On Re-Signing Alex Gordon, a Thing the Royals Should Do

The Royals should re-sign Alex Gordon. Full stop.

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 27: Alex Gordon #4 of the Kansas City Royals rounds the bases after hitting a game tying home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2015 World Series against the New York Mets at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday, October 27, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO – OCTOBER 27: Alex Gordon #4 of the Kansas City Royals rounds the bases after hitting a game tying home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2015 World Series against the New York Mets at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday, October 27, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

For some of you, that’s enough for me to say and you’re convinced. For others, you’ll never agree. If you’re on the fence, let me share my thought process behind my statement.

Gordon has filled so many roles in Kansas City. The rookie and savior, the bust, the quiet leader, the late-inning hero. He arrived with much fanfare and a College Player of the Year Award and Minor League Player of the Year Award on his resume. He was expected to be a franchise player and, after a couple of years battling injuries and ineffectiveness, he became one, reinventing himself in the process.

As a free agent, Gordon expects to make anywhere from $75 to $100 million over the next five or six years (possibly more if the outfield market starts going crazy). It would be the biggest contract in Royals history, and who better than Gordon to have it?

Here’s my argument for Gordon: he’s been a productive hitter for the past five years, and provides excellent outfield defense. He’s a team leader with a great work ethic. He’s as high character as you can probably find in baseball. He has plate discipline, enough power, makes good contact, is as smart a baserunner as you’ll find, and combines preparation and hustle to do all the little things that old school fans love. If I had a son, I’d like him to play like Alex Gordon.

The Royals have strung together three straight winning seasons, and will return most of the same group that won the World Series in 2015. Why break up a good thing? Right now, the Royals have a need in left field. Alex Gordon plays left field. Other options – Dexter Fowler, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton – are also available, but Cespedes and Upton will command larger salaries than what Gordon is expected to sign for, and Fowler would cost a draft pick if the Royals signed him (and may still be in the same price range). The Royals aren’t realistically in the Cespedes or Upton market, and might be in the Fowler market, but other than Gordon, their options are internal (Jarrod Dyson or Paulo Orlando, most likely), lesser players available as free agents (Gerardo Parra, Denard Span, neither of whom set my world on fire), or are trade possibilities (Nick Markakis has been mentioned, as has Todd Frazier as an outfield convert. Carlos Gonzalez has been brought up as well.) None of these make as much sense as re-signing Alex Gordon.

First, for consideration, there is cost. MLBTradeRumors.com projected the following contracts for the big four:

  • Upton, 7 years, $147 million
  • Cespedes, 6 years, $140 million
  • Gordon, 5 years, $105 million
  • Fowler, 4 years, $60 million

Food for thought: MLBTR also projected 10 years and $200 million for Jason Heyward, who signed for 8 years and $184 million, but reportedly took less than was offered by other teams to go to the Cubs. If his taking less sets the market, it’s possible each of the above four will have a slightly lowered final deal. Shortly after Heyward agreed to his deal, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN suggested that Gordon might land in the 5 year/$75-80 million rangeIf so, that’s a great deal for any team, but especially the Royals. He’s at least expected to get the lowest deal when compared to Upton and Cespedes, at least.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Royals currently are on the hook for about $85 million in payroll for 2016  before arbitration cases finish up. They may end up with $18 to $20 million going to arbitration-eligible players this year. Gordon plus that group would make the Royals’ payroll around $120 million. In 2015, they opened the season with a $112 million payroll and added salaries for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline. They can handle an increase after back-to-back pennants.

“But that’s too much!” they cry. “What about the future?!” they plead. “The Royals can’t get caught in a big contract that limits them later!”

These are some of the reasons given for letting Gordon go, and the concern is fine. The Royals are a team limited by their market. Ever since Ewing Kauffman died and baseball contracts boomed, this has been true. However, the Royals just finished a championship season during which they set a new attendance record and crushed TV ratings. If there was ever a time for the Royals to spend, it is now.

There are also claims that the Royals can’t sign Gordon because it will limit them from extending players. The names of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar are brought up.

All four will be set for free agency after 2017. The opportunity to sustain success is now. Signing Gordon keeps the main group together for two more seasons with a chance to reach the playoffs again. The Royals have adopted a policy recently for what I call “hit and run” contracts – one- or two-year deals that have options, but don’t tie them into anything long-term. I’d suggest that it’s this policy that puts them in position to make the five-year offer to Gordon. They won’t be locked in on many others after 2017, so Gordon’s contract will not be a big hit on the overall team payroll, unless the Royals extend Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, Omar Infante, Kris Medlen, Chris Young, Kelvin Herrera, Danny Duffy, and Jason Vargas, or the aforementioned younger hitters.

