The Kansas City Royals want the world to know they are as flabbergasted as everybody else. They see the jaw-dropping numbers, the endless stream of players perched atop what amounts to a popularity contest at every position and simply shake their heads. There were far too many years when this franchise would've been happy to land merely a couple of players on the American League All-Star team. So today they want the world to know they aren't apologizing for dominating the fan voting for the Midsummer Classic.
When MLB announced the latest results in fan balloting for the July 14 All-Star Game in Cincinnati on Monday, Royals held the top spots for eight positions, including designated hitter. That means Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout will be the only non-Kansas City player (excluding the pitcher) starting if the voting holds up through the July 2 deadline. Never before has baseball been threatened by the possibility of such a sight in one of its premier events. Just as noteworthy is the negative reaction this phenomenon has spawned.
Detroit Tigers pitcher David Price tweeted last week that the voting is "kind of a joke," while ESPN baseball analyst and former major league general manager Jim Bowden said the current system "is broken." The Royals, on the other hand, are just pleased things are working in their favor.
"We're as much in a state of surprise as anybody," said Mike Swanson, the Royals' vice president of communications and broadcasting. "Major League Baseball held a conference call in May, and they asked all 30 teams to get out and promote voting and the All-Star Game on Fox. All we've done is what we've been asked to do internally. The only thing we've done different this year is put a 'Vote Royals' on the field behind home plate. We're not doing anything that anybody else isn't doing."
That explanation has been a hard reality to accept for some people who remain stunned by the Royals' sweeping success in the balloting. There are plenty of Kansas City players who deserve consideration to be on this year's American League roster, including catcher Salvador Perez, shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon. What irritates critics of the system is the sight of Omar Infante (who was hitting .210 through Monday) leading all second baseman in votes and Alex Rios (who is hitting .214 and missed 1½ months due to injury) ranking fourth among outfielders. It's those possibilities that have skeptics claiming something conspiratorial is in the air.
MLB backs up everything the Royals are saying about the voting procedures, which permit each fan to submit up to 35 ballots. This is the first year All-Star balloting has been done exclusively online, but Bob Bowman, MLB president of business and media, said his office always has maintained a staunch approach to ferreting out ballot stuffing through the Internet. MLB makes a concerted effort to investigate votes that: 1. come from accounts created using email addresses that appear to have been tweaked in some way that too closely resemble another address; 2. multiple voting accounts that come from the same IP address; and 3. troubling patterns in voting that emerge during the reviews by a third-party company employed to chart All-Star Game balloting trends.
Bowman said that process alone leads to about 20 percent of the votes that are cast online being eliminated every year. With that in mind, all the votes MLB has reported so far have been sanitized.
"I think what is happening is great," Bowman said. "But are some people overzealous? That comes with the territory. ... There is a substantial digital trail that comes with this. It's not new. It's just getting a lot more press because the Royals are more involved now."
So if there isn't a ballot-stuffing campaign happening in Kansas City, then what exactly is driving all this love for the Royals, a team that hasn't had an All-Star starter elected since outfielder Jermaine Dye in 2000? Some of the factors are easy to identify. First, Kansas City did captivate the nation last year by ending a 29-year postseason drought, claiming the American League pennant and losing Game 7 of the World Series to the San Francisco Giants by one run.
The Royals also carried that success over into this season. Through Monday, they held the best record in the American League. Their fans, many of whom remember first baseman Eric Hosmer and some teammates picking up a $12,000 tab at a local bar after the Royals clinched the 2014 American League Division Series, can't get enough of them.
Said Bowman: "Most players get 60 to 80 percent of their votes from their teams, but the Royals are on the high end of that. You are dealing with a great outpouring of support for this team, and you see it at the park [with attendance], with [Internet] traffic, and they're now in the top 10 in merchandise sales." Through Tuesday, the Royals' overall attendance (home and road) is up from 23rd in 2014 (25,513 average, 63.2% of capacity) to seventh in 2015 (30,608, 75.1%). Measured by page views, traffic to the Royals' team page on ESPN.com ranks eighth this season, compared to 11th during the 2014 regular season. The team ranks 10th among MLB teams in merchandising sales.
Added Mike Bucek, the Royals' vice president of marketing and business development: "People just think about Kansas City [doing all this voting], but it changes when you take into account places like Wichita, Des Moines or Topeka. People in this area are highly motivated. These players have bonded with this fan base, and the fans want to see them play in Cincinnati."
Those same fans also don't like backing down from a fight when they sense one coming. Most people in Kansas City didn't even know so many Royals had jumped out to early leads on the ballots until a Fox Sports story ran in late May with the headline "Get Voting, People! Or It's An All-Royals All-Star Game." What started as fan excitement before that point morphed in a literal viral movement.
"As soon as the national media came out against us, people went nuts," said longtime fan Travis Pflanz, a local web designer who writes a Royals blog. "It definitely fueled the fire."
Still, it remains to be seen how long that fire will burn. There is still a little more than two weeks left in the voting process, and the only Royals with clearly safe leads on the ballots are Perez, Escobar, Cain and Gordon (all of whom are at least 2 million votes ahead of the next-closest players at their positions). In contrast, Infante, Hosmer and designated hitter Kendrys Morales all have fewer than 600,000 votes separating them from their current runner-ups. It's likely that each of those races will come down to the wire.
Bowman said it's way too early to jump to conclusions about what baseball should do if Royals dominate the starting lineup, adding that he'd "seen this movie once or twice, so let's all wait until we see what happens on July 2."
On Tuesday, first-year MLB commissioner Rob Manfred preached caution but didn't rule out the possibility of changing the system.
"We have 16 days left," he said. "Lots of years we've worried about lots of things in respect to fan voting, but in general over time fans have done a pretty good job, so we'll see how it all turns out.
"What I would say is, I hope over time that what people come to think about the commissioner's office is when we have a situation such as this, this is one example, that we are responsive and open to change if in fact it appears we get a result that is not consistent with the goals of the system that is currently in place."
What shouldn't be lost in the uproar is that the Royals didn't simply stumble into this dance without any credibility. This team has six position players who legitimately can make a case for being All-Stars. Relief pitcher Wade Davis is certainly going to be added when Royals skipper Ned Yost -- who gets to manage the AL squad after winning the pennant last year -- fills out the roster. (Interestingly, Giants outfielder Nori Aoki, who played last season for the Royals, is third in the NL outfield voting behind Giancarlo Stanton.)
For those who haven't noticed, the AL has lost plenty of star power in recent years, either through retirement (Derek Jeter), controversy (Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton) or simply declining play (Joe Mauer, Ichiro Suzuki). At some point, new blood was going to rise up.
"There really isn't that star player that everybody wants to see in this game," said Nate Bukaty, a talk-show host for Sports Radio 810 in Kansas City. "Mike Trout is that guy. [Detroit first baseman] Miguel Cabrera has that appeal, but he wasn't getting as many votes. When you look at the demographics, you see that the average fan base of baseball is getting much older. And with the vote being online, that tends to lead to more young voters getting involved. And if there's one city where young fans are really excited about their team, it's Kansas City."
Swanson, the Royals' communications director, agreed.
"We hit the perfect storm," he said. "In years past, when the votes were counted off ballots at the park, we'd have 13,000 to 14,000 people voting on some afternoons. But now that the paper ballots have gone by the wayside -- and you throw in the pennant, the TV ratings, the attendance and the popularity of the club -- things have changed. People like these guys because they're likable guys. And when you take the paper out of it, you end up leveling the playing field."