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For Royals' affiliate in Wilmington, Del., ALCS berth is 'strange in a way'

The Baltimore Sun

The Kansas City Royals, much like the Orioles, have long pumped the potential in their minor league system as the major league team struggled. And a lot of those prospects were biding their time in Wilmington, Del., home of the High-A Blue Rocks.

Promising Royals prospects have lived, grown, and developed as part of the Wilmington community for more than 20 years, making the Orioles-Royals matchup in the American League Championship Series all the more exciting for the core group of fans and team employees who supported that journey.

"That's what they always said — they were growing from the bottom and [would] really explode once everything [clicked]," said Adele Taylor, a Wilmington resident and 20-year season Blue Rocks season-ticket holder. "They told us that, but we didn't necessarily believe it. I'm extremely happy."

Kansas City manager Ned Yost included 11 former Blue Rocks farmhands on his ALCS roster — first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, catcher Salvador Perez, infielder Christian Colon, outfielders Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore, plus pitchers Yordano Ventura, Greg Holland, Danny Duffy, Brandon Finnegan, Kelvin Herrera.

All played some role in either the Royals' wild extra-inning win over the Oakland Athletics in the AL wild-card game and an AL Division Series sweep of the Los Angeles Angels, who won a major-league-high 98 games. Their success is the long-awaited realization of general manager Dayton Moore's steady philosophy to hoard uber-talented, high-round draft picks, sign high-impact international free agents, and wait out their development.

Gore and Finnegan played on the Blue Rocks into August of this year.

"It's crazy to think we had a couple guys here in July, August, and now they're contributing [to getting] the Royals to the playoffs," Wilmington general manager Chris Kemple said.

Even the thought of the major league team being in the playoffs is a new one for Kemple.

"It's strange in a way," he said. "This is the first time the Royals have been in the playoffs since we've been here. They never really got close, and it was never a hope that the Royals are going to make the playoffs. Now that they have, and the success they've had, it's awfully exciting to see."

By comparison, six Orioles played minor league ball with their Carolina League affiliate, the Frederick Keys: right fielder Nick Markakis, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, catcher Caleb Joseph, right-hander Kevin Gausman, left-hander Brian Matusz and closer Zach Britton.

All but the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Va., play within Maryland, so fans can pledge allegiance to local minor league clubs. Kansas City's system is more spread out, with farm teams also in Omaha, Neb.; Springdale, Ark.; Lexington, Ky.; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Burlington, N.C.

Still, the success is personal for those around the Blue Rocks. Kansas City has contracted with Wilmington for all but two of the last 22 seasons, and the bond is strong between employees, fans, and the organization that entrusts their prospects to them.

Bill Mitchell, of Aston, Pa., has hosted Blue Rocks players for a dozen years. He organizes the contingent of host families that put up the players each season, and he said even those who didn't live with him had been over his house for a Sunday barbecue or to use the pool.

Moustakas and Hosmer each stayed with him during their times in Wilmington, and he tries to take a trip to see his former tenants in Kansas City with his son, Will, each year.

This year, they went west for a late September series against the Detroit Tigers.

"Kansas City treated us awesome because of what we do," Mitchell said. "I don't do it for anything but the gratification and hope that one day, I'll see these kids where they're at."

The gratification everyone associated with the team feels with the playoff appearance, and the role their former Blue Rocks have played in it, is clear —so much so that it has changed lifelong allegiances.

Kemple smiles at the thought of Moustakas ribbing him for getting lost on a drive back from the airport, and traveling with Perez and Hosmer to All-Star games.

Taylor grew up in Baltimore as an Orioles fan, with Boog Powell as her favorite player. Now, it's Perez who takes that title, and her allegiance to Wilmington has caused a rift with her father, an Orioles supporter.

"These are my scrappy dudes from Wilmington, and they're going to pull it through," she said.

Community relations director Kevin Linton, who doubles as the public address announcer at Frawley Stadium, said the organization has swayed him from his Orioles fan roots as well.

"They've been very good to us here in Wilmington," said Linton, who was the organization's 2012 minor league employee of the year.

Linton came to Camden Yards for Game 2 of the ALDS against the Tigers, and he said he wore in his orange shirt that day. He said he was traveling to Game 1 of the ALCS as well, in neutral colors.

"I was rooting for this dream matchup," he said.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/JonMeoli

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