In fact, here’s a list of the players the Royals have committed to contracts for 2018:

Basically, the Royals will look far different after 2017 with all those contracts ending. Kevin Scobee at Pine Tar Press provided a detailed look at this year-by-year.

I think it’s a virtual lock that Hosmer hits free agency. Unless the Royals vastly overpay him to stay with Kansas City, he’s going to be a 28-year-old, marketable, Gold Glove first baseman with good average and power. He’s gone. Mike Moustakas has had one good season, but is a Scott Boras client like Hosmer and even if you could extend him, I’m not sure you’d want to. Escobar would be 31 at the start of 2018 and doesn’t have a bat that looks like it’s going to be worth having even if his defense holds up, plus the Royals have Raul Mondesi in the pipeline ready to take over.

But Cain is an interesting case. He’s also the most likely player I’d see the Royals signing to some sort of extension, even if only to buy out two free agency years. What the dollar figure might be, I’m not sure. Cain, as the story goes, didn’t play baseball until late into high school, got drafted, and worked his way up through the Brewers’ system before joining the Royals after the Zack Greinke trade. In 2014, he had a good year. In 2015, he had a breakout year, finishing third in AL MVP voting.

Too often, though, I’m running into people who would prioritize Cain over Gordon, when a Cain extension would run right into the same issue they have with Gordon: age. Gordon will be 32 when the 2016 season starts. Cain, in two years, could be a free agent approaching his own 32-year-old season*. Of course, a five-year deal for Gordon now is different than what would likely be a three-year deal for Cain (beyond 2017), but I’m not sure by much when it gets down to it. Regardless, I don’t think Alex Gordon at $18 million in 2018 would prevent the Royals from offering Cain good money if one was interested in retaining both.

*I think people assume that Cain is younger than he really. He got a late start, sure, but I get the impression people still think he’s 26 right now and entering his peak years, when he’s likely at his peak now. Cain is actually older than Billy Butler, who’s already on the downslope of his career.

This is the part where I feel like I have to dig into Cain and give the impression that I don’t like him as a player. Cain’s breakout season in 2015 saw him hit .307/.361/.477 with 34 doubles and 16 homers. He added Gold Glove caliber defense (he should have at least been among the top three nominated for the award in center field). That’s a strong year, for sure.

From 2011 through 2015, Alex Gordon hit .281/.359/.450 with an average of 35 doubles and 18 homers per season. Gordon’s average season is not far from Cain’s peak (well, presumably his peak) season. Cain still provides a lot of defensive value, but defense can decline quickly with age, so while that particular fate will likely lead to Gordon’s defensive value dropping over the next few years, Cain probably won’t be immune either. Maybe Cain can hit enough to move to right field, while Gordon could move to first in 2018 or 2019 after Hosmer departs. Either way, I think Gordon is more likely of the two to add power as he ages, which could help him make up for declining defense. If, in three years, Cain falls back to being a 6-10 homer guy and has to move to a corner spot, he won’t be nearly as valuable as he is today. It’s possible that in two years, Cain will be at the center of the same debate we’re having about Gordon and the viability of adding years to a 32-year-old’s tenure, but with a much different team to potentially return to.

As for trades, the Royals may be able to explore that avenue if the interested parties are more likely to want lower level prospects instead of some of the bigger names. Players like Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer, Bubba Starling, and Miguel Almonte have either made their major league debuts by now or are likely to in 2016, and will be the guys who take the baton after Hosmer, et al leave. That’s also why they can’t be involved in a trade.

Here’s a scenario I see as very likely if the Royals opt to trade for an outfielder: the Royals deal Almonte and another prospect or two for Todd Frazier, or Nick Markakis, or Carlos Gonzalez. Or maybe they trade two of the four, or three. They’ll have to surrender prospects as well as payroll for any of these players (and if you want the Rockies to eat, say, $10 million in a Gonzalez deal, you probably give up more and/or better prospects than if you took on the whole remaining contract). Down the line, in 2018 and beyond, the Royals may be faced with a choice of a mediocre starting pitcher or signing a free agent because Zimmer is now a Rockie. Or they have to pay an aged Escobar eight figures because Mondesi is a Red and unable to take over at short. For any near-MLB-ready prospect they deal today, they likely have to go pay an average-ish veteran more money to provide the same or similar production. If the goal of avoiding signing Gordon to a deal is to avoid committing money to average or old players, trading your prospects away doesn’t seem like the way to avoid that, because you end up paying for it by finding guys who have to replace the league-minimum rookie deals that got traded way.

