From the inception of the American League in 1901 through the 1997 season, no Major League Baseball team changed leagues. Through wars, a Great Depression, 18 United States presidents, the admission of six new states, numerous franchise shifts, expansion, division play, designated hitters, wild cards and finally, interleague play, an AL club would always remain in the AL, and the same held true for the National League.
With the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays (later Rays) coming on board for the 1998 season, then-acting commissioner Bud Selig did not want daily interleague play. Attendance during the 1997 season spiked during the blocks of interleague games, and Selig feared having it spread out from April through September would take away the novelty and bring attendance down to the level of normal intraleague games.
One option Selig had would be to place the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays in the same league. That idea was quickly rejected, so he resorted to Plan B, which called for 16 teams in the National League and 14 in the American.
Selig secretly yearned for his Milwaukee Brewers—remember, he was still majority owner of the Brewers while serving as acting commissioner—to move to the National League. Selig had attempted to save the Milwaukee Braves from leaving for Atlanta in the 1960s, and he fondly remembered watching Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Lew Burdette and Warren Spahn carry the Braves to the 1957 World Series championship and within one win of another championship in 1958.
However, to avoid a conflict of interest, Selig elected to give another American League franchise the opportunity to move to the Senior Circuit.
The Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays were the newest AL franchises at the time, but neither made sense. Montreal already represented Canada in the National League, and moving Seattle to the NL simply would have created another hole in the AL West, which had only four teams to start with.
Kansas City was next. The Royals were at one time an American League power, winning the 1985 World Series and appearing in the postseason seven times between 1976 and 1985, but by 1997, the franchise's glory days were long gone.
Dick Howser died of brain cancer a little more than a year after guiding KC to the 1985 championship. Bo Jackson shattered a hip trying to make it as a two-sport superstar. Original owner Ewing Kauffman died in 1993. Ace Brett Saberhagen was gone. George Brett had retired. David Cone won a Cy Young with the franchise, only to be traded immediately after the 1994 strike ended.
A move to the NL would have been the perfect fresh start for the Royals. Sure, Kansas City had been an AL city all along, first with the Athletics from 1955-67 and later with the Royals, but coming off of three consecutive losing seasons, it seemed like the place to shut one chapter and start writing a new one.
The Royals said no. Selig was elated. His Brewers were "taking it National."
The Brewers' first years in the NL were far from auspicious. A crane accident at the Miller Park construction site killed three workers and delayed the opening of the stadium for a year. When Miller Park finally opened in 2001, it was criticized as a taxpayer boondoggle. Then in 2002, the Brewers lost a franchise-record 106 games and hosted an All-Star Game that ended in an embarrassing 7-7 tie when both teams ran out of pitchers in the 12th inning.
It got better for the Brewers. A lot better. Prince Fielder. Ryan Braun. Rickie Weeks. A wild card berth in 2008. The NL Central championship in 2011, ironically with ex-Royal Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke anchoring the Brewers' rotation.
Meanwhile, it has gotten worse for the Royals. Kansas City has enjoyed only one winning season since 1995, and even that saw the Royals win only 83 games. Kansas City lost 100 games three times in four seasons, and has lost 90 or more times in seven other seasons. Every time the Royals have had a marketable star—Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Greinke—he hasn't lasted long.
The Royals are attempting to change this pattern with homegrown talents like Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, but the pitching remains suspect, and no, Jonathan Sanchez is not going to remind anyone of Charlie Leibrandt, Larry Gura or the late Paul Splittorff.
A move to the NL would have at least helped the Royals at the gate. With the unbalanced schedule, the Royals would have been guaranteed three series per season against geographic rivals in the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. Under the current format, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox come to Kauffman only once per season, and often in April, when the weather is still chilly and the kids are still in school.
Now the Houston Astros will be assured of three series per season at home versus the Texas Rangers when they move to the AL in 2013. It once again has to make Kansas City fans scratch their heads and wonder what might have been if the Royals had made the leap to the Senior Circuit.