August 17th where they were 3 games up in the AL Central. However, they relinquished sole control of the lead on August 20th, and they never got sole control of the Central again that year. Furthermore, August 29th was the last time the Royals were tied for first at 70-63, and after losing to the Angels on August 31st, the Royals never were in first again, as the Minnesota Twins eventually ran away with the division.
Starting in September, the dream of a playoff campaign died in Kansas City, as the club finished 13-15 in September and 32-38 overall after the All-Star break.
But then again, though the playoffs slipped through Pena and the Royals’ grasps, it was still a “dream season” of sorts. The Royals not only garnered their first winning season in almost a decade, but they were able to do so with a combination of scrappy veterans, and young, promising players who seemed to have bright futures in Kansas City.
The offense was the main catalyst to the Royals’ success, as the Royals ranked 4th in the American League in Runs Scored, and 12th in baseball overall in terms of wOBA. The outfield mashed, mostly led by Beltran who hit 26 home runs, had 100 RBI and put up a slash of .307/.389/.522 in 602 plate appearances. However, Beltran wasn’t alone, as left fielder Raul Ibanez began his career renaissance in 2003, posting a slash of .294/.345/.454 to go along with 18 home runs and 90 RBI in 671 plate appearances, which was a team high. Furthermore, right fielder Aaron Guiel looked to be on the cusp of a breakout, as he hit 15 home runs and put up an OPS+ of 111, and Michael Tucker, a former Royals prospect who made his return in 2003, also produced, hitting 13 home runs and putting up an OPS+ of 96 while splitting right field duty with Guiel.
The infield was primarily led by breakout rookie shortstop Angel Berroa, who out-dueled Yankees rookie Hideki Matsui for the award that season. Berroa put up a slash of .287/.338/.451 with an OPS+ of 101 to go along with 17 home runs and 21 stolen bases, and at 25-years-old, it looked like the Royals had their shortstop of the future for a long time. Add that with another solid season from the “Joker” Joe Randa, one of the Royals’ more underrated third-basemen in club history (16 home runs; 104 OPS+) and a better-than-expected campaign from Ken Harvey (.721 OPS, 13 home runs), and it’s not surprising why the Royals finished in the top half of the league in many offensive categories. What was even more amazing was that the Royals excelled offensively despite only getting 108 games from Mike Sweeney, who was given a five-year, $55 million extension prior to that season. While Sweeney still produced (120 OPS+, 18 home runs), it should make Royals fans wonder what their record would have been had Sweeney played a 140-160 games and not 108.
The Royals pitching staff was expected to be a weak spot in 2003, especially after losing 17-game winner Byrd, who led the team in WAR (5.5) in 2002. Byrd ended up signing a two-year deal with the Atlanta Braves that off-season, which disgruntled Royals fans who were sick of seeing their star players walk or be traded away like Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, and Kevin Appier before him. However, Byrd walking away ended up being a blessing in disguise, as Byrd injured his arm early in 2003, and ended up having Tommy John surgery later that season.
Despite the loss of Byrd, the Royals were led by a ragtag bunch in the rotation who didn’t do much statistically (they had the 10th highest ERA in the league), but still managed to get the job done. Darrell May was the best of the bunch, going 10-8 with a 3.77 ERA while pitching a team-high 210 innings. Furthermore, the Royals got some surprising work from their young starters with guys like Runelvys Hernandez (4.61 ERA) and Jimmy Gobble (4.61 ERA though only over 9 starts) showing that the Royals rotation could only get better beyond 2003. And lastly, “Lima Time” ended up being a positive thing in Kansas City in 2003, as Lima went 8-3 with a 4.91 ERA in 14 starts and 73 innings.
The Royals bullpen overall was pretty bad statistically, as they ranked 30th in relievers ERA and 25th in FIP, according to Fangraphs. However, closer Mike MacDougal ended up becoming an icon out of the bullpen in 2003 mostly thanks to his high heat, lanky arms and wonky motion. MacDougal saved 23 games in 2003 and ended up making the All-Star game, though “Big Mac” did end up fading down the stretch. While he didn’t have the fanfare that MacDougal had, left hander Jeremy Affleldt actually was the Royals’ most dependable reliever out of the pen, as he posted the highest WAR (0.9) and best xFIP (2.73) out of any Royals reliever. If MacDougal was more consistent and healthy, it’s possible that Mac and Affeldt could have been a great 8th-9th inning combo for at least a couple of years.
As great as 2003 was, things fell apart in a Chinua Achebe-style pretty quickly in 2004. The players didn’t feed off Pena’s energy the following season, and the club lost a 104 games, then a team-record. Beltran was eventually traded to Houston mid-season, and the pitching fell off a cliff, as they ranked dead last in team ERA in the American League. Guys who broke out in 2003 like Guiel, Berroa, and May regressed severely, as Guiel only played 42 games and posted an OPS+ of 45; Berroa struggled to find his power (8 home runs) and contact stroke (79 OPS+) from his ROY campaign; and May lost 19 games and posted a 5.61 ERA in 186 innings. And Juan Gonzalez, a free agent signing who was supposed to put the Royals over the top, ended up being a colossal bust, as he only played 33 games as a Royal in his one and only season in Kansas City.
And as expected, all that goodwill and hope Kansas City built in 2003 was quickly lost in 2004. A couple of seasons later, the Royals eventually fired Baird, and replaced him with Dayton Moore, who is still the Royals’ general manager today. Baird certainly was not effective as a general manager. He made some questionable deals, especially in 2004 with the acquisition of Gonzalez, who was over the hill and a noted malcontent, not a good fit for a club that relied on so much mojo in 2003. However, it’s hard to discern what Baird could have done had he not been so restrained monetarily as GM. It’s one thing to not be able to spend on free agency. But to be limited in the draft and international signings too is almost a death wish. The fact that Moore had been able to convince Glass to spend money on their farm system is a minor miracle when you look at what Baird had to deal with during his tenure.
As a baseball fan, I loved the 2003 Royals team. If anything, they really sparked my fandom in the Royals seriously, especially as a high school student from Sacramento who wasn’t totally in on the San Francisco Giants or Oakland A’s. The Royals shouldn’t have succeeded in 2003. They were built to suck, and yet Beltran carried this team offensively and became one of the game’s most underrated stars in 2003. May had the best season of his life. MacDougal became one of the more popular personalities in the league, especially in the ninth inning. It was fun to not just follow the Royals in 2003, but also play with them in MVP Baseball 2004. They just were the underdog you could root for, and it was awesome to see them hold onto first for as long as they did during that season.
2003 wasn’t the start of something bigger like 1971. 2003 was more an aberration, sandwiched between the losing campaigns of 1995-2002 and 2004-2012. However, 2003 is not forgotten. 2003 gave Kansas City hope in baseball again for a summer, and if anything, 2003 probably helped the case for the renovation to Kauffman Stadium, as 2003 proved that if the club was competitive and a winner, KC sports fans would flock again to the ballpark like they did in the 70’s and 80’s when the Royals were a powerhouse. And because of those renovations, the All-Star game came to Kansas City in 2012, and eventually winning baseball came back as well the following season.
It was a short resurrection in 2003. It’s sad that it didn’t amount to much over the next 10 years. It’s a shame that one of Beltran’s finest seasons didn’t result in a playoff appearance or that Sweeney couldn’t enjoy a full, healthy campaign during his only winning season in Kansas City.
But Royals fans shouldn’t forget 2003 in the slightest. It didn’t produce the highs of 2014 or 2015, but considering the decade of losing before and even after 2003?
Well…let’s just say that the 2003 season was “manna from heaven” for baseball fans in Kansas City.