I should offer a couple of concessions. I recognize that after a significant groin injury, Gordon may not have the same defensive and baserunning ability as he’s had to this point in his career. If it’s a five-year deal, he’ll be 36 years old at the end of it. Most players are really in their twilight by that point. I know it’s a risk, but I don’t mind it. Gordon is in ridiculous shape, and his injuries haven’t been to his knees, nor have they been chronic or reoccuring. His contract will carry him through nto his post-peak years, but that’s not a death sentence to special players, and Gordon is a special player.

I also recognize that I’m indulging the sentimental baseball fan in me by hoping for a Gordon return. I remember reading things when I was younger about George Brett asking for a trade in 1990 and at the time it was a terrible feeling to think my favorite player may not continue to be a Royal. I feel the same way about Gordon. He fits this team so well and was such an important part to their resurgence that he’s got a chance to be in the discussion for a retired number with the Royals. The Royals are stingy with their retired numbers (they also haven’t had a lot of great players since the 1980s) but five more years of Gordon, some more playoff games – why not? He can join George Brett and Frank White as legends with this franchise, and who wouldn’t enjoy that?

This is Gordon’s one shot for a free agent contract. He already gave the Royals a couple of years via the extension he signed in March 2012. He’s earned a shot at a big payday. I just say it should be with the Royals.

So here’s my proposal (and I hate coming up with hypothetical contracts and trade offers, for the record). You offer Alex Gordon the following:

  • Four guaranteed years at an average value of $18 million a year
  • A fifth year that is a vested option and is enacted if Gordon reaches 450 plate appearances in 2019, the fourth year of the deal. This would be another $18 million season. If Gordon doesn’t reach 450 plate appearances, the vesting option becomes a team option with a buyout of $6-8 million.
  • A sixth year as a mutual option if the vesting/team option is picked up. Give this the same buyout figure.

For the Royals, they get the opportunity to keep Gordon for the two years along with the rest of the core. They also get to retain their prospects and draft picks that would otherwise be lost to other teams after trades or signing Fowler (who would cost the Royals their first round draft pick). They get a lot of goodwill for retaining a franchise player, as well. By going with a vesting option, they provide some insurance against injury or breakdown.

For Gordon, he gets a guaranteed 4/$72 million plus a guarantee that the fifth year will be either a buyout or picked up. It’s either the 5/90 million he’s likely after right now, or it’s 4/$78-80 million with the buyout. And if he stays healthy and the option vests, he’ll end up cashing in the last year buyout, too. Financially, he’s getting what he wants, and the Royals only get stuck paying big if he produces. Oh what a pity that would be.

So tl;dr – to sum up:

  • I think the Royals can afford Gordon right now and into the future.
  • The Royals are better off with Gordon involved with the next two years of the core championship group.
  • While I’d like to get everyone on an extension, the commonly-proposed candidates are unlikely to extend anyway, and Gordon’s hypothetical contract doesn’t limit the Royals to extend anyone anyway.
  • If they don’t extend Hosmer, I’m pretty sure Gordon’s playing first base by some point in 2018, unless he’s still doing fine in left.
  • If the choice is Gordon now or Cain possibly but we’re not sure, go with Gordon and sort it out later.
  • Maybe Carlos Gonzalez would be available, but if you’re going after him to avoid a bad contract after 2017, you’re probably going to have to pay out to veterans to fill spots your expected rookies can’t fill now because they got traded for Carlos Gonzalez.
  • Get creative with the Gordon offer and it can be a good win for both sides. While Gordon’s age may be troubling, it’s not a guarantee that he’ll fall off a cliff when he hits 34.
  • It’s Alex Gordon and he’s awesome.

When Your Team Wins the World Series

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I sometimes have a difficult time pinpointing the exact moment I became a baseball fan. Some people have a distinct memory of the first game they attended. Some can remember a season, a player. I guess my path is more like that, but it’s hazy on when the game really grabbed me.

I grew up in western Kansas, and the Royals, about five hours away, were the closest Major League Baseball around. The Rockies didn’t exist yet; the Rangers were even farther away. The internet as we know it was just a dream.

That’s not to say that I was shielded from every bit of baseball. There was radio. There were newscasts and newspaper stories. In 1985, I recall that my parents had the World Series on and I thought it was very cool that they kept saying “Kansas” (and at five years old, I didn’t get the distinction between Kansas City and my home state. As I remember it, a graphic appeared showing the score as the broadcast went to commercial and I asked my dad “What does the ‘R H E’ mean?” And he explained runs and hits and errors.

I don’t remember the Orta play as it happened. I don’t remember the Saberhagen masterpiece the next day. I just remember the score chyron flashing on the screen. And that was my introduction to baseball.

