Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Professionals and Paranoia in Kansas City

August 4, 2011

Last week in Kansas City two different players left two different teams. Neither of the players chose to leave.

The first was Brian Waters, five-time Pro Bowl guard for the Kansas City Chiefs and 2009 Walter Payton Man of the Year in the NFL. One of the first orders of business the Chiefs took when the lockout ended was to release Waters. There had been some minor rumblings about this possibility during the off-season, so it was not entirely a surprise, given that Waters is 34 years old. But Waters was also a member of the executive committee of the NFL Players Association, and people in Kansas City immediately began to speculate about whether his union activities played a part in his release. (Aside from his role in the NFLPA, Waters has also been known to be generally outspoken during his career and not one to shy away from giving the media a good quote.)

The second player was a Kansas City Royal that few people outside of KC have heard of unless they are die hard baseball fans. Mike Aviles is a 30-year-old utility second baseman with a solid bat but below-average defensive skills. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox one day after making comments to the Kansas City Star expressing his unhappiness at being largely relegated to AAA this year. As with Waters, the speculation immediately began about whether it was his mouth that got him moved.

It seems unlikely that the Royals would engineer a trade in one day all because of a quote given to the local paper. Word is that the trade had been in the works for weeks. And Waters was no doubt nearing the end of his career. But that didn’t stop fans from wondering whether one or both of them were whacked. Some of this suspicion is part of the age-old battle between players and their front offices. But Kansas Citians have their own reasons to be a bit paranoid about the motives of their two major sports franchises.

Both the Chiefs and the Royals are run by general managers who made their names elsewhere. Chiefs GM Scott Pioli is the former vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots; and the Royals’ GM is Dayton Moore, formerly an assistant GM of the Atlanta Braves. Both men were brought to Kansas City to replicate their former success, and both men have created organizations that put a premium on silence. The first anyone heard about either Waters or Aviles being finished in KC was when the teams announced their decisions in press releases.

Pioli is famous for saying and revealing as little as possible. And Moore is infamous for being thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. (“Classic Dayton Moore. The absolute first rumor of an Aviles trade came when the Royals’ official Twitter feed announced the deal.” This was the tweet from Kansas native and Baseball Prospectus co-founder Rany Jazayerli immediately after Aviles was traded. Jazayerli knows about Dayton Moore, because a couple of years ago he wrote a blog post that was critical of a Royals athletic trainer, which led to the Royals denying Jazayerli access to Royals players and management as punishment.)

Kansas City fans, for now, are willing to put up with the mafioso attitudes of their two major sports franchises. In some ways, it is a natural fit as midwesterners usually prefer their sports teams to be no-nonsense. In the KC area, this most clearly plays itself out with University of Kansas basketball, where the overwhelmingly white, suburban fan base is forced to reconcile itself to teams made up largely of black kids from the East Coast. Trash talking before games is an inevitable controversy in Kansas.

Fans of both teams are also desperate for a championship—or even any type of a significant post-season game. So they are willing to put up with front offices who exhibit a creepy bureaucratic efficiency as long as it results in the type of success that Pioli and Moore experienced with their previous teams. The good news is that both franchises do appear to be on the upswing, even though they are each a year or two away from being likely post-season threats.

So even though it is possible that neither Waters nor Avila were ousted for the nefarious reasons that swirled around Kansas City talk radio and the sports blogosphere last week, the suspicions were not unwarranted. Conspiracy theories are most fertile in closed societies, and in Kansas City both the Chiefs and the Royals have created a corporate breeding ground for paranoia. It may all pay off if the teams are able to contend for championships. But if they don’t, Kansas City will be left with dual legacies of controlling, humorless organizations. Not only will they not have won, but they will have refused to have a little bit of fun along the way. There’s nothing tragic about not winning, but there is something pathetic about refusing to have a little bit of fun along the way.