Cal Ripken Jr. remembers well the pleasures of playing in Kansas City the last time the Royals were contenders — the smart, respectful fans who adored their team but would also applaud an opponent's standout catch.
"Playing in Kansas City was a lot like playing in Baltimore," the Orioles great said Thursday as his former club prepared to play the Royals in the American League Championship Series, which begins Friday.
Both the Orioles and Royals perennially contended for pennants in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Then, both teams stumbled into ruts of losing and humiliation that lasted more than a decade and nearly cost them a generation of supporters. But now, latent fan enthusiasm is spilling forth as the Orioles and Royals each battle to reach the World Series for the first time since Ronald Reagan occupied the White House.
"They're very similar fan bases," said Royals director of player development Scott Sharp. "It's not New York, it's not L.A. It's not a lot of glitz and glamour, either one. They're just really good sports towns that love their teams."
You can draw parallels all day long between these two baseball cities.
The Orioles suffered through 14 straight seasons of losing baseball before 2012. The Royals endured 29 years without a playoff appearance until this season.
"I think all O's fans know exactly how [Royals'] fans feel," said Julie Saxenmeyer of Cockeysville, Md. "Though I won't have a hard time doing it, it will be weird rooting against them in the ALCS."
It's almost incredible the Orioles and Royals never met in the postseason during the long stretch when both ranked among the best franchises in baseball. From 1975 to 1985, the Orioles finished first or second in the AL East eight times and the Royals finished first or second in the AL West 10 times. Both went to two World Series and won one in that span.
The similarities were no accident, said Atlanta Braves President John Schuerholz, a Baltimore native who went on to become general manager of the Royals in the 1980s. The Orioles gave Schuerholz his first baseball job. "What we did was take what we knew of the Orioles way and we brought that to Kansas City," he recalled. "What better model could there be?"
When the two franchises hit hard times, however, they hit really hard. Orioles fans know how bleak the baseball culture grew in the mid-2000s. Losing was a given, made worse by perpetual disarray in the front office and the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of a division dominated by the richest teams in the sport, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Royals fans felt an equally strong claim to supporting the sport's most hopeless team. Consider that the Royals followed their 83-79 record in 2003 with seasons of 104, 106 and 100 losses. Not even the Orioles ever managed such a concentrated run of awful.
Few know how bad it got as well as Rany Jazayerli, a dermatologist in the Chicago suburbs by day and the country's best known Royals blogger by night.
On his blog "Rany on the Royals," Jazayerli chronicled every futile step, first as an optimist and then with the perverse pride of the emotionally defeated. "They weren't just bad but comically bad," he said.
Jazayerli studied at Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate, attending many Orioles games. "I see a lot of similarities," he said, comparing Baltimore and Kansas City. "They're both great fan bases that were just starved for baseball worthy of them."
Jazayerli equated the past few weeks to a fever dream. His team is suddenly a hot story. A drug salesman came to his medical practice the other day with a cookie cake that said "Go Royals" on it.
"It took me 29 years to get to this point and suddenly, it all makes sense," Jazayerli said. "The suffering wasn't in vain."