“I’ll trade you my George Brett for a Jose Canseco and two other rookies.”

This was a first grade conversation. I had a small collection of baseball cards, but didn’t know a lot about the players. I knew George Brett because I think it required to be a boy in the Midwest and know George Brett. I knew Canseco because he was a megastar at the time. I knew Kevin Seitzer because of the highlight when he tried to blow a rolling ground ball into foul territory.

But I knew I had a Jose Canseco card somewhere and managed to find a couple of guys who seemed to be rookies and took them to school. The deal went down on the blacktop, my collection handed over to a kid named Todd in my class. He handed me a creased, battered, dinged-up 1986 Topps George Brett.

I have Brett’s rookie card*. I have a card commemorating his 3000th hit. I have signed photos and other memorabilia. That card – that crushed, wrinkled, fuzzy-cornered card – is probably still my favorite item.

*There’s an ongoing dispute between my mom and I about a time when I was in second grade and had saved up some money from a bowling alley score-keeping gig. I had saved the money originally with a skateboard and a copy of Super Mario Brothers 2 in mind until one day we were at the local card shop and they had a mint Brett rookie available. My mom says that she encouraged me to get the card and I protested because the money had been saved for the board and the video game. I say that I wanted the card and she insisted I needed to use the money for the intended goal. It was later on my freshman year of college when I ended up buying a card off ebay.

For me, 1989 was the big year for me when baseball interest became full-blown fandom. I checked out nearly every baseball book from the school library. I read through a couple of kids almanacs that my parents had bought me. It was the year of Bret Saberhagen‘s second Cy Young Award, and it was the season of Bo Jackson.

It was that year when Bo was chosen to start the All-Star Game. He led off the bottom of the first with a home run that went about 900 feet and left Ronald Reagan in awe. He stole a base and made a nice catch in center and was named the MVP of the game. I recorded that game and watched the VHS over and over and over. This was also the first year that I recall finding games on TV. Paul Splittorff and Denny Trease had the call, but they only broadcast road games for some reason. When they were at home, I’d listen to Denny Matthews and Fred White on the radio and many hours were spent following the Royals on their path to 92 wins.

That win amount would be the second best in the American League. But they missed the playoffs because Oakland won 99 games and the Western Division. With no wild card, the Royals had a long winter.

In the offseason, they signed Mark Davis, 1989’s Cy Young Award winner from the National League, and returned Brett, Bo, Saberhagen. I had two newstand magazines that thought the Royals would not only dethrone the A’s but would go all the way to win the World Series.

They only won 75 games. Saberhagen missed half the year. Bo played only 111 games. Mark Davis had a 5.11 ERA. It was the first time I was disappointed by a season of sports. But I thought they had a good team and would be able to get there next year.

They didn’t. Bo Jackson hurt his hip playing football and was released before 1991. Brett had a bad year in 1991 and fought a knee injury all season. Mark Gubicza was hit hard. By 1992, they’d traded away Saberhagen (another crushing moment in my baseball fan life) and were creeping towards mediocrity (not that I knew it at the time).

The Royals tried to hold it off. They signed David Cone for the 1993 season. Kevin Appier had emerged as one of the best pitchers in the league. But in August, Ewing Kauffman passed away and the next month, George Brett announced he’d be retiring. I was faced with a crisis of a sort as the team I’d become obsessed with would be in transition without its venerable owner and its iconic superstar.

In 1994, David Cone won the Cy Young Award. Bob Hamelin won the Rookie of the Year Award, the Royals won 14 in a row in late July and early August to get within range of a playoff spot and then on August 12, the players went on strike.

When the strike ended in April 1995, the Royals were ran by a board, headed by David Glass. They were losing money and facing the prospect of poor revenues. They traded Brian McRae to Chicago and David Cone to Toronto just before the season started. In August 1995, they brought up prospect Johnny Damon from Double A and traded or released many other veterans.

The Royals, for the first time in my life as a fan, were going for a full rebuild.

The following years were a mix of hopeful promise and eventual disappointment. The teams led by Mike Sweeney, Jermaine Dye, and Damon in the late 90s scored runs — but gave them up as well.

The best thing, in a way, about those years as I got through high school and moved on into college, was that there was a sort of consistent resignation. At least the Royals never really let you down, because I stopped having expectations.

There were moments when they almost broke through and became relevant. In April 2000 the Royals won four games in a row via walkoff, prompting a “WHAT is going on?” from Denny. They had one of the best young outfield combos in a while in Dye, Damon, and Beltran. But just as soon as the Royals seemed to figure it out, they had to trade away guys who weren’t going to sign. So in 2003, only Beltran remained in the outfield and Mike Sweeney was at first base with a contract that required the Royals to go .500 for him to stay in town. Improbably, they did, and that summer was the most exciting Royals season of the era.

Of course, it didn’t last.

“Don’t ever say it can’t get worse,” Buddy Bell said. Of course, it got worse.

You likely remember those years. Those miserable years of 100 losses. Of Ken Harvey and the tarp. The years when the Royals signed Angel Berroa to an extension, only to learn that he was a couple years older than anyone had believed before. The years when the MLB Draft was more of a nuisance than an opportunity to stock the system.

I used to frequent Royalboard.com back in the mid-2000s, but mostly lurked. There, the legends of Calvin Pickering and Justin Huber and Shane Costa and Craig Brazell were born. Fans longed for Kevin Mench, Hank Blalock, Adam Dunn.

These were dark days and losses continued to pile up. The Royals weren’t just bad. They were awful. They were that term sportscasters usually reserved for the most pathetic – hapless.

I still paid attention but I didn’t hope like I’d used to. In 2004, I ran home on lunch break to catch the Royals on Opening Day on TV for a bit. I got there just in time to see the second of three Dimitri Young homers. Any excitement for the new season was snuffed out quickly and dramatically.

I followed the Royals draft picks and a co-worker and I got very excited when the Royals drafted Alex Gordon in 2005, but after being burnt by Jeff Granger, Colt Griffin, Chris Lubanski and others, what was the point in getting fired up by a draft pick? It really didn’t feel like the Royals were going to turn it around. But with Gordon, at least he was college player of the year and later won the Minor League Player of the Year award in 2006.

This was when the Royals brought in Dayton Moore, and I was cautiously optimistic. I remember nobody really believing that ownership would loosen the purse strings, despite good reviews of the hire. Cynicism is tough to shake. By that point, the Royals had been rebuilding for over 20 years.

During this period, the internet was a much bigger part of baseball coverage, too. Blogs were popping up. Prospect sites were more prominent. I also started to check out the books at the Borders I worked at and would end up getting a new baseball book every so often. I snagged a copy of “Baseball Between the Numbers” by the Baseball Prospectus staff and started to view things in a different way.

Mostly, after years of diminished interest, I was seeking to be more informed.

This is the same period when the Royals World Series team started to slowly take shape. Alex Gordon debuted on opening day. He was received as a savior – the can’t-miss superstar. Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, and Greg Holland were among Royals draftees that year. Luke Hochevar, technically *wink* not drafted *wink wink* under Dayton Moore *wink*, debuted that September. I remember a day at the end of April when a co-worker excitedly told me that Billy Butler was getting called up (no, Butler wasn’t on this year’s team, but he’s a big part of the redemption story). We felt like 2009 was the year to watch.

When 2009 rolled around, the Royals still weren’t contenders, but Zack Greinke gave us a good reason to watch, even though his biggest contribution to the Royals didn’t turn out to be on the mound. After the 2010 season, he asked for a trade, citing that he didn’t think the rebuilding effort was going quickly enough. Some fans felt betrayed by Greinke’s comments.

But he wasn’t wrong. By 2010, Dayton Moore had been at the helm for four and a half years and the Royals had averaged 93 losses from 2007 to 2010. None of their vaunted prospects had been close to a debut yet (though then-unheralded Greg Holland debuted in 2010). Greinke said what many fans were thinking but not admitting: the Royals still weren’t that close.

But the Greinke trade turned into a huge moment in the rebuild, as it brought Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar to the organization. Each player would win an ALCS MVP Award.

When 2011 started, the Roayls farm system was touted by most everyone as the best in the game and some wondered if it was the best ever. The day the Royals announced that Eric Hosmer was being called up was almost like a holiday. It was the afternoon following a day game. I was at work and saw the update on Twitter. Hosmer was my favorite prospect of the bunch, and his arrival felt like an announcement: we’re coming.

Duffy arrived shortly after. Moustakas came around after a couple more weeks. By August, a combination of injury and circumstance led to the debut of Salvador Perez and in his debut, he drove in a run, and picked off two runners in Tampa.

Along with the excitement of a new wave of prospects, Alex Gordon reinvented himself and became the star everyone expected. It’s odd to think of it this way, but Gordon was drafted only two years before Moustakas, yet his career arc had already been eventful before Moustakas even reached the majors. He’d been the franchise savior who received a standing ovation in his first major league at bat, then, after a couple of frustrating and injury-riddled seasons, he looked like a bust. When he spent most of 2010 in Triple A, I wondered if he would ever do much of anything. He was being converted to outfield, which felt a little desperate.

Go figure. It worked.

That season was encouraging, but 2012 was much more trying. Perez missed half the year with knee surgery, Duffy tore his UCL, Lorenzo Cain strained his groin, and Hosmer slumped. Each of those problems followed a ten-game losing streak that opened the home schedule, kicked off properly by Luke Hochevar allowing seven runs in the first inning before most fans had even reached their seats.

Amid those struggles, the Royals hosted the All-Star Game, and while the team wasn’t great on the field, the city came alive for baseball. Fountains throughout the city turned blue, a preview of what we’d see during the playoffs. Kansas City sold out the Futures Game, which usually doesn’t happen, and they booed Robinson Cano, a display that drew admonishment by some media, but showed the baseball world that we still cared. Fans chanted for Billy Butler in the All-Star Game, and it showed what this city could be with a strong baseball team.

After the season, the Royals traded Wil Myers and others for James Shields, and the fanbase was divided by those who wished for the Royals to hold on to prospects and keep the future wave of prospects rolling, and those who felt like the Royals had to go for it then. I was solidly on the side that wanted to keep the prospects and have the Royals go to free agency to find a frontline starter. Despite being a big fan of Shields, I thought the group of Myers, Mike Montgomery, and Jake Odorizzi was too much, and when Wade Davis (who came along with Shields) was a miserable starter and the Royals missed the playoffs, it felt like trading top minor leaguers for a mere winning record.

And a winning record was great, especially after years of terrible seasons, but it felt like the Royals should have made the playoffs. The consolation was that Shields was returning in 2014, and we got to see what it was like to have a sold out Kauffman Stadium in September.

A few years ago, I was talking with a Yankees fan and I asked him what it was like having a team that was always in playoff contention. He told me that it was simultaneously the most agonizing and exciting experience you could imagine.

“It’s great because every game means so much during the season,” he said. “It’s the worst because every game means so much during the season.”

In 2014, I learned what he meant by that. The Royals were below .500 as late as July 22, but went on a tear into August that put them in first place in the AL Central, and from there, every night was a grand event of obsessing over every detail during the Royals game, while frantically checking the score in the Tigers game. Any losing streak felt like imminent doom. Any winning streak was tempered by the thought that, while these guys were winning, they were still the Royals.

In late September, the Royals were in position to clinch a playoff spot. It was a time that didn’t seem real. When you’re following a team that never gets there, their actually getting there feels out of character.

Last year, I wrote this about the playoff clincher for Pine Tar Press:

After enduring [multiple hardships] and eight years of a Process that’s gone longer than most expected, watching the ball fall towards Sal’s mitt was special, and upon catching it, bottles of champagne popped and sprayed all over inside the bar. It stung my eyes and induced tears. I thought there might be tears of relief and joy at that last out but in the moment, I just had my arms up, taking it all in. Hugs were exchanged. People who, nine innings earlier, were strangers were now jumping for joy together, giving high fives.

The 2014 Wild Card was the most disappointing game I’ve ever been to until it was the most incredible game I’ve ever seen. After an early deficit, the crowd began to stir and began to believe, so when Eric Hosmer tripled and scored, and a pitchout fell out of Derek Norris‘s glove to allow Christian Colon to reach second, Kauffman Stadium was ready to explode. I had a seat right by the aisle leading to a Hyvee Level concourse. When Salvador Perez singled down the third base line, I lept from my seat and over the two steps, standing there in the concourse entrance watching the team storm the field. Fans cheered again and again as replays continued to play. As we filed out down the spiral, a chant of “Beat LA” bellowed in the air. It was a win worth of 29 years of waiting.

It all could have ended there and most of us would have been satisfied. Just getting there was a blast. Then the Royals beat LA. Then they swept Baltimore with great defense, fun rallies, drama, and lockdown relief pitching. The Royals, improbably, were in the World Series. And if not for Madison Bumgarner, they’d have won – and came pretty close anyway.

The Royals won the 2015 World Series.

I guess that’s burying the lede, but you knew it happened anyway.

In the time since the Royals finished off the Mets, I’ve thought about every season of frustration, indifference, hope, and disappointment that led to this season.

This season was tense. Last year felt like a fun romp, especially after the Wild Card game. The way the Royals ran through 2014’s postseason had a lot to do with it. There weren’t expectations. The Royals were a good story. And after the Wild Card game, it was like a second life with nothing to lose.

Things started great, but by July, Alex Gordon was hurt and the Twins wouldn’t go away. Part of me couldn’t help but imagine an epic collapse and the subsequent pain. I think it limited my ability to enjoy it all. But when Gordon went down, Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson filled in admirably and the Royals kept winning. Then, they got Johnny Cueto. Then, they got Ben Zobrist.

For the first time in my lifetime, in midseason, the Royals were going for it.

The night the Royals clinched the American League Central was a blast. The Royals took a lead over Seattle, and Twitter started counting the outs. If I’ve learned nothing else about following a successful baseball team, it’s this: counting down outs towards a clinch is a lot of fun. You get that anticipation of imagining what the celebration will be like before it happens, and then you get to pay it off with the actual prize. Denny Matthews’ call of Game 7 of the 1985 World Series always stands out to me because he’s counting down the outs with everyone else. It’s Christmas morning, after breakfast, but before the gifts.

The Royals opened the year labeled as a fluke, then they won the division. When the playoffs started, tension was high. One game can swing everything in the postseason, and the Royals were behind in nearly every game, so it felt like walking the tightrope on a nightly basis. Any slip-up was doom.

So they just never allowed themselves to fall off. After the seventh inning of Game 4 against Houston, I was walking back to my desk after a work meeting. All I knew was that it was 6-2 going to the 8th. My boss told me “I’m sorry man. It sucks when your team loses.” I felt disappointed mostly, but at least grateful that the season was a fun one.

And then the Royals came back and won it and later advanced. Then, they trailed David Price. And came back and won. Despite constant worry about Cueto and a the Astros home run hitters and the Blue Jays instant offense, the Royals scratched and clawed and tapdanced through the minefield and came out American League Champions. Again. What a world.

The comebacks made for exhilarating baseball. Every game was an Event. People made plans to go to a bar, or they were at the games in Kansas City. Everyone was watching every pitch. Fans from everywhere – New Mexico, Chicago, Washington D.C., Colorado, Texas – were all watching their Royals. Some may have had a similar introduction to fandom as I did and had lived through the dark days of the Baird Era. Some may have only taken notice in 2013 when the Royals were close to the Wild Card. Some may have only jumped on after Sal Perez shot a base hit past Josh Donaldson. It didn’t matter. It was community.

Nearly everyone stayed at Kauffman through all 14 innings in Game 1 against the Mets. After Game 2, there was a bit of relaxation as the Royals took a 2-0 series lead. You could almost feel the title. Counting outs.

The Royals lost Game 3, and it was pretty ugly. They looked unlike themselves. Ned Yost made bad decisions. The media, always up for the horse race, started pitching it as a momentum swing, even though the Mets still trailed.

For Game 3, I ended up at this place called The Ship in the West Bottoms. It was Halloween. There were two TVs in the whole place and between innings they played New Orleans jazz and had a free nacho bar set up on a table in the back. It was probably the last place I expected to watch a World Series game, and when the Royals flipped the switch on their comeback, it became a party. When the Roayls took the lead, they cut the TV sound and played “Knock With Me, Roll With Me” by the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band through the remainder of the game. Wade Davis closed it out. We counted more outs.

Game 5 was eight innings of frustration, one inning of disbelief, and a few innings of anxious waiting.

I thought I’d end up in Kansas City to watch Game 5. Kelly’s had been the scene of many other momentous Royals games – the playoff clincher of 2013, Game 1 against Baltimore in the 2014 ALCS, Game 7 of last year’s World Series. We were upstairs at Kelly’s but heard the reaction to the Alex Gordon “triple” from across the street, as their broadcast was a second faster than ours. For Game 5, I was at Jefferson’s in Lawrence. They closed at 10, but the game had gone into extras. So we watched with the wait staff and the kitchen crew and a couple of other patrons. We watched a number of scoreless innings until Sal Perez hit a sand wedge just inside the first base line. Jarrod Dyson stole second. He made it to third and Christian Colon drove him in.

Murphy committed another error. Escobar doubled. The Royals only needed one run. They would get five.

And we were back to counting outs.

I barely remember the bottom of the 12th inning other than the final strike to Wilmer Flores. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized Wade Davis struck out a batter for each out. Part of me was caught up thinking about how I was going to react when the final out happened.

I high-fived everyone in the restaurant. I went out on Mass Street and a herd of people were coming down the sidewalk dressed in blue and cheering. At one point, the restraint lifted and they spilled out into the street. I ended up at the Red Lyon and the bartender gave me a shot while I watched the trophy presentations. All I could do through it all was shake my head. It was still difficult to believe.

I walked back to my car. And that’s when I lost it. Once I’d detached from the images of the moment, everything came to mind. 1985. The Brett rookie. Mark freaking Davis. The Saberhagen trade. Brett’s retirement.

I thought of how I listened to Johnny Damon’s MLB debut while mowing the lawn. I thought about the trips to KC with my family. The time my dad missed his exit and we missed Picture Day. The time I ended up with a foam finger when my dad thought I’d said “I wonder if they have those hands here” when I was asking about hammers for Bob Hamelin. The game I went to with my sisters when rain delayed the game three different times, but we stayed to see Joakim Soria close it out after midnight.

I thought about my mom texting me “Why is Bruce Chen still pitching?” after a particularly rough start. I thought of the nearly 4,000 baseball games (here or there) that just didnt’ matter until the Royals got good again. I thought about beat up George Brett cards, “Bo Jackson says hello,” the Cone signing and trade, enduring Neifi Perez and Roberto Hernandez. Yuniesky Betancourt – twice.

And I thought about this team and the struggles they’ve overcome in the season and in their careers leading up to this season.

The team’s flaws made them more interesting. They don’t walk; they don’t hit a lot of homers. They didn’t have dominant starting pitching. They got by on the grit and moxie and the intangible stuff stat guys can’t really account for and a lot of guys playing well at the same time. The Royals employ a large analytics department, but the Royals World Series win was a disjointed happy chaos of line drives and bloops and cracked bats and hustle and succeeding through boldness rather than following a program. If the Royals had just analyzed the heck out of the Mets, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying of a victory.

After 2014, I never thought the Royals could top the fun of the first playoff run.

And yet, they surpassed it in 2015. For all the talk of theatrics in 2014, and the Bad Boys label to open 2015, what was at the root of it all was a team of guys who came up in the minors together, who won in the minors together, and who learned to be big leaguers together. Add some veteran help, some lucky breaks, and the right guy in charge to allow them to enjoy the game, and they became a sensation that re-ignited a city’s love of baseball.

And in the process, they paid off the loyal fans who’d been dreaming of a championship all along.

In 1991, at the conclusion of the World Series, CBS ran the credits with a partial narration of “Green Fields of the Mind,” an essay by Bart Giamatti, brief Commissioner of baseball. It’s best known for the opening lines:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

I think Joe Posnanski once said “baseball is never as great as when you’re ten years old.” Well, I was eleven, but I think his point made sense. After watching what was arguably the best World Series ever, 11-year-old me bawled hearing that narration. It was exactly how I felt at the time. Baseball – this wondrous, timeless game – was done (for a few months, at least).

At some point, I started reading that essay at the end of every World Series, a ritual to come to grips with the impending twilight of winter. It reminds me that no matter how frustrating it might be to see Jason Kendall batting second, or Gil Meche being sent out too long, or Roberto Hernandez dying on the vine in the 9th, that this game means something deeply to me, and that a season of bad Royals baseball is still better than none. And in the moments when there was hope, such as after 2011, I read it with an eye towards future success. And it was an especially poignant read after Salvador Perez’s popup settled in Pablo Sandoval‘s glove in 2014.

I hadn’t read the essay this year because, obviously, the Royals won the World Series. “Green Fields of the Mind” recounts the last inning of the last game for the Red Sox in 1977, an inning that started with them down 8-5. After a base hit and home run, they pull within one and get another aboard with a single. The comeback ends, however, and the reality of the end of the year sets in.

It breaks your heart because you’re invested. You can’t have heartbreak if you don’t care.

Also, I like winning over heartbreak.

Triple Play Podcast – Episode 54

This week we preview the Detroit Tigers and American League East. The Royals made some news finally by signing Chris Young. Lots of other teams had news of their own: Yu Darvish Tore his UCL, the Cust signed Phil Coke, Cliff Lee is shut down. Most unfortunately, Tim Collins has ligament damage in his elbow. We talk about how that might affect the Royals.

Triple Play Podcast – Episode 53

This week we have another MONSTER show. We preview the NL Central, wrapping up the National League. We also cover the Indians and what they have in store this season.

Mike Moustakas says he’ll bunt more and Mike Sweeney was voted into the Royals Hall of Fame.
Follow us @HunterSamuels @Deviator77 @DrTokuBall

Triple Play Podcast – Episode 52

We have a monster show for you this week. Two hours of baseball analysis on the National League West, the Kansas City Royals and their top-100 prospects.

We talk about Jurickson Profar’s injury and its long-term impact, Jason Giambi’s retirement, and a few minor league signings.

We also continue our AL Central previews with the White Sox

Triple Play Podcast – Episode 50

We actually had some news this week. The Royals reached deals with Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy.

Around the league, we talked about Wade Miley’s extension with the Red Sox. Ryan Ludwick and Nate Schierholtz signed minor league deals with the Rangers and will form an interesting platoon.

We also talk a long while about the one and only James Shields who signed a 4-year deal with the San Diego Padres.